utilitarianism

Not-So-Random Thoughts (X)

How Much Are Teachers Worth?

David Harsanyi writes:

“The bottom line,” says the Center for American Progress, “is that mid- and late-career teachers are not earning what they deserve, nor are they able to gain the salaries that support a middle-class existence.”

Alas, neither liberal think tanks nor explainer sites have the capacity to determine the worth of human capital. And contrasting the pay of a person who has a predetermined government salary with the pay earned by someone in a competitive marketplace tells us little. Public-school teachers’ compensation is determined by contracts negotiated long before many of them even decided to teach. These contracts hurt the earning potential of good teachers and undermine the education system. And it has nothing to do with what anyone “deserves.”

So if teachers believe they aren’t making what they’re worth — and they may well be right about that — let’s free them from union constraints and let them find out what the job market has to offer. Until then, we can’t really know. Because a bachelor’s degree isn’t a dispensation from the vagaries of economic reality. And teaching isn’t the first step toward sainthood. Regardless of what you’ve heard. (“Are Teachers Underpaid? Let’s Find Out,” Creators.com, July 25, 2014)

Harsanyi is right, but too kind. Here’s my take, from “The Public-School Swindle“:

[P]ublic “education” — at all levels — is not just a rip-off of taxpayers, it is also an employment scheme for incompetents (especially at the K-12 level) and a paternalistic redirection of resources to second- and third-best uses.

And, to top it off, public education has led to the creation of an army of left-wing zealots who, for many decades, have inculcated America’s children and young adults in the advantages of collective, non-market, anti-libertarian institutions, where paternalistic “empathy” supplants personal responsibility.

Utilitarianism, Once More

EconLog bloggers Bryan Caplan and Scott Sumner are enjoying an esoteric exchange about utilitarianism (samples here and here), which is a kind of cost-benefit calculus in which the calculator presumes to weigh the costs and benefits that accrue to other persons.  My take is that utilitarianism borders on psychopathy. In “Utilitarianism and Psychopathy,” I quote myself to this effect:

Here’s the problem with cost-benefit analysis — the problem it shares with utilitarianism: One person’s benefit can’t be compared with another person’s cost. Suppose, for example, the City of Los Angeles were to conduct a cost-benefit analysis that “proved” the wisdom of constructing yet another freeway through the city in order to reduce the commuting time of workers who drive into the city from the suburbs.

Before constructing the freeway, the city would have to take residential and commercial property. The occupants of those homes and owners of those businesses (who, in many cases would be lessees and not landowners) would have to start anew elsewhere. The customers of the affected businesses would have to find alternative sources of goods and services. Compensation under eminent domain can never be adequate to the owners of taken property because the property is taken by force and not sold voluntarily at a true market price. Moreover, others who are also harmed by a taking (lessees and customers in this example) are never compensated for their losses. Now, how can all of this uncompensated cost and inconvenience be “justified” by, say, the greater productivity that might (emphasize might) accrue to those commuters who would benefit from the construction of yet another freeway.

Yet, that is how cost-benefit analysis works. It assumes that group A’s cost can be offset by group B’s benefit: “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.”

America’s Financial Crisis

Timothy Taylor tackles the looming debt crisis:

First, the current high level of government debt, and the projections for the next 25 years, mean that the U.S. government lacks fiscal flexibility….

Second, the current spending patterns of the U.S. government are starting to crowd out everything except health care, Social Security, and interest payments….

Third, large government borrowing means less funding is available for private investment….

…CBO calculates an “alternative fiscal scenario,” in which it sets aside some of these spending and tax changes that are scheduled to take effect in five years or ten years or never…. [T]he extended baseline scenario projected that the debt/GDP ratio would be 106% by 2039. In the alternative fiscal scenario, the debt-GDP ratio is projected to reach 183% of GDP by 2039. As the report notes: “CBO’s extended alternative fiscal scenario is based on the assumptions that certain policies that are now in place but are scheduled to change under current law will be continued and that some provisions of law that might be difficult to sustain for a long period will be modified. The scenario, therefore, captures what some analysts might consider to be current policies, as opposed to current laws.”…

My own judgement is that the path of future budget deficits in the next decade or so is likely to lean toward the alternative fiscal scenario. But long before we reach a debt/GDP ratio of 183%, something is going to give. I don’t know what will change. But as an old-school economist named Herb Stein used to say, “If something can’t go on, it won’t.” (Long Term Budget Deficits,Conversable Economist, July 24, 2014)

Professional economists are terribly low-key, aren’t they? Here’s the way I see it, in “America’s Financial Crisis Is Now“:

It will not do simply to put an end to the U.S. government’s spending spree; too many State and local governments stand ready to fill the void, and they will do so by raising taxes where they can. As a result, some jurisdictions will fall into California- and Michigan-like death-spirals while jobs and growth migrate to other jurisdictions…. Even if Congress resists the urge to give aid and comfort to profligate States and municipalities at the expense of the taxpayers of fiscally prudent jurisdictions, the high taxes and anti-business regimes of California- and Michigan-like jurisdictions impose deadweight losses on the whole economy….

So, the resistance to economically destructive policies cannot end with efforts to reverse the policies of the federal government. But given the vast destructiveness of those policies — “entitlements” in particular — the resistance must begin there. Every conservative and libertarian voice in the land must be raised in reasoned opposition to the perpetuation of the unsustainable “promises” currently embedded in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — and their expansion through Obamacare. To those voices must be added the voices of “moderates” and “liberals” who see through the proclaimed good intentions of “entitlements” to the economic and libertarian disaster that looms if those “entitlements” are not pared down to their original purpose: providing a safety net for the truly needy.

The alternative to successful resistance is stark: more borrowing, higher interest payments, unsustainable debt, higher taxes, and economic stagnation (at best).

For the gory details about government spending and economic stagnation, see “Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth” and “The True Multiplier.”

Climate Change: More Evidence against the Myth of AGW

There are voices of reason, that is, real scientists doing real science:

Over the 55-years from 1958 to 2012, climate models not only significantly over-predict observed warming in the tropical troposphere, but they represent it in a fundamentally different way than is observed. (Ross McKittrick and Timothy Vogelsang, “Climate models not only significantly over-predict observed warming in the tropical troposphere, but they represent it in a fundamentally different way than is observed,” excerpted at Watt’s Up With That, July 24, 2014)

Since the 1980s anthropogenic aerosols have been considerably reduced in Europe and the Mediterranean area. This decrease is often considered as the likely cause of the brightening effect observed over the same period. This phenomenon is however hardly reproduced by global and regional climate models. Here we use an original approach based on reanalysis-driven coupled regional climate system modelling, to show that aerosol changes explain 81 ± 16 per cent of the brightening and 23 ± 5 per cent of the surface warming simulated for the period 1980–2012 over Europe. The direct aerosol effect is found to dominate in the magnitude of the simulated brightening. The comparison between regional simulations and homogenized ground-based observations reveals that observed surface solar radiation, as well as land and sea surface temperature spatio-temporal variations over the Euro-Mediterranean region are only reproduced when simulations include the realistic aerosol variations. (“New paper finds 23% of warming in Europe since 1980 due to clean air laws reducing sulfur dioxide,” The Hockey Schtick, July 23, 2014)

My (somewhat out-of-date but still useful) roundup of related posts and articles is at “AGW: The Death Knell.”

Crime Explained…

…but not by this simplistic item:

Of all of the notions that have motivated the decades-long rise of incarceration in the United States, this is probably the most basic: When we put people behind bars, they can’t commit crime.

The implied corollary: If we let them out, they will….

Crime trends in a few states that have significantly reduced their prison populations, though, contradict this fear. (Emily Badger, “There’s little evidence that fewer prisoners means more crime,” Wonkblog, The Washington Post, July 21, 2014)

Staring at charts doesn’t yield answers to complex, multivariate questions, such as the causes of crime. Ms. Badger should have extended my work of seven years ago (“Crime, Explained“). Had she, I’m confident that she would have obtained the same result, namely:

VPC (violent+property crimes per 100,000 persons) =

-33174.6

+346837BLK (number of blacks as a decimal fraction of the population)

-3040.46GRO (previous year’s change in real GDP per capita, as a decimal fraction of the base)

-1474741PRS (the number of inmates in federal and State prisons in December of the previous year, as a decimal fraction of the previous year’s population)

The t-statistics on the intercept and coefficients are 19.017, 21.564, 1.210, and 17.253, respectively; the adjusted R-squared is 0.923; the standard error of the estimate/mean value of VPC = 0.076.

The coefficient and t-statistic for PRS mean that incarceration has a strong, statistically significant, negative effect on the violent-property crime rate. In other words, more prisoners = less crime against persons and their property.

The Heritability of Intelligence

Strip away the trappings of culture and what do you find? This:

If a chimpanzee appears unusually intelligent, it probably had bright parents. That’s the message from the first study to check if chimp brain power is heritable.

The discovery could help to tease apart the genes that affect chimp intelligence and to see whether those genes in humans also influence intelligence. It might also help to identify additional genetic factors that give humans the intellectual edge over their non-human-primate cousins.

The researchers estimate that, similar to humans, genetic differences account for about 54 per cent of the range seen in “general intelligence” – dubbed “g” – which is measured via a series of cognitive tests. “Our results in chimps are quite consistent with data from humans, and the human heritability in g,” says William Hopkins of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia, who heads the team reporting its findings in Current Biology.

“The historical view is that non-genetic factors dominate animal intelligence, and our findings challenge that view,” says Hopkins. (Andy Coghlan, “Chimpanzee brain power is strongly heritable,New Scientist, July 10, 2014)

Such findings are consistent with Nicholas Wade’s politically incorrect A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. For related readings, see “‘Wading’ into Race, Culture, and IQ’.” For a summary of scholarly evidence about the heritability of intelligence — and its dire implications — see “Race and Reason — The Achievement Gap: Causes and Implications.” John Derbyshire offers an even darker view: “America in 2034” (American Renaissance, June 9, 2014).

The correlation of race and intelligence is, for me, an objective matter, not an emotional one. For evidence of my racial impartiality, see the final item in “My Moral Profile.”

Utilitarianism and Torture

While I was going through my collection of links worth revisiting, I came upon a piece by Daniel McInerney, ” ‘Quantitative Judgments Don’t Apply': Foyle’s War, Series Seven” (The Imaginative Conservative, October 2013). McInerny opens with this:

At the beginning of the third volume of Evelyn Waugh’s masterful World War II trilogy, Sword of Honor, Guy Crouchback, a British Catholic officer entering a disillusioned middle age, has a conversation with his elderly father in which he disparages the Lateran Treaty. Gervase Crouchback rebukes his son’s irascibility. ““My dear boy,” he said, “you’re really making the most terrible nonsense, you know. That isn’t at all what the Church is like. It isn’t what she’s for.”

Later, Gervase Crouchback writes Guy a letter trying to explain more clearly what prompted his rebuke:

When you spoke of the Lateran Treaty did you consider how many souls may have been reconciled and have died at peace as the result of it? How many children may have been brought up in the faith who might have lived in ignorance? Quantitative judgments don’t apply. If only one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount of loss of “face.”

His father’s anti-utilitarian phrase, Quantitative judgments don’t apply, hangs in Guy’s mind, and through his interior monologues it becomes the leitmotif of this third volume. Quantitative judgments don’t apply: when it comes to evaluating the pearl of great price, one doesn’t weigh it against purely material considerations.

I have elsewhere criticized utilitarianism: here, here, and here. In the post at the third link (“Utilitarianism vs. Liberty”), I say that

strict utilitarianism requires that all decisions — not just governmental ones — must yield “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” For example, if I fail to take your happiness into account when I buy a new car, I might make you less happy by my acquisition (because it makes you envious). And, in the utilitarian calculus, your unhappiness might outweigh my happiness. Ergo, less happiness altogether.

The foregoing example make it easy to see how modern “liberalism,” with its strong appeal to envy (among other unattractive traits), is an outgrowth of utilitarianism. (For more in that vein, see “Inventing Liberalism.”) . . . .

. . . [U]tilitarianism compromises liberty because it accords no value to individual decisions about preferred courses of action. Decisions, to a utilitarian, are valid only if they comply with the views of the utilitarian, who feigns omniscience about the (incommensurable) happiness of individuals. Agreement among various utilitarians about the desirability of a particular course of action signifies nothing more than a shared prejudice about the way the world ought to be.

As a critic of utilitarianism, can I properly defend torture? Is it not utilitarian to suggest that a supposed wrong (torture) can be weighed against an unquestionable good (saving innocent lives)? It might seem so, given the statements that I  (and others) have made with respect to torture; to wit:

In sum, torture is moral — and therefore justified — when it becomes necessary for the purpose of eliciting information that could save innocent lives and the lives of those whose job it is to defend innocent lives. I do not mean that torture must be used, but that it may be used. I do not mean that torture will not have repulsive consequences for its targets, but that the thought of those consequences should not cause the American government to renounce torture as an option.

Such a statement could be taken as a utilitarian response to the trolley problem:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. Unfortunately, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person . . . .

. . . A utilitarian view asserts that it is obligatory to steer to the track with one man on it. According to simple utilitarianism, such a decision would be not only permissible, but, morally speaking, the better option (the other option being no action at all).

Whatever the merits or defects of the trolley problem, it isn’t analogous to the terrorist-victim problem. To make it analogous, it would be rewritten as follows:

A trolley driver who is in full control of his vehicle sees, ahead of him on the tracks, five persons who are tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five persons on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it may derail because of its speed, thus injuring or killing the homicidal trolley driver . . . .

The problem, in other words, isn’t a choice between killing one innocent or five innocents. The choice is between harming a killer or allowing the killer (and his compatriots) to take many innocent lives. To put it another way, it’s a choice between faux morality and self-defense.

Faux moralists of the “liberal” ilk often criticize the execution of murderers and the torture of terrorists because capital punishment and torture aren’t “civilized.” And yet most of those same faux moralists defend abortion, which is nothing better than the torture and execution of innocents. What could be less civilized?

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Related posts:
Modern Utilitarianism
Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Crime and Punishment
The Left, Abortion, and Adolescence
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
Abortion and the Slippery Slope
Privacy, Autonomy, and Responsibility
Peter Singer’s Agenda
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Singer Said It
A “Person” or a “Life”?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Torture
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Saving the Innocent
Crimes against Humanity
Abortion and Logic
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Lock ‘Em Up
Legislating Morality
Legislating Morality (II)
Free Will, Crime, and Punishment
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty

A Man for No Seasons

A Man for All Seasons, originally a play by Robert Bolt and later an acclaimed film, is about Sir Thomas More (or Saint Thomas More, if you prefer),

the 16th-century Chancellor of England, who refused to endorse King Henry VIII‘s wish to divorce his ageing wife Catherine of Aragon, who could not bear him a son, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, the sister of his former mistress.

Thomas More

opposed Henry [VIII]‘s separation from the Catholic Church [because it forbade divorce] and refused to accept the King as Supreme Head of the Church of England…. In 1535, [More] was tried for treason, convicted on perjured testimony and beheaded.

The title of the play

reflects … Bolt’s portrayal of More as the ultimate man of conscience. As one who remains true to himself and his beliefs under all circumstances and at all times, despite external pressure or influence, More represents “a man for all seasons”.

More’s constancy to principle stands in high relief against the amorality and immorality of normal political practices, past and present. These range from opportunism, flip-flopping, and log-rolling to deceit and lying to theft (disguised as “compassion”) and back-stabbing (both figurative and literal).

More’s constancy to principle also stands in high relief against the practice of tailoring one’s principles to fit the data at hand — or the data that one selects to justify one’s prejudices. I have found economists to be especially prone to such tailoring. For example, too many economists justify free markets on utilitarian grounds, that is, because free markets produce more (i.e., are more efficient) than regulated markets. This happens to be true, but free markets can and should be justified mainly because they are free, that is, because they allow individuals to pursue otherwise lawful aims through voluntary, mutually beneficial exchanges of products and services. Liberty is a principle, a deep value; economic efficiency is merely a byproduct of adherence to that value.

Economists are by no means the only practitioners of utilitarianism. It is rampant in the ranks of public intellectuals, and is exemplified in “Empiricism in politics: On opinions beyond the reach of data,” a piece by Will Wilkinson (hereinafter WW), which begins with this:

DAVID FRUM quotes the following passage of Charles Murray’s new book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 – 2010″, in the midst of a long, scathing review (about which I here enter no opinion):

Data can bear on policy issues, but many of our opinions about policy are grounded on premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data. Try to think of any new data that would change your position on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage or the inheritance tax. If you cannot, you are not necessarily being unreasonable.

I found this exceedingly odd. I can easily imagine what evidence would cause me to change my position on any of these issues. How about you? It’s a fun exercise, let’s try.

I will address, in turn, WW’s views on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage, and the inheritance tax.

Abortion. This is far and away the hardest one. I favour legal abortion…. I would seriously weigh this moral benefit ]a “culture of life”, which pays off in terms of greater general humanity and diminished cruelty] against the moral cost of reducing women’s control over their bodies….

Clearly, WW is a man in search of a principle upon which to hang his preference to allow persons “control over their bodies.” This– as a principle — would justify many immoral acts. For if one’s use of one’s body is not to be interfered with, on what basis could WW condemn murder, for example? And yet he does condemn it, implicitly, when he quibbles about the death penalty as a punishment for murder.

WW (I strongly suspect) might respond that he is talking only about control over what one does to oneself, as in the use of marijuana (to which I will come). But WW is unconvincing with respect to abortion. He is willing to recognize “robust moral rights” for children at birth because that is “the convention.” But before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned long-standing State laws rooted in moral tradition, it was the convention (in most States) to recognize robust moral rights for children at conception. (By contrast, the convention of slavery, which was recognized and fostered by several States, stood on flimsy moral ground.)

The lack of a firm principle (e.g., abortion is murder) leads WW into sophistry and hair-splitting. These abound in the elided portions of the preceding quotation:

…I don’t think embryos or fetuses are persons, and I don’t think it’s wrong to kill them. I also don’t think infants are persons, but I do think laws that prohibit infanticide are wise. Birth is a metaphysically arbitrary line, but it’s a supremely salient socio-psychological one. A general abhorrence of the taking of human life is something any healthy culture will inculcate in its members. It’s easier to cultivate the appropriate moral sentiments within a society that has adopted the convention of conferring robust moral rights on infants upon birth than it would be in a society that had adopted the convention of conferring the same rights on children only after they’ve reached some significant developmental milestone, such as the onset of intelligible speech. The latter society, I suspect, would tend to be more generally cruel and less humane. This is just an empirical hunch, though I feel fairly confident about it. But I could be wrong. And I could be wrong in the other direction as well. If it were shown that societies which ban abortion, or which ban abortion beyond a certain point, exceed societies which don’t ban abortion in cultivating a “culture of life”, which pays off in terms of greater general humanity and diminished cruelty, I would seriously weigh this moral benefit against the moral cost of reducing women’s control over their bodies. Also, if it were shown that abortion tended to damage women’s mental and physical health more than forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, I would tend to look more favourably on restrictions on abortion, especially for minors.

Fetuses may not be persons, in WW’s view, but fetuses are human life. WW’s defense of abortion amounts to a defense of taking blameless, defenseless humans. He cannot bring himself to admit that, so he adopts the language of Roe v. Wade (a fetus is not “a person within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment”). But, as WW acknowledges, there is no specific point at which a human being becomes a “person.” The fetus-person distinction is an entirely arbitrary one, concocted for the purpose of justifying abortion.

If WW is willing to accept birth as the point at which the taking of innocent life becomes unacceptable, why not seven or eight months into a pregnancy, when the chances of survival outside the womb are high, especially given the life-sustaining technologies that are now available? And if a fetus is “viable” at seven or eight months, it is “viable” at earlier stages of development, as long its life is not ended artificially. The “logic” of abortion based on “viability” is circular because a fetus is (almost always) “viable” unless it is aborted.

And why is it not even “easier to cultivate the appropriate moral sentiments within a society that has adopted the convention of conferring robust moral rights on infants” upon conception? Such a society, I believe, would tend to be less cruel and more humane than the one that allows abortion at every stage of fetal development.

WW’s next suggestion is fatuous in the extreme. It need not be shown that societies which ban abortion, or which ban abortion beyond a certain point, exceed societies which do not ban abortion in cultivating a “culture of life.” Societies that ban abortion, ceteris paribus, have a culture of life, by definition. By the same token, societies that encourage or acquiesce in atrocities against humanity on a par with abortion (e.g., the Third Reich) have a culture of death. One very good reason for resisting the practice of abortion is to avert the next steps down the slippery slope toward that culture.

Looking unfavorably upon abortion if it tended to damage women’s mental and physical health is putting a possible side effect of abortion above its abhorrent moral status. But that should come as no surprise because, on this issue, WW clearly betrays a lack of moral sense.

This brings me to WW’s next moral test:

Death penalty. This is a lot easier. I oppose the death penalty. But if the death penalty were shown to be (1) a very effective deterrent of murder and violent crime, (2) non-prejudicially applied, and (3) very rarely applied to the innocent, I would support it in especially heinous cases of murder.

This is a lot easier for me, too. You are either for the death penalty as a matter of justice (taking its deterrent value as a bonus), or you are against it because, say, you cannot condone the taking of life by the state. WW, as an advocate of abortion, cannot take the latter position, so he dances around the death penalty — treating it entirely as an exercise in utilitarian calculation. In reality, he takes no position at all because he uses wiggle-words like “very effective,” “non-prejudicially,” “very rarely,” and “especially heinous.”

Thirdly:

Legalisation of marijuana. I support legal weed! If it were shown that marijuana is super-addictive, impossible to use responsibly, and that its users predictably harm others and/or egregiously harm themselves, I’d support something in the neighbourhood of status quo prohibition.

I have a strong suspicion that only a small fraction of the users of marijuana are detected and prosecuted for their use. That is to say, I view legalization as a bogus issue. But the purported harmlessness of marijuana allows libertarians to replay the pro-abortion theme: control over one’s body. However, WW (unlike most libertarians who write about drug use) seems willing to concede that the use of marijuana ought to be made illegal if it would “egregiously harm” the user. This suggests that control over one’s body is not sacrosanct.

But what is the deeper principle that determines where and when one has control over one’s body? I find no clue in WW’s article. There is no “moral there” there. Being pro-abortion, anti-death penalty, pro-marijuana, and pro-same-sex marriage are attitudes, the possession of which marks one as “liberal” and “open-minded.” But bottomless.

And so on:

Same-sex marriage. I’m so pro, I almost wish I were gay so I could have one. If compelling evidence were unearthed that showed that widespread same-sex marriage really would precipitate the unraveling of the traditional family and subsequently the stability of society and the ruin of us all, I suppose I’d settle for the right of same-sex couples to shack up.

“Compelling evidence” about the effects of same-sex “marriage” on society can be had only by the widespread legalization of same-sex “marriage” over a long period, by which time it would be impossible to undo the damage caused by same-sex “marriage.” Would it not be better to exercise one’s moral judgment about the effects of state action before that action is taken?

In the case of same-sex “marriage” the judgment goes like this: Marriage, as the union of a man and a woman, is a social-religious convention, which (until modern times) had a legitimacy and standing that did not depend on state action. State involvement in marriage — as in other social arrangements — undermines its significance as a deep and socially beneficial commitment. The undermining process began in earnest with state action that eased divorce. Widespread governmental recognition of same-sex “marriage” would accelerate the undermining process. The state would effectively convert marriage from a social-religious commitment to a licensed arrangement devoid of social-religious meaning. This would reinforce the trend toward cohabitation, with all that it implies: convenience rather than commitment, greater ease of breakup, temporary couplings where one partner (usually the man) has no stake in the proper upbringing of  the other partner’s children, psychologically and (all-too-often) physically damaged children who are more prone than their “traditional” counterparts to economically unproductive and socially destructive behaviors.

Why not think things through instead making a show of demanding “evidence” that can be obtained only when it is too late to do any good? Well, the answer to that question is obvious: WW wants same-sex “marriage” — the evidence be damned.

Finally:

Inheritance tax. I don’t have an especially strong opinion about this, other than that the “death tax” tends not to be very efficient and that large bequests aren’t an especially important source of inequality or the reproduction of class. So, I guess I’d need to learn that inheritance taxes don’t create a lot of wasteful, evasive resource shuffling, and do significantly contribute to class mobility if I were to develop a more favourable opinion of them.

That is about as clueless as it gets. Where is the right to do with one’s property as one likes, as long as the doing is not harmful to others? What a strange oversight by WW,  given his commitment to the control of one’s own body. If a person cannot control the legitimate produce of his bodily labors, he lacks effective control of his body.

If consequences were all, as they seem to be for WW, the ability to leave an inheritance is an incentive to do productive things, either directly or by making loans and investments that enable others to do productive things. For what earthly reason would anyone want to blunt or cancel that incentive? Out of a sense of “fairness”? What gives the likes of WW and Barack Obama the ability to reach into the minds and souls of millions of Americans and judge their relative worthiness to make and receive bequests? The inheritance tax is an exercise in social engineering that any self-respecting libertarian ought to reject categorically, not provisionally, as WW does.

WW often posts sensible things at his various outlets. But “Empiricism in politics” is a sign that WW should take a break from punditry, as he has said he might. On the basis of “Empiricism,” I would characterize WW as a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. He pays lip-service — but nothing more — to the value of social traditions. He stands ready to jettison them at the drop of a statistic. As I have said, he is far from the sole possessor of that trait. I single him out here because “Empiricism” is an exemplar of utilitarian amorality.

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Related reading: Jay W. Richards, “Should Libertarians Be Conservatives?: The Tough Cases of Abortion and Marriage

Related posts (with many more linked therein):
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Crime, Explained
A Wrong-Headed Take on Abortion
“Family Values,” Liberty, and the State
Is There Such a Thing as Society
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Enough of “Social Welfare”
The Case of the Purblind Economist
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Substantive Due Process and the Limits of Privacy
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
In Defense of Marriage
What Is Justice?
Myopic Moaning about the War on Drugs
Creative Destruction, Reification, and Social Welfare
Burkean Libertarianism
Crimes against Humanity
Abortion and Logic
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
The Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Is Alive and Well
Cato, the Kochs, and a Fluke
Why Conservatism Works
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather

The Least Evil Option

Wilson D. Miscamble, writing at Public Discourse in “The Least Evil Option,” defends Harry Truman’s decision to drop the A-bomb on Japan:

[T]he United States eventually could have defeated Japan without the atomic bomb, but all the viable alternate scenarios to secure victory—continued obliteration bombing of Japanese cities and infrastructure, a choking blockade, the likely terrible invasions involving massive firepower—would have meant significantly greater Allied casualties and higher Japanese civilian and military casualties. These casualties would likely have included thousands of Allied prisoners of war whom the Japanese planned to execute. Notably, all of these options also would have indirectly involved some “intentional killing of innocents,” including the naval blockade, which sought to starve the Japanese into submission. Hard as it may be to accept when one sees the visual evidence of the terrible destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese losses probably would have been substantially greater without the A-bombs….

Bluntly put, the atomic bombs shortened the war, averted the need for a land invasion, saved countless more lives on both sides of the ghastly conflict than they cost, and brought to an end the Japanese brutalization of the conquered peoples of Asia.

(I, too, have defended Truman’s decision. See this post, for example.)

Miscamble’s article is aimed at Christopher O. Tollefson’s critique of  Miscamble’s book, The Most Controversial Decision. Tollefson, according to Miscamble,

largely repeats the fundamental criticism mounted against President Harry Truman by Elizabeth Anscombe over a half-century ago: Violating the moral absolute against the intentional killing of the innocent is always wrong. The atomic bombs involved such killing and so should not have been used––end of story. It is all neat, and clear, and logically consistent.

Is the intentional killing of the innocent always wrong? Consider these situations:

1. A homicidal maniac rushes into a restaurant, grabs a diner and holds her in front of himself as a shield, then begins to shoot other diners. You are seated in the restaurant, in the maniac’s line of vision, and he will soon shoot you if you do nothing. You are carrying a high-powered handgun, and have time to take a shot at the maniac before he aims at you, but your only sure way of stopping the him is to shoot through the innocent diner whom he is using as a shield. It is your life or the innocent person’s. Would you shoot before being shot or wait to see what happens; the maniac might not shoot at you, he might not hit you, he might not hurt you seriously, or you might be able to duck. But you do not know which of these things will happen. Therefore, if you do nothing, you are inviting the worst of them to happen, namely, that the maniac will shoot you and kill you or seriously wound you.

2. Then, there is this classic: You are at a train track and see five people tied to the track ahead. A switch is in front of you which will divert the train, but as you look down you see a man is strapped to that track and will be killed. Is it permissible to flip the switch and save the five people at the expense of one?

3. And this variation: Now imagine in order to save the five people, you have to push a stranger in front of the train to stop it. You know for certain it would stop the train in time to save the five people tied to the tracks. Is it permissible to push the man and save the five people at the expense of one?

There are three ways to view each situation:

  • through the lens of utilitarianism, which considers one (innocent) life to be the equivalent of another
  • through the lens of in-group solidarity, which places a premium on one’s own life and the lives of those with whom one has a special relationship (kinsfolk, neighbors, countrymen) for reasons of affection and/or mutual dependence
  • through the lens of the Golden Rule, which (in my view) is a social convention that arises from self-interest tempered by empathy.

The utilitarian answers to three problems are as follows:

1. Shoot. Your life is equal to the life of the human shield, and if you are able to kill or seriously wound the thug, you may save the lives of other innocent persons in the restaurant.

2. Flip the switch and save five lives at the cost of one.

3. Overcome your squeamishness about being so directly involved in the death of the stranger; push him in front of the train and save five lives at the cost of one.

These are the “right” answers from the perspective of in-group solidarity:

1. Shoot. The life you save may be your own, and you are the center of your in-group. Moreover, you probably have more in common with the other diners (most of whom are probably productive citizens) than with the thug (who is in the process of killing productive citizens).

2. If the potential victims of the train are strangers to you, you have to flip a coin to decide whether to throw the switch or leave it alone. Otherwise, your action depends on your relationship(s) with any of the potential victims of the oncoming train.

3. If the potential victims are strangers, you have to flip a coin to decide whether to push the man in front of the train or do nothing. Otherwise, your action depends on your relationship(s) with any of the potential victims of the oncoming train.

These are the “right” answers for a person whose adherence to the Golden Rule arises from a combination of self-interest and empathy:

1. Shoot. Unless you are a psychopath like the homicidal maniac, you identify with the other diners and you cringe when he shoots one of them because their pain and death affects you emotionally. And if you do not shoot him, he probably will shoot you.

2 and 3.The answers can be the same as they were from the perspective of in-group solidarity. But, if all of the potential victims are strangers to you, it is not utilitarian to suggest that you can have more empathy for five strangers than for one stranger, especially if you take into account the (probable) larger number of persons who would be hurt by the death of five than the death of one. Moreover, if all of the potential victims are strangers, the saving of five of them is more likely to yield positive “returns” in the form of friendship and gratitude. The latter might, in turn, lead to a better job, a monetary reward, or something else along those lines.

What does all of this have to do with Truman’s decision to drop the A-bomb? If you are a utilitarian, you might be persuaded that Truman’s decision was the correct one because it resulted in fewer deaths than there would have been in the case of an invasion or blockade. (I dismiss the possibility that the Japanese military would have quit fighting if the U.S. had simply stopped fighting after driving Japanese forces back to their homeland.) If you place great stock in in-group solidarity, Truman’s move was the correct one because it saved American lives — possibly the lives of friends and family members.

If you are an adherent of the Golden Rule, you come to the same place for two reasons. The first reason is the empathic one just mentioned: the saving of lives of persons for whom you have a natural affinity.

The second reason arises from self-interest and has at least two branches:

  • You are glad that Truman put an end to a war that would have proved more costly to you (directly or through your ancestors) had he not decided to drop the bomb.
  • You are glad that Truman, in effect, warned off prospective enemies of the United States who are therefore enemies of your interests. That Truman’s warning was later undermined by his own actions in Korea, America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, and similar actions has not entirely vitiated the strong signal sent by the dropping of the A-bomb. Truman told the world that aggression against the United States invites the United States to smite the aggressor. (Do unto others what they do unto you.)

If you still object to Truman’s decision because you believe that it is always wrong to take an innocent life, you are putting yourself in the shoes of an armed diner who decides against shooting a homicidal maniac because that would require the shooting of an innocent person. But do not forget that  the diner’s refusal to shoot the maniac probably will allow the deaths of many innocent persons (the diner included). The refusal to kill an innocent person, under any circumstances, can be the moral equivalent of murder and/or suicide.

To put it baldly, the refusal to kill an innocent person, under any circumstances, is shallow posturing. It is not a considered moral stance.

*   *   *

Related posts:
Why Sovereignty?
Liberalism and Sovereignty
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
The Folly of Pacifism
Transnationalism and National Defense
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
______

Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Evolution and the Golden Rule
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote

Utilitarianism and Psychopathy

From “No, Utilitarians Are Not Nice,” at Commentary:

The Economist reports two researchers from Columbia and Cornell have been studying the personalities of individuals who, in surveys, express a willingness to personally kill one human in the hope of saving more. Their conclusion is there is “a strong link between utilitarian answers to moral dilemmas . . . and personalities that were psychopathic.” The Economist’s conclusion, in its usual slightly tongue-in-cheek style, is utilitarianism is a “plausible framework” for producing legislation, and the best legislators are therefore psychopathic misanthropes….

What is missing … in the Economist’s praise of law-making as expressing the will of the psychopath, is the point from Friedrich Hayek​ that Steve Hayward has been making on Power Line recently: “Central planning cannot work because it is trying to substitute an individual all-knowing intelligence for a distributed and fragmented system of localized but connected knowledge.”

I will resist the justifiable temptation to apply the label of psychopath to executive, legislative, and judicial law-makers. But I will call them deluded in the extreme if they believe in the possibility of determining the greatest good for the greatest number. Hayek’s objection to central planning hints at the fundamental problem with utilitarianism, but does not quite hit it dead-center.

The fundamental problem with utilitarianism, as it is practiced by governments, is that it relies on something called cost-benefit analysis. It is modern utilitarianism:

Governments often subject proposed projects and regulations (e.g., new highway construction, automobile safety requirements) to cost-benefit analysis. The theory of cost-benefit analysis is simple: If the expected benefits from a government project or regulation are greater than its expected costs, the project or regulation is economically justified. Luckily, most “justified” projects are scrapped or substantially altered by the intervention of political bargaining and budget constraints, but many of them are undertaken — only to cost far more than estimated and return far less than expected.

Here’s the problem with cost-benefit analysis — the problem it shares with utilitarianism: One person’s benefit can’t be compared with another person’s cost. Suppose, for example, the City of Los Angeles were to conduct a cost-benefit analysis that “proved” the wisdom of constructing yet another freeway through the city in order to reduce the commuting time of workers who drive into the city from the suburbs.

Before constructing the freeway, the city would have to take residential and commercial property. The occupants of those homes and owners of those businesses (who, in many cases would be lessees and not landowners) would have to start anew elsewhere. The customers of the affected businesses would have to find alternative sources of goods and services. Compensation under eminent domain can never be adequate to the owners of taken property because the property is taken by force and not sold voluntarily at a true market price. Moreover, others who are also harmed by a taking (lessees and customers in this example) are never compensated for their losses. Now, how can all of this uncompensated cost and inconvenience be “justified” by, say, the greater productivity that might (emphasize might) accrue to those commuters who would benefit from the construction of yet another freeway.

Yet, that is how cost-benefit analysis works. It assumes that group A’s cost can be offset by group B’s benefit: “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.”

The true psychopathy of (most) law-makers (and others) is not found in their utilitarianism per se but in their raw urge to control the lives of others. Utilitarianism is an excuse to exercise that raw urge, not the source of it.

Related posts:
Modern Utilitarianism
Peter Singer’s Fallacy
The Social Welfare Function
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Case of the Purblind Economist

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

Utilitarianism vs. Liberty

THE UTILITARIAN WORLD VIEW

A utilitarian will favor a certain policy if a comparison of its costs and benefits shows that the benefits exceed the costs — even though the persons bearing the costs are unlikely to be the persons who accrue the benefits. That is so because utilitarians are accountants of the soul, who believe (implicitly, at least) that it is within their power to balance the unhappiness of those who bear costs against the happiness of those who accrue benefits. The precise formulation, according to John Stuart Mill, is “the greatest amount of happiness altogether” (Utilitarianism, Chapter II, Section 16.)

Consider, for example, the relationship between guns and crime, in particular, John Lott’s controversial finding that

allowing adults to carry concealed weapons significantly reduces crime in America. [Lott] supports this position by an exhaustive tabulation of various social and economic data from census and other population surveys of individual United States counties in different years, which he fits into a large multifactorial mathematical model of crime rate. His published results generally show a reduction in violent crime associated with the adoption by states of laws allowing the general adult population to freely carry concealed weapons….

In 2004, the National Academy of Sciences conducted a review of current research and data on firearms and violent crime, including Lott’s work, and found that “there is no credible evidence that ‘right-to-carry’ laws, which allow qualified adults to carry concealed handguns, either decrease or increase violent crime.” James Q. Wilson dissented from that opinion, and while accepting the committee’s findings on violent crime in general, he argued that all of the Committee’s own estimates confirmed Lott’s finding that right-to-carry laws had an effect on murder rate.[19]

Referring to the research done on the topic, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that while most researchers support Lott’s findings that right-to-carry laws reduce violent crime, some researchers doubt that concealed carry laws have any impact on violent crime, saying however that “Mr. Lott’s research has convinced his peers of at least one point: No scholars now claim that legalizing concealed weapons causes a major increase in crime.”[20] As Lott critics Ian Ayres and John J. Donohue III pointed out: “We conclude that Lott and Mustard have made an important scholarly contribution in establishing that these laws have not led to the massive bloodbath of death and injury that some of their opponents feared. On the other hand, we find that the statistical evidence that these laws have reduced crime is limited, sporadic, and extraordinarily fragile.”[21]

Suppose Lott is right. If more concealed weapons lead to less crime, then the economically efficient policy is for governments to be more lenient in the issuance of concealed-weapon permits. The cost of concealed weapons is borne by the persons who own the weapons (and, presumably, carry them). The benefit of allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons is diffuse, in that it flows not only to persons who carry weapons but also to persons who don’t carry weapons — because of the uncertainty (in the minds of criminals) as to whether a prospective victim is carrying a weapon. The benefit also flows to law-enforcement agencies (and thence to taxpayers)  — in jurisdictions that readily allow concealed-carry — because of lower crime rates.

In sum, the aggregate benefits of concealed-carry outweigh the aggregate costs of concealed-carry, which is all that a true utilitarian needs to know. The bottom line — for the utilitarian — is that concealed-carry permits ought to be issued readily.

Moreover, strict utilitarianism requires that all decisions — not just governmental ones — must yield “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” For example, if I fail to take your happiness into account when I buy a new car, I might make you less happy by my acquisition (because it makes you envious). And, in the utilitarian calculus, your unhappiness might outweigh my happiness. Ergo, less happiness altogether.

The foregoing example make it easy to see how modern “liberalism,” with its strong appeal to envy (among other unattractive traits), is an outgrowth of utilitarianism. (For more in that vein, see “Inventing Liberalism.”)

UTILITARIANISM VS. LIBERTY

A libertarian* looks at governmental and personal decisions quite differently. A libertarian would say that self-defense is in the realm of personal decision-making, and should not be subject to the utilitarian calculus (which, at any rate, also is invalid for legitimate governmental decisions). Therefore, according to a libertarian, the decision to carry a concealed weapon for self-defense belongs to the individual, who (by his decision) accepts responsibility for his actions. The role of the state in the matter is to deter aggressive acts on the part of gun-carriers by (a) making it known that such acts are verboten and (b) prosecuting persons who commit such acts.

The libertarian perspective reveals the disconnect between utilitarianism and liberty. In fact, utilitarianism compromises liberty because it accords no value to individual decisions about preferred courses of action. Decisions, to a utilitarian, are valid only if they comply with the views of the utilitarian, who feigns omniscience about the (incommensurable) happiness of individuals. Agreement among various utilitarians about the desirability of a particular course of action signifies nothing more than a shared prejudice about the way the world ought to be.

SUMMATION

The core assumptions of utilitarianism are that

  • the happiness of the whole can be measured (at least roughly, in the mind of the person doing the “measuring”), and
  • individual actions must be tailored to maximize the happiness of the whole, regardless of their effect on the welfare of particular individuals.

Libertarians hold that there is no such thing as the happiness of the whole, and that it is up to each of us to make his own happiness, according to his own lights. Making one’s own happiness doesn’t mean doing one’s own “thing,” regardless of the consequences for others. Thinking libertarians — as opposed to reflexive ones who just want to be left alone — recognize that liberty is “peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.”

At what point does an individual’s pursuit of happiness become truly destructive of the happiness of others? The answer to that question is found in the principle of actionable harm, which I will discuss in my next post (here).

__________

* Libertarianism, by my reckoning, spans anarchism and the two major strains of minarchism: left-minarchism and right-minarchism. The internet-dominant strains of libertarianism (anarchism and left-minarchism) are, in fact, antithetical to liberty because they denigrate civil society. (For more on the fatuousness of  the dominant strains of “libertarianism,” see “On Liberty” and “The Meaning of Liberty.”) The less-common right-minarchist is both a true libertarian and a true conservative.

Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience

Utilitarianism is sort of under debate in the blogosphere (see here). But all the hifalutin’ philosophising misses the main point about utilitarianism: Those who practice it are arrogant pretenders to omniscience.

The appeal of utilitarianism rests on two mistaken beliefs:

  • There is such a thing as social welfare.
  • Transferring income and wealth from the richer to the poorer enhances social welfare because redistribution helps the poorer more than it hurts the richer.

Having disposed elsewhere of the second belief, I here address the first one.

The notion of a social welfare function arises from John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, which is best 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.

Utilitarianism, as a philosophy, has gone the way of Communism: It is discredited, but many people still cling to it under other names — “social welfare” and “social justice” being perennial favorites among the “liberal” intelligentsia.

How can supposedly rational “liberals” imagine that the benefits accruing to some persons (unionized employees of GM and Chrysler, urban developers, etc.) cancel the losses of other persons (taxpayers, property owners, etc.)? 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.

It seems to me that “liberals” (most of them, anyway) reject God because to acknowledge Him would be to admit their own puniness and venality.

Inventing “Liberalism”

Modern “liberalism” is statism — left-statism, in particular. According to Mike Rappaport of The Right Coast,

[Although] John Stuart Mill was one of the thinkers who moved liberalism toward its modern meaning, it was in the works of Hobhouse and T.H. Green that the change was most affected.

As for Mill (1806-1873), here are some excerpts of my analysis of his influential On Liberty:

… Mill’s prescription for the realization for liberty … is his “harm principle” beloved of both libertarians and modern liberals. It is as if Mill began with the harm principle in mind, then concocted a description of liberty to justify it. The “devil,” in this case, lies not in the details but in the harm principle:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.[2]

Given the individualistic thrust of this passage and the surrounding text, the only plausible interpretation of the harm principle is as follows: An individual may do as he pleases, as long as he does not believe that he is causing harm to others.[3] That is Mill’s prescription for liberty. It is, in fact, an invitation to license and anarchy….

The main appeal of On Liberty to libertarians and modern liberals is Mill’s defense of conduct that (in his view) only offends social norms:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.[5]

Thus Mill rejects the enforcement of social norms, “except [in] a few of the most obvious cases,”[6] by either the state or “society.”…

Mill’s bias against the enforcement of social norms, in all but a few “obvious cases” (murder? theft? rape?), ignores the civilizing influence of those norms. That influence is of no account to Mill, as [Theodore] Dalrymple explains:

For Mill, custom is an evil that is the principle obstruction to progress and moral improvement, and its group on society is so strong that originality, unconventionality, and rebellion against it are goods in themselves, irrespective of their actual content. The man who flouts a convention ipso facto raises society from its torpor and lets everyone know that there are different, and better, ways of doing things. The more such people there are, the greater the likelihood of progress….

Of radical evil, in which the [twentieth] century was to abound, [Mill] has nothing to say, and therefore he had no idea that a mania for progress could result in its very antithesis, or that some defense against such radical evil, of which the commission was no possible without the co-operation and participation of many men, was necessary. The abandonment of customary restraint and inverted moral prejudice was not necessarily followed by improvement.[9]

There is a high price to be paid for the blind rejection of long-standing social norms, whether by individuals, organized groups, legislatures, or courts wishing to “do their own thing,” exact “social justice,” make life “fair,” or just “shake things up” for the sake of doing so. The price is liberty.

If Mill was in the van of modern liberalism, Thomas Hill Green (1836-1882) and Leonard Trelawney Hobhouse (1864-1929) were leaders of its intellectual tank corps.

An article about Green at The Stanford Encyclopedia of History includes this (under “The Principles of State Action”):

Green holds that the state should foster and protect the social, political and economic environments in which individuals will have the best chance of acting according to their consciences. Notice that in principle Green is not concerned to allow all actions, no matter what their origin…. Yet, the state must be careful when deciding which liberties to curtail and in which ways to curtail them. Over-enthusiastic or clumsy state intervention could easily close down opportunities for conscientious action thereby stifling the moral development of the individual. The state should intervene only where there was a clear, proven and strong tendency of a liberty to enslave the individual. Even when such a hazard had been identified, Green tended to favour action by the affected community itself rather than national state action itself — local councils and municipal authorities tended to produce measures that were more imaginative and better suited to the daily reality of a social problem. Hence he favoured the ‘local option’ where local people decided on the issuing of liquor licences in their area, through their town councils….

Green held that the ultimate power to decide on the allocation of such tasks should rest with the national state (in Britain, embodied in Parliament). The national state itself is legitimate for Green to the extent that it upholds a system of rights and obligations that is most likely to foster individual self-realisation. Yet, the most appropriate structure of this system is determined neither by purely political calculation nor by philosophical speculation. As we shall see, it is more accurate to say that it arose from the underlying conceptual and normative structure of one’s particular society.

Here are some key passages from a biography of Hobhouse on the site of the UK’s Liberal Democrat History Group:

… Hobhouse’s mature political and economic thought [culminated] in his extraordinary little book Liberalism (1911). He sought to explain the social programme and taxation policies of the Liberal government as an extension, not a reversal, of the economic principles of earlier Liberals such as Mill. His underlying theory, difficult to apply in practice but clear enough in theory, was that wealth was created by a combination of individual effort and social organisation, and that the state was entitled to redistribute for the common good that part which arose from social organisation. He also distinguished between property held for use and property held for power, recognising the need for the former but not the latter to be protected by a system of rights. Out of the combination of these ideas, Hobhouse developed Liberal justifications for a guaranteed minimum income funded by income tax.

Hobhouse also developed a distinctive view of liberty and the proper purposes of state power. He maintained, against what we now call libertarianism, that liberty depended on restraint – that every liberty depends on a corresponding act of control. He followed Mill in pointing out the many forms of coercion in social life, including features of existing social and economic conditions. His conclusion was that the proper role of the state was to maximise the availability of liberty by reorganising the existing constraints. But Hobhouse differed from Mill in explaining why paternalism should be opposed. Whereas Mill starts with the harm principle, that no-one should be coerced except to prevent harm to others, Hobhouse says that we should refrain from coercing people for their own good not because [their] good is indifferent to us but because it cannot be furthered by coercion. He believed that the value of liberty lies precisely in its role in human self-development.

Green and Hobhouse, in other words, were accountants of the soul. Green’s apparent delicacy in warning of too much intervention is overcome, in the end, by his recognition of the British state (embodied in Parliament) as the proper arbiter of human conduct. Hobhouse, more boldly, presumed that he and others of his ilk (but not those who disagree with him) could determine how much of one’s property arose from “social organisation,” how much of one’s property was “held for power,” and how to expand liberty by adopting different forms of coercion than those imposed by social norms.

Once again, we are met with (presumably) intelligent persons who believe that their intelligence enables them to peer into the souls of others, and to raise them up through the blunt instrument that is the state.

And that is precisely the mistake that lies at heart of what we now call “liberalism” or “progressivism.”  It is the three-fold habit of setting oneself up as an omniscient arbiter of economic and social outcomes, then castigating the motives and accomplishments of the financially successful and socially “well placed,” and finally penalizing financial and social success through taxation and other regulatory mechanisms (e.g., affirmative action, admission quotas, speech codes, “hate crime” legislation”). It is a habit that has harmed the intended beneficiaries of government intervention, not just economically but in other ways, as well:

  • Americans have learned dependence, instead of self-reliance.
  • Civil society has all but vanished, and with it our ability to solve problems and resolve conflicts cooperatively. Instead, we are forced by government to accept one-size-fits-all solutions.

Not to mention that our liberty — true liberty, not Mill’s hypothetical kind — has all but vanished.

Thus are the wages of “liberalism.”

Other related posts:
The Interest-Group Paradox
Democracy and Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
The Worriers
More about the Worrying Classes
Modern Utilitarianism
Refuting Rousseau and His Progeny (and its predecessors, here, here, here, and here)
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice (Cosmic Justice)
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice: Part I
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice: Part II
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice: Part III

Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare

GREED

We have heard much about “greed” in connection with the current financial crisis and recession. It seems that “greedy” lenders and financial intermediaries granted sub-prime mortgages to persons of low credit-worthiness and then infected the financial system by securitizing those risky mortgages and peddling them around to investors.

Why don’t we hear about the “greed” of the borrowers who entered into those sub-prime mortgages, and who enjoyed (and still enjoy, in most cases) better housing than they would otherwise have occupied. Why don’t we hear about the “greed” of the politicians who (seeking to curry favor and votes from certain groups) pressured Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (and through them, mortgage lenders) to make mortgages more readily available to low-income borrowers (i.e., to make riskier loans)?

When does the desire to have more (e.g., a bigger house, a higher income) stop being the “American Dream” and become “greed”? Why is it good for a low-income person to inhabit a house that he can’t really afford but bad for a high-income person to inhabit a house that he can afford, and whose investments and entrepreneurship have helped the low-income person strive toward the “American Dream”?

The answer, of course, is that “greed” is whatever a politician, pundit, or other purveyor of economic envy says it is. “Greed” is invoked not to explain financial success but to denigrate those who have attained it (only to lose it, in some cases), as if they had attained it at the expense of those who have failed to attain it (thus far, at least). Except in the (relatively rare) cases of outright theft and fraud, financial success is not attained at anyone else’s expense; economics is not a zero-sum game.

COSMIC JUSTICE

The habit of castigating the motives of the financially successful and then penalizing their success by taxing them disproportionately appeals not only to envy and economic ignorance but also to what Thomas Sowell calls cosmic justice. The seekers of cosmic justice are not content to allow individuals to accomplish what they can, given their genes, their acquired traits, their parents’ wealth (or lack of it), where they were born, when they live, and so on. Rather, those who seek cosmic justice cling to the Rawlsian notion that no one “deserves” better “luck” than anyone else. But “deserves” and “luck” (like “greed”) are emotive, value-laden terms. Those terms suggest (as they are meant to) that there is some kind of great lottery in the sky, in which each of us participates, and that some of us hold winning tickets — which equally “deserving” others might just have well held, were it not for “luck.”

This is not what happens, of course. Humankind simply is varied in its genetic composition, personality traits, accumulated wealth, geographic distribution, etc. Consider a person who is born in the United States of brilliant, wealthy parents — and who inherits their brilliance, cultivates his inheritance (genetic and financial), and goes on to live a life of accomplishment and wealth, while doing no harm and great good to others. Such a person is neither “lucky” nor less “deserving” than anyone else. He merely is who he is, and he does what he does. There is no question of desert or luck.

Such reasoning does not dissuade those who seek cosmic justice. Many of the seekers are found among the “80 percent,” and it is their chosen lot to envy the other “20 percent,” that is, those persons whose brains, talent, money, and/or drive yield them a disproportionate — but not undeserved — degree of fortune, fame, and power. The influential seekers of cosmic justice are to be found among the  “20 percent.” It is they who use their wealth, fame, and position to enforce cosmic justice in the service (variously) of misplaced guilt, economic ignorance, and power-lust. (Altruism — another emotive, value-laden term — does not come into play, for reasons discussed here and here.)

Some combination of misplaced guilt, economic ignorance, and power-lust motivates our law-makers. (Their self-proclaimed “compassion” is bought on the cheap, with taxpayers’ money.) They accrue power by pandering to their fellow seekers of cosmic justice. Thus they have saddled us with progressive taxation, affirmative action, and a plethora of other disincentivizing, relationship-shattering, market-distorting policies. It is supremely ironic that those policies have made all of us (except perhaps politicians, bureaucrats, and thieves) far worse off than we would be if government were to get out of the cosmic-justice business. (See this, for example.)

SOCIAL WELFARE

Some proponents of cosmic justice appeal to the notion of social welfare (even some economists, who should know better) . Their appeal rests on two mistaken beliefs:

  • There is such a thing as social welfare.
  • Transferring income and wealth from the richer to the poorer enhances social welfare because redistribution helps the poorer more than it hurts the richer.

Having disposed elsewhere of the second belief, I now address the first one. I begin with a question posed by Arnold Kling:

Does the usefulness of the concept of a social welfare function stand or fall on its mathematical properties?

My answer: One can write equations until kingdom come, but no equation can make one person’s happiness cancel another person’s unhappiness.

The notion of a social welfare function arises from John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, which is best captured in the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number” or, more precisely “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” (See “Adler on Mill’s Utilitarianism” at the Adler Archive of The Radical Academy.)

From this facile philosophy (not Mill’s only one) grew the ludicrous idea that it might be possible to quantify each person’s happiness and, then, to arrive at an aggregate measure of total happiness for everyone (or at least everyone in England). Utilitarianism, as a philosophy, has gone the way of Communism: It is discredited but many people still cling to it, under other names.

Today’s usual name for utilitarianism is cost-benefit analysis. Governments often subject proposed projects and regulations (e.g., new highway construction, automobile safety requirements) to cost-benefit analysis. The theory of cost-benefit analysis is simple: If the expected benefits from a government project or regulation are greater than its expected costs, the project or regulation is economically justified.

Here is the problem with cost-benefit analysis — which is the problem with utilitarianism: One person’s benefit cannot be compared with another person’s cost. Suppose, for example, the City of Los Angeles were to conduct a cost-benefit analysis that “proved” the wisdom of constructing yet another freeway through the city in order to reduce the commuting time of workers who drive into the city from the suburbs. In order to construct the freeway, the city must exercise its power of eminent domain and take residential and commercial property, paying “just compensation,” of course. But “just compensation” for a forced taking cannot be “just” — not when property is being wrenched from often-unwilling “sellers” at prices they would not accept voluntarily. Not when those “sellers” (or their lessees) must face the additional financial and psychic costs of relocating their homes and businesses, of losing (in some cases) decades-old connections with friends, neighbors, customers, and suppliers.

How can a supposedly rational economist, politician, pundit, or “liberal” imagine that the benefits accruing to some persons (commuters, welfare recipients, etc.) somehow cancel the losses of other persons (taxpayers, property owners, etc.)? There is no valid mathematics in which A’s greater happiness cancels B’s greater unhappiness.

Yet, that is how cost-benefit analysis (utilitarianism) works, if not explcitly then implicitly. It is the spirit of utilitarianism (not to mention power-lust, arrogance, and ignorance) which enables Barack Obama and his ilk throughout the land to impose their will upon us — to our lasting detriment.