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”

A True Flat Tax

REVISED 08/30/10

Don Boudreaux writes:

I do not grant that government’s decision to refrain from taking X‘s money means that government subsidizes X. The tax-exemption might be unwise policy, and it might be unfair (by some plausible guideposts) – and it almost certainly gives the tax-exempt organizations an advantage that they would otherwise not possess.

But tax-exemption does not involve taking money from Y and giving it to X. That fact is vital.

I’m not so sure.

The reason I’m not so sure is that “tax-exemption … almost certainly gives the tax-exempt organizations an advantage that they would otherwise not possess.” In other words, X‘s revenues are greater than they would be absent X’s tax-exempt status. By the same token, Y‘s revenues are less than they would be absent X‘s tax-exempt status. It may be true that X’s greater revenues do not accrue as profits, but they do accrue in some form. For example, in the defense-analysis industry, with which I am familiar, the employees of tax-exempt organizations — known as federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs)– enjoy more luxurious offices; higher compensation, mainly in the form of benefits (e.g., more vacation time, larger company contributions to health insurance premiums, better retirement plans); and more stable employment (because FFRDCs operate under long-term, sole-source contracts that tend to be renewed decade after decade). The benefits that accrue to X‘s employees because of X‘s tax-exempt status are, in effect, a subsidy paid by Y‘s shareholders and employees.

Another way to look at it is this: In a balanced-budget world, the cost of government would be defrayed entirely by tax revenues. Given a government of a certain size, the exemption of some firms from paying taxes requires that other firms’ shareholders and employees pay higher taxes. That is a subsidy, if I ever saw one.

Going one step further, consider the proper function of government, which is to protect the lives, liberty, and property of citizens. It is none of government’s business what a citizen does when his life, liberty, and property are secure, as long as he doesn’t use it to impinge on the lives, liberty, and property of others. Whether a person makes a billion dollars a year or one dollar a year is really not the government’s concern, nor is it the government’s concern whether a person lives in a castle or a cardboard box. Such things, if they are of concern to anyone other than the person in question, are of concern to that person’s family, friends, neighbors, private charities, and so on.

It follows that government has no proper claim on the amount of income or wealth that a person acquires through the legitimate use of his liberty (such as it is). Warren Buffet and Bill Gates owe the government no more than a panhandler. Buffet and Gates simply have made better use of the protection afforded them by government, at least with respect to the acquisition of income and wealth.

The proper level of taxation, therefore, is that which defrays the cost of the governmental functions which protect the lives, liberty, and property of citizens: defense, courts, and law-enforcement. The cost of those functions is about $3,000 a year for every person aged 21 and older.* Everyone (21 and older) whose annual tax bill includes more than $3,000 for “liberty” services is subsidizing everyone (21 and older) whose annual tax bill for the same things is less than $3,000. All taxes for other services, regardless of who pays them, are forms of theft.**

* The annual cost of national defense, the courts, and law-enforcement agencies is about $600 billion. That amount, divided by 200 million (the approximate number of persons in the United States aged 21 and older) yields an annual per-person cost of $3,000. I exclude persons under 21 because most of them still depend on adults for their subsistence, and have not yet advanced to the stage of making the most of the protections afforded by government.

** Some taxes underwrite regulatory functions, which are counterproductive. Some taxes underwrite services that are used by varying percentages of the populace (e.g., parks, highways), which (a) burdens those taxpayers who do not use the services in question, (b) subsidizes those taxpayers who do use the services in question, and (c) substitutes inefficient, unresponsive political-bureaucratic entities for more efficient, more responsive private firms. A large proportion of taxes (especially for Social Security and Medicare) simply take money from workers and give it to non-workers — an open-and-shut case of theft.

Enough of “Social Welfare”

I once wrote this:

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.

Uwe E. Reinhardt, an economics professor at Princeton, puts it this way:

The problem with welfare analysis is not so much that ethical dimensions typically enter into it, but that economists pretend that is not so. They do so by justifying their normative dicta with appeal to the seemly scientific but actually value-laden concept of efficiency….

[E]conomists lean on a welfare criterion first proposed in the late 1930s by the eminent British economists Nicholas Kaldor and Sir John Hicks. It is an intuitively appealing criterion, if one does not think too deeply about it….

…As the economist Steven E. Landsburg explains it bluntly to students in “Price Theory and Applications” :

In applications, the Kaldor-Hicks criterion and the efficiency criterion amount to the same thing. When Jack gains $10 and Jill loses $5, social gains increase by $5, so the policy is a good one. When Jack gains $10 and Jill loses $15, there is a deadweight loss of $5, so the policy is bad.

Evidently, on the Kaldor-Hicks criterion one need not know who Jack and Jill are, nor anything about their economic circumstances. Furthermore, a truly stunning implication of the criterion is that if a public policy takes $X away from one citizen and gives it to another, and nothing else changes, then such a policy is welfare neutral. Would any non-economist buy that proposition?

Readers will notice an irony in the widespread acceptance of the Kaldor-Hicks criterion by economists. On the one hand, they claim that their science is rooted strictly in the personal preferences of individuals in society, which seems democratic. In their application of the Kaldor-Hicks criterion to real-world problems, however, economists act like collectivists who seek to allocate society’s resources under a preferred moral doctrine. Economists take on the role of a benevolent dictator presumed to be empowered by someone to redistribute welfare among individual members of society for a larger social purpose — increases in what economists call efficiency and the maximization of what they call overall social welfare.

“Social welfare” (“efficiency”) is an excuse for politicians to play God. An economist who abets such behavior is a shill, not a scientist.

Line-Drawing and Liberty

The controversy about the ground-zero mosque illustrates an important aspect of liberty, namely, that its preservation requires line-drawing. There are times when government intervention in private matters is required to preserve liberty, in its fullest sense: life and the pursuit of happiness.

A libertarian purist would disagree. He would say that property rights are property rights, period. The owners of the land on which the mosque is to be situated have the right to decide what to build on their land. Further, if that right is compromised by government intervention, then it is possible for government to dictate how anyone may use his land.

Ignoring that fact that government already dictates how land may be used — through zoning laws, building codes, environmental restrictions, and other forms of regulation — I concede readily that the purist is correct, in principle. We know from long experience that as politicians and bureaucrats acquire the power to intervene in private transactions, they will apply that power in arbitrary and capricious ways.

Does that mean government should never intervene in private transactions? Imagine the following situation: A convicted car thief, having served his sentence, buys a defunct auto-repair shop with backing from some unsavory friends. If the police get word of this setup, what should happen?

1. Nothing, because the shop hasn’t begun to operate, and so there is no evidence that it will be used for criminal activity.

2. Keep watch on the shop, on the reasonable suspicion that the convicted felon and his unsavory associates are setting up a front for a stolen-car operation.

3. Find a legal pretext for closing down the shop.

What are the likely consequences of the three options?

1. The ex-convict will set up a stolen-car operation, and many cars will be stolen, causing great inconvenience to the owners of the stolen cars and higher insurance premiums for the owners of all cars in the area. Justice may prevail, but much harm has been done.

2. The stolen-car operation will be detected quickly, and shut down quickly, thus preventing most of the harm that would arise under option 1. Further, prison terms for the ex-convict and his unsavory associates will prevent them from doing further harm — for a while at least.

3. Allowing the police to shut down the shop without evidence of wrong-doing will encourage the police to persecute legitimate businesses and innocent individuals who happen to incur their disapproval.

If you are a libertarian purist (or a reflexive, anti-police “liberal”), you will prefer option 1; you are a one-day-at-a-time rationalist who adopts a pose of studied agnosticism. If you are a reflexive, law-and-order “conservative” you will prefer option 3. Option 2 is reserved for those who are willing to acknowledge the ex-convict’s history and its implications for his future behavior, but who want to preserve the bulwark of due process against the power of the state.

The question of where to draw the line around the authority of the state should not be decided by simplistic rules. Libertarian purists want to draw the line in the wrong place because their focus in on narrow issues — such as privacy and property rights — and not on the broader issue of liberty.

The Meaning of the Mosque Controversy

The controversy about the ground-zero mosque — which is summarized here — reminds me of an old post of mine, “Losing Sight of the Objective”:

Those who are so keen to bestow constitutional rights on terrorists have lost sight of a key purpose — perhaps the key purpose — of the Constitution: to provide for the common defense. Of Americans. Against their enemies: foreign and domestic, overt and covert.

Whether the mosque will serve as a front for terrorist activity remains to be seen. But there is good reason to suspect that it will. And if it does, it will be further evidence that America’s “leaders” have lost sight of the objective in their rush to display “tolerance” for everyone — well, tolerance for everyone but heterosexual, white Christians and Jews; for example:

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which once sat right across the street from the World Trade Center, was crushed under the weight of the collapse of Tower Two on September 11, 2001. St. Nicholas was the only church to be lost in the attacks, and nine years later, while City of New York officials are busy removing every impediment to the building of the Cordoba mosque two blocks from the site, St. Nicholas’ future remains unclear.

The last bit of hopeful news for St. Nicholas came two years ago, in July 2008, when church officials and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced a deal which would have allowed the church to be rebuilt about two blocks from its original location….

Trouble emerged after St. Nicholas announced its plans to build a traditional Greek Orthodox church building, 24,000 square feet in size, topped with a grand dome. Port Authority officials told the church to cut back the size of the building and the height of the proposed dome, limiting it to rising no higher than the World Trade Center memorial. The deal fell apart for good in March 2009, when the Port Authority abruptly ended the talks after refusing to allow church officials to review plans for the garage and screening area underneath. Sixteen months later, the two sides have still not met to resume negotiations.

St. Nicholas Church’s difficulty in getting approvals to rebuild stands in stark contrast to the treatment that the developers of the proposed Cordoba mosque have received. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, state Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo, and a raft of city officials have all come out publicly in favor of building the mosque, and the city’s Landmarks and Preservation Commission recently voted unanimously to deny protection to the building currently occupying the site where the mosque is to be built.

The mosque is proposed to rise 13 stories, far above the height of the World Trade Center memorial, with no height restrictions imposed. (Mark Imponemi, “Mosque Moves Forward, Yet Church in Limbo“)

The case of the ground-zero mosque is only a symptom of the larger problem, which is denial and appeasement. Bill Whittle spells it out in a 13-minute video, “Ground Zero Mosque Reality Check.” Denial and appeasement arise from what Thomas Sowell calls one-day-at-a-time rationalism:

One-day-at-a-time rationalism [addresses] the immediate implications of each issue as it arises, missing wider implications of a decision…. A classic example was a French intellectual’s response to the Czechoslovakian crisis that led to the Munich conference of 1938:

…Joseph Barthélemy, who taught constitutional law at the University of Paris and was French representative at the League of Nations, asked in Le Temps the question French leaders had to answer: “Is it worthwhile setting fire to the world in order to save the Czechoslovak state… ? Is it necessary that three million Frenchman …. would be sacrificed to maintain three million Germans under Czech sovereignty?

Since it was not France that was threatening to set fire to the world, but Hitler, the larger question was whether someone who was threatening to set fire to the world if he didn’t get his way was someone who should be appeased in this one-day-at-a time approach, without regard to what this appeasement could do to encourage a never-ending series of escalating demands. By Contrast, Winston Churchill had pointed out, six years earlier, that “every concession which has been made” to Germany “has been followed immediately by a fresh demand.” Churchill clearly rejected one-day-at-a-time rationalism. (Intellectuals and Society, p. 31)

Leftists will embrace the cause of the ground-zero mosque because it is in their nature to embrace anything that undermines civil society. Libertarian purists will embrace it because they embrace one-day-at-a-time rationalism (e.g., this blogger).

As a libertarian realist, I am prepared to say that the mosque should not rise if it is likely to become a front for terrorist activity. I am keeping my eyes on the objective, which is the defense of Americans’ lives, liberty, and property: against their enemies foreign and domestic, overt and covert.

Delusions of Preparedness

The current push to trim the defense budget is foolish on two counts. First, the huge deficits projected for the federal government arise mainly from commitments to continue and expand three major entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (Obamacare represents an expansion of all three). Second, the defense budget should be geared to external threats, not to the federal government’s fiscal problems. Cutting the defense budget to fund profligate spending on “social services” is like preparing for a street brawl by spending money on a new suit instead of brass knuckles.

There is, nevertheless, a tendency in political-punditry circles to bemoan the amounts spent on defense. Anti-defense zealots get it into their heads that the government spends “too much” on defense — period. What they mean, of course, is that the government spends money to execute wars of which they disapprove, and to prepare for wars that they would rather not think about. There is also the fear — now that the looming bankruptcy of entitlement programs cannot be denied — that money will be taken from “social services” rather than defense.

On that score, it is well to remember the words of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor:

It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditures on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of the social services. There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free.

Rather than take money from defense, our “leaders” should be thinking about how to spend more on defense. Nothing is more inviting to an aggressor than his intended victim’s lack of preparedness.

A common mistake, even among students of war, is to assume that there will be time to mobilize American’s economic engine, as in World War II. But that was before the advent of nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, and the ability of terrorists and cyber-warriors to create economic and military chaos. I submit that America’s strength vis-a-vis its actual and potential enemies now requires the following:

1. secured/hardened/redundant telecommunications (including internet), transportation, and energy networks

2. effective strategic and tactical intelligence (necessarily more intrusive than desired by civil-liberties purists)

3. quick response (at home and abroad) to tactical intelligence via special operations units (including some that can respond in kind to cyber-attacks)

4. a large “standing army,” with a broad range of strategic and conventional forces that are fully manned and trained, well-maintained and supplied, and technologically advanced — to deter and, as necessary, fight hostile regimes that pose threats to Americans and their overseas interests.

It is my sense that our current and planned defenses do not measure up to those requirements. The talk of cutting the defense budget should be scuttled, as should the “social services” that are the real cause of the government’s fiscal problems.

If Today Were Election Day…

…the GOP would gain 7 seats in the Senate, bringing its total there to 48 seats. Over in the House, the GOP would win 264 seats, giving it a 93-seat majority.

In any event, the GOP is likely to gain in the Senate, thus enabling it to filibuster almost anything, despite the lingering presence of a few RINOs.

Whatever happens in the Senate, the GOP seems assured of a large majority in the House — barring an “October surprise.”

In sum, the GOP will control the legislative agenda for the final two years of Obama’s term.

Gridlock, here we come — I hope.

The Republican Party will then have to articulate and sell its own vision for America. Lack of success in that department will enable Obama to campaign against a “do nothing” Congress, just as Truman did (successfully) in 1948.

So, in addition to gridlock in D.C., the next two years will see a battle for the soul of the Republican Party. Will small-government conservatism emerge triumphant, or will the GOP continue to be the “Democrat Lite” party? Stay tuned.

Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”

Judge Vaughn Walker’s recent decision in Perry v. Schwarnenegger, which manufactures a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, smacks of Rationalism. Judge Walker distorts and sweeps aside millennia of history when he writes:

The right to marry has been historically and remains the right to choose a spouse and, with mutual consent, join together and form a household. Race and gender restrictions shaped marriage during eras of race and gender inequality, but such restrictions were never part of the historical core of the institution of marriage. Today, gender is not relevant to the state in determining spouses’ obligations to each other and to their dependents. Relative gender composition aside, same-sex couples are situated identically to opposite-sex couples in terms of their ability to perform the rights and obligations of marriage under California law. Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage; marriage under law is a union of equals.

Judge Walker thereby secures his place in the Rationalist tradition. A Rationalist, as Michael Oakeshott explains,

stands … for independence of mind on all occasions, for thought free from obligations to any authority save the authority of ‘reason’. His circumstances in the modern world have made him contentious; he is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual. His mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his ‘reason’; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration…. But besides this, which gives the Rationalist a touch of intellectual equalitarianism, he is something also of an individualist, finding it difficult to believe that anyone who can think honestly and clearly will think differently from himself….

…And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. (“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays)

At the heart of Rationalism is the view that “a problem” can be analyzed and “solved” as if it were separate and apart from the fabric of life.  On this point, I turn to John Kekes:

Traditions do not stand alone: they overlap, and the problems of one are often resolved in terms of another. Most traditions have legal, moral, political, aesthetic, stylistic, managerial, and multitude of other aspects. Furthermore, people participating in a tradition bring with them beliefs, values, and practices from other traditions in which they also participate. Changes in one tradition, therefore, are likely to produce changes in others; they are like waves that reverberate throughout the other traditions of a society. (“The Idea of Conservatism“)

Edward Feser puts it this way:

Tradition, being nothing other than the distillation of centuries of human experience, itself provides the surest guide to determining the most rational course of action. Far from being opposed to reason, reason is inseparable from tradition, and blind without it. The so-called enlightened mind thrusts tradition aside, hoping to find something more solid on which to make its stand, but there is nothing else, no alternative to the hard earth of human experience, and the enlightened thinker soon finds himself in mid-air…. But then, was it ever truly a love of reason that was in the driver’s seat in the first place? Or was it, rather, a hatred of tradition? Might the latter have been the cause of the former, rather than, as the enlightened pose would have it, the other way around?) (“Hayek and Tradition“)

Same-sex marriage will have consequences that most libertarians and “liberals” are unwilling to consider. Although it is true that traditional, heterosexual unions have their problems, those problems have been made worse, not better, by the intercession of the state. (The loosening of divorce laws, for example, signaled that marriage was to be taken less seriously, and so it has been.) Nevertheless, the state — pursuant to Judge Walker’s decision — may create new problems for society by legitimating same-sex marriage, thus signaling that traditional marriage is just another contractual arrangement in which any combination of persons may participate.

Heterosexual marriage — as Jennifer Roback Morse explains — is a primary and irreplicable civilizing force. The recognition of homosexual marriage by the state will undermine that civilizing force. The state will be saying, in effect, “Anything goes. Do your thing. The courts, the welfare system, and the taxpayer — above all — will “pick up the pieces.” And so it will go.

In Morse’s words:

The new idea about marriage claims that no structure should be privileged over any other. The supposedly libertarian subtext of this idea is that people should be as free as possible to make their personal choices. But the very nonlibertarian consequence of this new idea is that it creates a culture that obliterates the informal methods of enforcement. Parents can’t raise their eyebrows and expect children to conform to the socially accepted norms of behavior, because there are no socially accepted norms of behavior. Raised eyebrows and dirty looks no longer operate as sanctions on behavior slightly or even grossly outside the norm. The modern culture of sexual and parental tolerance ruthlessly enforces a code of silence, banishing anything remotely critical of personal choice. A parent, or even a peer, who tries to tell a young person that he or she is about to do something incredibly stupid runs into the brick wall of the non-judgmental social norm. (“Marriage and the Limits of Contract“)

The state’s signals are drowning out the signals that used to be transmitted primarily by voluntary social institutions: family, friendship, community, church, and club. Accordingly, I do not find it a coincidence that loud, loutish, crude, inconsiderate, rude, and foul behaviors have become increasingly prominent features of “social” life in America. Such behaviors have risen in parallel with the retreat of most authority figures in the face of organized violence by “protestors” and looters; with the rise of political correctness; with the perpetuation of the New Deal and its successor, the Great Society; with the erosion of swift and sure justice in favor of “rehabilitation” and “respect for life” (but not for potential victims of crime); and with the legal enshrinement of infanticide and buggery as acceptable (and even desirable) practices.

Thomas Sowell puts it this way:

One of the things intellectuals [his Rationalists] have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, have long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia, and new ties that intellectuals have created, such as class — and more recently “gender” — have been projected as either more real or more important….

Under the influence of the intelligentsia, we have become a society that rewards people with admiration for violating its own norms and for fragmenting that society into jarring segments. In addition to explicit denigrations of their own society for its history or current shortcomings, intellectuals often set up standards for their society which no society has ever met or is likely to meet.

Calling those standards “social justice” enables intellectuals to engage in endless complaints about the particular ways in which society fails to meet their arbitrary criteria, along with a parade of groups entitled to a sense of grievance, exemplified in the “race, class and gender” formula…. (Intellectuals and Society, pp. 303, 305)

And so it will go —  barring a sharp, conclusive reversal of Judge Walker and the movement he champions.

Related posts:
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage
Social Norms and Liberty
The Fallacy of Particularism
History Lessons
On Liberty
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection

The Decline of the Slugger

Are sluggers becoming more or less prevalent?

To answer that question, I went to the Play Index feature of I was able to find (thanks to a paid subscription to Play Index) the number of players, by season, with an OPS+ statistic* of 150 or more, from 1901 through 2009. Dividing each season’s number by the number of major-league teams, I obtained the following result:


1. There has been a slight but noticeable decline in the average number of players per team with an OPS+ of 150 or more, especially following the second round of expansion in 1969.

2. The surge from 1996 to 2002 probably marks the peak use of performance-enhancing drugs.

3. The decline resumed after 2002.

Thus, for whatever reason(s), slugging seems to be in decline.

* Definition: “OPS+ is OPS [on-base plus slugging percentage] adjusted for the park and the league in which the player played,” where the league average for a given year is 100. Thus “An OPS+ of 150 or more is excellent and 125 very good, while an OPS+ of 75 or below is poor.”

Cornered by Gender?

Tanya Khovanova, writing at her math blog, plays a variation on a theme introduced by her guest blogger, Rebecca Frankel, about three weeks ago. Frankel, as I note in “Sexist Nonsense,” wants to redefine gender to exclude two things that make a big difference between males and females: testosterone and estrogen. By Frankel’s logic, males and females would be equal in ability, if only it weren’t for that pesky matter of gender. As I put it in “Sexist Nonsense,”

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.

In “Math Careers and Choices,” Khovanova laments that some women choose not to pursue academic careers because they are “cornered” into making such choices. She gives as evidence the cases of three women, plus her own case (described in an earlier post to which she links).

These are the main features of the cases:

  • All four women (including Khovanova) had academic ambitions.
  • In the all cases except Khovanova’s, actions by husbands (pursuit of their own academic careers) made it difficult or impossible for the women to pursue their own academic careers. (Khovanova’s description of her own situation suggests that she, in effect, abandoned her husband by choosing not to return to Israel with him at the end of their family’s visit to the U.S.)
  • Financial considerations and parental responsibilities led all of the women to drop out of academia.

How were these women “cornered”? And if they were in some sense “cornered,” why is it any more lamentable because of their gender?

As far as I can tell, they entered freely into marriage or freely abandoned it (in Khovanova’s casse), and (in this day of “a woman’s right to choose”) bore their children willingly.

Although one husband allegedly played a psychological power game to get his way, that kind of game-playing (as almost any husband can tell you) is far from the sole province of ambitious male academics.

That the husbands had better academic prospects should come as no surprise, given the findings that Frankel attempts (and fails) to refute in the post I discuss in “Sexist Nonsense.”

In each case (except Khovanova’s) the woman and her husband made a joint decision that furthered their family’s financial security. Khovanova made a similar decision, in order to advance her son’s education.

That is to say, the women were not “cornered.” They were acting in ways that seemed best in view of the circumstances in which they found themselves as a result of preceding choices, which they made freely.

If any of the women (including Khovanova) was “cornered,” then so are the countless men and women who are unable to pursue their fondest dreams because ugly reality intrudes.

Who promised us a rose garden? Who promised women (or men) an academic career, a career as a major-league baseball player, or a seat in a space shuttle? No one, that’s who.

Khovanova — a mathematician who loves logic puzzles — has committed the Nirvana fallacy:

the logical error of comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealized alternatives. It can also refer to the tendency to assume that there is a perfect solution to a particular problem.

The Decision to Drop the Bomb

The final words with respect to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — as far as I am concerned — were written five years ago by Richard B. Frank in The Weekly Standard (“Why Truman Dropped the Bomb“) and Victor Davis Hanson at National Review Online (“Considering Hiroshima“). Here’s an excerpt of Frank’s piece:

The sixtieth anniversary of Hiroshima seems to be shaping up as a subdued affair–though not for any lack of significance. A survey of news editors in 1999 ranked the dropping of the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, first among the top one hundred stories of the twentieth century. And any thoughtful list of controversies in American history would place it near the top again. It was not always so. In 1945, an overwhelming majority of Americans regarded as a matter of course that the United States had used atomic bombs to end the Pacific war. They further believed that those bombs had actually ended the war and saved countless lives. This set of beliefs is now sometimes labeled by academic historians the “traditionalist” view. One unkindly dubbed it the “patriotic orthodoxy.”

But in the 1960s, what were previously modest and scattered challenges of the decision to use the bombs began to crystallize into a rival canon. The challengers were branded “revisionists,” but this is inapt. Any historian who gains possession of significant new evidence has a duty to revise his appreciation of the relevant events. These challengers are better termed critics.

The critics share three fundamental premises. The first is that Japan’s situation in 1945 was catastrophically hopeless. The second is that Japan’s leaders recognized that fact and were seeking to surrender in the summer of 1945. The third is that thanks to decoded Japanese diplomatic messages, American leaders knew that Japan was about to surrender when they unleashed needless nuclear devastation. The critics divide over what prompted the decision to drop the bombs in spite of the impending surrender, with the most provocative arguments focusing on Washington’s desire to intimidate the Kremlin. Among an important stratum of American society–and still more perhaps abroad–the critics’ interpretation displaced the traditionalist view….

[I]t is clear [from a review of the evidence now available] that all three of the critics’ central premises are wrong. The Japanese did not see their situation as catastrophically hopeless. They were not seeking to surrender, but pursuing a negotiated end to the war that preserved the old order in Japan, not just a figurehead emperor. Finally, thanks to radio intelligence, American leaders, far from knowing that peace was at hand, understood–as one analytical piece in the “Magic” Far East Summary stated in July 1945, after a review of both the military and diplomatic intercepts–that “until the Japanese leaders realize that an invasion can not be repelled, there is little likelihood that they will accept any peace terms satisfactory to the Allies.” This cannot be improved upon as a succinct and accurate summary of the military and diplomatic realities of the summer of 1945.

The final words go to Hanson:

The truth . . is that usually in war there are no good alternatives, and leaders must select between a very bad and even worse choice. Hiroshima was the most awful option imaginable, but the other scenarios would have probably turned out even worse.

The Death of the Democrat Party?

Democracy is incompatible with liberty. But democracy is nevertheless considered a “good thing.” To call a political party “Democratic” imparts to that party an unwarranted veneer of beneficence. I refuse to lend this blog to that bit of moral confusion. Thus, on these pages, the “Democratic Party” is and always will be the “Democrat Party. End of mini-rant.

“Liberalism,” “progressivism,” and their variants are incompatible with liberty and progress. That is why I always enclose those terms in quotation marks.

If you see opposition to same-sex marriage as anti-libertarian, I suggest that you re-think your position, beginning with this.

James Taranto, of WSJ‘s Opinion Journal, opines:

If the Ninth Circuit upholds Walker’s decision [for same-sex marriage, in Perry v. Schwarzenegger], the Supreme Court would almost certainly agree to hear an appeal….

…When the Supreme Court takes up Perry v. Schwarzenegger … the justices will rule 5-4, in a decision written by Justice Kennedy, that there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

This accepts the conventional assumption that the court’s “liberal” and “conservative” wings will split predictably, 4-4. Yet while Kennedy cannot be pigeonholed in terms of “ideology,” on this specific topic, he has been consistent in taking a very broad view of the rights of homosexuals. He not only voted with the majority but wrote the majority opinions in two crucial cases: Romer v. Evans (1996) and Lawrence v. Texas (2003).

Romer struck down an amendment to the Colorado Constitution that nullified state or local ordinances barring discrimination on the basis of “homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships.” This provision, adopted by ballot initiative, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, Justice Kennedy wrote for the court….

In Lawrence, the court overturned a 1986 ruling and held that state laws criminalizing consensual homosexual sodomy violated the constitutional right of privacy….

Proposition 8 was adopted in “liberal” California by a margin of 52-48.  This is the same California that has preferred the Democrat candidate over his Republican opponent in the last five presidential elections, culminating in an Obama-slide of 61 percent vs. 39 percent for McCain and assorted wing-nuts.

Clearly, same-sex marriage is not beloved by all Democrats, or even an overwhelming majority of them. Voters in 31 States have blocked same-sex marriage in their States by rejecting proposals to allow it or (in most cases) approving constitutional amendments banning it. Only five States and the District of Columbia recognizes same-sex marriage. Needless to say, the deeds were done in those six jurisdictions by legislative or judicial fiat, and not by consulting voters about one of the rare issues that merits “democratic” consultation because it impinges directly on deep-rooted social norms.

If/when Judge Vaughn Walker’s judicial abomination is upheld by Justice Kennedy, voters will know where the blame lies: with the left wing of the Democrat Party and the gay-rights lobby, which is one of the Democrat Party’s favored constituencies. The resulting backlash among not-so-leftish Democrats would spell electoral disaster for the Democrat Party. Party leaders would then have two options:

  • Overtly move the party back from the extreme edge of American political opinion, in the hope that enough voters are taken in by such a cynical ploy to avert long-term disaster for the party.
  • Remain on the left edge of American political opinion, in the hope and belief that voters will (before too long) slide toward that edge.

My money is on the second option, because the leaders of the Democrat Party are deeply committed, in thought and word, to the “progressive” agenda: the cultivation of radical ideas and constituencies. (Why? Read this exquisite rant by Tom Smith.) And that, in the face of growing discontent about the power and cost of government, is a recipe for political suicide.

One can only hope.

Related posts:
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection

Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection

The decision of federal district judge Vaughn Walker in the case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger finds California’s Proposition 8 unconstitutional. Judge Walker’s decision is notable for two things:

  • It affirms substantive due process.
  • It stands in the tradition of circular reasoning with respect to equal protection.

With respect to due process, Judge Walker says:

The Due Process Clause provides that no “State [shall] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” … Due process protects individuals against arbitrary governmental intrusion into life, liberty or property….

The freedom to marry is recognized as a fundamental right protected by the Due Process Clause….

To determine whether a right is fundamental under the Due Process Clause, the court inquires into whether the right is rooted “in our Nation’s history, legal traditions, and practices.”

Judge Walker thereby adopts the logic of the U.S. Supreme Court in Lochner v. New York (1905), a case that upheld the right of private parties to enter into employment agreements that run contrary to the labor laws of a State. Lochner, in a roundabout way, upheld liberty of contract, which is a right specifically recognized in the Constitution of the United States (Article I, Section 10).

Lochner epitomizes substantive due process, a juridical concept that has been in bad odor for decades, but which ought not to be. The essence of Lochner — and substantive due process — is exactly as stated by Judge Walker: “Due process protects individuals against arbitrary governmental intrusion into life, liberty or property.” (For more about Lochner, see my post, “Substantive Due Process, Liberty of Contract, and the States’ Police Power.”)

Judge Walker goes on to address equal protection:

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”…

Proposition 8 targets gays and lesbians in a manner specific to their sexual orientation and, because of their relationship to one another, Proposition 8 targets them specifically due to sex. Having considered the evidence, the relationship between sex and sexual orientation and the fact that Proposition 8 eliminates a right only a gay man or a lesbian would exercise, the court determines that plaintiffs’ equal protection claim is based on sexual orientation, but this claim is equivalent to a claim of discrimination based on sex.

The circularity of Judge Walker’s reasoning with respect to equal protection begins much earlier in his decision, where he writes that

The right to marry has been historically and remains the right to choose a spouse and, with mutual consent, join together and form a household. Race and gender restrictions shaped marriage during eras of race and gender inequality, but such restrictions were never part of the historical core of the institution of marriage. Today, gender is not relevant to the state in determining spouses’ obligations to each other and to their dependents. Relative gender composition aside, same-sex couples are situated identically to opposite-sex couples in terms of their ability to perform the rights and obligations of marriage under California law. Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage; marriage under law is a union of equals.

But the right to marry, historically, has been the right to choose a spouse of the opposite sex, not merely to choose a spouse. Judge Walker even acknowledges that fact, inadvertently, when he puts aside “relative gender composition,” as if it were a mere trifle and not central to a social tradition that dates back millennia and should not be swept aside casually by a judge because he finds it “irrational,” on the basis of spurious social science. Walker then says that “gender is not relevant,” thus circularly assuming that which is to be proved. As if in support of that assertion he asserts, laughably, that “gender restrictions … were never part of the historical core of the institution of marriage.”

In sum, Judge Walker approaches the constitutional matter of equal protection by assuming that gays have the right to marry. Given that assumption, it is easy to assert that Proposition 8 amounts to a denial of equal protection for gays who seek to marry. (For more about the perversion of the Equal Protection Clause through circular reasoning, see my post, “‘Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage.”)

The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration

See “The Constitution: Myths and Realities“.

Special Interests, Good and Bad

I am indebted to my son for suggesting the theme of this post. Any failures of execution are mine alone.

There is a tendency to think of special-interest groups as “bad” things. But that isn’t necessarily so. As I pointed out in “The National Psyche and Foreign Wars,”

[t]wo, relatively small, interlocking groups of strong-willed individuals were responsible for the Revolution and the Constitution, and those groups were bound by two special interests (at least): independence from Britain (not a universally popular idea at the time) and freedom from Britain’s interference in the colonies’ commerce. (The second interest is a “bad thing” only if one view commercial interests as a “bad thing.” Unlike the historians of the Beard school, I do not.)

In sum, Americans — even those who disdain “dead white men” — owe what liberty they still enjoy to those “dead white men” who founded this nation and wrote its Constitution. The Constitution is not a perfect document because it the product of fallible human beings, and to assert that it should have done thus-and-such is to indulge in the Nirvana fallacy.

The Constitution represents compromises among special interests, some of them bent on preserving the institution of slavery in their own States. But, thanks to the framers’ understanding that the world changes, the Constitution could be changed — and eventually was changed — to codify the abolition of slavery.

Only a wise (and rare) élite could have done what the framers did in 1787. That the citizens of the United States, for a time, enjoyed the fruits of the framers’ efforts was due not only to those efforts but also to luck. The right élite appeared on the stage of history at just about the right time, and that élite’s wisdom managed to prevail for a while.

The framers’ work has been largely undone by a succession of special interests — Progressives, Populists, and their progeny — whose work continues unto this very day. Their stated aims are laudable, of course, but so were many of the stated aims of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. Politicians and political movements should not be judged by what they promise, but by what they deliver. What has been delivered to Americans in the past century? The answer — less liberty and economic privation — is detailed in many of the posts linked below.

It is long past time for a new special-interest group to seize the levers of power and revive the Constitution.

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
Secession Redux
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 Left
The National Psyche and Foreign Wars
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration

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

Down with “We”

Whenever a politician says “we,” I reach for my wallet to be sure his hand isn’t already in it.

Count me out of the “we.” I don’t expect the state to force others to take care of me, I don’t want the state to force me to take care of others. I’ll decide who is worthy of my help, thank you very much, and I will give them as much help as I can afford while taking care of myself and my immediate family.

Yes, there is a nation called the United States, which comprises the States and their political subdivisions. But none of those political entities is a family, a community (in the sense of a voluntary association of individuals with voice and exit), or a society bound by shared cultural traditions. Whatever their origins in history, the United States and its components are now nothing more than mere political contrivances, whose governments have usurped the functions of family, community, and society.

If there ever was a “we the people,” it was long ago and in a different America.

Related posts:
Is There Such a Thing as Society?
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, The Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Law and Liberty
The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
A Declaration of Independence
Is Liberty Possible?
The National Psyche and Foreign Wars

The National Psyche and Foreign Wars

I belong to a Google Group whose active members are retired scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and economists — some in their upper 80s — who worked on defense issues from the 1940s to the 2000s. The issues ranged in scope from devising improved tactics for naval, air, and ground operations to assessing the costs and effectiveness of proposed new weapon systems.

Most members of the group were government employees and/or employees of government contractors. Their attraction to government service — and its steady and rather handsome paychecks — derives, in good part, from their belief in the power of government to “solve problems,” and in the need for government to do just that. It is only natural, then, that many members of the group hold an unrealistically exalted view of the power of quantitative methods to “solve problems,” while holding naive views about the machinations of government, human nature, and history. (The pioneers of military operations research in the United States, by contrast, were realistic about the relative impotence of quantitative analysis of complex, dynamic processes.)

Here, for example, is a slightly edited exchange I had with an older member of the group:

Older member (OM):

Does anyone know whether the people of the U.S. were as little involved in the Indian Wars and the opening of the west (some would say stealing) as we seem to be involved with the wars in the Middle East and South Asia.

The greatest asset of our military is its “can do” attitude. The greatest weakness of our military is its “can do” attitude.

Me (Thomas):

I’m not sure what it means for a people to be “involved” in a war. If by “involved” you mean the popularity or unpopularity of the various wars, I have no relevant facts to offer.

But the transient popularity or unpopularity of a war (or any governmental action) shouldn’t matter. If public policy responded to the whims of the “man in the street,” we would be in deep trouble. That’s why there are prescribed processes for making governmental policy. Following the processes doesn’t ensure wise policies, but it beats the alternative of capricious governance.

Our present wars were duly authorized by Congress, and are funded by appropriations made by Congress. Given that the members of Congress are elected representatives of the people, then the people are as involved as they can be under any sensible system of government.

As for the military’s “can do” attitude, decisions about going to war — and staying at war — are the province of civilian authority. When given a war to fight, the only sensible way for the military to approach it is with a “can do” attitude. Does the military’s “can do” attitude color the advice it gives when civilian authority is considering whether to go to war, how to prosecute a war, and whether to persevere in a war? Or are military leaders duly cautious in the advice they give civilian authority, knowing the consequences for their troops and the nation if a war goes badly? I haven’t been close enough to the “inside” — nor have I read deeply enough into military history — to essay answers to those questions.


I wanted to go a little beyond what might be called the legalities and into the national psyche. The decision to go to war is an awesome political and moral  decision. It has often been said that “old men send young men to war”. In our modern adventures only a fraction of the Country has other than a remote financial involvement in our wars. A small fraction of our Legislative Branch have direct Military Service experience (the smallest in history). An even smaller number has sons or daughters in the Armed Services. We are much moe detached than when the Signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their honor, their fortune, and their good right hand. (Quote not quite accurate).

During the Vietnam War the Country lowered its support as the costs and casualties rose. Now we do not have the draft though even so military leaders warn the political entities that we must not lose the confidence of the people even as we seem to drift away from the “Powell” Doctrine. We certainly see the heavy imprint of the Military-Industrial Complex against which President Eisenhower warned. (That speech is still on Wikipedia).

During Vietnam we had the bugbear of the “Domino Theory”. There are some who argue along those lines now regarding threats to Israel and other major American Interests. Can a small special interests group lead American policy?

I was wondering what other precedents in American History might apply. Most of the 19th Century was dominated by America’s Manifest Destiny (and losses were modes). Then came the War to end all wars. Then the Era of Good Feeling punctuated by the Washington Naval Conference, the Great Depression, and then the rise of Nazi Germany and its Axis with Italy and Japan. Have we found a bizarre combination of of Depression and Manifest Destiny with a liberal dose of hubris as we dismantle our Navy having already essentially worn out much of our Armour and still at the mercy of land mines and IED (a form of landmine).

One parallel that seems to track from the 19th Century is the corruption of the Suttlers [sic] that has transformed nicely into the Military Industrial Complex.


I have great difficulty with the concept of “national psyche,” and thus with generalizations about what “we” (as a nation) have done and should do. I cannot describe my own psyche, let alone the psyches of millions of other Americans, dead and alive, who differ from me (often greatly) in nature and nurture.

In any event, you come close to answering your own questions in your third paragraph, where you ask “Can a small special interests group lead American policy?” My answer is a resounding “yes.” Two, relatively small, interlocking groups of strong-willed individuals were responsible for the Revolution and the Constitution, and those groups were bound by two special interests (at least): independence from Britain (not a universally popular idea at the time) and freedom from Britain’s interference in the colonies’ commerce. (The second interest is a “bad thing” only if one view commercial interests as a “bad thing.” Unlike the historians of the Beard school, I do not.)

Various and shifting coalitions of special-interest groups have determined the foreign and domestic policies of the United States government from its beginning, and always will do so. There is no escape from such an arrangement, given our system of government — the “legalities” to which you refer. Those “legalities” — and the absence of a national psyche which somehow translates the consolidated wisdom of “the nation” into governmental policy — make it inevitable that governmental policy will be the product of various and shifting coalitions of special-interest groups. You (I mean the generic “you” and not you, [OM]) may like the resulting policies in some cases (e.g., if you are a fan of British-style health care you will consider Obamacare a great leap forward) and dislike them in other cases (e.g., if you are an opponent of foreign wars except those that in retrospect seem worthwhile, you will generally oppose foreign wars).

The “dismantling” of the Navy to which you refer is the specific policy of a specific administration (or administrations). It was not the policy of the Reagan administration, nor was it a policy of the Kennedy administration. And, I hope, it will not be the policy of the next administration. In any case, governmental policy toward the Navy is part of a larger set of policies, the combination of which is dictated by the complex interplay of various special interests and the particular psyches of elected and appointed officials. In the present case, the “dismantling” of the Navy arises from a particular view of how to defend Americans and their property and, not coincidentally, also makes certain kinds of domestic government programs more affordable. It should go without saying that the particular view of how to defend Americans (diplomacy, good will, lower defense budgets) finds opposition in millions of Americans’ psyches, as does the present administration’s commitment to various domestic programs. Liberal hawks — to the extent that they still exist — must be having a hard time digesting the present administration’s combination of domestic and foreign policies, just as conservative hawks — whose are legion — had a hard time digesting the previous administration’s combination of domestic and foreign policies.

As for the military-industrial complex, there is a coalition of interests that can be described broadly by that term, though it is a coalition fraught with internal conflicts and rivalries. If that coalition deserves blame for any excesses in defense spending and misadventures in foreign fields, it also deserves a large share of the credit for the outcomes of World War II and the Cold War.

Tip O’Neill said that all politics is local. I say that all political developments reflect the clash, compromise, and collaboration of special interests — and thus cannot be ascribed to a national psyche.