Not-So-Random Thoughts (XXII)

This is a long-overdue entry; the previous one was posted on October 4, 2017. Accordingly, it is a long entry, consisting of these parts:

Censorship and Left-Wing Bias on the Web

The Real Collusion Story

“Suicide” of the West

Evolution, Intelligence, and Race

Will the Real Fascists Please Stand Up?


Empathy Is Over-Rated



It’s a hot topic these days. See, for example, this, this, this, this, and this. Also, this, which addresses Google’s slanting of search results about climate research. YouTube is at it, too.

A lot of libertarian and conservative commentators are loath to demand governmental intervention because the censorship is being committed by private companies: Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube, et al. Some libertarians and conservatives are hopeful that libertarian-conservative options will be successful (e.g., George Gilder). I am skeptical. I have seen and tried some of those options, and they aren’t in the same league as the left-wingers, which have pretty well locked up users and advertisers. (It’s called path-dependence.) And even if they finally succeed in snapping up a respectable share of the information market, the damage will have been done; libertarians and conservatives will have been marginalized, criminalized, and suppressed.

The time to roll out the big guns is now, as I explain here:

Given the influence that Google and the other members of the left-wing information-technology oligarchy exert in this country, that oligarchy is tantamount to a state apparatus….

These information-entertainment-media-academic institutions are important components of what I call the vast left-wing conspiracy in America. Their purpose and effect is the subversion of the traditional norms that made America a uniquely free, prosperous, and vibrant nation….

What will happen in America if that conspiracy succeeds in completely overthrowing “bourgeois culture”? The left will frog-march America in whatever utopian direction captures its “feelings” (but not its reason) at the moment…

Complete victory for the enemies of liberty is only a few election cycles away. The squishy center of the American electorate — as is its wont — will swing back toward the Democrat Party. With a Democrat in the White House, a Democrat-controlled Congress, and a few party switches in the Supreme Court, the dogmas of the information-entertainment-media-academic complex will become the law of the land….

[It is therefore necessary to] enforce the First Amendment against information-entertainment-media-academic complex. This would begin with action against high-profile targets (e.g., Google and a few large universities that accept federal money). That should be enough to bring the others into line. If it isn’t, keep working down the list until the miscreants cry uncle.

What kind of action do I have in mind?…

Executive action against state actors to enforce the First Amendment:

Amendment I to the Constitution says that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”.

Major entities in the telecommunications, news, entertainment, and education industries have exerted their power to suppress speech because of its content. (See appended documentation.) The collective actions of these entities — many of them government- licensed and government-funded — effectively constitute a governmental violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech (See Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944) and Marsh v. Alabama, 326 U.S. 501 (1946).)

And so on. Read all about it here.


Not quite as hot, but still in the news, is Spygate. Collusion among the White House, CIA, and FBI (a) to use the Trump-Russia collusion story to swing the 2016 election to Clinton, and (b) failing that, to cripple Trump’s presidency and provide grounds for removing him from office. The latest twist in the story is offered by Byron York:

Emails in 2016 between former British spy Christopher Steele and Justice Department official Bruce Ohr suggest Steele was deeply concerned about the legal status of a Putin-linked Russian oligarch, and at times seemed to be advocating on the oligarch’s behalf, in the same time period Steele worked on collecting the Russia-related allegations against Donald Trump that came to be known as the Trump dossier. The emails show Steele and Ohr were in frequent contact, that they intermingled talk about Steele’s research and the oligarch’s affairs, and that Glenn Simpson, head of the dirt-digging group Fusion GPS that hired Steele to compile the dossier, was also part of the ongoing conversation….

The newly-released Ohr-Steele-Simpson emails are just one part of the dossier story. But if nothing else, they show that there is still much for the public to learn about the complex and far-reaching effort behind it.

My take is here. The post includes a long list of related — and enlightening — reading, to which I’ve just added York’s piece.


Less “newsy”, but a hot topic on the web a few weeks back, is Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West. It received mixed reviews. It is also the subject of an excellent non-review by Hubert Collins.

Here’s my take:

The Framers held a misplaced faith in the Constitution’s checks and balances (see Madison’s Federalist No. 51 and Hamilton’s Federalist No. 81). The Constitution’s wonderful design — containment of a strictly limited central government through horizontal and vertical separation of powers — worked rather well until the Progressive Era. The design then cracked under the strain of greed and the will to power, as the central government began to impose national economic regulation at the behest of muckrakers and do-gooders. The design then broke during the New Deal, which opened the floodgates to violations of constitutional restraint (e.g., Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare,  the vast expansion of economic regulation, and the destruction of civilizing social norms), as the Supreme Court has enabled the national government to impose its will in matters far beyond its constitutional remit.

In sum, the “poison pill” baked into the nation at the time of the Founding is human nature, against which no libertarian constitution is proof unless it is enforced resolutely by a benign power.


Evolution is closely related to and intertwined with intelligence and race. Two posts of mine (here and here) delve some of the complexities. The latter of the two posts draws on David Stove‘s critique of evolutionary theory, “So You Think You Are a Darwinian?“.

Fred Reed is far more entertaining than Stove, and no less convincing. His most recent columns on evolution are here and here. In the first of the two, he writes this:

What are some of the problems with official Darwinism? First, the spontaneous generation of life has not been replicated…. Nor has anyone assembled in the laboratory a chemical structure able to metabolize, reproduce, and thus to evolve. It has not been shown to be mathematically possible….

Sooner or later, a hypothesis must be either confirmed or abandoned. Which? When? Doesn’t science require evidence, reproducibility, demonstrated theoretical possibility? These do not exist….

Other serious problems with the official story: Missing intermediate fossils–”missing links”– stubbornly remain missing. “Punctuated equilibrium,” a theory of sudden rapid evolution invented to explain the lack of fossil evidence, seems unable to generate genetic information fast enough. Many proteins bear no resemblance to any others and therefore cannot have evolved from them. On and on.

Finally, the more complex an event, the less likely it is to  occur by chance. Over the years, cellular mechanisms have been found to be  ever more complex…. Recently with the discovery of epigenetics, complexity has taken a great leap upward. (For anyone wanting to subject himself to such things, there is The Epigenetics Revolution. It is not light reading.)

Worth noting is that  that the mantra of evolutionists, that “in millions and millions and billions of years something must have evolved”–does not necessarily hold water. We have all heard of Sir James Jeans assertion that a monkey, typing randomly, would eventually produce all the books in the British Museum. (Actually he would not produce a single chapter in the accepted age of the universe, but never mind.) A strong case can be made that spontaneous generation is similarly of mathematically vanishing probability. If evolutionists could prove the contrary, they would immensely strengthen their case. They haven’t….

Suppose that you saw an actual monkey pecking at a keyboard and, on examining his output, saw that he was typing, page after page, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, with no errors.

You would suspect fraud, for instance that the typewriter was really a computer programmed with Tom. But no, on inspection you find that it is a genuine typewriter. Well then, you think, the monkey must be a robot, with Tom in RAM. But  this too turns out to be wrong: The monkey in fact is one. After exhaustive examination, you are forced to conclude that Bonzo really is typing at random.

Yet he is producing Tom Sawyer. This being impossible, you would have to conclude that something was going on that you did not understand.

Much of biology is similar. For a zygote, barely visible, to turn into a baby is astronomically improbable, a suicidal assault on Murphy’s Law. Reading embryology makes this apparent. (Texts are prohibitively expensive, but Life Unfolding serves.) Yet every step in the process is in accord with chemical principles.

This doesn’t make sense. Not, anyway, unless one concludes that something deeper is going on that we do not understand. This brings to mind several adages that might serve to ameliorate our considerable arrogance. As Haldane said, “The world is not only queerer than we think, but queerer than we can think.” Or Fred’s Principle, “The smartest of a large number of hamsters is still a hamster.”

We may be too full of ourselves.

On the subject of race, Fred is no racist, but he is a realist; for example:

We have black football players refusing to stand for the national anthem.  They think that young black males are being hunted down by cops. Actually of  course black males are hunting each other down in droves but black football players apparently have no objection to this. They do not themselves convincingly suffer discrimination. Where else can you get paid six million green ones a year for grabbing something and running? Maybe in a district of jewelers.

The non-standing is racial hostility to whites. The large drop in attendance of games, of television viewership, is racial blowback by whites. Millions of whites are thinking, that, if America doesn’t suit them, football players can afford a ticket to Kenya. While this line of reasoning is tempting, it doesn’t really address the problem and so would be a waste of time.

But what, really, is the problem?

It is one that dare not raise its head: that blacks cannot compete with whites, Asians, or Latin-Americans. Is there counter-evidence? This leaves them in an incurable state of resentment and thus hostility. I think we all know this: Blacks know it, whites know it, liberals know it, and conservatives know it. If any doubt this, the truth would be easy enough to determine with carefully done tests. [Which have been done.] The furious resistance to the very idea of measuring intelligence suggests awareness of the likely outcome. You don’t avoid a test if you expect good results.

So we do nothing while things worsen and the world looks on astounded. We have mob attacks by Black Lives Matter, the never-ending Knockout Game, flash mobs looting stores and subway trains, occasional burning cities, and we do nothing. Which makes sense, because there is nothing to be done short of restructuring the country.

Absolute, obvious, unacknowledged disaster.

Regarding which: Do we really want, any of us, what we are doing? In particular, has anyone asked ordinary blacks, not black pols and race hustlers. “Do you really want to live among whites, or would you prefer a safe middle-class black neighborhood? Do your kids want to go to school with whites? If so, why? Do you want them to? Why? Would you prefer black schools to decide what and how to teach your children? Keeping whites out of it? Would you prefer having only black police in your neighborhood?”

And the big one: “Do you, and the people you actually know in your neighborhood, really want integration? Or is it something imposed on you by oreo pols and white ideologues?”

But these are things we must never think, never ask.

Which brings me to my most recent post about blacks and crime, which is here. As for restructuring the country, Lincoln saw what was needed.

The touchy matter of intelligence — its heritability and therefore its racial component — is never far from my thoughts. I commend to you Gregory Hood’s excellent piece, “Forbidden Research: How the Study of Intelligence is Crippled by Ideology“. Hood mentions some of the scientists whose work I have cited in my writings about intelligence and its racial component. See this page, for example, which give links to several related posts and excerpts of relevant research about intelligence.

As for the racial component, my most recent post on the subject (which provides links to related posts) addresses the question “Why study race and intelligence?”. Here’s why:

Affirmative action and similar race-based preferences are harmful to blacks. But those preferences persist because most Americans do not understand that there are inherent racial differences that prevent blacks, on the whole, from doing as well as whites (and Asians) in school and in jobs that require above-average intelligence. But magical thinkers (like [Professor John] McWhorter) want to deny reality. He admits to being driven by hope: “I have always hoped the black–white IQ gap was due to environmental causes.”…

Magical thinking — which is rife on the left — plays into the hands of politicians, most of whom couldn’t care less about the truth. They just want the votes of those blacks who relish being told, time and again, that they are “down” because they are “victims”, and Big Daddy government will come to their rescue. But unless you are the unusual black of above-average intelligence, or the more usual black who has exceptional athletic skills, dependence on Big Daddy is self-defeating because (like a drug addiction) it only leads to more of the same. The destructive cycle of dependency can be broken only by willful resistance to the junk being peddled by cynical politicians.

It is for the sake of blacks that the truth about race and intelligence ought to be pursued — and widely publicized. If they read and hear the truth often enough, perhaps they will begin to realize that the best way to better themselves is to make the best of available opportunities instead of moaning abut racism and relying on preferences and handouts.


I may puke if I hear Trump called a fascist one more time. As I observe here,

[t]he idea … that Trump is the new Hitler and WaPo [The Washington Post] and its brethren will keep us out of the gas chambers by daring to utter the truth (not)…. is complete balderdash, inasmuch as WaPo and its ilk are enthusiastic hand-maidens of “liberal” fascism.

“Liberals” who call conservatives “fascists” are simply engaging in psychological projection. This is a point that I address at length here.

As for Mr. Trump, I call on Shawn Mitchell:

A lot of public intellectuals and writers are pushing an alarming thesis: President Trump is a menace to the American Republic and a threat to American liberties. The criticism is not exclusively partisan; it’s shared by prominent conservatives, liberals, and libertarians….

Because so many elites believe Trump should be impeached, or at least shunned and rendered impotent, it’s important to agree on terms for serious discussion. Authoritarian means demanding absolute obedience to a designated authority. It means that somewhere, someone, has unlimited power. Turning the focus to Trump, after 15 months in office, it’s impossible to assign him any of those descriptions….

…[T]here are no concentration camps or political arrests. Rather, the #Resistance ranges from fervent to rabid. Hollywood and media’s brightest stars regularly gather at galas to crudely declare their contempt for Trump and his deplorable supporters. Academics and reporters lodged in elite faculty lounges and ivory towers regularly malign his brains, judgment, and temperament. Activists gather in thousands on the streets to denounce Trump and his voters. None of these people believe Trump is an autocrat, or, if they do they are ignorant of the word’s meaning. None fear for their lives, liberty, or property.

Still, other elites pile on. Federal judges provide legal backup, contriving frivolous theories to block administrations moves. Some rule Trump lacks even the authority to undo by executive order things Obama himself introduced by executive order. Governors from states like California, Oregon and New York announce they will not cooperate with administration policy (current law, really) on immigration, the environment, and other issues.

Amidst such widespread rebellion, waged with impunity against the constitutionally elected president, the critics’ dark warnings that America faces a dictator are more than wrong; they are surreal and damnable. They are what amounts to the howl of that half the nation still refusing to accept election results it dislikes.

Conceding Trump lacks an inmate or body count, critics still offer theories to categorize him in genus monsterus. The main arguments cite Trump’s patented belligerent personality and undisciplined tweets, his use of executive orders; his alleged obstruction in firing James Comey and criticizing Robert Mueller, his blasts at the media, and his immigration policies. These attacks weigh less than the paper they might be printed on.

Trump’s personality doubtless is sui generis for national office. If he doesn’t occasionally offend listeners they probably aren’t listening. But so what? Personality is not policy. A sensibility is not a platform, and bluster and spittle are not coercive state action. The Human Jerk-o-meter could measure Trump in the 99th percentile, and the effect would not change one law, eliminate one right, or jail one critic.

Executive Orders are misunderstood. All modern presidents used them. There is nothing wrong in concept with executive orders. Some are constitutional some are not. What matters is whether they direct executive priorities within U.S. statutes or try to push authority beyond the law to change the rights and duties of citizens. For example, a president might order the EPA to focus on the Clean Air Act more than the Clean Water Act, or vice versa. That is fine. But, if a president orders the EPA to regulate how much people can water their lawns or what kind of lawns to plant, the president is trying to legislate and create new controls. That is unconstitutional.

Many of Obama’s executive orders were transgressive and unconstitutional. Most of Trump’s executive orders are within the law, and constitutional. However that debate turns out, though, it is silly to argue the issue implicates authoritarianism.

The partisan arguments over Trump’s response to the special counsel also miss key points. Presidents have authority to fire subordinates. The recommendation authored by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein provides abundant reason for Trump to have fired James Comey, who increasingly is seen as a bitter anti-Trump campaigner. As for Robert Mueller, criticizing is not usurping. Mueller’s investigation continues, but now readily is perceived as a target shoot, unmoored from the original accusations about Russia, in search of any reason to draw blood from Trump. Criticizing that is not dictatorial, it is reasonable.

No doubt Trump criticizes the media more than many modern presidents. But criticism is not oppression. It attacks not freedom of the press but the credibility of the press. That is civically uncomfortable, but the fact is, the war of words between Trump and the media is mutual. The media attacks Trump constantly, ferociously and very often inaccurately as Mollie Hemingway and Glenn Greenwald document from different political perspectives. Trump fighting back is not asserting government control. It is just challenging media assumptions and narratives in a way no president ever has. Reporters don’t like it, so they call it oppression. They are crybabies.

Finally, the accusation that Trump wants to enforce the border under current U.S. laws, as well as better vet immigration from a handful of failed states in the Middle East with significant militant activity hardly makes him a tyrant. Voters elected Trump to step up border enforcement. Scrutinizing immigrants from a handful of countries with known terrorist networks is not a “Muslim ban.” The idea insults the intelligence since there are about 65 majority Muslim countries the order does not touch.

Trump is not Hitler. Critics’ attacks are policy disputes, not examples of authoritarianism. The debate is driven by sore losers who are willing to erode norms that have preserved the republic for 240 years.



For a complete change of pace I turn to a post by Bill Vallicella about consciousness:

This is an addendum to Thomas Nagel on the Mind-Body Problem. In that entry I set forth a problem in the philosophy of mind, pouring it into the mold of an aporetic triad:

1) Conscious experience is not an illusion.

2) Conscious experience has an essentially subjective character that purely physical processes do not share.

3) The only acceptable explanation of conscious experience is in terms of physical properties alone.

Note first that the three propositions are collectively inconsistent: they cannot all be true.  Any two limbs entail the negation of the remaining one. Note second that each limb exerts a strong pull on our acceptance. But we cannot accept them all because they are logically incompatible.

This is one hard nut to crack.  So hard that many, following David Chalmers, call it, or something very much like it, the Hard Problem in the philosophy of mind.  It is so hard that it drives some into the loony bin. I am thinking of Daniel Dennett and those who have the chutzpah to deny (1)….

Sophistry aside, we either reject (2) or we reject (3).  Nagel and I accept (1) and (2) and reject (3). Those of a  scientistic stripe accept (1) and (3) and reject (2)….

I conclude that if our aporetic triad has a solution, the solution is by rejecting (3).

Vallicella reaches his conclusion by subtle argumentation, which I will not attempt to parse in this space.

My view is that (2) is false because the subjective character of conscious experience is an illusion that arises from the physical properties of the central nervous system. Consciousness itself is not an illusion. I accept (1) and (3). For more, see this and this.


Andrew Scull addresses empathy:

The basic sense in which most of us use “empathy” is analogous to what Adam Smith called “sympathy”: the capacity we possess (or can develop) to see the world through the eyes of another, to “place ourselves in his situation . . . and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence from some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them”….

In making moral choices, many would claim that empathy in this sense makes us more likely to care about others and to consider their interests when choosing our own course of action….

Conversely, understanding others’ feelings doesn’t necessarily lead one to treating them better. On the contrary: the best torturers are those who can anticipate and intuit what their victims most fear, and tailor their actions accordingly. Here, Bloom effectively invokes the case of Winston Smith’s torturer O’Brien in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, who is able to divine the former’s greatest dread, his fear of rats, and then use it to destroy him.

Guest blogger L.P. addressed empathy in several posts: here, here, here, here, here, and here. This is from the fourth of those posts:

Pro-empathy people think less empathetic people are “monsters.” However, as discussed in part 2 of this series, Baron-Cohen, Kevin Dutton in The Wisdom of Psychopaths, and other researchers establish that empathetic people, particularly psychopaths who have both affective and cognitive empathy, can be “monsters” too.

In fact, Kevin Dutton’s point about psychopaths generally being able to blend in and take on the appearance of the average person makes it obvious that they must have substantial emotional intelligence (linked to cognitive empathy) and experience of others’ feelings in order to mirror others so well….

Another point to consider however, as mentioned in part 1, is that those who try to empathize with others by imagining how they would experience another’s situation aren’t truly empathetic. They’re just projecting their own feelings onto others. This brings to mind Jonathan Haidt’s study on morality and political orientation. On the “Identification with All of Humanity Scale,” liberals most strongly endorsed the dimension regarding identification with “everyone around the world.” (See page 25 of “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The psychological roots of an individualist ideology.”) How can anyone empathize with billions of persons about whom one knows nothing, and a great number of whom are anything but liberal?

Haidt’s finding is a terrific example of problems with self-evaluation and self-reported data – liberals overestimating themselves in this case. I’m not judgmental about not understanding everyone in the world. There are plenty of people I don’t understand either. However, I don’t think people who overestimate their ability to understand people should be in a position that allows them to tamper with, or try to “improve,” the lives of people they don’t understand….

I conclude by quoting C. Daniel Batson who acknowledges the prevailing bias when it comes to evaluating altruism as a virtue. This is from his paper, “Empathy-Induced Altruistic Motivation,” written for the Inaugural Herzliya Symposium on Prosocial Motives, Emotions, and Behavior:

[W]hereas there are clear social sanctions against unbridled self-interest, there are not clear sanctions against altruism. As a result, altruism can at times pose a greater threat to the common good than does egoism.


I have addressed Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s “libertarian” paternalism and “nudging in many posts. (See this post, the list at the bottom of it, and this post.) Nothing that I have written — clever and incisive as it may be — rivals Deirdre McCloskey’s take on Thaler’s non-Nobel prize, “The Applied Theory of Bossing“:

Thaler is distinguished but not brilliant, which is par for the course. He works on “behavioral finance,” the study of mistakes people make when they talk to their stock broker. He can be counted as the second winner for “behavioral economics,” after the psychologist Daniel Kahneman. His prize was for the study of mistakes people make when they buy milk….

Once Thaler has established that you are in myriad ways irrational it’s much easier to argue, as he has, vigorously—in his academic research, in popular books, and now in a column for The New York Times—that you are too stupid to be treated as a free adult. You need, in the coinage of Thaler’s book, co-authored with the law professor and Obama adviser Cass Sunstein, to be “nudged.” Thaler and Sunstein call it “libertarian paternalism.”*…

Wikipedia lists fully 257 cognitive biases. In the category of decision-making biases alone there are anchoring, the availability heuristic, the bandwagon effect, the baseline fallacy, choice-supportive bias, confirmation bias, belief-revision conservatism, courtesy bias, and on and on. According to the psychologists, it’s a miracle you can get across the street.

For Thaler, every one of the biases is a reason not to trust people to make their own choices about money. It’s an old routine in economics. Since 1848, one expert after another has set up shop finding “imperfections” in the market economy that Smith and Mill and Bastiat had come to understand as a pretty good system for supporting human flourishing….

How to convince people to stand still for being bossed around like children? Answer: Persuade them that they are idiots compared with the great and good in charge. That was the conservative yet socialist program of Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel as part of a duo that included an actual economist named Vernon Smith…. It is Thaler’s program, too.

Like with the psychologist’s list of biases, though, nowhere has anyone shown that the imperfections in the market amount to much in damaging the economy overall. People do get across the street. Income per head since 1848 has increased by a factor of 20 or 30….

The amiable Joe Stiglitz says that whenever there is a “spillover” — my ugly dress offending your delicate eyes, say — the government should step in. A Federal Bureau of Dresses, rather like the one Saudi Arabia has. In common with Thaler and Krugman and most other economists since 1848, Stiglitz does not know how much his imagined spillovers reduce national income overall, or whether the government is good at preventing the spill. I reckon it’s about as good as the Army Corps of Engineers was in Katrina.

Thaler, in short, melds the list of psychological biases with the list of economic imperfections. It is his worthy scientific accomplishment. His conclusion, unsupported by evidence?

It’s bad for us to be free.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred to Thaler’s philosophy as “paternalistic libertarianism.” The correct term is “libertarian paternalism.”

No, the correct term is paternalism.

I will end on that note.

Another (Big) Problem with “Nudging”

I’ve written recently about Richard Thaler’s Nobel prize and my objections to his (and Cass Sunstein’s) cheerleading for “nudging”. That’s a polite term for the use of business and government power to get people to make the “right” decisions. (“Right” according to Thaler, at least.) It’s the government part that really bothers me. Ilya Somin of The Volokh Conspiracy is of the same mind:

Thaler and many other behavioral economics scholars argue that government should intervene to protect people against their cognitive biases, by various forms of paternalistic policies. In the best-case scenario, government regulators can “nudge” us into correcting our cognitive errors, thereby enhancing our welfare without significantly curtailing freedom.

But can we trust government to be less prone to cognitive error than the private-sector consumers whose mistakes we want to correct? If not, paternalistic policies might just replace one form of cognitive bias with another, perhaps even worse one. Unfortunately, a recent study suggests that politicians are prone to severe cognitive biases too – especially when they consider ideologically charged issues….

Even when presented additional evidence to help them correct their mistakes, Dahlmann and Petersen found that the politicians tended to double down on their errors rather than admit they might have been wrong….

Politicians aren’t just biased in their evaluation of political issues. Many of them are ignorant, as well. For example, famed political journalist Robert Kaiser found that most members of Congress know little about policy and “both know and care more about politics than about substance.”….

But perhaps voters can incentivize politicians to evaluate evidence more carefully. They can screen out candidates who are biased and ill-informed, and elect knowledgeable and objective decision-makers. Sadly, that is unlikely to happen, because the voters themselves also suffer from massive political ignorance, often being unaware of even very basic facts about public policy.

Of course, the Framers of the Constitution understood all of this in 1787. And they wisely acted on it by placing definite limits on the power of the central government. The removal of those limits, especially during and since the New Deal, is a constitutional tragedy.

Richard Thaler, Nobel Laureate

I am slightly irked by today’s news of the selection of Richard Thaler as the 2017 Noblel laureate in economics. (It’s actually the Swedish National Bank’s Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, not one of the original prizes designated in Alfred Nobel’s will.) Granted, Thaler did some praiseworthy and groundbreaking work in behavioral economics, which is nicely summarized in this post by Timothy Taylor.

But Thaler, whom I knew slightly when he was a consultant to the outfit where I worked, gets a lot of pushback when he translates his work into normative prescriptions. He was already semi-famous (or infamous) for his collaboration with Cass Sunstein. Together and separately they propounded “libertarian paternalism”, an obnoxious oxymoron that they abandoned in favor of “nudging”. Thus their book-length epistle to true believers in governmental omniscience, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health and Happiness.

It would be a vast understatement to say that I disagree with Thaler and Sunstein’s policy prescriptions. I have recorded my disagreements in many posts, which are listed below.

Sunstein at the Volokh Conspiracy
More from Sunstein
Cass Sunstein’s Truly Dangerous Mind
An (Imaginary) Interview with Cass Sunstein
Libertarian Paternalism
A Libertarian Paternalist’s Dream World
Slippery Sunstein
The Short Answer to Libertarian Paternalism
Second-Guessing, Paternalism, Parentalism, and Choice
Another Thought about Libertarian Paternalism
Back-Door Paternalism
Sunstein and Executive Power
Another Voice Against the New Paternalism
The Feds and “Libertarian Paternalism”
A Further Note about “Libertarian” Paternalism
Apropos Paternalism
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Discounting and Libertarian Paternalism
The Mind of a Paternalist
The Mind of a Paternalist, Revisited
Another Entry in the Sunstein Saga
The Sunstein Effect Is Alive and Well in the White House
Sunstein the Fatuous
Not-So-Random Thoughts (XVI) – first item
The Perpetual Nudger

The Perpetual Nudger

Richard Thaler, about whose “libertarian” paternalism I’ve written many times, is at it again. Thaler, in case you don’t know of him, is co-author (with Cass Sunstein) of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Thaler’s partnership with Sunstein should be enough to tell you that “libertarian” paternalism is about paternalism, not liberty. (My many essays about Thaler, Sunstein, and their works and minds are among the “related posts” at the bottom of this one.)

What’s Thaler up to now? It seems that he’s written a new book, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, from which he has drawn “Unless You Are Spock, Irrelevant Things Matter in Economic Behavior” (The New York Times, May 8, 2015). The article displays three of Thaler’s pet tricks:

  • He misrepresents classical microeconomics.
  • He assumes (implicitly) that everyone should make economic decisions from an omniscient, end-of-life perspective.
  • He substitutes his economic desiderata for the free choices of millions of persons.

Regarding Thaler’s misrepresentation of classical microeconomics, consider these passages from his article:

Economists [who adhere to traditional microeconomic theory] discount any factors that would not influence the thinking of a rational person. These things are supposedly irrelevant. But unfortunately for the theory, many supposedly irrelevant factors do matter.

Economists create this problem with their insistence on studying mythical creatures often known as Homo economicus. I prefer to call them “Econs”— highly intelligent beings that are capable of making the most complex of calculations but are totally lacking in emotions. Think of Mr. Spock in “Star Trek.” In a world of Econs, many things would in fact be irrelevant.

No Econ would buy a larger portion of whatever will be served for dinner on Tuesday because he happens to be hungry when shopping on Sunday. Your hunger on Sunday should be irrelevant in choosing the size of your meal for Tuesday. An Econ would not finish that huge meal on Tuesday, even though he is no longer hungry, just because he had paid for it. To an Econ, the price paid for an item in the past is not relevant in making the decision about how much of it to eat now.

An Econ would not expect a gift on the day of the year in which she happened to get married, or be born. What difference do these arbitrary dates make?…

Of course, most economists know that the people with whom they interact do not resemble Econs. In fact, in private moments, economists are often happy to admit that most of the people they know are clueless about economic matters. But for decades, this realization did not affect the way most economists did their work. They had a justification: markets. To defenders of economics orthodoxy, markets are thought to have magic powers.

This reads more like the confession of an Econ than an accurate description of the principles of microeconomics. Even in those benighted days when I learned the principles of “micro” — just a few years ahead of Thaler — it was understood that the assumption of rationality was an approximation of the tendency of individuals to try to make themselves better off by making choices that would do so, given their tastes and preferences and the information that they possess at the time or could obtain at a cost commensurate with the value of the decision at hand.

Yes, there are Econs, but they’re usually economists who also know full well that the mass of people don’t behave like Econs (as Thaler admits), and for whom the postulate of utter rationality is, as I’ve suggested, shorthand for an imprecise tendency. The fact that most human beings aren’t Econs doesn’t vitiate the essential truth of the traditional theory of choice. What seems to bother Thaler is that most people aren’t Econs; their tastes and preferences seem irrational to him, and it’s his (self-appointed) role in life to force them to make “correct” decisions (i.e., the decisions he would make).

I’ll say more about that. But I can’t let Thaler’s views about markets pass without comment. He continues:

There is a version of this magic market argument that I call the invisible hand wave…. Words and phrases such as high stakes, learning and arbitrage are thrown around to suggest some of the ways that markets can do their magic, but it is my claim that no one has ever finished making the argument with both hands remaining still.

Hand waving is required because there is nothing in the workings of markets that turns otherwise normal human beings into Econs. For example, if you choose the wrong career, select the wrong mortgage or fail to save for retirement, markets do not correct those failings. In fact, quite the opposite often happens. It is much easier to make money by catering to consumers’ biases than by trying to correct them.

This is a perverted description of the role of markets. And it betrays the peculiar vantage point from which Thaler views economic decision-making. Markets provide information, much of which reflects decisions already made by others. Markets, in other words, enable persons who are contemplating decisions to learn from the decisions of others — whether those others view their decisions as bad, good, or indifferent. But it’s up to persons who are contemplating decisions to take advantage of the information provide by markets. I’ve never known anyone to suggest that markets are antidote of sorts for choices already made.

Moreover, markets don’t merely “cater to consumers’ biases.” Markets enable businesses to shape consumers’ tastes and preferences by presenting them with information about the availability and advantages of new and improved products and services. Markets transmit information in two directions, not just from consumers to producers.

What about people who make “bad” choices, such as choosing the “wrong” career, selecting the “wrong” mortgage, or failing to save for retirement? That’s Thaler the Nudge talking. He wants to save people from such fates. While he’s at it, perhaps he can also save them from choosing the wrong spouse or the wrong number of children.

I say that because when Thaler writes about “wrong” choices in such matters, he writes as if people can and should make their minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, week-by-week, and year-by-year decisions by reckoning (like an Econ) how those decisions will affect their “score” when they reach the finish line of life, or some other arbitrary point in time. What about all those points in between, don’t they count, too? And who knows when the finish line will arrive? Given such quandaries and uncertainties, how are the irrational masses supposed to cope? Well, they don’t — or so Thaler would like to believe. So it follows that Thaler must cope for them, but only when it comes to his pet projects (e.g., automatic enrollment in 401(k) plans). He’s silent about the myriad other decisions that real people face.

Why should Thaler care if X chooses the “wrong” career, takes a mortgage he can’t afford, doesn’t save “enough” for retirement, chooses the “wrong” spouse, or has “too many” children? It’s paternalistic thinking like Thaler’s that leads politicians to concoct programs that transfer the cost of bad choices from those who make them to those who are just trying to live their lives without making them. I expect that Thaler would respond by saying that government is already in the business of making such transfers, so the best thing is to reduce the need for them. No, the best thing is to make individuals responsible for the consequences of their choices, and let them — and others — learn from the consequences. The best thing is to dismantle the dependency-creating, handout-giving functions of government. And a behavioral economist like Thaler is just the kind of person who could mount a strong economic case against those functions — if he were of a mind to do so.

Thaler doesn’t seem to be of a mind to do so because what he really wants is for people to make the “right” decisions, by his lights. Why? Because he knows what’s best for all of us; for example:

Consider defined-contribution retirement plans like 401(k)’s. Econs would have no trouble figuring out how much to save for retirement and how to invest the money, but mere humans can find it quite tough. So knowledgeable employers have incorporated three [features] in their plan design: they automatically enroll employees (who can opt out), they automatically increase the saving rate every year, and they offer a sensible default investment choice like a target date fund. These features significantly improve the outcomes of plan participants…. [TEA: This assumes that everyone should care more about retirement income than about anything else, at the margin.]

These retirement plans also have a supposedly relevant factor: Contributions and capital appreciation are tax-sheltered until retirement. This tax break was created to induce people to save more….

[The authors of a recent study] conclude: “…Automatic enrollment or default policies that nudge individuals to save more could have larger impacts on national saving at lower social cost.”

Get it? One of the objectives of nudging people to participate in 401(k) plans is to raise the national saving rate. Anyone who’s passingly familiar with this blog knows that I often decry government policies that discourage saving, especially by imposing more taxes on high-earners, because such policies reduce saving and therefore reduce investment and economic growth. But saving should be a voluntary thing, and the national saving rate should emerge from voluntary decisions. It shouldn’t be dictated by those, like Thaler, who view a higher national saving rate as a holy grail, to be advanced by policies that effectively dictate the “choices” that people make. But that’s Thaler for you: Imposing his economic desiderata on others.

I learned one thing from Thaler’s article: He’s a quintessential Econ. Pot. Kettle. Black.

*     *     *

Related reading: John Cochrane, “Homo Economicus or Homo Paleas?,” The Grumpy Economist, May 22, 2015 (In which Professor Cochrane reinforces some of my points and makes some others — all telling.)

*     *     *

Related posts:

The Rationality Fallacy
Libertarian Paternalism
A Libertarian Paternalist’s Dream World
The Short Answer to Libertarian Paternalism
Second-Guessing, Paternalism, Parentalism, and Choice
Another Thought about Libertarian Paternalism
Back-Door Paternalism
Another Voice Against the New Paternalism
Slippery Paternalists
The Feds and “Libertarian Paternalism”
A Further Note about “Libertarian” Paternalism
Apropos Paternalism
Irrationality, Suboptimality, and Voting
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
More about Paternalism
Columnist, Heal Thyself
Discounting and Libertarian Paternalism
The Mind of a Paternalist
The Mind of a Paternalist, Revisited
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Irrational Rationality
Not-So-Random Thoughts (III) (third item)
The Sunstein Effect Is Alive and Well in the White House (see “related posts” for many more about Sunstein)
Not-So-Random Thoughts (XII) (eighth item)


Obesity and Statism

Richard Posner, a leader of the law and economics movement, exposes himself as an out-and-out statist:

I am not particularly interested in saving the obese from themselves. I am concerned about the negative externalities of obesity—the costs that the obese impose on others. Some of the others are the purchasers of health insurance and the taxpayers who pay for Medicaid and Medicare and social security disability benefits…. Obesity kills, but slowly, and en route to dying the obese run up heavy bills that, to a great extent, others pay.

Even more serious are the harmful effects of obesity, and of the food habits that contribute to it, on children…. Children who grow up in a household of obese parents (often there is just one parent, and she is obese) very often acquire the same bad habits.

One might think that since most parents are altruistic toward their children, parents would strive to prevent their children from acquiring their bad habits. But if they don’t know how to avoid becoming obese themselves, it is unlikely that they know how to prevent their children from becoming obese.

Then too, the more people in one’s family or circle of friends or coworkers who are obese, the more obesity seems normal. This is an implication of the fact that homo sapiens is a social animal. We want to blend in with our social peers….

Bloomberg’s proposal is widely criticized, not only on the shallow ground that it interferes with freedom of choice, but on the more substantial ground that it can’t have much effect, since the same sugared drinks can be sold in smaller containers…. [I]f the sale of sugared drinks in big containers is forbidden, there will be at least a slight drop in the purchase of those drinks and hence in their consumption….

More important is the symbolic significance of Bloomberg’s proposal (if it is adopted and enforced). It is an attention getter! It tells New Yorkers that obesity is a social problem warranting government intervention, and not just a personal choice.

Think of the history of cigarette regulation…. Cigarette smoking fell, from an average of 40 percent of the adult population in the 1970s to 19 percent today. There is some grumbling about this massive governmental intrusion into consumer choice, but very little. I certainly am not grumbling about it.

If there is to be a parallel movement to reduce obesity, it has to start somewhere. Maybe it will start with Bloomberg’s container proposal—an attention getter. Maybe it will grow. Maybe someday it will be as effective, and receive as much public approbation, as the anti-smoking movement. [From Posner’s post about “Bloomberg, Sugar, and Obesity,” at The Becker-Posner Blog, June 18, 2012.]

There you have a reputedly keen “legal mind” in the throes of economistic thinking. It perfectly illustrates a phenomenon about which I write in “A Man for No Seasons“:

[T]oo 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.

It is evident that Posner cares not a jot about liberty; efficiency is his god.

Posner’s facile analysis of the costs of obesity is obviously grounded in an aversion to obese persons. He gives his game away by lauding the anti-cigarette campaign, which is really based on two things:

  • an esthetic revulsion
  • the snobbishness of the middle and upper-middle classes toward their “inferiors.”

The parallels to the anti-obesity campaign are so evident that I need say nothing more on this point.

In any event, the real problem is not obesity. It is that Americans have been forced to accept responsibility for other persons’ health. Posner almost grasps this when he writes about “the purchasers of health insurance and the taxpayers who pay for Medicaid and Medicare and social security disability benefits.” These problems would largely disappear if government did not distort the cost of health insurance through mandates and barriers to entry, and did not force some Americans to subsidize the health care of others through Medicare, Medicaid, and various State and local programs. The consumption of junk food, which Posner correctly indicts as a cause of obesity, is undoubtedly subsidized (indirectly) by welfare payments and food stamps.

The growing fraction of Americans who are considered obese is, in fact, a symptom of the ability of competitive markets to deliver more nourishment at a lower real cost. If obesity is concentrated among low-income groups — and I believe that it is — it means that low-income groups, on the whole, are better nourished than they were in the past. But, in typical fashion, paternalists like Posner focus on the aspects of progress that they find distasteful, while ignoring the larger picture.

If Posner were really serious about saving Americans from the consequences of their own behavior, he would be agitating for a ban on automobiles and the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. Oh, prohibition was tried and it failed because of its unintended consequences? My, my, what a surprise.

The unintended consequences of a war on obesity should be obvious to Posner — or would be if he were not blinded by paternalism. Regulators, armed with the power to limit what Americans can consume, would inevitably do great mischief to the health and enjoyment that Americans derive from the preparation and consumption of foodstuffs. Regulators love to impose one-size-fits all restrictions on everyone, instead of allowing individuals and firms to choose those courses of action that best suit them. And so — in the name of health and under the influence of various food-Nazis — regulators would move beyond Bloomberg’s simplistic “solution” to truly draconian measures. Almost anything that is believed to be harmful to some persons (e.g., salt, fat, nuts) would be strictly metered if not banned for all persons. (I have no taste for raw fish, but I would be aghast if those who like sashimi were unable to buy it because of the health risk that accompanies its consumption.) Then there are the opportunities for various interest groups (e.g., American cheese manufacturers) to rig the regulatory game in their favor. In short, it is not far down the regulatory slope from a ban on super-size drinks to a ban on foods that most of us find enjoyable, and even healthful.

But Mrs. Grundy — er, Judge Posner and his ilk — will not be deterred. And if the Grundy-Posners succeed in their paternalistic crusade, they will have turned America into a land of grim, granola-crunching Zombies. For that is liberty, Posner-style.

Related posts:
How to Combat Beauty-ism
The Mind of a Paternalist, Revisited
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Externalities and Statism

Irrational Rationality

Economists have given “rationality” a bad name. Mario Rizzo explains:

[T]he axioms of rational choice were supposed to shed light on how people actually made choices. Then a sleight of hand occurred. It was claimed that they shed light on how rational individuals would choose – without addressing the issue of whether people were in fact rational in the sense of the axioms. Finally, it was alleged – in the face of empirical evidence that people often did not choose rationally – that the axioms defined the norms of choice. They told us how rational individuals should choose. More than that. Since being rational is taken as “good,” they show us how people should behave – full stop….

The behavioralists may well be correct that people do not act in accordance with … rationality axioms. But they are surely wrong in claiming that they ought to behave in this way. The problem is not with deficient individuals. It is a problem of deficient rationality standards.

It is an old story. Pseudo-scientific economists, suffering from physics envy, strive to reduce the complexity of human behavior to simple-minded metrics, according to which they judge human rationality. When humans fail to hew to the simple-minded preferences of economistic thinkers, it is evident (to those thinkers) that humans must be nudged toward “doing the right thing.”

When economists cross the line from theorizing about economic behavior to judging it, they put themselves on the same low plain as “liberals.” The latter, at least, are honest about wanting their own way … just because … and do not resort to cheap, pseudo-scientific tricks. They simply enforce their preferences through statutes and regulations. Why “nudge” when you can coerce?

Related posts:
Why I Don’t Hang Around with Economists
The Rationality Fallacy
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
Physics Envy
Rawls Meets Bentham
Enough of “Social Welfare”
The Case of the Purblind Economist
The Arrogance of (Some) Economists
Extreme Economism

Things I’m Not Doing Today

There are a lot of things I’m not doing today, even though the Demo-critters in Congress and their regulatory kin believe that they’re good for me or promote the “general welfare”:

Preventive health care is actually more costly than the vigilant treatment of symptoms, so I’m not going to a doctor for a “cost saving” checkup.

I refuse to take statins — today and every other day — despite the official belief that statins will cut my cholesterol. Statins don’t mix with alcohol, and I’d rather be a moderate drinker, and a happier person for it, than a miserably abstemious person with higher risk of stroke or heart disease.

Speaking of health, I’m not reading the labels on packaged foods, because the labels won’t tell me if there’s any poison in the products.

My car is now two years old, which means that it probably emits more CO2 than it did when it was new. But I’m not going to buy a new car.

It’s cold today, so I’m running the furnace and emitting more CO2. I know that I should freeze to death before adding to the CO2 level in the atmosphere, but I choose not to freeze to death. Come to think of it, I’ll also light my gas fireplace later, while I’m watching a movie. Or I may listen to music and read a book, while basking in the glow of a 200-watt incandescent bulb.

It happens that I need some more light bulbs, but I’m not going to replace them with CFLs. In fact, I’m going to buy a lifetime supply of incandescent bulbs while they’re still available.

Finally, I’m not spending any money today, despite the fact that my failure to spend will have affect interstate commerce (as Demo-critters define commerce).

The Mind of a Paternalist, Revisited

If there was any doubt that Richard Thaler is not a “libertarian,” even though he implies that he is one when he calls himself a “libertarian paternalist,” read this:

There is another possible argument for including the rich in these tax cuts, one based on “fairness.” By this reasoning, the wealthy are entitled to low tax rates because they have temporarily had them, and it would now be unfair to take them back.

But by that same argument, unemployment insurance should never expire, and every day should be your birthday. “Temporary” has no meaning if it bestows a permanent right.

By Thaler’s convoluted logic, the money one earns is a gift from government, and those who pay taxes have no greater claim on their own money than those to whom the government hands it. How is this “libertarian,” by any reasonable interpretation of that word?

As I have said in various ways, Thaler is a paternalist but not a libertarian. One cannot be both.

Related posts:
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Columnist, Heal Thyself
Discounting and “Libertarian” Paternalism
The Mind of a Paternalist

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”

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

More about Paternalism

To complement my earlier post, “Beware of Libertarian Paternalists,” I offer the following links:

Pitfalls of Paternalism (Ilya Somin, The Volokh Conspiracy)

Hayek on the Use of Superior Expert Knowledge as a Justification for Paternalism (Ilya Somin, The Volokh Conspiracy)

The Knowledge Problem of New Paternalism (Mario Rizzo, ThinkMarkets)

Little Brother Is Watching You: The New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes (Mario Rizzo, ThinkMarkets)

New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part I (Glen Whitman, Agoraphilia)

Be sure to read the posts and articles linked therein.

Beware of Libertarian Paternalists

I have written extensively about paternalism of the so-called libertarian variety. (See this post and the posts linked therein.) Glen Whitman, in two recent posts at Agoraphilia, renews his attack on “libertarian paternalism,” the main proponents of which are Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler (S&T). In the first of the two posts, Whitman writes:

[Thaler] continues to disregard the distinction between public and private action.

Some critics contend that behavioral economists have neglected the obvious fact that bureaucrats make errors, too. But this misses the point. After all, wouldn’t you prefer to have a qualified, albeit human, technician inspect your aircraft’s engines rather than do it yourself?

The owners of ski resorts hire experts who have previously skied the runs, under various conditions, to decide which trails should be designated for advanced skiers. These experts know more than a newcomer to the mountain. Bureaucrats are human, too, but they can also hire experts and conduct research.Here we see two of Thaler’s favorite stratagems deployed at once. First, he relies on a deceptively innocuous, private, and non-coercive example to illustrate his brand of paternalism. Before it was cafeteria dessert placement; now it’s ski-slope markings. Second, he subtly equates private and public decision makers without even mentioning their different incentives. In this case, he uses “bureaucrats” to refer to all managers, regardless of whether they manage private or public enterprises.

The distinction matters. The case of ski-slope markings is the market principle at work. Skiers want to know the difficulty of slopes, and so the owners of ski resorts provide it. They have a profit incentive to do so. This is not at all coercive, and it is no more “paternalist” than a restaurant identifying the vegetarian dishes.

Public bureaucrats don’t have the same incentives at all. They don’t get punished by consumers for failing to provide information, or for providing the wrong information. They don’t suffer if they listen to the wrong experts. They face no competition from alternative providers of their service. They get to set their own standards for “success,” and if they fail, they can use that to justify a larger budget.

And Thaler knows this, because these are precisely the arguments made by the “critics” to whom he is responding. His response is just a dodge, enabled by his facile use of language and his continuing indifference – dare I say hostility? – to the distinction between public and private.

In the second of the two posts, Whitman says:

The advocates of libertarian paternalism have taken great pains to present their position as one that does not foreclose choice, and indeed even adds choice. But this is entirely a matter of presentation. They always begin with non-coercive and privately adopted measures, such as the ski-slope markings in Thaler’s NY Times article. And when challenged, they resolutely stick to these innocuous examples (see this debate between Thaler and Mario Rizzo, for example). But if you read Sunstein & Thaler’s actual publications carefully, you will find that they go far beyond non-coercive and private measures. They consciously construct a spectrum of “libertarian paternalist” policies, and at one end of this spectrum lies an absolutely ban on certain activities, such as motorcycling without a helmet. I’m not making this up!…

[A]s Sunstein & Thaler’s published work clearly indicates, this kind of policy [requiring banks to offer “plain vanilla” mortgages] is the thin end of the wedge. The next step, as outlined in their articles, is to raise the cost of choosing other options. In this case, the government could impose more and more onerous requirements for opting out of the “plain vanilla” mortgage: you must fill out extra paperwork, you must get an outside accountant, you must have a lawyer present, you must endure a waiting period, etc., etc. Again, this is not my paranoid imagination at work. S&T have said explicitly that restrictions like these would count as “libertarian paternalism” by their definition….

The problem is that S&T’s “libertarian paternalism” is used almost exclusively to advocate greater intervention, not less. I have never, for instance, seen S&T push for privatization of Social Security or vouchers in education. I have never seen them advocate repealing a blanket smoking ban and replacing it with a special licensing system for restaurants that want to allow their customers to smoke. If they have, I would love to see it.

In their articles, S&T pay lip service to the idea that libertarian paternalism lies between hard paternalism and laissez faire, and thus that it could in principle be used to expand choice. But look at the actual list of policies they’ve advocated on libertarian paternalist grounds, and see where their real priorities lie.

S&T are typical “intellectuals,” in that they presume to know how others should lead their lives — a distinctly non-libertarian attitude. It is, in fact, a hallmark of “liberalism.” In an earlier post I had this to say about the founders of “liberalism” — John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hill Green, and Leonard Trelawney Hobhouse:

[W]e 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….

The other ways, of course, include the diminution of social liberty, which is indivisible from economic liberty.

Just how dangerous to liberty are S&T? Thaler is an influential back-room operator, with close ties to the Obama camp. Sunstein is a long-time crony and adviser who now heads the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, where he has an opportunity to enforce “libertarian paternalism”:

…Sunstein would like to control the content of the internet — for our own good, of course. I refer specifically to Sunstein’s “The Future of Free Speech,” in which he advances several policy proposals, including these:

4. . . . [T]he government might impose “must carry” rules on the most popular Websites, designed to ensure more exposure to substantive questions. Under such a program, viewers of especially popular sites would see an icon for sites that deal with substantive issues in a serious way. They would not be required to click on them. But it is reasonable to expect that many viewers would do so, if only to satisfy their curiosity. The result would be to create a kind of Internet sidewalk, promoting some of the purposes of the public forum doctrine. Ideally, those who create Websites might move in this direction on their own. If they do not, government should explore possibilities of imposing requirements of this kind, making sure that no program draws invidious lines in selecting the sites whose icons will be favoured. Perhaps a lottery system of some kind could be used to reduce this risk.

5. The government might impose “must carry” rules on highly partisan Websites, designed to ensure that viewers learn about sites containing opposing views. This policy would be designed to make it less likely for people to simply hear echoes of their own voices. Of course, many people would not click on the icons of sites whose views seem objectionable; but some people would, and in that sense the system would not operate so differently from general interest intermediaries and public forums. Here too the ideal situation would be voluntary action. But if this proves impossible, it is worth considering regulatory alternatives. [Emphasis added.]

A Left-libertarian defends Sunstein’s foray into thought control, concluding that

Sunstein once thought some profoundly dumb policies might be worth considering, but realized years ago he was wrong about that… The idea was a tentative, speculative suggestion he now condemns in pretty strong terms.

Alternatively, in the face of severe criticism of his immodest proposal, Sunstein merely went underground, to await an opportunity to revive his proposal. I somehow doubt that Sunstein, as a confirmed paternalist, truly abandoned it. The proposal certainly was not off-the-cuff, running to 11 longish web pages.  Now, judging by the bulleted list above, the time is right for a revival of Sunstein’s proposal. And there he is, heading the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. The powers of that office supposedly are constrained by the executive order that established it. But it is evident that the Obama adminstration isn’t bothered by legal niceties when it comes to the exercise of power. Only a few pen strokes stand between Obama and a new, sweeping executive order, the unconstitutionality of which would be of no import to our latter-day FDR.

It’s just another step beyond McCain-Feingold, isn’t it?

Thus is the tyranny of “libertarian paternalism.” And thus does the death-spiral of liberty proceed.

A Short Course in Economics

In which I begin with pithy statements of principles and work my way toward more complex (but brief) explorations of selected economic issues.

1. Self-interest drives us to do good things for others while striving to do well for ourselves.

2. Profit is good because it entices invention, innovation, and investments that yield new and better products and services.

3. Incentives matter: Just as self-interest and profit drive progress, taxation and regulation stifle it.

4. Only slaves and dupes can be exploited. (Wal-Mart employees are not exploited; they are not forced to work at Wal-Mart. Anti-Wal-Mart activists are exploited; they’re dupes of the anti-business Left.)

5. There is no free lunch, all costs (including taxes) must be covered by someone, somewhere, at some time.

6. The appearance of a free lunch (e.g., Social Security, tax-subsidized health insurance) leads individuals to make bad decisions (e.g., not saving enough for old age, overspending on health care).

7. Paternalism is for children: When adults aren’t allowed to make economic decisions for themselves they don’t learn from mistakes and can’t pass that learning on to their children.

8. All costs matter; one cannot make good economic decisions by focusing on one type of cost, such as the cost of energy.

9. The best way to deal with pollution and the “depletion” of natural resources is to assign property rights in resources now held in common. The owners of a resource have a vested interest (a) in caring for it so that it remains profitable, and (b) in raising its price as it becomes harder to obtain, thus encouraging the development of alternatives.

10. Discrimination is inevitable in a free society; to choose is to discriminate. In free and competitive markets — unfettered by Jim Crow, affirmative action, or other intrusions by the state — discrimination is most likely to be based on the value of one’s contributions.

11. Voluntary exchange is a win-win game for workers, consumers, and businesses. When exchange is distorted by taxation and constrained by regulation, the losers are workers (fewer jobs and lower wages) and consumers (higher prices and fewer choices).

12. Absent force or fraud, we earn what we deserve, and we deserve what we earn.

13. The economy isn’t a zero-sum game; for example:

Bill Gates is immensely wealthy because he took a risk to start a company that has created things that are of value to others. His creations (criticized as they may be) have led to increases in productivity. As a result, many people earn more than they would have otherwise earned; Microsoft has made profits; Microsoft’s share price rose considerably for a long time; Bill Gates became the wealthiest American (someone has to be). That’s win-win.

14. Externalities are everywhere.

Like the butterfly effect, everything we do affects everyone else. But with property rights those externalities (e.g., pollution) are compensated instead of being legislated against or fought over in courts. Relatedly . . .

15 . There is no such thing as a “public good.”

Public goods are thought to exist because certain services benefit “free riders” (persons who enjoy a service without paying for it). It is argued that, because of free riders, services like national defense be provided by government because it would be unprofitable for private firms to offer such services.

But that analysis overlooks the possibility that those who stand to gain the most from the production of a service such as defense may, in fact, value that service so highly that they would be willing to pay a price high enough to bring forth private suppliers, free riders notwithstanding. The free-rider problem isn’t really a problem unless the producer of a “public good” responds to requests for additional services from persons who don’t pay for those services. But private providers would not be obliged to respond to such requests.

Moreover, given the present arrangement of the tax burden, those who have the most to gain from defense and justice (classic examples of “public goods”) already support a lot of free riders and “cheap riders.” Given the value of defense and justice to the orderly operation of the economy, it is likely that affluent Americans and large corporations — if they weren’t already heavily taxed — would willingly form syndicates to provide defense and justice. Most of them, after all, are willing to buy private security services, despite the taxes they already pay.

I conclude that there is no “public good” case for the government provision of services. It may nevertheless be desirable to have a state monopoly on police and justice — but only on police and justice, and only because the alternatives are a private monopoly of force, on the one hand, or a clash of warlords, on the other hand. (See this post, for instance, which also links to related posts.)

You may ask: What about environmental protection? Isn’t it a public good that must be provided by government? No. Read this and this. Which leads me to “market failure.”

16. There is no such thing as “market failure.

The concept of market failure is closely related to the notion of a public good. When the market “fails” to do or prevent something that someone thinks should be done or prevented, the “failure” is invoked as an excuse for government action.

Except where there is crime (which should be treated as crime), there is no such thing as market failure. Rather, there is only the failure of the market to provide what some persons think it should provide.

Those who invoke market failure are asserting that certain social and economic outcomes should be “fixed” (as in a “fixed” boxing match) to correct the “mistakes” and “oversights” of the market. Those who seek certain outcomes then use the political process to compel those outcomes, regardless of whether those outcomes are, on the whole, beneficial. The proponents of compulsion succeed (most of the time) because the benefits of government intervention are focused and therefore garner support from organized constituencies (i.e. interest groups and voting blocs), whereas the costs of government intervention are spread among taxpayers and/or buyers of government debt.

There are so many examples of so-called public goods that arise from putative market failures that I won’t essay anything like a comprehensive list. There are, of course, protective services and environmental “protection,” both of which I mentioned in No. 15. Then there is public education, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Affirmative Action, among the myriad federal, State, and local programs that perversely make most people worse off, including their intended beneficiaries. Arnold Kling explains:

[T]he Welfare State makes losers out of people who want to get ahead through hard work, thrift, or education. Those are precisely the activities that produce economic growth and social wealth, and they are hit particularly hard by Welfare State redistribution.

The Welfare State certainly has well-organized constituencies. The winners, such as the AARP and the teachers’ unions, know who they are. The losers — the working poor, children stuck in low-quality school districts — have much less political clout. The Welfare State has friends in both parties, as evidenced by the move to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

As the Baby Boomers age, longevity increases, and new medical technology is developed, the cost of the Welfare State is going to rise. Economists agree that in another generation the share of GDP required by the Welfare State will exceed the share of GDP of total tax revenues today. The outlook for the working poor and other Welfare State losers is decidedly grim.

17. Borders are irrelevant, except for defense.

It is not “bad” or un-American to “send jobs overseas” or to buy goods and services that happen to originate in other countries. In fact, it is good to do such things because it means that available resources can be more fully employed and put to their best uses. Opponents of outsourcing and those who decry trade deficits want less to be produced; that is, they want to shelter the jobs of some Americans at the expense of making many more Americans worse off through higher prices.

For example, when Indian computer geeks operate call centers for lower salaries than the going rate for American computer geeks, it makes both Indians and Americans better off. Few Americans are computer geeks, but many Americans are computer users who benefit when they pay less for geek services (or the products with which geek services are bundled). Those who want to save the jobs of American computer geeks assume that (a) American computer geeks “deserve” their jobs (but Indians don’t) and (b) American computer geeks “deserve” their jobs at the expense of American consumers.

See also this, and this, and this.

18. Government budget deficits aren’t bad for the reason you think they’re bad.

Government spending is mostly bad (see No. 15) because it results in the misallocation of resources (and it’s inherently inflationary). Government spending — whether it is financed by taxes or borrowing — takes resources from productive uses and applies them to mostly unproductive and counterproductive uses. Government budget deficits are bad in that they reflect that misallocation — though they reflect only a portion of it. Getting hysterical about the government’s budget deficit (and the resulting pile of government debt) is like getting hysterical about a hangnail on an arm that has been amputated.

There’s no particular reason the federal government can’t keep on making the pile of debt bigger — it has been doing so continuously since 1839. As long as there are willing lenders out there, the amount the amount of debt the government can accumulate is virtually unlimited, as long as government spending does not grow to the point that its counterproductive effects bring the economy to its knees.

For more, see this, this, this, and this.

19. Monopoly (absent force, fraud, or government franchise) beats regulation, every time.

Regulators live in a dream world. They believe that they can emulate — and even improve on — the outcomes that would be produced by competitive markets. And that’s precisely where regulation fails: Bureaucratic rules cannot be devised to respond to consumers’ preferences and technological opportunities in the same ways that markets respond to those things. The main purpose of regulation (as even most regulators would admit) is to impose preferred outcomes, regardless of the immense (but mostly hidden) cost of regulation.

There should be a place of honor in regulatory hell for those who pursue “monopolists,” even though the only true monopolies are run by governments or exist with the connivance of governments (think of courts and cable franchises, for example). The opponents of “monopoly” really believe that success is bad. Those who agitate for antitrust actions against successful companies — branding them “monopolistic” — are stuck in a zero-sum view of the economic universe (see No. 13), in which “winners” must be balanced by “losers.” Antitrusters forget (if they ever knew) that (1) successful companies become successful by satisfying consumers; (2) consumers wouldn’t buy the damned stuff if they didn’t think it was worth the price; (3) “immense” profits invite competition (direct and indirect), which benefits consumers; and (4) the kind of innovation and risk-taking that (sometimes) leads to wealth for a few also benefits the many by fueling economic growth.

What about those “immense” monopoly profits? They don’t just disappear into thin air. Monopoly profits (“rent” in economists’ jargon) have to go somewhere, and so they do: into consumption, investment (which fuels economic growth), and taxes (which should make liberals happy). It’s just a question of who gets the money.

But isn’t output restricted, thus making people generally worse off? That may be what you learned in Econ 101, but that’s based on a static model which assumes that there’s a choice between monopoly and competition. I must expand on some of the points I made in the original portion of this commandment:

  • Monopoly (except when it’s gained by force, fraud, or government license) usually is a transitory state of affairs resulting from invention, innovation, and/or entrepreneurial skill.
  • Transitory? Why? Because monopoly profits invite competition — if not directly, then from substitutes.
  • Transitory monopolies arise as part of economic growth. Therefore, such monopolies exist as a “bonus” alongside competitive markets, not as alternatives to them.
  • The prospect of monopoly profits entices more invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship, which fuels more economic growth.

20. Stay tuned to this blog.