social welfare

Economics, the Dismal Quasi-Science: 2. Pitfalls

This is the second entry in what I hope will become a book-length series of posts. That result, if it comes to pass, will amount to an unorthodox economics textbook. Here are the chapters that have been posted to date:

1. What Is Economics?
2. Pitfalls

A person who wants to learn about economics should be forewarned about pernicious tendencies and beliefs — often used unthinkingly and expressed subtly — that lurk in writings and speeches about economics and economic issues. This chapter treats seven such tendencies and beliefs:

  • misuse of probability
  • reductionism
  • nirvana fallacy
  • social welfare
  • romanticizing the state
  • paternalism
  • judging motives instead of results


Probability is seldom invoked in non-technical economics. But when it is, beware of it. A statement about the probability of an event is either (a) a subjective evaluation (“educated” guess) about what is likely to happen or (b) a strict, mathematical statement about the observed frequency of the occurrence of a well-defined random event. I will bet you even money that the first meaning applies in at least six of the next ten times that you read or hear a statement about probability or its cognate “chance,” as in 50-percent chance of rain. And my subjective evaluation is that I have a 90-percent probability of winning the bet.

Let’s take the chance of rain (or snow or sleet, etc.). You may rely heavily on a weather forecaster’s statement about the probability that it will rain today. If the stated probability is high, you may postpone an outing of some kind, or take an umbrella when you leave the house, or wear a water-repellent coat instead of a cloth one, and so on. That’s prudent behavior on your part, even though the weather forecaster’s statement isn’t really probabilistic.

What the weather forecaster is telling you (or relaying to you from the National Weather Service) is a subjective evaluation of the “chance” that it will rain in a given geographic area, based on known conditions (e.g., wind direction, presence of a nearby front, water-vapor imagery). The “chance” may be computed mathematically, but its computation rests on judgments about the occurrence of rain-producing events, such as the speed of a front’s movement and the direction of water-vapor flow. In the end, however, you’re left with only a weather forecaster’s judgment, and it’s up to you to evaluate it and act accordingly.

What about something that involves “harder” numbers, such as the likelihood of winning a lottery (where there’s good information about the number of tickets sold) or casting the deciding vote in an election (where there’s good information about the number of votes that will be cast)? I will continue with the case of voting, which is discussed in chapter 1 as an example of the extent to which economics has spread beyond its former preoccupations with buyers, sellers, and the aggregation of their activities.

An economist named Bryan Caplan has written a lot about voting. For example, he says the following in “Why I Don’t Vote: The Honest Truth” (EconLog, September 13, 2016):

Aren’t we [economists] always advising people to choose their best option, even when their best option is bleak?  Sure, but abstention [from voting] is totally an option.  And while politicians have a clear incentive to ignore we abstainers, only remaining aloof from our polity gives me inner peace.

You could respond, “Inner peace at what price?”  It is only at this point that I invoke the miniscule probability of voter decisiveness.  If I had a 5% chance of tipping an electoral outcome, I might hold my nose, scrupulously compare the leading candidates, and vote for the Lesser Evil.  Indeed, if, like von Stauffenberg, I had a 50/50 shot of saving millions of innocent lives by putting my own in grave danger, I’d consider it.  But I refuse to traumatize myself for a one-in-a-million chance of moderately improving the quality of American governance.  And one-in-a-million is grossly optimistic.

Caplan links to a portion of his lecture notes for a course in the logic of collective action. The notes include this mathematical argument:

III. Calculating the Probability of Decisiveness, I: Mathematics

A. When does a vote matter? At least in most systems, it only matters if it “flips” the outcome of the election.

B. This can only happen if the winner wins by a single vote. In that case, each voter is “decisive”; if one person decided differently, the outcome would change.

C. In all other cases, the voter is not decisive; the outcome would not change if one person decided differently.

D. It is obvious that the probability of casting the decisive vote in a large electorate is extremely small….

H. Now suppose that everyone but yourself votes “for” with probability p – and “against” with probability (1-p).

I. Then from probability theory: caplan-on-voting-probability-of-tie

J. From this formula, we can see that the probability of a tie falls when the number of voters goes up….

K. Intuitively, the more people there are, the less likely one person makes a difference….

IV. Calculating the Probability of Decisiveness, II: Examples

A. What is neat about the above formula is that it allows us to say not just how the probability of decisiveness changes, but how much….

I. Upshot: For virtually any real-world election, the probability of casting the decisive vote is not just small; it is normally infinitesimal. The extreme observation that “You will not affect the outcome of an election by voting” is true for all practical purposes.

J. Even if you were to play around with the formula to increase your estimate a thousand-fold, your estimated answer would remain vanishingly small.

What Caplan and other economists who write in the same vein ignore is the influence of their point of view. It’s self-defeating because it appeals to extremely rationalistic people like Caplan. One aspect of their rationalism is a cold-eyed view of government, namely, that it almost always does more harm than good. That’s a position with which I agree, but it’s a reason to vote rather than abstain. If rationalists like Caplan abstain from voting in large numbers, their abstention may well cause some elections to be won by candidates who favor more government rather than less.

Moreover, Caplan’s argument against voting is really a way of rationalizing his disdain for voting. This is from “Why I Don’t Vote: The Honest Truth”:

My honest answer begins with extreme disgust.  When I look at voters, I see human beings at their hysterical, innumerate worst.  When I look at politicians, I see mendacious, callous bullies.  Yes, some hysterical, innumerate people are more hysterical and innumerate than others.  Yes, some mendacious, callous bullies are more mendacious, callous, and bully-like than others.  But even a bare hint of any of these traits appalls me.  When someone gloats, “Politifact says Trump is pants-on-fire lying 18% of the time, versus just 2% for Hillary,” I don’t want to cheer Hillary.  I want to retreat into my Bubble, where people dutifully speak the truth or stay silent.

Thus demonstrating the confirmation bias in Caplan’s mathematical “proof” of the futility of voting.

Nor is his “proof” really probabilistic. A single event — be it an election, a lottery drawing, of the toss of a fair coin — doesn’t have a probability.  What does it mean to say, for example, that there’s a probability of 0.5 (50 percent) that a tossed coin will come up heads (H), and a probability of 0.5 that it will come up tails (T)? Does such a statement have any bearing on the outcome of a single toss of a coin? No, it doesn’t. The statement is only a shorthand way of saying that in a sufficiently large number of tosses, approximately half will come up H and half will come up T. The result of each toss, however, is a random event — it has no probability. You may have an opinion (or a hunch or a guess) about the outcome of a single coin toss, but it’s only your opinion (hunch, guess). In the end, you have to bet on a discrete outcome.

An election that hasn’t taken place can’t have a probability. There will be opinion polls — a lot of them in the case of a presidential election — but choosing to vote (or not) because of opinion polls can be self-defeating. Take the recent presidential election. Almost all of the polls, including those that forecast the electoral vote as well as the popular vote, had Mrs. Clinton winning over Mr. Trump.

But despite the high “probability” of a victory by Mrs. Clinton, she lost. Why? Because the “ignorant” voters in several swing States turned out in large numbers, while too many pro-Clinton voters evidently didn’t bother to vote. It’s possible that she lost some crucial States because of the abstention of voters who believed the high “probability” that she would win.

The election of 2016 — like every other election — isn’t even close to being something as simple as the toss of a fair coin. And, despite its mathematical precision, a statement about the probability of the next toss of a fair coin is meaningless. It will come up H or it will come up T, but it will not come up 0.5 H or T.


This subject is more important than probability, so I will say far less about it.

Reductionism is the adoption of a theory or method which holds that a complex idea or system can be completely understood in terms of its simpler components. Most reductionists will defend their theory or method by agreeing that it is simple, if not simplistic. But they will nevertheless adhere to that theory or method because it’s “the best we have.” That claim should remind you of the hoary joke about the drunk who searched for his keys under a street light because he could see the ground there, even though he had dropped the keys half a block away.

Caplan’s adherence to the simplistic, mathematical analysis of voting is a good example of reductionism. Why? Because it omits the crucial influence of group behavior. It also omits other reasons for voting (or not). It certainly omits Caplan’s real reason, which is his “extreme disgust” for voters and the candidates from whom they must choose. Finally, it omits the psychic value of voting — its “feel good” effect.

Economists also are guilty of reductionism when they suggest that persons act rationally only when they pursue the maximization of income or wealth. I’ll say more about that when I get to paternalism.


The nirvana fallacy is the logical error of comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealized alternatives. The actual things usually are the “somethings” about which government is supposed to “do something.” The unrealistic, idealized alternatives are the outcomes sought by the proponents of a particular course of government action.

There is also a pervasive nirvana fallacy about government itself. Government — which is a mere collection of fallible, squabbling, power-lusting humans — is too often thought and spoken of as if it were a kind of omniscient, single-minded, benevolent being that can overcome the forces of nature and human nature which give rise, in the first place, to the “something” about which “something must be done.”

Specific examples of the nirvana fallacy will arise in later chapters of this book.


Wouldn’t you like to arrange the world so that everyone is better off? If you would — and I suspect that most people would — you’d have to define “better off.” Happier, healthier, and wealthier make a good starting point. Of course, you’d have to arrange it so that everyone would be happier and healthier and wealthier in the future as well as in the present. That is, for example, you couldn’t arrange greater happiness at the cost of greater wealth, or at the cost of the greater happiness or wealth of those living today or their descendants.

It’s a tall order isn’t it? In fact, it’s an impossibility. (You might even call it a state of nirvana.) In the real world of limited resources, the best that can happen is that a change of some kind (e.g., the invention of an anti-polio vaccine, hybridization to produce healthier and more abundant crops) makes it possible for many people to be better off — but at a price. There is no free lunch. Someone must bear the costs of devising and implementing beneficial changes. In market economies, those costs are borne by the people who reap the benefits because they (the beneficiaries) voluntarily pay for whatever it is that makes their lives better.

Enter government, whose agents decide such things what lines of medical research to fund, and how much to spend on each line of research. A breakthrough in a line of research might be a boon to millions of Americans. But other millions of Americans — many more millions, in fact — won’t benefit from the breakthrough, though a large fraction of them will have funded the underlying research through taxes extracted from them by force. I say by force because tax collections would decline sharply if it weren’t for the credible threat of heavy fines and imprisonment tax collections.

A voluntary exchange results when each of the parties to the exchange believes that he will be better off as a result of the exchange. An honest voluntary exchange — one in which there is no deception or material lack of information — therefore improves the well-being (welfare) of all parties. An involuntary exchange, as in the case of tax-funded medical research, cannot result make all parties better off. No government agent — or economist, pundit, or politician — can look into the minds of millions of people and say that each of them would willingly donate a certain amount of money to fund this or that government program. And yet, that is the presumption which lies behind government spending.

That presumption is the fallacious foundation of cost-benefit analysis undertaken to evaluate government programs. If the “social benefit” of a program is said to equal or exceed its cost, the program is presumably justified because the undertaking of it would cause “social welfare” to increase. But a “social benefit” — like a breakthrough in medical research — is a always a benefit to some persons, while the taxes paid to elicit the benefit are nothing but a burden to other persons, who have their own problems and priorities.

Why doesn’t the good outweigh the bad? Think of it this way: If a bully punches you in the nose, thus deriving much pleasure at your expense, who is to say that the bully’s pleasure outweighs your pain? Do you believe that there’s a third party who is entitled to say that the result of your transaction with the bully is a heightened state of social welfare? Evidently, there are a lot of voters, economists, pundits, and politician who act as if they believe it.


This section is a corollary to the preceding one.

It is a logical and factual error to apply the collective “we” to Americans, except when referring generally to the citizens of the United States. Other instances of “we” (e.g., “we” won World War II, “we” elected Barack Obama) are fatuous and presumptuous. In the first instance, only a small fraction of Americans still living had a hand in the winning of World War II. In the second instance, Barack Obama was elected by amassing the votes of fewer than 25 percent of the number of Americans living in 2008 and 2012. “We the People” — that stirring phrase from the Constitution’s preamble — was never more hollow than it is today.

Further, the logical and factual error supports the unwarranted view that the growth of government somehow reflects a “national will” or consensus of Americans. Thus, appearances to the contrary (e.g., the adoption and expansion of national “social insurance” schemes, the proliferation of cabinet departments, the growth of the administrative state) a sizable fraction of Americans (perhaps a majority) did not want government to grow to its present size and degree of intrusiveness. And a sizable fraction (perhaps a majority) would still prefer that it shrink in both dimensions. In fact, The growth of government is an artifact of formal and informal arrangements that, in effect, flout the wishes of many (most?) Americans. The growth of government was not and is not the will of “we Americans,” “Americans on the whole,” “Americans in the aggregate,” or any other mythical consensus.


Paternalism arises from the same source as “social welfare”; that is, it reflects a presumption that there are some persons who are competent to decide what’s best for other persons. That may be true of parents, but it is most assuredly not true of so-called libertarian paternalists.

Consider an example that’s used to explain libertarian paternalism. Some workers choose “irrationally” — according to libertarian paternalists — when they decline to sign up for an employer’s 401(k) plan. The paternalists characterize the “do not join” option as the default option. In my experience, there is no default option: An employee must make a deliberate choice between joining a 401(k) or not joining it. And if the employee chooses not to join it, he or she must sign a form certifying that choice. That’s not a default, it’s a clear-cut and deliberate choice which reflects the employee’s best judgment, at that time, as to the best way to allocate his or her income. Nor is it an irrevocable choice; it can be revisited annually (or more often under certain circumstances).

But to help employees make the “right” choice, libertarian paternalists would find a way to herd employees into 401(k) plans (perhaps by law). In one variant of this bit of paternalism, an employee is automatically enrolled in a 401(k) and isn’t allowed to opt out for some months, by which time he or she has become used to the idea of being enrolled and declines to opt out.

The underlying notion is that people don’t always choose what’s “best” for themselves. Best according to whom? According to libertarian paternalists, of course, who tend to equate “best” with wealth maximization. They simply disregard or dismiss the truly rational preferences of those who must live with the consequences of their decisions.

Libertarian paternalism incorporates two fallacies. One is what I call the rationality fallacy (a kind of reductionism), the other is the fallacy of central planning.

As for the rationality fallacy, there is simply a lot more to maximizing satisfaction than maximizing wealth. That’s why some couples choose to have a lot of children, when doing so obviously reduces the amount of wealth that they can accumulate. That’s why some persons choose to retire early rather than stay in stressful jobs. Rationality and wealth maximization are two very different things, but a lot of laypersons and too many economists are guilty of equating them.

Nevertheless, many economists do equate rationality and wealth maximization, which leads them to propose schemes for forcing us to act more “rationally.” Such schemes, of course, are nothing more than central planning, dreamt up by self-anointed wise men who seek to impose their preferences on the rest of us. They are, in other words, schemes to maximize that which can’t be maximized: social welfare.


If a person commits what seems to be an altruistic act, that person may seem to sacrifice something (e.g., a life, a fortune) but the “sacrifice” was that person’s choice. An altruistic act serves an end: the satisfaction of one’s personal values — nothing more, nothing less. There is nothing inherent in a supposedly altruistic act that makes it morally superior to profit-seeking, which is usually thought of as the opposite of altruism.

To illustrate my point I resort to the following bits of caricature:

1. Suppose Mother Teresa’s acts of “sacrifice” were born of rebellion against parents who wanted her to take over their business empire. That is, suppose Mother Teresa derived great satisfaction in defying her parents, and it is that which drove her to impoverish herself and suffer many hardships. The more she “suffered” the more her parents suffered and the happier she became.

2. Suppose Bill Gates really wanted to become a male version of Mother Teresa but his grandmother, on her deathbed, said “Billy, I want you to make the world safe from the Apple computer.” So, Billy went out and did that, for his grandmother’s sake, even though he really wanted to be the male Mother Teresa. Then he wound up being immensely wealthy, much to his regret. But Billy obviously put his affection for or fear of his grandmother above his desire to become a male version of Mother Teresa. He satisfied his personal values. And in doing so, he make life better for millions of people, many millions more than were served by Mother Teresa’s efforts. It’s just that Billy’s efforts weren’t heart-rending, and were seemingly motivated by profit-seeking.

Now, tell me, who is the altruist, my fictional Mother Teresa or my fictional Bill Gates? You might now say Bill Gates. I would say neither; each acted in accordance with her and his personal values. One might call the real Mother Teresa altruistic because her actions seem altruistic, in the common meaning of the word. But one can’t say (for sure) why she took those actions. Suppose that the real Mother Teresa acted as she did not only because she wanted to help the poor but also because she sought spiritual satisfaction or salvation. Would that negate her acts? No, her acts would still be her acts, regardless of their motivation. The same goes for the real Bill Gates.

Results matter more than motivations. (“The road to hell,” and all that.) It is arguable that profit-seekers like the real Bill Gates — and the real John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and their ilk — brought more happiness to humankind than did Mother Teresa and others of her ilk.

That insight is at least 240 years old. Adam Smith put it this way in The Wealth of Nations (1776):

By pursuing his own interest [a person] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.

A person who makes a profit makes it by doing something of value for others.

Social Accounting: A Tool of Social Engineering

Steven Landsburg writes about social accounting here and here. In the first-linked post, Landsburg says:

Economic theory tells us that under quite general hypotheses, the private value of an activity is in synch with its social value. If growing an orange makes you a dollar richer, that’s because growing that orange makes the world a dollar richer. And that’s good, because it encourages people to grow all and only those oranges that are (socially) worth growing.

Here’s my version of the “general hypotheses”: People engage in voluntary exchange if it benefits them. The buyers of an orange is willing to pay the grower $1 for the orange because the benefit derived from the orange is worth (at least) $1 to the  buyer. At the same time, the grower is willing to sell oranges for $1 apiece because he expects (at least) to cover his costs if he sells oranges at that price. (His costs include the interest that he could have earned had he put his money into, say, an equally risky corporate bond instead of land, trees, and equipment.)

Now comes the hard part, which Landsburg skips. Does growing an orange and selling it for $1 really make the world a dollar richer? The buyer of the orange is “richer” (i.e., better off) only to the extent that the enjoyment/satisfaction/utility he derives from the orange is greater than the enjoyment/satisfaction/utility that he would have derived from an alternative use of his dollar. The alternatives include giving away the dollar, buying something other than an orange (maybe something less expensive that yields the buyer as much or more enjoyment/satisfaction/utility), and saving the dollar, that is, making it available for investment in, say, an orange grove.

It may be convenient to add the dollar values of final transactions and call the resulting number GDP (or GWP, gross world product). But adding $1 to GDP doesn’t mean that the world (or the U.S.) is $1 richer for it, even in the scenario described by Landsburg. For one thing, there’s no common denominator for enjoyment/satisfaction/utility, which are personal matters. For a second thing, the marginal gain in enjoyment/satisfaction/utility — the difference between first-best (buying an orange for $1) and second-best (e.g., saving $1) — is also a personal matter without a common denominator. (What’s more, there are many scenarios in which the addition of $1 to GDP makes the world poorer; for example: government entices workers into government service by offering above-market compensation, and then has those workers produce economy-stultifying regulations.)

As for the essential meaninglessness of GDP as a measure of anything, I borrow from an old post of mine:

Consider A and B, who discover that, together, they can have more clothing and more food if each specializes: A in the manufacture of clothing, B in the production of food. Through voluntary exchange and bargaining, they find a jointly satisfactory balance of production and consumption. A makes enough clothing to cover himself adequately, to keep some clothing on hand for emergencies, and to trade the balance to B for food. B does likewise with food. Both balance their production and consumption decisions against other considerations (e.g., the desire for leisure).

A and B’s respective decisions and actions are microeconomic; the sum of their decisions, macroeconomic. The microeconomic picture might look like this:

  • A produces 10 units of clothing a week, 5 of which he trades to B for 5 units of food a week, 4 of which he uses each week, and 1 of which he saves for an emergency.
  • B, like A, uses 4 units of clothing each week and saves 1 for an emergency.
  • B produces 10 units of food a week, 5 of which she trades to A for 5 units of clothing a week, 4 of which she consumes each week, and 1 of which she saves for an emergency.
  • A, like B, consumes 4 units of food each week and saves 1 for an emergency.

Given the microeconomic picture, it is trivial to depict the macroeconomic situation:

  • Gross weekly output = 10 units of clothing and 10 units of food
  • Weekly consumption = 8 units of clothing and 8 units of food
  • Weekly saving = 2 units of clothing and 2 units of food

You will note that the macroeconomic metrics add no useful information; they merely summarize the salient facts of A and B’s economic lives — though not the essential facts of their lives, which include (but are far from limited to) the degree of satisfaction that A and B derive from their consumption of food and clothing.

The customary way of getting around the aggregation problem is to sum the dollar values of microeconomic activity. But this simply masks the aggregation problem by assuming that it is possible to add the marginal valuations (i.e., prices) of disparate products and services being bought and sold at disparate moments in time by disparate individuals and firms for disparate purposes. One might as well add two bananas to two apples and call the result four bapples.

The essential problem is that A and B will derive different kinds and amounts of enjoyment from clothing and food, and that those different kinds and amounts of enjoyment cannot be summed in any meaningful way. If meaningful aggregation is impossible for A and B, how can it be possible for an economy that consists of millions of economic actors and an untold variety of goods and services? And how is it possible when technological change yields results such as this?

GDP, in other words, is nothing more than what it seems to be on the surface: an estimate of the dollar value of economic output. It is not a measure of “social welfare” because there is no such thing.

And yet, Landsburg (among many economists) seems to believe that it’s possible to measure “social welfare,” that is, to measure how much “richer” the world is because of voluntary exchange. (I wouldn’t think of accusing Landsburg or any other economist — Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong excepted — of equating government spending and “social welfare.”)

This isn’t a first for Landsburg. About four years ago he wrote this:

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.

Landsburg properly denies the commensurability of the two experiences, and then turns around and declares them commensurate. My comment, at the time:

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).

Prices serve the useful purpose of helping individual persons and firms to move toward maximum utility and maximum profits. (I say “move toward” because the vagaries of life seldom accommodate the attainment of nirvana.) Prices do not — do not — enable the attainment of “efficiency,” that is, the maximization of “social welfare.” They cannot because there is no such thing.

Only a dedicated social engineer could believe that it’s possible to sum degrees of happiness across individuals, or claim that a public project is justified because the costs (imposed on one set of persons) exceed the benefits (enjoyed by a mostly different set of persons).

*     *      *

Related posts:
Socialist Calculation and the Turing Test
Income and Diminishing Marginal Utility
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Utilitarianism, ‘Liberalism,’ and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Case of the Purblind Economist
Enough of ‘Social Welfare’
Macroeconomics and Microeconomics
Social Justice
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
Luck Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy

More about Merit Goods

This is a follow-up to “Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice.” That post was inspired by a post at Austin Frakt’s blog, The Incidental Economist, about which John Goodman had this to say:

Austin, on first reading, I thought you were saying that I (as a taxpayer) should help pay for your daughter’s asthma medication — even though you agree that you can afford to pay for it yourself. Disbelief overcame me, so I read your post a second time. Then I read it a third. Each time, the message was as incomprehensible as on the previous reading.

Is there a persuasive reason why I owe the Frakt household something? If so, it’s not in this post.

Frakt’s response to Goodman:

You owe me nothing. Follow the link to value-based insurance design or find the V-BID center at U Mich. I think you’re looking for trouble where none should exist.

Well, I followed the link, and came away unconvinced that Frakt wants nothing from Goodman or anyone else. Accordingly, I posted this comment (paragraph breaks and emphasis added):

Your post about value-based insurance — to which you refer John Goodman — suggests that by reducing the co-pay on asthma drugs, trips to the ER would be averted, thus reducing the insurance company’s total costs and (possibly) the premiums it must charge its policy holders. If I have that right, it explains your reply to Goodman that “You owe me nothing.” I suspect that what he reacted to — and I would have reacted to similarly — is your assertion that “breathing [is] a merit good, something we all have a right to enjoy.” That assertion is unnecessary to the discussion of value-based insurance. And your use of the term “merit good” strongly suggests that your statement “Asthma medication is exactly the type of health product that should be free, or nearly so, especially for low-income families” is not just a statement about the presumed efficacy of value-based insurance, but advocacy for income redistribution.

In that case, a modified version of Goodman’s reaction is entirely in order, and I subscribe to it: “Is there a persuasive reason why I owe other households something, and what qualifies you (or anyone else) to make that judgment?” The excuse that I might otherwise end up paying for ER services through my taxes or insurance premiums relies on the assumption that ER services are a merit good that ought to be covered by tax subsidies and/or mandated insurance coverage. There is no end to the number of things that can be called merit goods, but calling them merit goods does not disguise the fact that doing so is an excuse for imposing one person’s or group’s preferences and burdens on others.

Those impositions have led to the present state of affairs, in which myriad interest groups pick each others’ pockets — and the pockets of the unfortunate who are not well-represented by an interest group. One truly unfortunate result of that state of affairs — aside from the gross diminution of liberty — is the diversion of resources from uses that would foster greater economic growth and alleviate much of the poverty that provides an excuse, in the first place, for special pleading about merit goods.

Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice

A merit good is said to be something that

an individual or society should have on the basis of some concept of need, rather than ability and willingness to pay…. [T]he concept … lies behind many economic actions by governments…. Examples include the provision of food stamps to support nutrition, the delivery of health services to improve quality of life and reduce morbidity, subsidized housing and arguably education….

Sometimes, merit … goods are simply seen as an extension of the idea of externalities. A merit good may be described as a good that has positive externalities associated with it. Thus, an inoculation against a contagious disease may be seen as a merit good. This is because others who may not now catch the disease from the inoculated person also benefit.

[M]erit … goods can be defined in a different way…. The essence of merit … goods is [has] do with … information failure…. This arises because consumer[s] do not perceive quite how good or bad the good is for them: either they do not have the right information or lack relevant information…. [A]merit good is [a] good that is better for a person than the person … realizes.

Other possible rationales for treating some commodities as merit … goods include public-goods aspects of a commodity…

A merit good, in short, is something that someone believes that the state should cause to be given to certain individuals, as a “positive right,” for various reasons: perceived need, externalities, and market failure among them.

But the “right” to something that is not earned or freely given is not a right, as the term is properly understood. It is an extortion by force or the threat of force, either directly (as in the case of outright theft) or though the coercive power of the state. Only a fool or a dishonest person can say that something obtained through extortion is obtained by right, unless that person believes that the victims of extortion are less deserving — less human — than the intended beneficiaries of extortion.

If a right is anything, it is something that all members of a polity can enjoy equally. If some members of a polity are placed above others through force or the threat of force, then the polity has no system of rights; it has a system of arbitrary privileges, dispensed by the state according to the whims of the faction then in power.

Given that a right must be something that all can enjoy equally, a right can only be negative:

  • the right not to have one’s life taken if one is peaceful toward others
  • the right not to be deprived of liberty if one is peaceful toward others
  • the right to the peaceful enjoyment and use of one’s property in the pursuit of one’s life and livelihood.

These negative rights come down to this: the right to be left alone as one leaves others alone.

If “obligations” accompany the right to be left alone, they do so only in the context of voluntary social (and economic) relationships, wherein acts of kindness and charity flow readily among persons who trust and care for each other and do so, in good part, because they observe the right of others to be left alone. These “obligations” are incurred and honored voluntarily, not because a person or group invested with the power of the state decrees them.

Merit goods (“positive rights”), by contrast, are the products of presumption — judgments about who is “needy” and “deserving” — and they are bestowed on some by coercing others. These coercions extend not only to the seizure of income and wealth but also to denials of employment (e.g., affirmative action), free speech (e.g., campaign-finance “reform”), freedom of contract (e.g., mandatory recognition of unions), freedom of association (e.g., forced admission of certain groups to private organizations), freedom of conscience (e.g., forced participation in abortions), and on and on.

The list of “merit goods” that forms the basis for the many and various forms of state-sponsored coercion may not be infinite, but it is exceedingly long. And its length is limited only by the perverse ingenuity of the seekers of “cosmic justice.” What is cosmic justice? I like this example from Thomas Sowell’s speech, “The Quest for Cosmic Justice“:

A fight in which both boxers observe the Marquis of Queensberry rules would be a fair fight, according to traditional standards of fairness, irrespective of whether the contestants were of equal skill, strength, experience or other factors likely to affect the outcome– and irrespective of whether that outcome was a hard-fought draw or a completely one-sided beating.

This would not, however, be a fair fight within the framework of those seeking “social justice,” if the competing fighters came into the ring with very different prospects of success — especially if these differences were due to factors beyond their control….

In a sense, proponents of “social justice” are unduly modest. What they are seeking to correct are not merely the deficiencies of society, but of the cosmos. What they call social justice encompasses far more than any given society is causally responsible for. Crusaders for social justice seek to correct not merely the sins of man but the oversights of God or the accidents of history. What they are really seeking is a universe tailor-made to their vision of equality. They are seeking cosmic justice.

To be a practitioner of cosmic justice, a person must set himself up as a judge of the merit of other persons, without really possessing more than superficial information about those other persons (e.g., that they are “rich” or “poor” by some standard). As I once said of two founders of modern “liberalism,” T.H. Green and L.T. Hobhouse, they are

accountants of the soul….

…(presumably) intelligent persons who believe that their intelligence enables them to peer into the souls of others, and to raise them up [or put them down] through the blunt instrument that is the state.

This is done on in the service of concepts that do not bear close examination, such as externalities, public goods, market failure, and social justice, social welfare, and positive rights. I will not repeat my asseessments of those concepts, but refer you to some of them instead:

Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
A Short Course in Economics
Social Justice
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Externalities and Statism

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”

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.

Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience

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

The appeal of utilitarianism rests on two mistaken beliefs:

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

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

The notion of a social welfare function arises from John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, which is best captured in the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number” or, more precisely “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” From this facile philosophy grew the patently ludicrous idea that it might be possible to quantify each person’s happiness, sum those values, and arrive at an aggregate measure of total happiness for everyone.

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

How can supposedly rational “liberals” imagine that the benefits accruing to some persons (unionized employees of GM and Chrysler, urban developers, etc.) cancel the losses of other persons (taxpayers, property owners, etc.)? There is no realistic worldview in which A’s greater happiness cancels B’s greater unhappiness; never the twain shall meet.  The only way to “know” that A’s happiness cancels B’s unhappiness is to put oneself in the place of an omniscient deity — to become, in other words, an accountant of the soul.

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

Monopoly: Private Is Better than Public

In this discursive post, I use the economic concept of perfect competition as a starting point from which to defend monopoly and to expose the folly and futility of governmental intervention in markets.


I learned, in the standard microeconomics of my college days, that perfect competition is preferred to these three alternatives:

  • imperfect competition, where there is some degree of product differentiation (real or perceived)
  • oligopoly, where a particular product or service is sold by only a few firms (“product or service” is hereafter called “good,” in keeping with economic jargon)
  • monopoly, where there is only one seller of a particular good.

The theoretical superiority of perfect competition rests on the belief that, compared with the alternatives, it yields the greatest output of goods and, therefore, the greatest degree of satisfaction to consumers; that is, perfect competition maximizes “social welfare.”

The standard analysis has many problems, the most fundamental of which is the observation selection effect. The observer, in this case, is the economist who views the world through the lenses of economic efficiency and “social welfare.”

The construct of economic efficiency involves gross generalizations about economic reality, which are based on ideal firms in an ideal world, not on the behavior of real firms in the messy world of reality. The construct, in other words, sets up an ideal world of perfect competition, divergences from which are judged less than optimal — as if unavoidable, real-world divergences are less valid than the perfections of an imaginary construct. (This is an instance of a Nirvana fallacy, “the logical error of comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealized alternatives.”)

Then there is “social welfare,” which perfect competition is purported to maximize. “Social welfare” is in fact a fictitious device whereby the person who invokes it assumes (implicitly if not explicitly) that the happiness of individuals can be summed, and that he knows just how to do it. The predictable result of “social arithmetic” is a call for some kind of governmental action that effectively redistributes income; for example:

  • Affirmative action, on balance, redistributes income from shareholders, consumers, and more-qualified workers to less-qualified workers.
  • Progressive taxation redistributes income from persons who earn a lot of money (the job-creators of the economy) to persons who earn less money. It also drives out high earners, to the detriment of the rest of us.
  • Trust-busting (which is of particular interest here) amounts to a redistribution of income from the owners of a oligopolistic or monopolistic firm to consumers.

“Social welfare,” in other words, is a phony excuse for playing God — a variant of the Nirvana fallacy. (For more, see this, this, and this.)


Why is it not a good thing for government to act in ways that redistribute income from the owners of firms to consumers? There are several reasons, beginning with the artificiality of perfect competition (or something like it) as a model of how markets ought to be organized.

Then, there is the arrogance of a mindset that judges consumers to be more deserving that the owners of businesses — owners who staked a lot of money (and created jobs) on business ventures that might have gone sour (and often do). Is it possible that trust-busting discourages business (and job) formation? You can bet on it.

Related to that, it is necessary to remember that business owners are humans, too — 160 years of communist-populist-“progressive“-“liberal” rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. Business owners’ desire for profit is no less legitimate than consumers’ desire for low prices. Government is in the business of penalizing oligopolistic and monopolistic business owners not only because economists have set up a false standard (perfect competition or something like it), but also because the act of penalizing appeals to the envy of many voters and interest groups toward persons with legitimately high incomes. Trust-busting is neither logically nor morally admirable.

It is true that not all industries lend themselves to perfect competition or something like it, but it is neither necessary nor desirable to regulate firms in industries that are characterized by oligopoly and monopoly. (pace Paul Krugman). Oligopoly and monopoly are not iron-clad. Consumers have alternatives: If the price of X is “too high” they can (and will) buy more of Y and Z; if the price of X rises a lot, relative to the prices of Y and Z, the producer of X is likely to find himself with a direct competitor. In the alternative, more consumers will abandon X in favor of Y and Z.


What about situations in which there seem to be no ready substitutes for a particular good? Lurking behind this question are fears of private monopolies controlling the supplis of water and medical goods. The case of medical goods is more straightforward, so I will deal with it before considering the supply of water.


The supply of medical goods already is artificially low because of government, not in spite of it. Who licenses doctors and grants the A.M.A. a near-monopoly on the accreditation of medical schools? Who licenses and regulates hospitals? Who approves drugs and licenses pharmacists? The list of questions could go on and on, but the answer is always the same: government.

The average person will react along these lines: “Government has to be involved in the provision of medical goods, otherwise we would be taking our lives in our hands every time we go to a doctor or a hospital, and every time we use a drug.” I respond as follows:

The main effect of government regulation of certain goods (including medical ones) is to raise the cost of those goods by imposing costs on their providers and effectively barring additional providers from setting up shop. This unseen cost means that Americans consumer fewer medical goods than they would if government weren’t imposing costs on providers and barring prospective providers. (There is an argument that Americans, on balance, consume more medical goods than necessary because of Medicare, Medicaid, and tax-exempt, employer-subsidized health insurance. But given those distortions, it is true that regulation raises costs and restricts entry.) Is it possible that the net effect of regulations is to make Americans worse off rather than better off? A good case can be made for that proposition. (See this, this, and this.) The case of medical goods exemplifies Bastiat’s axiom that

a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

Water: The Hardest Case

No Inherent Need for Government Intervention

If the debate about government’s role in medicine evokes much emotion and little reason, any discussion of privatizing the water supply is certain to elicit the rawest of emotions: fear. A typical reaction goes like this: “If government doesn’t provide our water, greedy speculators will corner the market and we’ll all be at their mercy.” It is hard to imagine such a reaction in the 1800s, when a large fraction of the population lived in rural areas, where most water came from privately owned wells or was taken, by private means, from rivers and lakes. Government doesn’t have to provide water, and if it couldn’t stop a you from drilling a well in your backyard (which it can, thanks to its “police power”) many urbanites and suburbanites might be able to supply their own water.

In any event, there is no inherent reason for government to supply water. The simple fact is that “municipal water works” has acquired the totemic status of “public schools.” Both institutions have become so embedded that private alternatives (on a large scale) were unthinkable, until (in the case of public schools) failure became so obvious that it could no longer be ignored. (That the dominant solution to the failure of public schools is to throw more money at them is neither a negation of their failure nor of the widespread perception of failure.)

Scenario 1: “Accidental” Private Monopoly

Given that there is no inherent reason for government to provide water, I begin the analysis of water monopolies with the following hypothetical:

We have with a small, settled community of 25 homes, in which every home has a well (and has had one for generations). It is accepted by all members of the community that each homeowner is the owner of his well; that is, wells are not communal property. Further, every well provides an ample amount of water for such purposes as drinking, bathing, cooking, watering lawns and gardens, washing cars, etc.

Suddenly, because of some unforeseeable geological change, every well but one runs dry. And the owners of the  24 homes without functioning wells (the unlucky 24″) have no immediate or easy recourse to another source of water — a spring, stream, or lake — because there are none within a day’s drive of the community. The only convenient source of water is the 25th  home (“lucky 25”), whose well  seems to provide more than enough water for its owner — enough, in fact, to meet the drinking, bathing, and cooking needs of the “unlucky 24.”

Issues Arising from Scenario 1

How should the “unlucky 24” cope with the near-term problem of obtaining water for drinking, bathing, and cooking? Suppose that they have two practical options:

  • Appeal to “lucky 25” by offering him a price for water that would just cover the cost of providing it (electricity, pump repairs/replacements, etc.).
  • Buy water in large quantities from an out-of-area vendor — at a much higher price than they would offer “lucky 25.”

“Lucky 25,” the accidental water monopolist, has the following options:

  • Accept the offer made by the “unlucky 24.”
  • Make a counter-offer by setting a price that is somewhere between the offer made by the “unlucky 24” and the cost, to them, of buying water from an out-of-area vendor.
  • Refuse to sell water to the “unlucky 24,” for one of the following reasons: (1) It is his right to do so. (2) He doesn’t want to be in the water-selling business, with its attendant distractions. (3) He fears that drawing significantly greater amounts of water from his well will cause it to run dry.

(You should understand that this is a law-abiding community whose residents are respectful of  property rights — unlike the typical government — so that the water monopolist doesn’t have to worry about defending his well and himself against a mob.)

I daresay that the average reader would expect “lucky 25” to accept the offer made by the “unlucky 24.” But why should the accidental water monopolist accept the offer? He might, out of compassion, help the “unlucky 24” while they make other arrangements. But his help would be given out of compassion, not obligation.

The Permissibility of “Good Luck”

Yes, the water monopolist may have been “lucky” with respect to water, but perhaps he has been “unlucky” in other respects. Why, if “luck” determines one’s obligations to others, shouldn’t the water monopolist’s neighbors compensate him for his episodes of “bad luck” — the dog that was hit by a car, the underground stream which provides him ample water but threatens to undermine the foundation of his house, an errant wife, incorrigible children, etc.? Must “good luck” be penalized or paid for, as an act of “social justice”?

The answer is “no.” Anthony de Jasay explains, in “Economic Theories of Social Justice: Risk, Value, and Externality“:

Stripped of rhetoric, an act of social justice (a) deliberately increases the relative share … of the worse-off in total income, and (b) in achieving (a) it redresses part or all of an injustice…. This implies that some people being worse off than others is an injustice and that it must be redressed. However, redress can only be effected at the expense of the better-off; but it is not evident that they have committed the injustice in the first place. Consequently, nor is it clear why the better-off should be under an obligation to redress it….

Since Nature never stops throwing good luck at some and bad luck at others, no sooner are [social] injustices redressed than some people are again better off than others. An economy of voluntary exchanges is inherently inegalitarian…. Striving for social justice, then, turns out to be a ceaseless combat against luck, a striving for the unattainable, sterilized economy that has built-in mechanisms…for offsetting the misdeeds of Nature.

Scenario 2: Deliberate Water Monopoly

Suppose, now, that our water monopolist came by his monopoly in an entirely different way — a way that (to most of us) seems to draw on entrepreneurship, not “luck.” Suppose that he (and he alone) drilled a well for the purpose of selling water to his neighbors, whom (he knows and they know) cannot (and never could) find water under their properties. What should the water monopolist charge his neighbors for water? Just as much as they are willing to pay, of course. Is there anything immoral in that? If there is, why is it not immoral for an auto dealer to sell you a car for just as much as you are willing to pay, even if you need that car in order to earn a living?

Why should the water monopolist (or car dealer or anyone else) be forced by a legalized mob (i.e., government) to sell his product for a prescribed price, when he is the person who took the financial risk of drilling a well, not knowing for certain that he would strike water, at what rate it would flow, how long it would flow at that rate, and whether another source of water might materialize because of unforeseeable geological or climatological changes?

The answer to the question is found in emotion, not reason. Emotionally, we hold water to be more precious than, say, automobiles. Yet, many persons consume a lot of water for what might be called non-essential reasons (e.g., watering lawns, washing cars, filling swimming pools), and many persons need cars in order to earn a living. Water, stripped of its emotional baggage, isn’t a sacred commodity; it is merely a commodity that has different prices in different places.

Which brings us to the essential question: Who should supply water?

Why a Government Monopoly Is Worse

Perhaps government should be in the business of telling everyone what kind of cars they can have (or not have). (Not far-fetched, admittedly.) Well, then, perhaps government should be in the business of telling us whom to marry, how many children to have, where to live, etc., etc., etc. If that’s an unappealing prospect, why step down the slippery slope toward it by allowing government to dictate the price of water, as it does by controlling most of the nation’s water supply through municipal and regional water authorities?

What can government do that entrepreneurs cannot? The answer is nothing, except to set prices for water that are unlikely to correspond to the prices that would be set by voluntary transactions between private sellers and their customers. Government monopolies prohibit entry where entry would be possible, for example, along large rivers and around large lakes.

Government monopolies cannot respond quickly, if at all, to changes in costs and variations in demand. The prices set by government monopolies must therefore result in the subsidization of some consumers who would be willing to pay more for their water by taxpayers and/or other consumers who are paying more than they would pay if there were private, competing suppliers of water.

What about the poor persons who, without subsidization, could not afford water for drinking, bathing, and cooking, unless they were to forgo other necessities (e.g., medical care)? So, the market for water should be monopolized by government and the price of water should be distorted for the sake of a relatively small fraction of the population? It would be better to rely on (a) private charity and (if you insist) (b) tax-funded vouchers for the purchase of water.

Scenario 3: Government vs. Private Pricing

Which leads to the next objection to the privatization of the water supply (which was mostly private for a long time in the United States). It goes like this: “Water monopolists would bleed their customers dry; they would conspire to control the supply of water and charge whatever the market will bear.”

To test those assertions, let us consider the extreme case in which the residents of a mountainous area have only one potential source of water (other than rain), which is a river that flows through the area. Suppose “greedy speculator” buys the land surround the river’s source and dams the river, at a place on his land. (I am  ignoring, for purposes of this post, the state of the law regarding such a practice.) “Greedy speculator” then pays for the installation of water pipes to various of his customers, meters their use of water, and charges them (perhaps at different rates) in such a way as to maximize his profit.

If you have been following along, you will have realized that there’ is no difference between “greedy speculator” and government, where it declares a local monopoly on the supply of water. There is, of course, a degree of (misplaced) trust in government, that is, trust that will “do the right thing,” which means robbing Peter to pay Paul. That trust amounts to nothing more than wishful thinking about government and misconceptions about the benefits of private action, spurred by the prospects of profit.

In the case of water, for example, government may not build enough capacity (to the detriment of consumers), it may build too much capacity (at the expense of taxpayers), or it may fail to keep its system in good repair (to the detriment of consumers). Private, unregulated providers, in the more usual instances where some degree of competition is possible, can respond more quickly than government to rises in demand, are less likely than government to overbuild, and are more likely than government to keep their systems in good repair.

But the provision of water a natural monopoly, is it not? That question (with its the implied answer: “yes”) arises from the belief that there is no room in a market for more than one supplier where an extensive infrastructure must be duplicated (as in the case of water plants and supply pipes). There are market solutions to such seemingly insurmountable problems, although — in the cases of electricity, natural gas, and cable TV — their implementation generally has been botched by regulatory incompetence and intent.

How could there be competition in a market for water? Consider the extreme case of “greedy speculator” who buy the land from which a river rises, and dams the river. If he sets the price of water too high, three things could happen:

  • Some residents self-ration, reducing or eliminating the use of water for such things as watering lawns, washing cars, and filling swimming pools. (Remember, my example involves a “speculator” who is interested in making a reasonable return on a large investment, which requires that he set up shop in place that isn’t destitute.)
  • Some residents leave the area for places where their total cost of living, relative to income, is lower than it becomes after “greedy speculator” sets up shop.
  • Competition arrives in the form of a supplier who hauls water in large tank trucks and installs a water storage tank for each of the homes and businesses that subscribe to his service.

Lo and behold, “greedy speculator” forestalls competition, and perhaps some departures from the area, by setting his price “just high enough.” Is that fair?

Still No Role for Government

Well, ask yourself if it’s fair of government to keep a private individual from earning a profit by providing a product of value to consumers, or to restrict that profit in the “public interest.” Ask yourself if it is fair that such practices on the part of government lead to a general reduction in the willingness of entrepreneurs to establish and expand job- and growth-producing businesses of all kinds. (Remember “that which is not seen.”) Ask yourself if it is fair of government to circumvent the private sector and provide taxpayer-subsidized goods and services to the residents of an area, just because it lacks “good” supplies of water or electricity, or just because it is frequently and predictably devastated by fires, floods, hurricanes, or tornadoes. Ask yourself if it is fair of government to provide taxpayer-funded insurance against predictable natural disasters when private insurers won’t do so — with the result that the areas prone to natural disasters remain heavily inhabited, at taxpayers’ expense.

In other words, private action — however competitive or uncompetitive — alleviates a host of problems. Government action tends to exacerbate those problems, and to create unforeseen (and unseen) ones.


It is written nowhere (but in the imaginations of statists) that government owes us a green lawn, a residence on a flood plain, or anything else but protection from predators, foreign and domestic. As soon as government strays beyond its proper role, it begins to corrupt civil society and its essential mechanisms, which include free markets.

One of the ways in which government strays is to interfere in markets and to provide services that can be and should be provided through markets. Government — at the behest of politicians, bureaucrats, academicians, and meddlers-at-large — interferes in markets and sometimes becomes a provider on the pretext that certain markets (most of them, it seems) are insufficiently competitive or otherwise have “failed” because they fall short of measures of perfection devised by — you guessed it — politicians, bureaucrats, academicians, and meddlers-at-large.

Government intervention in markets exacts a very high price, in liberty and material goods. It strips us of the ability to do for ourselves what we think needs to be done — as opposed to what some politician, other meddler, or “aggrieved” group believes we ought to do or have done to us. It strips us — even the poorest among us — of the means to do for ourselves that which we need to do. It strips us — even the poorest among us — of the fruits of those labors which are permitted to us.  The degree of theft is so vast as to be unimaginable, but unseen and therefore (mostly) unlamented.

The bottom line: Private monopolies are superior to public ones, and should not be persecuted or prosecuted. Government monopolies are for the benefit of politicians, bureaucrats, academicians, meddlers-at-large, and the the majority of citizens who have been conned into believing that government action is preferable to private action.

Inventing “Liberalism”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus are the wages of “liberalism.”

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

Another Perspective on “Social Justice”

Here is a sample of Barry A. Liebling’s “Irreconcilable Differences,” from today’s edition of TCS Daily:

[T]he assumption of the interventionist is that society and the state take precedence over the individual. It is the group that counts and has rights. Thus, interventionists focus their attention on “social justice” which is different from genuine justice. They have antipathy for “unfettered” individual freedom because they realize that when people act according to their own judgement [sic] and preferences the outcome may not be to the interventionist’s liking. Interventionists see wealth redistribution as a key function of government. Money should be taken from those they despise and given to those they favor.

Liebling’s seekers of social justice (interventionists) are what Thomas Sowell calls seekers of cosmic justice — the same thing by different names. For more about cosmic justice and surrounding fallacies, see my post, “Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare.”

The Perils of Europeanism

Charles Murray speaks eloquently in opposition to our Europe-ward drift; for example:

….If we want to know where America as a whole is headed–its destination–we should look to Europe.

Drive through rural Sweden, as I did a few years ago. In every town was a beautiful Lutheran church, freshly painted, on meticulously tended grounds, all subsidized by the Swedish government. And the churches are empty. Including on Sundays. Scandinavia and Western Europe pride themselves on their “child-friendly” policies, providing generous child allowances, free day-care centers, and long maternity leaves. Those same countries have fertility rates far below replacement and plunging marriage rates. Those same countries are ones in which jobs are most carefully protected by government regulation and mandated benefits are most lavish….

I stand in awe of Europe’s past. Which makes Europe’s present all the more dispiriting. And should make its present something that concentrates our minds wonderfully, for every element of the Europe Syndrome is infiltrating American life as well.

We are seeing that infiltration appear most obviously among those who are most openly attached to the European model–namely, America’s social democrats, heavily represented in university faculties and the most fashionable neighborhoods of our great cities. There are a whole lot of them within a couple of metro stops from this hotel. We know from databases such as the General Social Survey that among those who self-identify as liberal or extremely liberal, secularism is close to European levels. Birth rates are close to European levels. Charitable giving is close to European levels. (That’s material that Arthur Brooks has put together.) There is every reason to believe that when Americans embrace the European model, they begin to behave like Europeans.

Europeanism rests on the fallacy of the “free lunch.” The state, which produces nothing, somehow underwrites the benefits listed by Murray — as well as “benefits” like socialized medicine and month-long vacations. All of these supposed benefits must be paid for, of course; the only question is how they will be paid for.

The illusion of free benefits is a disincentive to work: Why work harder when the state will ‘give” you child care, health care, etc.? The cost of those “free” benefits is a disincentive to hiring, business formation, and capital investment, thus penalizing those Europeans who are willing to work and take the business risks that lead to job creation.

Because of these disincentives, most European nations have long experienced low growth and high unemployment. There is even more of that in Europe’s future (and in ours).

Why? Because the “free” benefits enjoyed by Europeans are not free; they come at a high price. And that price will become even less affordable because of the low birth rate among Europeans. The low birth rate means that future European generations (like our own future generations) will find it harder to bear the burden of supporting their elders (whose numbers will rise disproportionately) while paying for their own “free” benefits.

Europeans are able to enjoy “free” benefits, in part, because they are taxed lightly (relative to Americans) for defense; Europe is a free rider on America’s military strength. As our military budget is tapped to pay for our own adventures in Europeanism, the free ride will end for Europeans. They will then have to pay the price of defending themselves from, say, an aggressive Russia or they will have to succumb to Russia’s territorial and economic demands.

Europeanism, in sum, is a prescription for economic stagnation, unrest, demagogic despotism (as the likely response to unrest), and surrender.

Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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