So you want to be a utilitarian?

Here’s how The Economist recently defined wisdom:

The assessors scored participants’ responses on a scale of one to three. This attempted to capture the degree to which they discussed what psychologists consider five crucial aspects of wise reasoning: willingness to seek opportunities to resolve conflict; willingness to search for compromise; recognition of the limits of personal knowledge; awareness that more than one perspective on a problem can exist; and appreciation of the fact that things may get worse before they get better.

This got me thinking about the brilliant stars of the econ blogosphere.  Which ones are wise?  And which ones are merely brilliant?

Tyler Cowen recently linked to a 3 year old interview with Peter Singer that he called one of his “favorite outputs.”  That’s enough recommendation for me.  And indeed the interview was dazzling, but partly in the way that the brilliance of a top NBA team is most obvious when in runs all over a weaker team playing on the road and exhausted from 4 games in 5 nights.  (For those who don’t follow the NBA, playoff games are often “ugly,” as both defenses try really hard.  The athletic greatness of players is often most apparent in regular season games.)

Peter Singer is a brilliant philosopher–one of the world’s best advocates of utilitarianism.  And yet in this exchange Tyler Cowen seemed to play the role of the philosopher, whereas Singer seemed more like the stereotypical economist.  To use another basketball analogy—Singer played the role of the Washington Generals.

See if you share my stereotypes:  Economists are monomaniacally focused on maximizing aggregate utility.  We view the marginal utility of income as declining as income rises, and thus believe that transferring money from the rich to the poor will increase total welfare, unless the disincentives effects of those transfers are too high.  That was pretty much Singer.  Philosophers are wise men who understand that “more than one perspective on a problem can exist.”  They like to play with ideas, probe an issue from many different directions.  That was Tyler Cowen.

The interview addressed a recent book by Singer, where he called for people in affluent countries to give more money to charity, even suggesting some percentages based on income levels.  Tyler started the interview by agreeing with Singer about the value of charity:

Let me first stress: I agree with most of what’s in your book; I think we all could give more and should give more. It would be good for other people and it would be good for ourselves. But let me start off the dialogue by mentioning a few points where I don’t completely agree with you. One thing that struck me about the book was some of the omissions.

Then Tyler started to play around with the implications of utilitarianism.  For instance, what changes would actually most help the poor:

If I ask myself, historically, what has been the most successful anti-poverty program in the last century, I look at Communist China, and I would say that the reforms, starting in the late 1970s, have taken at least 300M-400M people, and probably more, and taken them from extreme poverty, perhaps starvation, to a situation where a lot of them live quite well or at least have some kind of tolerable lower middle class existence. I think that property rights and institutional reforms are the key to fighting poverty. China during that period, the aid it received didn’t matter much. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give aid, I’m all for aid, but isn’t the big leveraged investment here changing and improving institutions and not giving money?

And then there’s this:

For instance, in my view, what is by far the best anti-poverty program, the only one that’s really been shown to work, and that’s what’s called “immigration”. I don’t even see the word “immigration” in your book’s index. So why don’t we spend a lot more resources allowing immigration, supporting immigration, lobbying for immigration? This raises people’s incomes very dramatically, it’s sustainable, for the most part it’s also good for us. Why not make that the centerpiece of an anti-poverty platform?

And this:

You mentioned Paul Collier. I found his book very interesting. One argument he makes–I would say I’m not, myself, convinced but I’m curious to hear what you think–is that we could do the world a great deal of good by selective military interventions. So take the case of Darfur. A large number of people are suffering, dying. Collier says, or implies, or at least opens the possibility, that we, the United States, the UN, whoever, should just move in and in military terms do something about this. It is again a topic that is not prominent in your book, but it seems that if it can work it’s highly leveraged, more leveraged than giving away money. I’m curious as to your views on that.

And this:

Let’s say I’m an 18 year old and I’m in college, and I’ve read your book and I’m more or less convinced by it, and I say to you “well what I’ve decided to do is I’m going to have a career in the cell phone industry because I see that cell phones are revolutionizing Africa and making many people much better off. I’m not going to give a dime to poverty but I’m going to work my hardest to become a millionaire by making cheaper and better cell phones.” What do you say to me? .  .  .  Am I a better person than someone who’s earned $40K/year and every year given 15% of it away to the poor in India?

Tyler also played around with the implications of utilitarianism in a number of clever ways.  In one section he mentioned the option of increasing the tax deduction on charitable contributions, so long as they went to anti-poverty type charities.  Singer agreed, and Tyler responded:

So, in other words, you favor a kind of tax cut as a way to help the world’s poor. That, in this country, if targeted properly, tax policy, in essence cutting the taxes of rich people, is one of the very best ways to help the world’s poor. Would you sign on to that?

He also presented some hypothetical scenarios where human nature seems to conflict with utilitarianism:

What I see in your book is a tendency to say something like “people, whether we like it or not, will be more committed to their own life projects than to giving money to others and we need to work within that constraint”. I think we would both agree with that, but when we get to the deeper human nature, or do you feel it represents a human imperfection? If we could somehow question of “do we in fact like that fact?”, is that a fact you’re comfortable with about human nature? If we could imagine an alternative world, where people were, say, only 30% as committed to their personal projects as are the people we know, say the world is more like, in some ways, an ant colony, people are committed to the greater good of the species. Would that be a positive change in human nature or a negative change?

And this:

Let’s say genetic engineering is possible, which is now not so far off on the major scale, and your daughter were having a daughter, and she asked you “daddy, should I program my daughter so that she’s willing to sell her baby and take the money and send it to Haitians to save ten babies in Haiti”. Would you recommend to her “yes, you should program the genes of your baby so she’s that way”?

I exaggerated a bit at the beginning when I said Singer came across more as the economist.  Tyler did use economic concepts to probe some flaws in Singer’s reasoning:

I’m a big fan of what I call zero overhead giving, that is I send monetary transfers to poor people, maybe I’ve met them on my travels, by Western Union. I don’t follow up, I don’t monitor, there’s no tax deduction, there’s no overhead, it’s just money from me to them. What do you think of that as a way of giving?  .   .   .  Keep in mind, you’re a Preference Utilitarian. That doesn’t mean public goods can’t be more valuable, but the tendency of a Preference Utilitiarian should be to just give people resources and let them do what they want, no?

And marginal analysis:

Let me ask you a question about animal welfare. I have been very influenced by a lot of what you’ve written, but I’m also not a pure vegetarian by any means, and when it comes to morality, for instance, my view is that it’s perfectly fine to eat fish.  .  .   .  My tendency is to think that fish are ruled by a Malthusian model, and being eaten by another fish has to be painful. Maybe it’s over quickly, but having your organs burst as you’re pulled up out of the water is probably also pretty quick. I would again think that in marginal terms it doesn’t matter, but I’m more struck by the fact that it’s not your first instinct to view the question in marginal terms. You view us as active agents and ask “are we behaving in some manner which is moral, and you’re imposing a non-Utilitarian theory on our behavior.

Read the whole thing.  I’ve left out Singer’s responses.  There are certainly not unintelligent, he’s a very bright philosopher.  Yet I was struck by the fact that he didn’t seem to have previously given any thought to many of the issues raised by Tyler.  You might argue that philosophers are concerned with broad principles, not the messy details of implementation.  But Singer is very concerned with the issue of how best to implement utilitarianism.  Tyler’s questions were exactly the sort of thought experiments that philosophers wrestle with all the time.  It also got me wondering about all sorts of side issues:

1.  I’d love to see the American public polled on whether they’d prefer our current foreign aid budget be replaced with an equally costly policy of having military cargo planes fly over rural areas of developing countries, dropping lots of $1 Federal Reserve Notes.  Would Americans view it as a crackpot scheme, likely to put money in the hands of those not truly needy?  Or do they have a cynical view that most foreign aid enriches the corrupt governing elites of developing countries?  I honestly don’t know.

2.  Following up on the “cell phone entrepreneur as utilitarian hero” theme, what about  the recently deceased painter Thomas Kinkade?  (He produced lots of pretty, light-filled paintings that were universally dismissed by those with more sophisticated taste.)  Should the aesthetic elite swallow their pride, and hail him as a hero who brought great joy to the homes of millions of ordinary people?  Are liberal utilitarians both income egalitarians and aesthetic snobs?

There was a recent discussion of “labels” in the blogosphere.  I consider myself to be a utilitarian in much the same way I am a libertarian.  I don’t start out reasoning: “I’m a libertarian, and hence I must believe X.”  Rather I notice that many of my beliefs put me in the libertarian camp.  Similarly, I notice that in most of the disputes pitting utilitarianism with deontological approaches (such as the view that organ sales are disgusting, or taxation is theft) I end up in the utilitarian camp.

It seems to me that most criticism of utilitarianism is flawed in one of two ways:

1.  Some critics will complain that utilitarianism sanctions behavior X, which is obviously morally revolting.  Thus I was quite proud to find out yesterday that Jeremy Bentham wrote a defense of homosexuality at a time when the punishment for sodomy was hanging.  In my view, utilitarianism is the direction of history, the evolution of our moral sensibilities that occurs with greater education and exposure to diversity of lifestyles.  I wish I had Bentham’s courage.

2.  Some critics will take advantage of our lack of imagination; pitting the acute suffering of one person against small benefits to millions.  It’s easier to empathize with the acute suffering, and yet in our everyday life (flu vaccines, driving 65MPH), we often trade off a few lives to make things a bit more comfortable for the rest of us.  An even more egregious example occurs when people say “Suppose horrible situation X result in higher aggregate utility.  Would you favor horrible situation X.”   They usually pick an example that would not in fact increase aggregate utility.  They then try to get you to say you approve of horrible situation X, so that in their blog they can say “Sumner supports horrible situation X, he must be a really bad man.”  But if you ask why X would be so bad, all they can say is “consider the suffering.”  Exactly.

No need to be ashamed to call yourself a utilitarian.  But it doesn’t really answer any questions, it’s merely a label that describes where some people tend to end up.


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216 Responses to “So you want to be a utilitarian?”

  1. Gravatar of JG JG
    15. April 2012 at 09:56

    Disappointed Scott would refer to Singer, an advocate of infanticide, as brilliant.

  2. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    15. April 2012 at 10:02

    ssumner:

    See if you share my stereotypes: Economists are monomaniacally focused on maximizing aggregate utility. We view the marginal utility of income as declining as income rises, and thus believe that transferring money from the rich to the poor will increase total welfare, unless the disincentives effects of those transfers are too high.

    This (fallacious) view is not shared by all economists.

    Some heretical economists know that inter-subjective utility comparisons are impossible. One cannot “add up” individual utilities to arrive at some “aggregate utility.”

    The law of diminishing marginal utility is in fact an individualist concept, not a collectivist concept. It is only to the individual human being that there can be utility, marginal utility, or any other kind of value. The belief that the law of marginal utility is a collectivist concept leads to the mistaken notion that individuals are merely cells serving as centers of pleasure and pain for an allegedly existing “humanity” organism. Only then can anyone possibly believe that a loss of $10,000 to one individual, and a gain of $10,000 to another individual, somehow results in a kind of overall net gain to “humanity.”

    Yes, it is true that to one and the same person, $10,000 would be of higher marginal utility if all he had was $100,000 than if he had $1 million. But it is a non sequitur to then claim that the marginal utility of
    $10,000 to this individual is increased if, when he has $1 million, $10,000 is taken away and given to someone else, who has only $100,000. It is absurd to believe that the 11th $10,000 in the hands of someone else is of greater marginal utility to a person than the one-hundredth $10,000 in his own hands.

    And if it is not the marginal utility to this person, who has the $1 million, that is increased, then there is no valid sense in which marginal utility could be increased by redistribution. It is no satisfaction to someone whose car has been stolen that now it is in the collection of someone who drives it more often and with greater pleasure than he, the owner, would.

    If only folks like Singer applied the law of diminishing marginal utility to charity itself. For every individual, giving to charity has a declining marginal utility of its own, and at some point, the satisfaction of other’s needs is far less than if those needs were one’s own. The good will that one can reasonably feel for others that is founded upon other’s actual or potential success and prosperity, precludes their being a drain upon oneself.

    The need for charity in our world dramatically dwarfs the self-interest of the people providing it. Charity simply cannot be a solution to the problem of worldwide poverty. For one thing, it could never be to the self-interest of anyone to support that many people. Even if they tried, they couldn’t do it. Bill Gates has given away $36 billion (with a b) to charity. It has improved the lives of many, but the need for charity is still very widespread. Western societies have given tens of billions more to charity in Africa, and many researchers have concluded that it hasn’t had an appreciable effect. Some heretical researchers even go so far as saying that it’s made things worse, because of the creation of dependency and thus the removal of the incentive of self-improvement over the long term when the few opportunities to do so arises.

  3. Gravatar of James James
    15. April 2012 at 10:16

    “We view the marginal utility of income as declining as income rises, and thus believe that transferring money from the rich to the poor will increase total welfare, unless the disincentives effects of those transfers are too high.”

    But this doesn’t follow. If my U(.) = ln(wealth/100) and your U(.) is ln(wealth) then a transfer from you to me might lower our aggregate utility even if you start out much wealthier. So you really don’t know that any transfer is making things better or worse.

    Also, and this is more a problem with utilitarian economists than with utilitarian philosophers, but people’s utility is frequently affected by how they receive money as well as how much they receive. For example, I’d much rather get a bargain at an estate sale than get the same bargain at a government auction of items seized from people behind on their taxes. My cash savings might be the same either way and the reality of death and taxes doesn’t change, but my subjective satisfaction does.

    I’m ignoring the problem of interpersonal utility comparisons here for the sake of argument. This is one where utilitarians are so plainly wrong that they’ve given up engaging the issue.

  4. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    15. April 2012 at 10:17

    This is my favorite exchange:

    Cowen: Let’s say genetic engineering is possible, which is now not so far off on the major scale, and your daughter were having a daughter, and she asked you “daddy, should I program my daughter so that she’s willing to sell her baby and take the money and send it to Haitians to save ten babies in Haiti”. Would you recommend to her “yes, you should program the genes of your baby so she’s that way”?

    Singer: So she’s going to sell her baby? What’s going to happen to the baby?

    Cowen: She’s going to sell it to some wealth white couple that’s infertile, they live in the Pacific Northwest, they’ll take fine care of it, she’ll receive $1M and save, say, 30 lives in Haiti. You’ve recommended that your granddaughter be programmed to act this way. Would you recommend that?

    Singer: And so she’s going to be happy with that? She’s not going to suffer as current people would the pangs of separation from their daughter or the agonies of not knowing what’s happened to my daughter? She’s going to feel perfectly comfortable with that, and she’s going to feel good about the fact that she’s helped 30 babies in Haiti to have a decent life? Is that the assumption?

    Cowen: We can do it that way, but keep in mind that even if she’s unhappy that’s outweighed by the 30 Haitian lives which are saved. Either way you want.

    Singer: Right, but you’re asking me and I’m like normal human beings, I haven’t been reprogrammed, so I care about my daughter or my granddaughter, or whoever this is.

    Cowen: Ok, she’ll be happy.

    Singer: Ok, good. Then I think I’m on board with your program.

    Singer just made it clear that he believes that one individual being worse off totally nullifies any policy where such an individual being worse off makes the lives of others better off. Read it again. He says that even if 30 people are benefited, it doesn’t matter. If there is just one person worse off, it is not justified to harm the one person in order to help the 30 other people.

    That completely nullifies any notion of sacrificing the individual to increase “aggregate utility”, or “social welfare.”

  5. Gravatar of Gene Callahan Gene Callahan
    15. April 2012 at 10:22

    “In my view, utilitarianism is the direction of history…”

    And…? In the 1920s, Stalinism was the direction of history in Russia, at least for the next few decades. In 400, the collapse of Western European urban civilization was the direction of history.

    “the evolution of our moral sensibilities”

    Evolution, conceived naturalistically, contains absolutely no directionality. There is no justification whatsoever in modern evolutionary theory for holding that evolution has a direction, and especially not a direction that is getting better.

  6. Gravatar of anonymous anonymous
    15. April 2012 at 10:39

    Thoughtful post. I have a question about foreign aid.

    Should countries that have increasing debt to GDP ratios be spending any money on foreign aid?

    The OECD QWIDS database suggests that in 2011 official development assistance donations were:

    Greece $330m
    Ireland $904m
    Italy $4241m
    Portugal $669m
    Spain $4264m

    Cumulatively, since the introduction of the Euro in 1999, in nominal terms each of these countries have provided around 10 times those annual figures in aid.

    All of these countries have had rising yields on their government debt. None are close to a balanced budget. Is it reasonable to argue that these these countries have issued debt to pay for their donations?

    Is it sensible for current voters, politicians and policy makers to encourage countries which do not have stable government finances to issue debt to pay for aid?

    Many economists have argued that these countries are suffering from shortfalls in aggregate demand. How big would the fiscal multiplier on aid spending in a donor country without independent (offsetting) monetary policy?

    For example, could Spain boost its domestic aggregate demand by 0.3% of GDP by cutting its aid budget?

    Obviously for countries with their own floating currency, and a competent central bank, this argument does not hold.

  7. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    15. April 2012 at 11:05

    My read it that Tyler simply threw the Knowledge Problem back at Singer in a variety of ways, which basically makes utilitarianism so broad it is meaningless.

    Each agent making their own decisions as they see fit = greatest utility

    So a moral society leaves those decisions to each agent, even if in there appear to be short utility gains going another way.

  8. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    15. April 2012 at 11:14

    I’ve already commented on this exchange, here: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2012/04/transcript-of-my-interview-with-peter-singer.html and here: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/02/singer_vs_the_s.html. It’s not exactly the best philosophical debate I’ve ever seen, but I absolutely loved it nonetheless (many people would learn much from it). The best comment on the topic is still this one: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2009/03/my-bloggingheadstv-with-peter-singer-1.html#comments

    BTW, the best part of the vlog:
    Tyler: “Do you think we would have a moral obligation to genetically reprogram people to sell their babies for $1M to help Haitian children?” Peter: [Yes.] Tyler: “What do you think is the biggest problem area in utilitarian moral theory?”
    I found it somewhat funny that the video didn’t get many comments until the second time Tyler posted it.

    Also see this: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2010/10/what-does-a-utilitarian-approach-to-animal-rights-suggest.html

    “Are liberal utilitarians both income egalitarians and aesthetic snobs?” I hope you’re not suggesting that most liberals are utilitarians. If they were, they’d be a lot like Singer, who almost certainly would endorse Kinkade’s work. Indeed, in one memorable TV appearance, Singer tried to persuade the audience that bestiality was not as bad as it was made out to be (with humorous results; my own main objection being that an apparent animal welfarist didn’t think much of the notion of animal consent). So Singer really has internalised the “economist’s perspective” of heterogenous values.

    “we often trade off a few lives…” – You really are a utilitarian, if you don’t think that the manner in which the tradeoff occurs (kill/let die) is of moral significance.

    “But if you ask why X would be so bad…” I think the point of intuitions is that we don’t need to justify them. Then how does intuitionistic reasoning work? Bryan Caplan would be only too happy to explain it all to you (or he’d tell you to read Huemer).

    “it’s merely a label that describes where some people tend to end up.” that sounds more like pop-utilitarianism, rather than a philosophical commitment to a theory subject to falsification. That sort of attitude lacks integrity in my book, for the same reasons as in science – either don’t say your beliefs conform to a theory or man up to the implications: http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com.au/2009/05/cult-of-utilitarians.html

    I would also like to note that there is a difference between “nominal” utilitarianism, of the kind endorsed by Jack Hirschleifer and others (economists thinking about the social good as some function of individual valuations) and “real” utilitarianism, the one that wants to make interpersonal comparisons, and many of whose supporters frequently dishonestly extend the economic concepts of utility in a way that “scientifically proves” that redistribution betters society. That was the sort of view rejected by Robbins and Arrow. I too largely fall into the former category, though even here I find it doesn’t completely contain my ethical perspectives, which are more like those of David Friedman: http://www.cato-unbound.org/2012/04/06/david-d-friedman/natural-rights/

    P.S. no one who reads Yudkowsky would consider Grossmann’s characterization of wisdom to be adequate or even appropriate.
    P.S.S. You’re right MF, Singer contradicts himself. At first he insinuates he’s allowed to transcend his utilitarianism by giving in to compassion even when utilitarianism prescribes otherwise. But later:
    Cowen: If you’re a Utilitarian, isn’t it a little irrational to judge people by their intentions? You’re retreating to this “we”. “We” judge people by their intentions. You’re not willing to say “I do” because that would make you inconsistent. Why not just say “Utility is what matters, I’m a Utilitarian, this person did more for the poor, this person is a better person than the one who gave a lot to charity”. It’s not my personal view, I’m less of a strict Utilitarian, but why not indeed embrace that conclusion rather than distance yourself from it?
    Singer: Because, as a Utilitarian, praise and blame have a function, to encourage people to do good and not to do things that are bad—
    Cowen: –This isn’t social, this is your true view, all things considered, it’s not what you say publicly to incentivise people. It’s the “what you really think” question. Like, all the viewers need to turn off their BloggingHeads TV, and then you can tell me what you really think and then turn it back on again.
    Singer: –but we *are* on BloggingHeads TV, they haven’t turned it off–

  9. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    15. April 2012 at 11:20

    “1. I’d love to see the American public polled on whether they’d prefer our current foreign aid budget be replaced with an equally costly policy of having military cargo planes fly over rural areas of developing countries, dropping lots of $1 Federal Reserve Notes. Would Americans view it as a crackpot scheme, likely to put money in the hands of those not truly needy? Or do they have a cynical view that most foreign aid enriches the corrupt governing elites of developing countries? I honestly don’t know.”–Scott Sumner

    Actually, this is a great plan for America too. Although I would prefer juicing payouts at racetracks, or national lotteries in which winnings exceed losings, and cash is printed up and handed over to the winners (and most winners are in small batches such as $500 and $1000).

    Yes, the American public would rebel against airplane drops, or even lotteries in foreign countries where we give money to winners, bypassing corrupt local officials.

    Sadly, the American public says it is okay to drop bombs on impoverished people, but not money (although there is a chance that money would come back to us and stimulate demand, while a bomb will probably decrease global output and thus our own wealth.

    Never reason from rationality on US foreign policy: It is not about what is in our interests; it is about funneling money into interest groups and bureaucracies associated with wars.

  10. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    15. April 2012 at 11:20

    P.S.S. I presume you’ve already read Bryan Caplan’s critique of your philosophy: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2009/09/utility_isnt_ev.html
    Perhaps your response is as above: “I consider myself to be a utilitarian in much the same way I am a libertarian. I don’t start out reasoning: …”. Again, I consider that as a cop-out.

  11. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    15. April 2012 at 11:21

    BTW, I think the same thing about our domestic policies.

  12. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    15. April 2012 at 11:28

    ” I’d love to see the American public polled on whether they’d prefer our current foreign aid budget be replaced with an equally costly policy of having military cargo planes fly over rural areas of developing countries, dropping lots of $1 Federal Reserve Notes.”

    Judging by the number of supposedly intelligent college students who support “Fair Trade” and food stamps in lieu of simple cash transfers – indeed, judging by Singer’s own reflexive attempt to revise Tyler’s suggestion of transfers in a more “socialist” direction, I think not.

  13. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    15. April 2012 at 11:44

    Considering Cowen’s argument

    “If I ask myself, historically, what has been the most successful anti-poverty program in the last century, I look at Communist China, and I would say that the reforms, starting in the late 1970s, have taken at least 300M-400M people, and probably more, and taken them from extreme poverty, perhaps starvation, to a situation where a lot of them live quite well or at least have some kind of tolerable lower middle class existence. I think that property rights and institutional reforms are the key to fighting poverty. China during that period, the aid it received didn’t matter much. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give aid, I’m all for aid, but isn’t the big leveraged investment here changing and improving institutions and not giving money?”

    The trouble is that you yourself often say China is not a model for us as it is a very poor country that came form a very low level of develooment. China went through a phase since Deng that the other rich capitalist countries went through. I’ll agree with you when you say China is no model for us.

    In response to your comment Scott:

    “I’d love to see the American public polled on whether they’d prefer our current foreign aid budget be replaced with an equally costly policy of having military cargo planes fly over rural areas of developing countries, dropping lots of $1 Federal Reserve Notes. Would Americans view it as a crackpot scheme, likely to put money in the hands of those not truly needy? Or do they have a cynical view that most foreign aid enriches the corrupt governing elites of developing countries? I honestly don’t know.”

    When figuring out the way Americans would answer it it’s important to remember that people often answer polls in differnt ways depending on how you answer it. Americans generally are very ignorant about how much we actually pay in foreign aid.

    On the one hand in polls they idndicate they think we should cut our foreign aid markedly. The problem is that they think we give out about 25% of our budget in aid when it’s 1%. They think we should cut from 25 to 15.

    So you can read it as they want to see us cut our foreign aid by 40% or raise it by 1500%.

    “See if you share my stereotypes: Economists are monomaniacally focused on maximizing aggregate utility. We view the marginal utility of income as declining as income rises, and thus believe that transferring money from the rich to the poor will increase total welfare, unless the disincentives effects of those transfers are too high.”

    I don’t know if wanting to maximize aggregate utility and that decreases at income rises is a stereotype but in any case of that is your view then we share it. If that is not your own view then we differ.

  14. Gravatar of dwb dwb
    15. April 2012 at 11:46

    I’d love to see the American public polled on whether they’d prefer our current foreign aid budget be replaced with an equally costly policy of having military cargo planes fly over rural areas of developing countries, dropping lots of $1 Federal Reserve Notes.

    yeah, but its not just foreign aid: you should include military spending in that equation. Hamas and a lot or terrorist groups pay the families of the bombers substantial sums. Taliban grows and sells Heroin to fund their group. I get confused when i read this- is it about the money, the power, or the religous zealotry. we spent over a trillion on Iraqistan, i can’t help thinking there was a number significantly lower where we could have paid them off, moved right in, built infrastructure capital, and still had 00s of billions left over. would the American public support direct payoffs to admittedly corrupt govts to save lives and money in the long run?

  15. Gravatar of Bonnie Bonnie
    15. April 2012 at 11:52

    “So you want to be a utilitarian?”

    Not exactly. If the meaning of it is taken literally, the maximization of happiness, I already am. I think it is a big mistake, though, to think there is any way for politicians to divine and impose the lowest common denominator of happiness on an entire society, however. In that sense, all that happens is the spreading of misery and financial anxiety. How else do we end up with 30 year-old Georgetown law students whining about having to pay $20 /month for birth control, insisting society must pay for it instead, in addition to all of the other things, like grants and aid for education, as if de facto wards of the state. When, exactly, do these people become productive members of society and pay their fair share? When is there an incentive to do so? My guess is never.

    If utilitarianism sees no limit to what it takes from others, regardless of who ends up being taken from, then my answer to that question is no way.

  16. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    15. April 2012 at 11:52

    Major Freedom – Do you think it is absurd to claim that human beings prefer, e.g., transitioning from a position of $0 to $10 over transitioning from a position of $100 to $110? And, if so, can you explain why you think it so?

  17. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    15. April 2012 at 11:53

    Saturos: “I hope you’re not suggesting that most liberals are utilitarians.” But on reflection, I suppose you probably are:
    http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2009/10/are_conservativ.html
    It seems to me prima facie obvious that most liberals are *not* utilitarians. Utilitarianism is a *rational* perspectivem after all. But most liberals are as irrational on policy as every other voter. And even the academics don’t generally hew to a consistently utilitarian line – again, prima facie obvious to anyone who’s ever spent time with people from an English department.

  18. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    15. April 2012 at 12:01

    Gordon: Think about what you just said. It is absurd. How can you prefer a transition to another transition? Preferences determine transitions – they don’t operate on transitions themselves. A similar fallacy is illustrated here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVp8UGjECt4 (the Snickers bar).

  19. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    15. April 2012 at 12:03

    Thanks for the example, Bonnie. Yet another counterexample to Scott’s position that liberals are generally utilitarian. Fluke seems far more characteristic of your average college-educated liberal (the rest are even more policy-irrational).

  20. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    15. April 2012 at 12:08

    “See if you share my stereotypes: Economists are monomaniacally focused on maximizing aggregate utility. We view the marginal utility of income as declining as income rises, and thus believe that transferring money from the rich to the poor will increase total welfare, unless the disincentives effects of those transfers are too high.”

    Yeah, that’s certainly not what “we” believe, as I’ve said. And I’d say the general stereotype is more that economists believe in Homo Economicus, and are selfish themselves (if you’re willing to risk being sucked into a miasma, see this: http://www.thebigquestions.com/2011/12/19/alas-poor-yoram/)

  21. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    15. April 2012 at 12:14

    Gordon:

    Major Freedom – Do you think it is absurd to claim that human beings prefer, e.g., transitioning from a position of $0 to $10 over transitioning from a position of $100 to $110? And, if so, can you explain why you think it so?

    Human beings don’t prefer transitions between two objects of action. They prefer one object of action over another. In your example, I would say human beings prefer $110 over $10, and $10 over $0, and $110 over $0.

  22. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    15. April 2012 at 12:30

    From http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2010/09/when_are_we_the.html

    “But when asked, “When is it morally permissible for the enemy to kill 3,000 of our civilians?” the consistent utilitarian again has to answer, “If it increases total utility.” And while a handful of hard-core utilitarians will bite that bullet, few Americans would join them. When they’re attacking us, a mere excess of social benefits over social costs isn’t good enough.” Again, I don’t think most liberals would bite the bullet. Would you excuse them, Scott, by saying that they aren’t obliged to accept every conclusion of utilitarianism – just the ones that, you know, they like?

    Liberals are egalitarians. Economists are more pluralistic individualist, and may or may not also be egalitarian. Except for the conservatives who seem to believe that the invisible hand is in fact the hand of God.

  23. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    15. April 2012 at 14:14

    Saturos – OK, I’ve thought about it. (And, thanks for the link; I’ve seen that guy before, and he is pretty funny.) Now, why can’t a person have preferences over transitions? What is it about preference that limits its domain? Suppose Smith says he prefers jumping from cold water to hot water over jumping from hot to cold. That is, he prefers one sort of transition to another one.

  24. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    15. April 2012 at 14:25

    Major Freedom – I’m not sure what a “transition between two objects of action” is, but, as my example to Saturos shows, there can be preferences among transitions.

  25. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    15. April 2012 at 15:36

    Are you kidding me?

    These sorts of fallacies were disposed of generatione ago?

    Is economic knowledge in complete collapse, or what?

    “Economists are monomaniacally focused on maximizing aggregate utility.  We view the marginal utility of income as declining as income rises, and thus believe that transferring money from the rich to the poor will increase total welfare, unless the disincentives effects of those transfers are too high.”

  26. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    15. April 2012 at 15:44

    When I think of the leading moral philosophers of the recent age, Singer’s name does not come to mind ….

  27. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    15. April 2012 at 15:48

    Most Philosophers, like most economists, spend their time playing little games and spinning out little formalism in little cud de sacs created by narrow and pathological castings of formal puzzles — all the better to focus dissertation and publication work and to create easily graded formalisms.

    There is a lot of sterility in this professors little game box.

  28. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    15. April 2012 at 17:27

    Gordon:

    Major Freedom – I’m not sure what a “transition between two objects of action” is

    It means the absurd comparison you are making between two changes between two realities, rather than two alternative goals, two alternative choices, two possible ends that the individual must decide upon in the same reality.

    People aren’t faced with the choice of “Either go from $0 to $10, or go from $100 to $110.” They are at either $0 or $100 initially. They are not in two alternative realities.

    A person who has $0 may prefer to go to $10 versus the alternatives. A person who has $100 may prefer to go to $110 versus the alternatives.

    but, as my example to Saturos shows, there can be preferences among transitions

    No, there cannot. Your example doesn’t show it, it merely insinuates it.

    If you ask me if I prefer going from $0 to $10 less or more than going from $100 to $110, what you are in fact asking is whether I prefer $0 or $100, and also whether I prefer an additional $10 versus the alternatives.

    Your example is like me asking you “Would you rather fly from Boston to New York, or fly from Detroit to LA”, as if I fly not to get anywhere, but just to “fly”. I would say in response: “I prefer going to LA rather than New York, and I cannot have any preference for the mere trip in between two cities because I fly because I intend to go to a desired place.”

  29. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    15. April 2012 at 17:37

    Gordon:

    What is it about preference that limits its domain? Suppose Smith says he prefers jumping from cold water to hot water over jumping from hot to cold. That is, he prefers one sort of transition to another one.

    This is a question of where a person would like to start in addition to where they would like to end. You’re presenting two different starts and two different ends as if they are alternative courses of action. You can’t do that.

    A person can only start hot or cold. They can’t start as both. Given a person is cold, do they want to stay cold or do they want to get hot? Given a person is hot, do they want to stay hot or they want to get cold?

    Given a person has $0, do they prefer $10 or the alternatives? Given a person has $100, do they prefer $110 or the alternatives.

    Asking if a person wants to go from $0 to $10 or $100 to $110 is really asking about two different people, or the same person but at two different times. It’s not an alternative for the same person at a given time, hence its absurdity.

  30. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    15. April 2012 at 18:05

    JG, To say someone is brilliant is not to say I agree with all his policy views. I also think Krugman is brilliant.

    MF, You said;

    “It is absurd to believe that the 11th $10,000 in the hands of someone else is of greater marginal utility to a person than the one-hundredth $10,000 in his own hands.”

    Not only is not not absurd, it’s quite plausible, even quite likely.

    James, I should have said “will quite likely increase welfare.”

    I agree about bargaining.

    Gene, Taking the long view I think utilitarianism is the trend. There are some blips along the way.

    Anonymous, I’m not sure government should do foreign aid at all. But if they should, then I see debt as a separate issue.

    Morgan, You said;

    “So a moral society leaves those decisions to each agent, even if in there appear to be short utility gains going another way.”

    Not just individual decisions, laws also come into play. But clearly utilitarianism will be interpreted differently by different people, depending on how they think the world works.

    Saturos, You asked:

    “I hope you’re not suggesting that most liberals are utilitarians.”

    Yes I am, indeed I have a long paper over at SSRN (“The Great Danes”) which makes that argument.

    As far as the way a person dies, yes that might have significance from a public policy perspective.

    I’ve read some of Bryan Caplan’s criticisms of utilitarianism, but don’t find them persuasive.

    You said;

    “that sounds more like pop-utilitarianism, rather than a philosophical commitment to a theory subject to falsification. That sort of attitude lacks integrity in my book, for the same reasons as in science – either don’t say your beliefs conform to a theory or man up to the implications:”

    1. I’m fine with pop-utilitarianism. If it became more popular we could save lives.

    2. Why should I commit to a rigid methodology like falsification, which is of dubious utility in a field like macroeconomics. (I’m a Rortian on methodology.)

    3. I’m willing to “man up” to any implications of utilitarianism.

    I don’t think Singer is being unreasonable–he admits that he is no saint, and doesn’t always live up to the ideal of utilitarianism. But that’s true of all ethical systems, as far as I can tell. I don’t see many Christians living up to their principles either.

    I don’t understand your last post. People interpret utilitarianism differently. I suppose some people think an attack on the US boosts world aggregate happiness. Most (including me) think that is unlikely. But if it did, I’d support it. I don’t think it would be hard to find Germans who would agree that the 1944 attack on Germany was a “good thing.”

    I’m a egalitarian in the sense that I think each person’s welfare is of equal worth. On the other hand I don’t favor socialism because I think the costs of that system exceed the benefits.

  31. Gravatar of Liberal Roman Liberal Roman
    15. April 2012 at 18:13

    @Morgan,

    “Each agent making their own decisions as they see fit = greatest utility

    So a moral society leaves those decisions to each agent, even if in there appear to be short utility gains going another way.”

    That might be the wisest and most concise thing I’ve read from Morgan.

  32. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    15. April 2012 at 18:26

    Ben, You said;

    “Sadly, the American public says it is okay to drop bombs on impoverished people, but not money (although there is a chance that money would come back to us and stimulate demand, while a bomb will probably decrease global output and thus our own wealth.”

    Good point.

    Saturos, You said;

    “I presume you’ve already read Bryan Caplan’s critique of your philosophy:”

    That wasn’t a critique, it was just Bryan saying he disagreed with me. He’s done much better critiques than that, and I don’t agree with those either. If a policy makes the world a happier place, I’m for it.

    Regarding the money drop, you need to consider that polls show Americans overwhelming opposed to foreign aid, so those “liberal do-gooders” you cite are certainly not typical of American public opinion.

    Mike Sax, You said;

    “The trouble is that you yourself often say China is not a model for us as it is a very poor country”

    You misunderstood Tyler, he wasn’t endorsing the Chinese model, he was saying the Chinese reforms boosted world welfare dramatically, which is certainly true. That doesn’t mean more reforms aren’t needed, they are.

    You said;

    “When figuring out the way Americans would answer it it’s important to remember that people often answer polls in different ways depending on how you answer it.”

    That’s an excellent point, and I made a similar argument in an earlier post. So my poll idea might not work.

    We agree on the decreasing marginal utility of income, but I tend to think disincentive effects are important too–so I’m a moderate on income redistribution.

    dwb, Good point.

    Bonnie, Utilitarians should be pragmatists.

    Greg, You said;

    “There is a lot of sterility in this professors little game box.”

    It seems to me that Tyler was trying to make his game box less sterile.

  33. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    15. April 2012 at 19:21

    This quote from the Economist article seems to have some bearing on a communications problem I ran into earlier today: “America is seen as an individualist society, whereas Japan is quite collectivist. Yet Japanese have higher scores than Americans for the sort of interpersonal wisdom you might think would be useful in an individualistic society”. When I think of ‘capturing wealth’ that is presently not being used, I have to be really careful about context because to say that the individual can be stronger with community wealth capture (isn’t that the ultimate in utilitarian?) immediately sets off alarm bells. One commenter thought I was fascist when I suggested this for education, not realizing I meant entrepreneurial education where people have free choice in what they learn, and from who. Here is the problem – to have such an ultimate choice that empowers the individual, there has to be community cohesion and planning to do so – in other words a paradox I am still trying to learn how to explain.

  34. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    15. April 2012 at 19:22

    Major Freedom: “People aren’t faced with the choice of “Either go from $0 to $10, or go from $100 to $110.” They are at either $0 or $100 initially. They are not in two alternative realities.”

    The question is which *would* a person prefer. It does not matter in the slightest whether the choice is ever presented or not – counterfactuals come up all the time. In any event, I have both a large and a small envelope here on my desk. I am going to flip a coin and, depending on the result, I will either put nothing or a check for $110 in the small envelop. I will also flip a coin to determine whether I put $10 or $100 in the large envelope. Are you claiming that it makes no sense to prefer one of these envelops to the other? The small envelop presents you with the chance of increasing your current wealth by either nothing or $110; the large envelop presents you with the chance of increasing you current wealth by either $10 or $100.

    me: “but, as my example to Saturos shows, there can be preferences among transitions”

    MF: No, there cannot. Your example doesn’t show it, it merely insinuates it.

    “insinuates”? It’s a very simple choice that any person who owns a hot tub can make.

    MF: Your example is like me asking you “Would you rather fly from Boston to New York, or fly from Detroit to LA”, as if I fly not to get anywhere, but just to “fly”. I would say in response: “I prefer going to LA rather than New York, and I cannot have any preference for the mere trip in between two cities because I fly because I intend to go to a desired place.”

    Then you have an impoverished view of preference. As for me, I would rather fly from Detroit to LA than from Boston to NYC.

    MF: “This is a question of where a person would like to start in addition to where they would like to end. You’re presenting two different starts and two different ends as if they are alternative courses of action. You can’t do that.”

    Of course I can, and I have. All you need are two tubs, one of cold water and one of hot.

    MF: “A person can only start hot or cold. They can’t start as both.”

    So what? Nothing in my example requires starting out as both.

  35. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    15. April 2012 at 19:33

    “It seems to me that Tyler was trying to make his game box less sterile.”

    Yes. Tyler really stretched Singer’s envelope.

  36. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    15. April 2012 at 19:38

    ssumner:

    “It is absurd to believe that the 11th $10,000 in the hands of someone else is of greater marginal utility to a person than the one-hundredth $10,000 in his own hands.”

    Not only is not not absurd, it’s quite plausible, even quite likely.

    Haha, Freudian slip with the double not.

    Nah, it’s absurd. It’s why you don’t see anywhere near 100% of the world’s population giving everything they earn that is above a minimum to charity to those poorer than they, even though the principle above would apply to every single person in the world (except the single poorest person in the world of course).

  37. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    15. April 2012 at 20:04

    Gordon:

    Major Freedom: “People aren’t faced with the choice of “Either go from $0 to $10, or go from $100 to $110.” They are at either $0 or $100 initially. They are not in two alternative realities.”

    The question is which *would* a person prefer. It does not matter in the slightest whether the choice is ever presented or not – counterfactuals come up all the time.

    That point was not the premise for why the preference of transitions is absurd.

    In any event, I have both a large and a small envelope here on my desk. I am going to flip a coin and, depending on the result, I will either put nothing or a check for $110 in the small envelop. I will also flip a coin to determine whether I put $10 or $100 in the large envelope. Are you claiming that it makes no sense to prefer one of these envelops to the other?

    This is sloppy. If you want to introduce a new random probability component, then at least get the form of the argument right. If you’re going to compare $0 to $10 and $100 to $110, then you can’t use this coin flipping analogy of choosing between a gamble of $0 or $110 in one envelope and $10 or $100 in the other. For then the entire example changes from choosing one certain transition of starting at different levels of wealth and gaining a certain $10, to an example of choosing one of two envelopes where you are not sure what is in them, where each envelope has a calculated expected value of $55, which is not a description of your original scenario where you choose ending up with either $10 or $110, and you know the outcome.

    The small envelop presents you with the chance of increasing your current wealth by either nothing or $110; the large envelop presents you with the chance of increasing you current wealth by either $10 or $100.

    Yes, the small envelope presents a chance of gaining nothing, but in your original example, you’re guaranteed an additional $10 no matter what choice you make, and you then have to choose between gaining $10 on nothing, or $10 on $100. If we assume wealth maximizer, the obvious choice is $100 to $110 because people end up with more wealth at the end of the day.

    me: “but, as my example to Saturos shows, there can be preferences among transitions”

    But you haven’t shown this. You only kept asserting it and then you used a horribly flawed probability example in an attempt to illustrate it.

    MF: Your example is like me asking you “Would you rather fly from Boston to New York, or fly from Detroit to LA”, as if I fly not to get anywhere, but just to “fly”. I would say in response: “I prefer going to LA rather than New York, and I cannot have any preference for the mere trip in between two cities because I fly because I intend to go to a desired place.”

    Then you have an impoverished view of preference. As for me, I would rather fly from Detroit to LA than from Boston to NYC.

    You haven’t shown how my view of preference is “impoverished.”

    If you say would rather fly from Detroit to LA than Boston to NYC, then what would you prefer: fly to from Boston to LA or Detroit to NYC? Either answer you give will prove me right.

    MF: “This is a question of where a person would like to start in addition to where they would like to end. You’re presenting two different starts and two different ends as if they are alternative courses of action. You can’t do that.”

    Of course I can, and I have. All you need are two tubs, one of cold water and one of hot.

    But then you would be starting from body temperature. So you’re asking whether a person would, given they are at body temperature, go from body to cold then hot, or body to hot then cold. These are not transitions. These are two difference courses of action. They are different ends (ends which consist in a particular temperature trajectory). If people choose between these two, they would not be choosing between two transitions, they would be choosing between two ends.

    MF: “A person can only start hot or cold. They can’t start as both.”

    So what? Nothing in my example requires starting out as both.

    So what? So it means you ignored the fact that if you have a hot tub, then you’re starting at body temperature and are then faced with two different ends, not transitions. The one end consists of cooling down then warming up, the other end consists of warming up then cooling down.

    It’s like me presenting you with a choice of eating a 3 course meal or eating at a buffet, and then you believe there are two transitions, one where you go from relatively satisfied and then to hungry, and the other where you go from being completely stuffed and then to hungry. No, you’re not choosing two transitions, you’re choosing two ends, one eating a 3 course meal and the other eating at a buffet.

  38. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    15. April 2012 at 20:19

    Gordon: You can’t prefer one choice set over another, otherwise the choice sets collapse into choices.

    On a related note, I think the reason why many people get confused into believing that maximizing utility is equivalent to maximizing happiness is because we do choose what makes us most happy – but this is not the same as maximising happiness! If you like, the amount of happiness we receive from a choice corresponds to our economic profit – this is why we don’t necessarily get happier as we get richer.

    MF – you’re confusing 2 different arguments against utilitarianism. Yours is probably the main one (I guarantee Scott wouldn’t be living in the house or driving the car he does if he were *formally* committed to utilitarianism – and neither would Singer). But that doesn’t refute what he said – the fact that you don’t give all your surplus income to Africa doesn’t prove that your *own* first ten thousand isn’t worth more to you than the rest.

    “Regarding the money drop, you need to consider that polls show Americans overwhelming opposed to foreign aid, so those “liberal do-gooders” you cite are certainly not typical of American public opinion.”

    Yeah, that was actually my point. Few people like foreign aid, and of those who do, most all would endorse absurdities like FairTrade than actually give cash – bleeds more, less warm-glow.

  39. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    15. April 2012 at 20:40

    Saturos:

    Yours is probably the main one (I guarantee Scott wouldn’t be living in the house or driving the car he does if he were *formally* committed to utilitarianism – and neither would Singer). But that doesn’t refute what he said – the fact that you don’t give all your surplus income to Africa doesn’t prove that your *own* first ten thousand isn’t worth more to you than the rest.

    You’re confused about what I said and how it pertains to what Sumner said. I am not at all denying that the marginal utility of $10,000 would be greater to the same person if they had $0 rather than $100,000. That’s precisely what I brought up as the crucial point here. I am the one who said that my *own* first ten thousand is worth more to me than the rest.

    My point is that it is non sequitur to claim on the basis of the above that the marginal utility of $10,000 to me is increased if, when I have $1 million, $10,000 is taken away from me and given to someone else, who has only $100,000.

  40. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    15. April 2012 at 20:42

    Saturos:

    Gordon: You can’t prefer one choice set over another, otherwise the choice sets collapse into choices.

    You said in one sentence what I tried to convey in 10.

  41. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    15. April 2012 at 21:11

    Scott:

    “As far as the way a person dies, yes that might have significance from a public policy perspective.”

    What about an individual moral perspective? What would you do in a trolley problem? Or will you cop out of answering because they’re unrealistic (as Caplan does)?

    “Why should I commit to a rigid methodology like falsification, which is of dubious utility in a field like macroeconomics. (I’m a Rortian on methodology.)”

    Terrible choice of words on my part. I should have just said “refutation” (I realised as soon as I hit submit). What I meant was, your theory can’t be infinitely elastic to avoid refutation, like Ptolemy’s.

    “I’m willing to “man up” to any implications of utilitarianism.” So I guess you’re biting the bullet, like Hanson: http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com.au/2007/12/endorsement-for-height-tax.html
    You must not have any tall friends. (Being tall yourself doesn’t count – you could always deduct the tax amount from your previous giving to charity, saying you were already contributing optimally to society already, and it’s only others who need to do more.) I say that because, I don’t think you would be willing to collect that tax from your own friend – against their will (which is the pont of a tax). Indeed, I’ve already wondered how utilitarians manage to make friends with people, when the friend knows he would be thrown off a cliff at the first opportunity to definitely save two other lives. I guess it’s because most utilitarians can get away with the following excuse, and your friends knows you would never use utilitarianism on *them*. (Let’s raise taxes on those *other* guys, who are greedy and/or have more money than they need.)

    “I don’t think Singer is being unreasonable–he admits that he is no saint, and doesn’t always live up to the ideal of utilitarianism. But that’s true of all ethical systems, as far as I can tell.”

    See, this is precisely what I don’t like. You can’t say it’s wrong to keep all your unnecessary income when children are dying, and then go hiking in the Rockies or wherever. You can’t use your theory to deduce coercive prescriptions on others, like 90% tax rates, but when it comes to living up to the prescriptions on yourself you shrug and say, “I’m only human”. Yes of course we don’t always live up to our ideals. But that’s something you can say when someone points out your *past* failings, combined with a promise to do better in the future. You can’t excuse yourself from *ever* having to *try* to follow *most* of your code. (You can’t call yourself an ethical vegetarian and eat steak every Sunday because of human weakness – stop saying you’re a vegetarian then.) And you can’t use that excuse right in the middle of violating your code – right in the act of stealing, or cheating on your wife. And for a utilitarian, you’re *always* in the act, of fulfilling your duty or abandoning it. Every second of every day, *you* could be giving more to charity. That’s why it’s such an absurdly difficult theory to follow – and why many of us oppose those who seek to judge others by its standards.

    You said, “I suppose some people think an attack on the US boosts world aggregate happiness. Most (including me) think that is unlikely. But if it did, I’d support it.”
    I said, “And while a handful of hard-core utilitarians will bite that bullet, few Americans would join them.”

    So perhaps you’re “hardcore”, but I am willing to bet that most liberals are not (in fact the data is probably already out there).

    “I don’t think it would be hard to find Germans who would agree that the 1944 attack on Germany was a “good thing.””
    At the time? No. Of course once a nation has been drowning in its own guilt for decades, you can get it to agree to anything. But if there was another war right now? I don’t think so.

    “I’m a egalitarian in the sense that I think each person’s welfare is of equal worth.”
    Yeah, so do I, actually – though perhaps in a slightly different sense.

  42. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    15. April 2012 at 21:13

    MF:

    Well if that’s what you’re saying, then I don’t see what your argument is against Scott. The utilitarian view is that we redistribute income not to increase our own income, but theirs. Actually that’s not right either – they want to maximize society’s utility. That’s what interpersonal comparison implies – the last dollar of a rich man adds less utility “to society” than the first of a poor man. They ignore the fact that society is not a person and cannot, as such, strictly be said to “have utility”. So whatever numbers you calculate for the marginal utilities of rich and poor men – even if you somehow knew that a bigger number represented a larger “quantity of happiness”, and that happiness is all that matters – this says nothing whatsoever about what is better for society, as society is not a person who chooses values. Of course you could throw in your own assumption that society’s goodness is a linear function of the quantity of happiness – but now this has nothing to do with *utility* per se, indeed you could simply talk about measuring the happinesses in people’s brains without invoking economic concepts like d.m.u., and attempting to aggregate utility functions. Individual utility functions say nothing about *social* utility, since according to the strict logic of utility there is no such thing.

    On a related note, I find it astonishing that a “pragmatist” like Scott (*who has read Wittgenstein*, to boot) could endorse interpersonal comparison of qualia, such as happiness. (The size of the beetles is irrelevant when we “divide through”, remember?) Of course you could argue that Wittgenstein was pragmatic enough to agree that poor people needed money more than rich people (after all he did give most of his own fortune away). Then again, Wittgenstein famously said he was a communist at heart. (Einstein was even worse.) I find it shocking that any intelligent and feeling person could really be a “communist at heart”, as it implies more than perfect equality of outcome – in fact it logically implies subordinating your own values to those of the group – every bit like Cowen’s ants. Don’t think only about the goal, think also what it would *necessarily take* to get there. Otherwise you’re engaging in dream logic, not rational thought. And how can you even wish that everyone had been “born equal” in capacities – surely your allegiance as a humanist should be to those who do exist, not to those you wish had. So if you’re talking about turning the individually free behaviour we see around us into a communistic state-of-affairs – it is cognitive dissonance to ignore the coercion and horror this necessarily implies. Moral: don’t take all your beliefs from any one philosopher.

  43. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    15. April 2012 at 21:13

    P.S. someone please tell me how to get italics on this thing – I’m sick of asterisks!!

  44. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    15. April 2012 at 21:17

    Repost:

    MF, Well if that’s what you’re saying, then I don’t see what your argument is against Scott. The utilitarian view is that we redistribute income not to increase our own *happiness*, but theirs.

  45. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    15. April 2012 at 21:34

    Gordon: The fact that you prefer to jump from puddle A to puddle B over jumping from puddle B to puddle C, says nothing about the value of puddle B versus puddle C (or even C – B). You’re talking about the “happiness from” jumps, rather than the happiness from puddles.

    You’re talking about the utility of transitions, instead of the utility of the objects of transition, which is what the question is.

  46. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    15. April 2012 at 21:38

    Greg Ransom: You’ll be sorry to hear that most intermediate micro classes (such as the one I had) still teach a very “utilitarian” view of utility – it’s so much easier to explain what MU/P means when utility is a cardinal value you see…

    Indeed if we were to start over on the methodology of our discipline, I’d ditch the vestigial philosophical relic term “utility function” and simply call it a “preference function” instead. In fact I wish Hicks had done that when he had the chance.

  47. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    15. April 2012 at 23:16

    Saturos: I believe that with an i in it will do the trick to start italics and a will finish it, as I have done here.

    And yes, ‘preference function’ would have been a better term.

  48. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    15. April 2012 at 23:17

    Saturos; Sorry, html gets more swallowed than I thought. with an i in it and , but without the spaces.

  49. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    15. April 2012 at 23:18

    Damnit: triangular brackets with an i in it to start and the same with a backward slash before the i to finish.

  50. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    16. April 2012 at 01:32

    Excellent article and very good exchange. I was also surprised by Singer not thinking about most Tyler’s arguments before.

    As for the utilitarian/deontological dispute I found the best solution in the philosophy of John Rawls. In my eyes he combines the best in both approaches by stressing the institutions and fairness. And this is what is important and this is why under this construct it is not as impossible to answer questions like if it is moral to sell one’s children or any other argument like “if you want people to pay taxes start with yourself”

    The point here is that the process is more important than the results or absolute norms in original kantian sense. Moral can be viewed as something that is a result of the institutions that were created in a so called “original position”. That is – imagine that you do not know where you will be born. You do not know sex, country, religion, your health condition – nothing. Is there some common set of rules/institutions that you would like to have before you make the choice to come to this world?

    I love this approach because it is both pragmatic and realistic. And it make you think in a process oriented way – let’s have this example about selling your child to rich couple so that you may help somebody else. In my opinion this is not a moral choice under Rawlsian thinking. If you think that helping poor is a moral from original position point of view, I doubt you would imagine a system where some people have to sell their children to meet this goal. The moral thing for you to do is create a system where rich people who can afford to buy those children are to help those poor – no strings attached.

  51. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 02:46

    Testing: Thanks Lorenzo

  52. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 02:54

    Score. By the way, I’m from Oz, too.

    J.V. Dubois: For your sake, I’ll repost this link:
    http://www.cato-unbound.org/2012/04/06/david-d-friedman/natural-rights/

    Scott,
    You said: “If a policy makes the world a happier place, I’m for it.” Bryan would agree that a policy that makes the world happier is good, ceteris paribus. But are you sure happiness is the only thing that matters?

  53. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 02:55

    That came out too spooky. I used the wrong slash.

  54. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 02:56

    Got it.

  55. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    16. April 2012 at 05:22

    Saturos: I do not find critique of Rawlsian philosophy very acute. Especially if he ends the paragraph by invoking intuitive concept of morality that was thoroughly debated by Rawls and against which there are (in my opinion) much better counterarguments and counterexamples opposed to a world where wealth from 1000 utility people cannot be transferred to the one with 99 utility.

    Because basically what the guy is doing is that he refutes Pareto optimality as a tool for assessing policies. Because that is what Rawl’s actually proposes – we do not have to use weak pareto solution as Randians would like to do (it is immoral to redistribute unless everyone agrees) but we may use strong pareto solutions (it is OK to redistribute if everyone is better-off compared to prior solution). So if for Randians any system with redistribution is immoral, Rawls calls for redistribution.

    And I agree with him in a sense that this is as far as it gets from Kantian principles towards being moral intuitive pragmatic. There is still a lot of Kant in his philosophy and these are exactly the examples where it shows. If there is a world where poor people cannot be helped baring immense re-distributive costs, then such world is immoral. Maybe we should look at how to change it so that it becomes moral one?

  56. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    16. April 2012 at 06:31

    Becky, Good point—it takes strong social cohesion for individuals to be free.

    MF, You said;

    “It’s why you don’t see anywhere near 100% of the world’s population giving everything they earn that is above a minimum to charity to those poorer than they, even though the principle above would apply to every single person in the world (except the single poorest person in the world of course).”

    I can think of two alternative explanations:

    1. People are selfish.
    2. People are worried about disincentive effects.

    I’m surprised you were unaware of these possibilities.

    Saturos, You said;

    “Indeed, I’ve already wondered how utilitarians manage to make friends with people, when the friend knows he would be thrown off a cliff at the first opportunity to definitely save two other lives.”

    This is exactly why I find so many “refutations” of utilitarianism to be unconvincing. Other people seem to see utilitarianism very differently from how I see it. Have you ever considered the possibility that the institution of friendship (and its associated characteristics like loyalty) might itself engender happiness?

    As far as public policies—I support any policy REGIME that makes the world a happier place. But one characteristic of a policy regime is that not every decision be made on an ad hoc basic. Indeed it implies that too much government discretion can reduce utility. Hence constitutions are also completely consistent with utilitarianism. For example, people might be happier with a blanket 1st Amendment, then with a system where the government decides whether it wants to censor each and every utterance. This despite the fact that some utterances will lower aggregate utility. I find that most critics of utilitarianism overlook these complexities, and merely attack a straw man.

    You said;

    ““I don’t think it would be hard to find Germans who would agree that the 1944 attack on Germany was a “good thing.””
    At the time? No. Of course once a nation has been drowning in its own guilt for decades, you can get it to agree to anything. But if there was another war right now? I don’t think so.”

    But doesn’t that prove my point? It would not be justifiable to attack Germany right now. So the people who would resent that attack would be right! Indeed it is almost never justifiable to attack a country, hence people have a very good reason for opposing attacks on their country. I think it’s quite interesting that in one of the only cases where an attack was clearly justified, we see liberals stepping up to the plate and admitting that fact.

    As far as hypocrisy, all I can say is every single moral code I know of (except perhaps Ayn Rand) would regard it as better to save starving children than take a vacation in the Rockies–so I don’t understand your point, unless you are criticizing charity.

    I would add that I don’t view giving money as being the be-all-and-end-all of good behavior. First of all, giving money doesn’t always help; it’s surprisingly hard to overcome the disincentives problem. It’s not even clear that Tyler’s technique overcomes that problem. And second, I view other forms of good behavior as being far more important than giving money.

    BTW, It’s perfectly possible to be a utilitarian and still oppose government redistribution. I think it’s quite possible that the price sector (charity) redistributes more effectively than governments.

    JV, I like Rawls’s “behind the veil of ignorance” principle, but not his “maximin” claim, the idea that society should maximize the welfare of the poorest.

    Saturos, You said;

    “You said: “If a policy makes the world a happier place, I’m for it.” Bryan would agree that a policy that makes the world happier is good, ceteris paribus. But are you sure happiness is the only thing that matters?”

    Tell me what else matters, and then tell my why it matters, and then explain why the reason you provide that it matters is not just ‘happiness’ disguised with a different term, such as ‘dignity.’

  57. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    16. April 2012 at 07:19

    Major Freedom: “People aren’t faced with the choice of “Either go from $0 to $10, or go from $100 to $110.” They are at either $0 or $100 initially. They are not in two alternative realities.”

    Gordon: The question is which *would* a person prefer. It does not matter in the slightest whether the choice is ever presented or not – counterfactuals come up all the time.

    MF: “That point was not the premise for why the preference of transitions is absurd.”

    Then what was the point? Why did you write, “They are not in two alternative realities”, if that was not to your point?
    . . .
    MF: “Yes, the small envelope presents a chance of gaining nothing, but in your original example, you’re guaranteed an additional $10 no matter what choice you make, and you then have to choose between gaining $10 on nothing, or $10 on $100. If we assume wealth maximizer, the obvious choice is $100 to $110 because people end up with more wealth at the end of the day.”

    Yes, of course, that is it obvious choice; and since that would prove nothing relevant to marginal utility, that is why I constructed the example the way I did. Now, one step at a time: are you asserting that it is “absurd” or “impossible” to have a preference for one envelop over the other?

    MF: “You haven’t shown how my view of preference is “impoverished.””

    It is impoverished because you deny that there can be preferences over transitions. You have arbitrarily excluded such preferences. But see the hot tub example, round two, below.

    MF: “If you say would rather fly from Detroit to LA than Boston to NYC, then what would you prefer: fly to from Boston to LA or Detroit to NYC? Either answer you give will prove me right.”

    I prefer the “Boston to LA” choice. And the mere fact that I have this preference proves me right.

    MF: “So it means you ignored the fact that if you have a hot tub, then you’re starting at body temperature and are then faced with two different ends, not transitions.”

    OK, since you add a starting point, I’ll add an end point as well. Then we have

    Choice 1: body temp -> hot -> cold -> body temp
    Choice 2: body temp -> cold -> hot -> body temp

    Now the two “end states” are the same. There is nothing “absurd” in a preference for one over the other. In ordinary English, I think a preference for one of these choices over the other is a preference about transitions, hot to cold or cold to hot, but I am not interested in arguing over the definition of “end state” or “transition”. Indeed, this matter is a digression from the matter of marginal utility, prompted only by your (and Saturos’s) overly broad statements about the impossibility of having preferences over transitions.

  58. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    16. April 2012 at 07:21

    Scott: “I like Rawls’s “behind the veil of ignorance” principle, but not his “maximin” claim, the idea that society should maximize the welfare of the poorest.”

    This is interesting, because I struggle with this too. The problem here is that Rawls supports redistribution of social goods (not only wealth) that is supposed to equalize opportunities. That is how I think he defines borders of how much should we redistributre social goods to disadvantaged.

    The problem with this view is that we may arbitrary set where to draw the line. In one extreme we may refute any redistribution on the grounds that behind the veil of ignorance everyone has the same opportunity. And then as we live our life we slowly realize in retrospect who is really the winner. Someone may be born into very advantageous conditions (relatively rich family in developed country) only to find himself with serious health problems that will severely limit his prospects in life. Other may be diligent, talented but with unlucky streak of failures that will change their life dramatically.

    We are back into a very good discussion you, Karl Smitha, Tyler Cowen and others had on deserving poor and on just deserts. In the end if we find that “just deserts” is bogus claim and that it really is disincentive that should bother us, we may reconstruct our maximin principle a little bit. Knowing the realities of human nature (and of our economic system that does not reward morality), we just need to provide a system with goal to mitigate the suffering of people, no matter why they suffer, all the while while trying to maintain disincentive effects on the “reasonable” levels. That is our moral imperative as a whole society (and for individuals to maintain such a society). And I believe that if we have agreement about the process and on the definition of what is just and fair, we may truly focus on inventing “technology” (social norms, institution and law) that will help us in this goal.

    I know that it does not help that much because we can argue all our lives about what “reasonable” truly is, but I think it still helps to have the same framework so that we at least can have any reasonable discussion at all.

  59. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    16. April 2012 at 07:22

    “We agree on the decreasing marginal utility of income, but I tend to think disincentive effects are important too–so I’m a moderate on income redistribution.”

    Ok Scott, to push the point a little bit do your support President Obama’s push to see top income rates back at 39.6%-which is how Bush had structured them originally though now he says they should be permanent-or for that matter Obama’s idea of some kind of Buffett rule?

    The reason why I ask this is both of those measures are mildly tax redsitributionist not dramatic like pusing for the old 90% marginal rate of 1960. As you are for moderate redistribution do either of these Obama proposals work for you?

  60. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    16. April 2012 at 07:45

    Saturos: “You can’t prefer one choice set over another, otherwise the choice sets collapse into choices.”

    My question was, “Why can’t a person have preferences over transitions?” If you are trying to answer that question, then you seem to be implying that having a preference over transitions causes some sort of “collapse”. But, trust me, I can have preferences over choice sets and preferences over objects. Indeed, I can even have preferences over choice sets and objects, although for conceptual clarify I may treat the objects as one-element sets.

    Saturos: “The fact that you prefer to jump from puddle A to puddle B over jumping from puddle B to puddle C,”

    OK, let’s pause here for a moment. So you now grant that we *can* have such preferences? No longer is it “absurd”?

    Saturos(cont.): says nothing about the value of puddle B versus puddle C (or even C – B).”

    You’re talking about the “happiness from” jumps, rather than the happiness from puddles.

    You’re talking about the utility of transitions, instead of the utility of the objects of transition, which is what the question is.”

    Why is that “the question”? *I* started with a question for MF. You (and he) replied by suggesting that my question had an absurd implication. Now, you, at least, seem to have withdrawn that claim. So, having cleared the brush away, which do you prefer: the transition “$0 -> $10″ or the transition “$100 -> $110″?

  61. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    16. April 2012 at 07:47

    Mike: I do not want to speak for Scott, but as far as I know he prefers consumption tax or pure wage tax (with possibly some tax on luxury veblen goods) to any form of income tax (especially tax on capital gains). And I have to say that I am fairly convinced.
    .
    If you combine VAT together with either tax return for the poorest you can have fairly progressive tax system with much less DWL than using current US tax system.

  62. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    16. April 2012 at 08:13

    Mike, when you talk about tax rates to conservatives, you’d get A LOT farther if you spoke about ALL OF IT.

    Meaning:

    income, state, local, medicare, ss, property, etc. Before you start chattering about capital gains, just think in terms of how much of a guys yearly income does he keep?

    Because once that total amount taken from him pushes past 50%, you are basically into heads on pikes territory.

  63. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    16. April 2012 at 08:34

    On Rawls minimax, this is what he meant when i asked him…

    http://twitpic.com/18krwv

    The point was that we are not imagining America vs. hypothetical America

    We are actually comparing Society A to Society B, showing this graph to poor people and asking which one they want to live in.

    SHow it to real poor people, and they all choose correctly immediately.

    The FUNNY thing is if you show this graph to liberals thy struggle mightly to say Society A is fairest.

    Even if you keep repeating the question and pointing to your bar napkin showing them the graph, they don’t just compare the poor in each society.

    Liberals freak out because they don’t ACTUALLY care about the poor, what they HATE is the distance between themselves and the guys at the top.

    Someone making $70K a year who is STILL talking about income inequality, they really just want to pull Bill Gates down and beat him, they can’t say that, so they talk about the poor.

    Rawls did his work to shut them up.

  64. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 08:41

    ssumner:

    MF, You said;

    “It’s why you don’t see anywhere near 100% of the world’s population giving everything they earn that is above a minimum to charity to those poorer than they, even though the principle above would apply to every single person in the world (except the single poorest person in the world of course).”

    I can think of two alternative explanations:

    1. People are selfish.

    2. People are worried about disincentive effects.

    I’m surprised you were unaware of these possibilities.

    I wasn’t unaware of those possibilities. It is precisely the first possibility that goes against your conjecture that “it is plausible, even likely” that the 11th $10,000 in the hands of someone else is of greater marginal utility to a person than the one-hundredth $10,000 in his own hands!

  65. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    16. April 2012 at 08:59

    Morgan scott had said he agrees with at least moderate tax redistribution. As you seem not to you can’t really answer for him.

    I wasn’t arguing on taking more than 50%. Again Scott believes in some restribution. You don’t seem to believe in any. So you can’t really answer the qustion.

    Dubois wage taxes and consumption taxes are not progressive. If you believe in the declining marginal utility of income then consumption taxes would seem the wrong way to go. Why-because the nonrich spend a much higher proportion of their income on consumption.

  66. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    16. April 2012 at 09:01

    Morgan-I should say that I wasn’t talking about raising the top rate over 50% but rather simply to 39.6% which is how Bush originally constructed his tax cuts.

  67. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    16. April 2012 at 09:12

    Morgan you said, “Someone making $70K a year who is STILL talking about income inequality, they really just want to pull Bill Gates down and beat him, they can’t say that, so they talk about the poor”

    How do you explain that Bill Gates himself says the rich should pay more taxes as does Warren Buffett? Who are they trying to pull down and beat?

    You seem to assume that everybody’s views are related to being most economicaly advantageous to themselves when in reality many liberals are rich and yet argue for redstribution.

  68. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 09:15

    Mike Sax:

    If a person believes that “some” wealth redistribution is desirable, then they would have to admit that “some” thieves are desirable, for thieves engage in wealth redistribution.

    What do you recommend the theft victims do in response? Worship the notion that “some” redistribution as sacred and not to be questioned or criticized, and thus stand back while the thieves do their holy work?

    I wonder how many redistributionists would be OK with me coming over to their house, steal “some” stuff, then sell it for cash, and then donate the cash to schools for blind children.

    Or better yet, since outright theft tends to get rather messy, especially when dealing with greedy and selfish sticklers, I wonder how many inflationist redistributionists would be OK with me printing only “some” toilet paper money in my basement, then giving that money to various economics departments around the country, after which the sheep statisticians will look at the stars to come up with sophisticated models with which to pull the wool over the people’s eyes in order to trick them into believing that if I didn’t print toilet paper money in my basement, then everyone else would be worse off. Oh wait…that’s already been done, ergo this blog.

  69. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 09:22

    Gordon: So you would rather be impoverished and then find $1000 on the ground, than find $5000 on the ground today. Okay. That still says nothing about whether the $1000 is worth more to you than the $5000 – much less whether it is worth “more to someone else than the $5000 is to you”.

  70. Gravatar of D R D R
    16. April 2012 at 09:26

    “Liberals freak out because they don’t ACTUALLY care about the poor, what they HATE is the distance between themselves and the guys at the top.”

    Yeah, particularly when the government sets up the guys at the top to make a even more, and set up the guys at the bottom to make even less.

  71. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    16. April 2012 at 09:43

    Mike: “Dubois wage taxes and consumption taxes are not progressive”

    I know, that is why I used “tax return” (I also wanted to add “negative tax”). So basically, if you have a system with consumption only tax that is distributed to the poorest or which is used to give everybody basic flat subsidy it is a fairly progressive system.

  72. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 10:03

    Gordon: “which do you prefer: the transition “$0 -> $10″ or the transition “$100 -> $110″?”

    I don’t have preferences over transitions, though you might.

    “So you now grant that we *can* have such preferences? No longer is it “absurd””

    What’s absurd is that you prefer a choice set over another choice set. You do no such thing; unless your preference is for the act of choosing itself. Preferences operate on objects, not on sets. Preferences are exercised as choices between alternatives in a set; you can’t prefer one subset to another. Your preference cannot be for a set of choices, as you haven’t then chosen anything. You could label one of the alternatives “the act of choosing between A and B” and another alternative “the act of choosing between alternative C and D” – but now those aren’t sets; they are objects.

    “Would you prefer to have a choice between a Snickers and nothing, or a Snickers and another Snickers” is an absurd question. Sure, you might prefer the second “act of choosing” to the first – perhaps because comparing identical objects is what exercises you – but that doesn’t mean the second set of choices is better for you than the first, or that the second outcome is better (yet another proposition). You can’t have a preference over a set of choices, because if it’s a set of choices then you can only choose one of them. You could say you preferred one “act of choosing” to another, but this would be separate from any elements in the choice sets or groups thereof. A preference for one leap over another is not a preference for any sets of puddles.
    You can’t talk about statements about “the value of transitioning” from one income level to another as though they were statements about the values of dollars or income levels. To make a choice is to select an element out of a set.

  73. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 10:05

    Gordon:

    Why is that “the question”? *I* started with a question for MF. You (and he) replied by suggesting that my question had an absurd implication. Now, you, at least, seem to have withdrawn that claim. So, having cleared the brush away, which do you prefer: the transition “$0 -> $10″ or the transition “$100 -> $110″?

    These are not transitions. There are two different ends with two different initial starting points. Since even initial starting points are the product of prior ends, you have to ask if a person would rather have (the end of) $100 or (the end of) $0, and then ask if they would rather have $110 or the alternatives.

    It’s still absurd, because the choice isn’t “going from” one sum of money to another. It’s having one sum of money to another.

    I prefer to end up with owning $110, so I prefer “$100 to $110″ over “$0 to $10.” I would prefer “$100 to $110″ over ANY alternative that nets me less than $110 cash. I would prefer it over “$100 million to $109.99″. I would prefer it to “$0 to $109.99″. I would prefer it to “$1000000 trillion to $109.99″.

    I would prefer $110 as an END over all other ENDS that are less than $110 cash.

    I hope this makes it finally clear to you why believing one can prefer one transition over another is absurd, and that the crucial point is the outcome, the object of economic action, the owned CASH in your example.

  74. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 10:08

    I wasn’t unaware of those possibilities. It is precisely the first possibility that goes against your conjecture that “it is plausible, even likely” that the 11th $10,000 in the hands of someone else is of greater marginal utility to a person than the one-hundredth $10,000 in his own hands!

    Now you’re not making any sense. How does selfishness make it unlikely that dollars provide more utility to a poor man than to a rich man? My objection is with the notion that utility is a “thing” that gets “provided”, in any more than a figurative sense. But selfishness has nothing to do with that.

  75. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 10:09

    It should go without saying that I am assuming no inflation/deflation when I say I prefer $110 to all other ends that are less than $110. If we introduce inflation/deflation, then I would prefer $109.99 over $110, if prices fell further than one cent with the $109.99 alternative.

  76. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 10:11

    Saturos:

    “I wasn’t unaware of those possibilities. It is precisely the first possibility that goes against your conjecture that “it is plausible, even likely” that the 11th $10,000 in the hands of someone else is of greater marginal utility to a person than the one-hundredth $10,000 in his own hands!”

    How does selfishness make it unlikely that dollars provide more utility to a poor man than to a rich man? My objection is with the notion that utility is a “thing” that gets “provided”, in any more than a figurative sense. But selfishness has nothing to do with that.

    Saturos, you’re not reading the scenario correctly. It’s the same person. It’s not comparing a rich man and a poor man. It’s comparing the same person’s utility for two different outcomes.

  77. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 10:16

    which do you prefer: the transition “$0 -> $10″ or the transition “$100 -> $110″

    The latter, because then I get to keep $110 instead of $10. Unless you’re talking about the experience of making those choices. But that has nothing to do with the values of the specified choices or sets of choices.

    Graphically, I cannot compare {0,10} with (100,110}. I can compare 0 -> 10 with 100 -> 110; but then what I’m comparing is the value to me of those arrows (circle the arrows and put them in a choice set of their own) and not the values of the numbers or sets thereof. It says nothing about the relative utility of different amounts of dollars – except what we already know, that 110 > 10.

  78. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 10:21

    MF, oh, I get it now. Scott is saying that it is plausible and likely that a millionaire would prefer to give away ten thousand dollars to someone who has only 100 000. Yes, selfishness makes that less likely. I am halfway between you two – I think it’s plausible a millionaire would do that, though not likely (if he was going to donate, he’d give to someone poorer).

  79. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    16. April 2012 at 10:23

    Major I don’t know why you’re using your hilarious theatrics on me, Scott had said he supports some level of income redistribution.

    Did you not read the post? Why then address this overheated talk about “theft” to me?

    Very well. When you say:

    “If a person believes that “some” wealth redistribution is desirable, then they would have to admit that “some” thieves are desirable, for thieves engage in wealth redistribution.”

    “What do you recommend the theft victims do in response? Worship the notion that “some” redistribution as sacred and not to be questioned or criticized, and thus stand back while the thieves do their holy work?”

    The trouble with such hyerbole is that agree that all taxes are theft like some wild eyed libertarian. Neither evidently does Scott.

    Consumption taxes aer also redistrbutionist but from poor to rich. Do you worry abvout “theft” in this case, did you approve of Herman Cain’s huge tax hikes oni the middle class and the poor?

    How about the student lenders that we discussed recently-do you have a problem of the subsidies that they receive or the oil companies recieve in their subsidies?

    I imagiine you don’t and this is because you aren’t against “theft” as such but support those policies that benefit the ricn and the corporations at the expense of the middle class and the poor.

  80. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 10:23

    If millionaires only had 100 000 aires to give to, then they probably wouldn’t usually give, unless they were friends or related.

  81. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    16. April 2012 at 10:25

    I should say MF I don’t agree that all tax is theft. Which is why your argument doesn’t work for me.

  82. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 10:26

    Gordon:

    The core reason myself and Saturos are antagonistic towards your arguments on preferences between transitions, is probably due to a core philosophical difference in how we view human action. Personally, I view human action as ends oriented. Means and ends so to speak. This is the Humean, Misesian, Weberian conception of human behavior. You seem to adhere to a form of Deweyism, where human behavior does not have any ends per se, just a series of means that are themselves ends, as in a continual path, a “journey”. I am almsot certain that at some point in your life, you’ve heard of the saying “It’s the journey that matters, not the goal.” Perhaps you took that saying to heart, and it is now, intentionally or unintentionally, guiding your thoughts.

    You’re probably thinking “What’s the big deal here? I am thinking in my mind that it makes sense to say I’d rather choose this path to that path, that I’d rather go from this starting point to this ending point, rather than that starting point to that ending point. What’s so absurd about that?!?”

    I get what you’re trying to say, but my philosophy is not about the journey, it’s about the ends. If you ask me if I’d rather go from $0 to $10, or $100 to $110, then while you are interpreting this as choosing between two different transitions, I am interpreting it as two different ends. I don’t care what the transition of money holding is, because the important thing is the final end. I choose $100 to $110 because I end up with $110. I don’t choose $100 to $110 because of the transition in cash amounts.

  83. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 10:27

    Consumption taxes aer also redistrbutionist but from poor to rich. Do you worry abvout “theft” in this case, did you approve of Herman Cain’s huge tax hikes oni the middle class and the poor?

    No they’re not, they are simply less progressive. Even if they were regressive (instead of a proportional flat tax like Cain proposed) that would still have rich people paying higher absolute amounts. So it’s simply a question of the poor receiving less redistribution than they used to.

    I imagiine you don’t and this is because you aren’t against “theft” as such but support those policies that benefit the ricn and the corporations at the expense of the middle class and the poor.

    Mike, I really don’t think he does.

  84. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 10:30

    Mike Sax:

    I should say MF I don’t agree that all tax is theft. Which is why your argument doesn’t work for me.

    Interesting, because I actually didn’t say taxation is theft. I merely said that if one favors some wealth redistribution, then it follows one ought to favor theft, since thieves redistribute wealth.

    What does that mean “not all” taxation is theft? Does that mean taxation is split into two categories, theft and not theft? What exactly distinguishes the two? Who exactly are victimized by theft when they are taxed, and who exactly are not victimized by theft when they are taxed?

  85. Gravatar of Tony N Tony N
    16. April 2012 at 10:31

    Although it makes for a fun debate, I think DMU is a weak vehicle for pro-utilitarianism arguments. I find, in most contexts, diminished marginal utility arguments overlook the fact that diminished utility can be, in and of itself, a very important utility.

  86. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 10:31

    “I don’t agree that all tax is theft”

    That’s only defensible if you believe
    a) we already owe the government money from birth, despite not having voluntarily contracted with them; or
    b) property doesn’t really belong to anyone

    Otherwise, all tax is theft. How much of that theft is acceptable is a separate question…

  87. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 10:33

    “I merely said that if one favors some wealth redistribution, then it follows one ought to favor theft, since thieves redistribute wealth.”

    Not necessarily, since thieves are unaccountable redistributors, whereas democracies (supposedly) are.

  88. Gravatar of D R D R
    16. April 2012 at 10:38

    “Interesting, because I actually didn’t say taxation is theft. I merely said that if one favors some wealth redistribution, then it follows one ought to favor theft, since thieves redistribute wealth.”

    LOGIC FAIL.

    If I favor chocolate ice cream (some kind of iced dessert), then I ought to favor mango sorbet (another kind of iced dessert)?

  89. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    16. April 2012 at 10:43

    Sautoros:

    “That’s only defensible if you believe
    a) we already owe the government money from birth, despite not having voluntarily contracted with them; or
    b) property doesn’t really belong to anyone

    I don’t acutaly think either exactly. I mean I think b is a complicated one.

    What I get is you think somehow the amount of wealth we’re “born with” somehow is just, when let’s face it that’s pure dumb luck to be born to rich rather than poor parents.

    I don’t agree that how much each person’s total wealth is, is wholly an outcome of justice itself. A good deal of private wealth is obtained by theft or at least in ethically questionable ways.

    Redstributing it some I don’t see as a crime. I do also see thevery govenment has had some kind of taxes. So while MF doesn’t like “hostricist” arguments I do find that interesting.

    While I know some libertarians claim that government is thefit some Marxists believe all private property is theft. I for my part think that neither is totally but it’s a complicate mess picture.

  90. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 10:43

    Actually, it was a failure of expression. It depends whether the word some meant in quantity or in kind. Some quantity of any kind or some kinds in any quantity. 2 different things.

  91. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    16. April 2012 at 10:46

    “Interesting, because I actually didn’t say taxation is theft. I merely said that if one favors some wealth redistribution, then it follows one ought to favor theft, since thieves redistribute wealth.”

    MF that is a simple logical fallacy. If I support redistirbution I have to favor all forms? Really you are claiing that redistrubition is theft and got to admit you’re wrong on that one.

  92. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 10:47

    Mike,

    What I think is that justice and morality have little to do with what people have, or are born with, and everything to do with what people do to each other, and how they treat each other.

    “Marxists believe all private property is theft.”
    Actually they don’t, because to call it theft is to imply that the institution of property is somehow real (robbing the rightful owner). Marxists believe that property is the social construction of the dominant classes.

  93. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 10:47

    Mike Sax:

    Major I don’t know why you’re using your hilarious theatrics on me, Scott had said he supports some level of income redistribution.

    I actually wasn’t using any “theatrics” on you personally. I just used your post as an opportunity to say what I wanted to say.

    That’s why I prefaced it with “If a person believes”, rather than “Since you Mike Sax believe”.

    Did you not read the post? Why then address this overheated talk about “theft” to me?

    Because you said Scott favors some redistribution, so I addressed you. It could have been anyone.

    Very well. When you say:

    “If a person believes that “some” wealth redistribution is desirable, then they would have to admit that “some” thieves are desirable, for thieves engage in wealth redistribution.”

    “What do you recommend the theft victims do in response? Worship the notion that “some” redistribution as sacred and not to be questioned or criticized, and thus stand back while the thieves do their holy work?”

    The trouble with such hyerbole is that agree that all taxes are theft like some wild eyed libertarian. Neither evidently does Scott.

    I didn’t actually say all taxes were theft. Read it again.

    You’re clearly avoiding the question, and now that I see you avoiding it, you’ve pretty much verified why my statements should be addressed to you.

    Consumption taxes aer also redistrbutionist but from poor to rich. Do you worry abvout “theft” in this case, did you approve of Herman Cain’s huge tax hikes oni the middle class and the poor?

    Except that isn’t true. Rich people consume more than poor people, and so a tax on consumption is actually more against the rich’s interests than to the poor’s interests.

    Poor people consume less, so they pay less consumption taxes.

    If rich people are paying more consumption taxes, and poor people are paying less consumption taxes, the redistribution direction is going from rich to poor, not poor to rich.

    How about the student lenders that we discussed recently-do you have a problem of the subsidies that they receive or the oil companies recieve in their subsidies?

    So wait, you’re OK with wealth redistribution, as long as the direction is only rich to poor? You’re trying to goad me into defending redistribution myself, when I am against anyone taking my wealth against my consent regardless if I’m rich or poor, and regardless if they’re poor or rich.

    I do have a problem when my wealth is taken from me, for any reason other than my own choice and power.

    I imagiine you don’t and this is because you aren’t against “theft” as such but support those policies that benefit the ricn and the corporations at the expense of the middle class and the poor.

    Ah, see that? You are in favor of redistribution, but only in the holy direction of rich to poor. If anyone criticizes that religion, then you won’t even address the actual arguments, but instead you try to paint them as a worshiper of unholy redistribution, namely from poor to rich. That way, you can pretend to have won the war over morality.

    How quaint.

    Since I am not in favor of anyone taking my wealth against my consent, regardless if I’m rich or poor, and regardless if they’re poor or rich, it means you can’t accuse me of being in favor of any wealth redistribution, including the unholy redistribution of poor to rich.

    Now, will you finally address my argument on the logical necessity of anyone who supports wealth redistribution to support some thievery, since thieves redistribute wealth? or will you will you continue to try to paint me as unholy and paint me as favoring wealth redistribution in the Satanic direction of poor to rich?

  94. Gravatar of dwb dwb
    16. April 2012 at 10:48

    @Saturos:
    Otherwise, all tax is theft.

    no. some taxes go to providing public goods like national defense, and the function of making sure everyone follows the law. now, you might say that we are buying too much of those goods, i would agree. but there is some level necessary to (for example) protect property rights and basic freedoms. what you pay for those goods is certainly not theft, its part of the social contract.

  95. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    16. April 2012 at 10:49

    DR I see we had the same thought there-LOL

    Sautoros:

    Why when conservatives look at the consumption tax they want to talk about it only in absolute dollars?

    What matters is the real not nominal effects of conumption taxes. Not all taxes once collected goes to the nonrich.

    Much of it goes to the rich like the oil companies with their tax subsidies and the student lenders with their government guraantees.

  96. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 10:54

    Mike Sax:

    “Interesting, because I actually didn’t say taxation is theft. I merely said that if one favors some wealth redistribution, then it follows one ought to favor theft, since thieves redistribute wealth.”

    MF that is a simple logical fallacy. If I support redistirbution I have to favor all forms? Really you are claiing that redistrubition is theft and got to admit you’re wrong on that one.

    Nobody as of yet said anything about any “forms” of wealth redistribution. All I see is “some wealth redistribution” and that’s it. At this level, there is no logical contradiction in saying that some thievery must logically be supported.

    I also didn’t claim that all redistribution is theft. I simply said that if one favors some redistribution, and this is all we have to work with, then one must support some theft, since some theft leads to come redistribution.

    If you say that not all redistribution of wealth is theft, then I have to ask you when does someone steal wealth from me and when do they not steal wealth from me? What has to be true before someone taking my wealth is theft and what has to be true before someone taking my wealth is not theft?

  97. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    16. April 2012 at 10:54

    Gah.

    Yes taxes are theft. it is a Kantian thing. it keeps it clear in our minds, that NO, no one has any actual birthright claim to other people’s stuff.

    NOW, with that settled, we view the state and taxes through the moment of their creation.

    Folks with talent, skills, who convert the land, who invent, mine the minerals, etc. etc.

    They have capital and they want to protect it. So they round up and hire big guys with weapons to protect their stuff.

    This is where the state comes from.

    This is a FACT. We just saw it happen with the fall of the USSR. It is undeniable. When there is no state, this is how one comes to be.

    The state is born from the private property interests of the CAPABLE to protect their stuff, to own it, and to contract with others and see those contracts honored with force.

    Yes you could do this technically with purely private parties, but it is easier to call it a state, so you can get everybody under that umbrella.

    ——

    Sax, dude, I 100% favor income redistribution as long as:

    1. we auction off the labor of subsidized to private interests.

    2. we force the public sector to be as productive as private sector, or be replaced.

    3. we agree that we will limit the kind of AID we provide in such a way that no one wants to be getting AID unless they have no other otpion. This means slightly lower quality health care than the insured get (no new inventions or drugs) and food stamps that cover staples not the stuff that offends the senses of non-food stamp recipients.

    In fact, the more aggressive you are about making people UNcomfortable on the dole or in the public sector, the MORE I’m happy to provide even larger wealth transfers.

    Build a system that assumes everyone is a scumbag who will cheat, make life TRULY suck for 90% of cheaters, and then… pour money on it until the real needy have as much as Sax feels they should have.

    I’ll sign off on that.

  98. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 10:58

    some taxes go to providing public goods like national defense
    Governments solve the free-rider problem with public goods by stealing from people. Whether that is acceptable is another story.

    Taking money without permission to protect our rights is stealing. Our rights wouldn’t be protected otherwise, but they’d still exist. Don’t make me give you the quotes.

    I for one am glad we don’t have anarchy. But it’s still stealing.

    Mike: Not all taxes once collected goes to the nonrich,
    Ahh, I see we’re sort of on the same page here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Wx5PYZIWcQ

  99. Gravatar of D R D R
    16. April 2012 at 11:01

    Apparently Major Freedom is in need of a primer explaining the difference between “some” and “all”

  100. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 11:02

    They have capital and they want to protect it. So they round up and hire big guys with weapons to protect their stuff.

    Actually that’s a recipe for tribal warfare, not a state. To get that you need more – a stable monopoly. One theory of how this comes about was given by Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia. A better explanation is in Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order.

  101. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 11:02

    Damn, my brackets won’t close.

  102. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 11:05

    dwb:

    “Otherwise, all tax is theft.”

    no. some taxes go to providing public goods like national defense, and the function of making sure everyone follows the law.

    An action does not become theft by virtue of where the money is spent thereafter. An action is theft by virtue of how the money was acquired by the spender.

    And law? We’re not living in a world of equal law for everyone. We are living in a world where people, in addition to producing and trading with each other, kill, murder, steal, and defraud each other as well, and some people who commit these actions are believed to be criminals, whereas others who commit the same actions are believed to not be criminals.

    People like you believe that if the state commits these actions, it’s not criminal, whereas if non-state individuals commit these actions, it is criminal. “Criminal” deemed by the state is just a modern secular version of “apostate” deemed by the church. The state can take people’s wealth, but not anyone else.

    It’s the same religion dressed up in different mantras and worship patterns.

    now, you might say that we are buying too much of those goods, i would agree. but there is some level necessary to (for example) protect property rights and basic freedoms. what you pay for those goods is certainly not theft, its part of the social contract.

    How in the world can property rights be protected by calling for them to be systematically violated? How can basic freedoms be had by calling for them to be systematically suppressed? You’re making less sense than Sumner.

    You might as well say that freedom is slavery, and that war is peace.

  103. Gravatar of dwb dwb
    16. April 2012 at 11:09

    @Saturos,
    no, stealing is taking property without providing anything in return (converting the property to the takers own use). in the case of national defense for example, the good you receive in return is safety. thats not theft in any sense of the word. There ARE kleptocracies in the world (like North Korea).

  104. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 11:11

    But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime. — Frederic Bastiat

  105. Gravatar of dwb dwb
    16. April 2012 at 11:11

    An action is theft by virtue of how the money was acquired by the spender.

    no. see above. if you want to redefine words for the sake of drama and hyperbole thats fine, but its not persuasive.

  106. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 11:13

    dwb: Great. I’ll be coming to collect your car tomorrow. (You can have mine in return.)

  107. Gravatar of Negation of Ideology Negation of Ideology
    16. April 2012 at 11:19

    This is getting silly. Taxes are most certainly not theft. Property is a legal term, for the restriction on other people’s freedom to use things legally recognized as yours. For example, I can’t go play a baseball game at Yankee Stadium in an off day without the permission of the owner. That is a restriction on my freedom enforced by the government. I favor that restriction of freedom(as most people do), and have the opportunity to legally acquire my own property, thus restricting everyone the freedom of everyone else.

    But enforcing those private property rights requires force, resources, etc. So we pay a fee to an organization called the government to enforce those rights. In a Republic, we also own that government and have the right to vote for its representatives. That fee we pay to the government is called a tax. It is completely voluntary. If I don’t want to have the government recognize my legal title to private property and enforce my contracts, then I don’t have to pay that fee. Of course, I’d be living in a box under a bridge somewhere. But it is still my choice.

    The idea that I can expect everyone else in the world to respect my private property and other legal rights and not be willing to pay the costs of defending those rights is absurd.

  108. Gravatar of D R D R
    16. April 2012 at 11:22

    In the absence of patent law, Sony cannot prevent me from selling copies of their DVDs. The State takes away my rights and invests them exclusively in the hands of select few.

    So Bastiat would argue patent law is legal plunder.

  109. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 11:22

    NoI: Of course our tax liabilities are legal debts to the government. The question is whether they are moral obligations as well.

    Perhaps it is absurd to hope that others will leave you in peace unless you acquire defense.

  110. Gravatar of dwb dwb
    16. April 2012 at 11:24

    @saturos,
    i pay quite a lot in taxes, enough to buy several cars each year. I am not defending what the government spends, i’d like to see them spend a LOT less. However, its still not theft (and calling it theft does not really persuade anyone who actually pays taxes). It makes for nice satire, but its not a real argument. Those of us who pay a lot in taxes are quite well aware of the value of the government services we receive in return (or not).

  111. Gravatar of Negation of Ideology Negation of Ideology
    16. April 2012 at 11:26

    Saturos -

    “Perhaps it is absurd to hope that others will leave you in peace unless you acquire defense.”

    Correct. It is absurd to assume there will not even be one single evil person in this world.

  112. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 11:26

    DR: Good example. Law creates as well as deprives. (But taxation is still theft.)

    “So Bastiat would argue patent law is legal plunder.”

    No, Bastiat would say that the DVD’s rightfully belong to Sony.
    “…what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.”
    Patent laws could be done voluntarily, in theory. A producer could contract with all potential consumers ahead of production, whereupon anyone else who gets possession would be in breach. But this would be prohibitive, of course.

  113. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 11:28

    NoI: The fact that we need defense against evil, doesn’t mean that when our defenders take our money by force it isn’t stealing. It may or may not be justified, but it is stealing.

  114. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 11:29

    Saturos:

    Actually that’s a recipe for tribal warfare, not a state.

    Let’s be honest here. The state is itself a tribe engaging in warfare against other tribes, namely, other state tribes and the tribe of egoists, which is everyone.

    To get that you need more – a stable monopoly. One theory of how this comes about was given by Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia. A better explanation is in Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order.

    Nozick was heavily criticized by Rothbard here. This essay made me change my mind about the alleged inevitability of states.

    Fukuyama for his part is a philosophical Platonist Hegelian who cannot see individuals as unique and egoist, but rather as “last men”, where every human being is to be subsumed under this attribute and controlled in the name of it by a monopoly tribe. Predicate and subject are always reversed for philosophical Hegelians. I have the attribute of “man”, and you have the attribute of “man”, and so both of us unique individuals are to be subsumed under it, and hence controlled in the name of it, rather than us subsuming and hence controlling our individuality and distinctness.

    Before it was “God”, and now it’s “Man”, but the same religion and structural form exists. Rather than the Church ruling a person, States are to rule them. Rather than human being sacrificed for the sake of the Church, they are to be sacrificed for the sake of the State.

  115. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 11:30

    D R:

    Apparently Major Freedom is in need of a primer explaining the difference between “some” and “all”.

    Apparently D R fails to see that I have always been referring to some rather than all.

    But nice plausible deniability and wiping of your hands.

  116. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 11:32

    “The state is itself a tribe engaging in warfare against other tribes” – yes, a stably victorious tribe, giving us the non-combative social order equilibrium. The next task of course is to make sure this tribe is as weak as possible. One way is by forcing it to open up its membership – the great battle of history.

  117. Gravatar of Negation of Ideology Negation of Ideology
    16. April 2012 at 11:36

    Saturos -

    But in what sense is it “our” money, if not a legally (government) recognized sense? What if instead of using the word evil, I use the word “non-conformist”, i.e., someone who doesn’t believe in private property? What right do I have to force my values on them? What about the case of a legitimate property dispute? You and I both claim the same property, and honestly believe we are right? How do we settle it? Legally, in a court of law whose decisions are based on lawfully voted on rules, enforced by policemen with guns, paid for by our lawfully voted on and collected taxes? Or do you and I have to start raising rival gangs?

  118. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    16. April 2012 at 11:37

    Morgan

    “Yes taxes are theft. it is a Kantian thing. it keeps it clear in our minds, that NO, no one has any actual birthright claim to other people’s stuff.”

    “NOW, with that settled”

    How have we settled it? You’ve said taxes are theft. I say they’re not theft. Where does that leave us.

    You did make a good point with regard to my talk with Major Freedom and Saturos when you talk about where the state comes from.

    “Folks with talent, skills, who convert the land, who invent, mine the minerals, etc. etc.”

    “They have capital and they want to protect it. So they round up and hire big guys with weapons to protect their stuff.”

    While on the one hand you come dangerously close to the fallacy that only those with talent and skill have money and everyone who has money has talent and skills-if this were true how do you exlain George W. Bush?-it is true that only the government can secure the right to private property which shows the lbertarian fallacy that government is the enemy of private property and should be abolished.

    Yet if a major funciton of government is to secure private prperty another is the power to tax. Understand despite the tattmepts by you or Major Freedom to draw a parallel between the taxing power and theft the two occupy a very differnt positioin legally speaking.

    The government defines what is legal or not legal. Believe it or not it’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time and possible for government to both prohibit a street mugger and also secure to itself the right to tax. There is no “contrdcition” in it at all, both are the pergoatives of the government and every government legal code in some form has observed this.

  119. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 11:38

    dwb:

    no, stealing is taking property without providing anything in return (converting the property to the takers own use). in the case of national defense for example, the good you receive in return is safety. thats not theft in any sense of the word. There ARE kleptocracies in the world (like North Korea).

    So if I come to your house, and then take all your stuff, and then in return I give you some moldy cheese and crap economic lessons, then I didn’t steal from you? Only if I didn’t give you any moldy cheese nor crap economic lessons, did I steal from you?

    Your conception of what constitutes theft is absurd. Theft does not arise based on what the person who is being analysed as being a thief or not does or gives in return for what they take. Theft arises when the property is taken without the property owner’s consent.

    Theft is derived from legitimate property claims, not what the potential thief does in addition to taking the property. It’s the initial taking of property that is or is not theft, regardless of what the thief gives in return.

    If I take your wallet against your consent, but then give you a free song in return, or anything else, I still stole your wallet. I stole it because I took it against your consent, not because what I gave to you is good or bad in your opinion.

    The good returned from tax is safety? Oh really? What about safety from the state itself? How am I safe in a country where if I do nothing except peacefully disobey, peacefully resist, I will be kidnapped and sent to a cage? Safety? That isn’t safety, that’s danger.

  120. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 11:40

    NoI: In what sense are those arms *your* arms?

    “You and I both claim the same property, and honestly believe we are right? How do we settle it?”

    Yes that is what government is for – but the fact that the taxes we pay them with are “lawfully voted on and collected” doesn’t mean we consent to them individually – so it’s theft. Necessary perhaps, but still theft.

  121. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 11:42

    dwb:

    i pay quite a lot in taxes, enough to buy several cars each year.

    I also am supremely wealthy and I too would like to let everyone on this board know that.

    I am not defending what the government spends, i’d like to see them spend a LOT less. However, its still not theft (and calling it theft does not really persuade anyone who actually pays taxes). It makes for nice satire, but its not a real argument. Those of us who pay a lot in taxes are quite well aware of the value of the government services we receive in return (or not).

    If you prefer to pay less, if you prefer to pay less and receive less war overseas services, less war on drugs services, but you’re not allowed to pay less on your own volition without being thrown into a cage by those taxing you, how in the world isn’t it theft?

    Is it really only because the people taking your wealth are wearing badges?

  122. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 11:43

    “Yet if a major funciton of government is to secure private prperty another is the power to tax.”

    The first is a function. The second is merely a means to that function (and it’s still theft).

  123. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 11:43

    “I also am supremely wealthy and I too would like to let everyone on this board know that.”

    LOL.

  124. Gravatar of D R D R
    16. April 2012 at 11:49

    “No, Bastiat would say that the DVD’s rightfully belong to Sony.”

    That doesn’t make sense. I specifically said copies. If I purchase the blanks, and do the work of burning a pattern onto the blanks, then there is no reason why those would not belong to me. Yes, there is the question of how I came to the specific pattern, which (perhaps) it is of mind-bogglingly low probability that I chose such a pattern independently of Sony’s production. It may be that Sony has contracted with all such consumers not to play the DVD where anyone might see the screen, hear the sounds, permit the disc to be exposed to high-resultion photography, or otherwise infer the content of the DVD from electrical noise, etc etc. But if I, not having contracted with Sony, somehow come into possession of said pattern of bits, then that’s their tough luck unless they can prove one of their contracted customers liable.

  125. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 11:50

    If you prefer to pay less, if you prefer to pay less and receive less war overseas services, less war on drugs services, but you’re not allowed to pay less on your own volition without being thrown into a cage by those taxing you, how in the world isn’t it theft?

    Is it really only because the people taking your wealth are wearing badges?

    Probably the most sane comment I have ever read from MF.

  126. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 11:51

    Saturos:

    “The state is itself a tribe engaging in warfare against other tribes” – yes, a stably victorious tribe, giving us the non-combative social order equilibrium.

    That is impossible. A victorious monopoly tribe that imposes its rule on all doesn’t succeed at stopping war among individuals, it just makes it a permanent feature.

    The next task of course is to make sure this tribe is as weak as possible. One way is by forcing it to open up its membership – the great battle of history.

    That isn’t a way to do it. That just makes the state larger, since it carries the new illusion of being for the people by the people.

    The US state started out small, and look what happened.

    The error was the belief that state violence is justified and that individual violence is not justified. This schism made any chance of a small state impossible.

  127. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    16. April 2012 at 11:51

    MF you are extermely wealthy? That would have been my assumption.

  128. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 11:52

    DR: No, I mean that Bastiat would agree that the ideas and information being copied belong to Sony. You’re right, the real world is a little more complicated than that quote.

  129. Gravatar of D R D R
    16. April 2012 at 11:53

    “Apparently D R fails to see that I have always been referring to some rather than all.”

    If it is “some” then your logic fails.

  130. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 11:54

    Oh leave him alone Mike. He’s not a bourgeois pig, or a [insert ideological slander] for that matter. Let’s be civil.

  131. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 11:56

    Corrected argument: “if one favors [some amount of any] wealth redistribution, then it follows one ought to favor theft, since thieves redistribute wealth.””

    But that’s still problematic, as I said above.

  132. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 11:57

    Propagation of Ideology:

    But in what sense is it “our” money, if not a legally (government) recognized sense? What if instead of using the word evil, I use the word “non-conformist”, i.e., someone who doesn’t believe in private property? What right do I have to force my values on them?

    This is why I call you Propagation of Ideology.

    What about the case of a legitimate property dispute?

    Legitimate according to what?

    You and I both claim the same property, and honestly believe we are right? How do we settle it?

    The question is how will you settle it. Will you use force to secure your claim?

    Legally, in a court of law whose decisions are based on lawfully voted on rules, enforced by policemen with guns, paid for by our lawfully voted on and collected taxes? Or do you and I have to start raising rival gangs?

    You mean like the Democrat and Republican parties domestically, and “sovereign” states internationally?

  133. Gravatar of D R D R
    16. April 2012 at 11:59

    Saturos,

    I understand we agree on complexity.

    I don’t understand how anyone can possess an idea or information. Individuals may have privacy rights which may protect their ideas or (private) information, but I don’t see how they can claim any property rights to same.

  134. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 12:00

    D R:

    “Apparently D R fails to see that I have always been referring to some rather than all.”

    If it is “some” then your logic fails.

    Except I am not even using the logic you are attributing to me. I never once said or implied that all redistribution is theft.

  135. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 12:01

    “A victorious monopoly tribe that imposes its rule on all doesn’t succeed at stopping war among individuals, it just makes it a permanent feature.”

    What the state does to us today isn’t war, it’s dominance.

    “That isn’t a way to do it. That just makes the state larger, since it carries the new illusion of being for the people by the people.”

    Please show me the non-democratic state that has had less government power over long periods of time. (Even HK/Singapore are sort of democratic)

  136. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    16. April 2012 at 12:02

    Satouris you said:

    “Oh leave him alone Mike. He’s not a bourgeois pig, or a [insert ideological slander] for that matter. Let’s be civil”

    Where did I call “him” a bourgeis pig? Which “he” do you have in mind? If you can point to where I said anyone is a bourgeis pig I’ll be impressed.

    I think I’ve been perfectly civil. I guess when people can’t win an argument they hide behind the civility card.

  137. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 12:03

    Saturos:

    “Corrected argument: “if one favors [some amount of any] wealth redistribution, then it follows one ought to favor theft, since thieves redistribute wealth.””

    But that’s still problematic, as I said above.

    But it’s not, as I showed above. There are as of yet no qualifying clauses or premises that distinguish between different “forms” of wealth redistribution. There is only “some wealth redistribution is OK”, and that’s it.

    If you want to distinguish between various forms of wealth redistribution, then please make it clear.

  138. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 12:04

    “I don’t understand how anyone can possess an idea or information. ”

    a) through [implicit] contract, as outlined.
    b) through some Randian notion of Man’s Mind being the most creative force, and the Products of Man’s Mind being the most Fundamental Forms of owned resources (satire intended).

  139. Gravatar of D R D R
    16. April 2012 at 12:05

    “The question is how will you settle it. Will you use force to secure your claim?”

    Of course. There is no alternative so long as I maintain my claim. You may force me to a private arbiter to resolve the dispute, but I don’t have to accept arbitration. You may then point to a contract which you claim says I agreed to accept arbitration, but then I don’t have to accept your claim. So do we then go to a meta-arbitration to which I still do not consent? At some point, it’s force backing up the whole system.

  140. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 12:10

    Saturos:

    “A victorious monopoly tribe that imposes its rule on all doesn’t succeed at stopping war among individuals, it just makes it a permanent feature.”

    What the state does to us today isn’t war, it’s dominance.

    Dominance that takes the form of action consisting of….what exactly?

    “That isn’t a way to do it. That just makes the state larger, since it carries the new illusion of being for the people by the people.”

    Please show me the non-democratic state that has had less government power over long periods of time. (Even HK/Singapore are sort of democratic)

    Haha, it’s funny how your subconscious compelled you to ad hoc excluding real world examples of non-democratic states having less power.

    Neither HK nor Singapore are democratic.

    Other examples: Monaco, Liechtenstein, and other monarchical city state type countries have contained non-democratic states.

    When states are open to “the people”, then the incentive to loot the country at the expense of the long term, grows, and hence the size of the state grows.

  141. Gravatar of D R D R
    16. April 2012 at 12:10

    Saturos,

    That is non-responsive. I cannot take your idea from you (absent MIB clicky-thingies) and therefore we can at best come to terms by which your idea is shared. That is a privacy issue and not a property issue.

  142. Gravatar of dwb dwb
    16. April 2012 at 12:11

    If you prefer to pay less, if you prefer to pay less and receive less war overseas services, less war on drugs services, but you’re not allowed to pay less on your own volition without being thrown into a cage by those taxing you, how in the world isn’t it theft?

    its called a democracy: we persuade each other and then vote. thats the social contract. when i dont like something i vote against it and get other people to vote against it (and vice versa). its far preferrable to say, the regime in North Korea, or the anarchy you are espousing. funny, i don’t feel particularly oppressed. not in the slightest. I dont even know anyone would would say they are oppressed. and you are not convincing me that I should feel oppressed either.

  143. Gravatar of dwb dwb
    16. April 2012 at 12:22


    That just makes the state larger, since it carries the new illusion of being for the people by the people.

    The US state started out small, and look what happened.

    When states are open to “the people”, then the incentive to loot the country at the expense of the long term, grows, and hence the size of the state grows.

    I am not even sure what the heck you are advocating here. If i had to summarize your position in three words it would be something like “off your meds”

  144. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 12:25

    D R:

    “The question is how will you settle it. Will you use force to secure your claim?”

    Of course. There is no alternative so long as I maintain my claim.

    So then your call for a monopoly over force to settle such claims, i.e. a state, is a contradiction.

    You can’t say the state should exist and have a monopoly over using force to secure your property claim, while at the same time say that you will use force to secure your property claim.

    You may force me to a private arbiter to resolve the dispute, but I don’t have to accept arbitration.

    You will if you’re overpowered.

    You may then point to a contract which you claim says I agreed to accept arbitration, but then I don’t have to accept your claim.

    Quite right, but you’ll have to accept the effects of you violating such agreements.

    So do we then go to a meta-arbitration to which I still do not consent? At some point, it’s force backing up the whole system.

    Sure, but the question is whether such force is better left to each individual in the world, or to a monopoly, who are to use force to stop not only initiations of force, but defensive uses of force as well, in which case there are positive initiations of force from the monopolists.

    Any person or group of people who seek to impose a monopoly by force, are necessarily initiators of force. In my view, the only way to stop initiations of force, is with defensive uses of force, which of course means there cannot be a monopoly of force if initiations of force is to be eradicated.

    It’s like saying “Let’s stop rape by creating a monopoly institution of sex”, or “Let’s stop theft by creating a monopoly institution of contract enforcement”, or “Let’s stop murder by creating a monopoly institution of collateral damage and capital punishment”, or “Let’s stop kidnapping and non-consensual imprisonment by creating a monopoly institution of arresting and jailing.”

    Monopolies, as any economist will tell you, have an incentive to reduce quality and increase costs (revenues) over time. Most people value leisure over toil, and so an agency that is not subject to competition in the services they offer, are going to get worse and worse and their costs are going to get higher and higher, until the costs are so high and the quality is so low that you will see a revolt.

  145. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 12:32

    MF:

    “Singapore is a parliamentary republic with a Westminster system of unicameral parliamentary government. The People’s Action Party (PAP) has won every election since the British grant of internal self-government in 1959. The legal system of Singapore has its foundations in the English common law system, but modifications have been made to it over the years, such as the removal of trial by jury. The PAP’s popular image is that of a strong, experienced and highly qualified government, backed by a skilled Civil Service and an education system with an emphasis on achievement and meritocracy; but it is perceived by some voters, opposition critics and international observers as being authoritarian and too restrictive on individual freedom.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singapore

    “The primary pillars of government are the Executive Council, the civil service, the Legislative Council, and the Judiciary. The Executive Council is headed by the Chief Executive who is elected by the Election Committee and then appointed by the Central People’s Government.[89][90] The civil service is a politically neutral body that implements policies and provides government services, where public servants are appointed based on meritocracy.[26][91] The Legislative Council has 60 members, half of whom are directly elected by universal suffrage by permanent residents of Hong Kong according to five geographical constituencies. The other half, known as functional constituencies, are directly elected by a smaller electorate, which consists of corporate bodies and persons from various stipulated functional sectors.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_kong#Governance

    You really think Monarchy would give us more reliably limited government? Please, I’m all ears.

    DR: You can agree that once I produce my song recording you won’t distribute it without my permission.

    dwb: remind me when I signed that contract?
    You should read this: http://econfaculty.gmu.edu/bcaplan/garvey.htm
    And read Myth of the Rational Voter, too. On the margin, we “consent” to nothing through voting – that’s why people vote irrationally.

  146. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 12:33

    dwb:

    “That just makes the state larger, since it carries the new illusion of being for the people by the people.

    The US state started out small, and look what happened.

    When states are open to “the people”, then the incentive to loot the country at the expense of the long term, grows, and hence the size of the state grows.”

    I am not even sure what the heck you are advocating here.

    Notice how you feel compelled to finding out which religion I am allegedly preaching, since every individual is preaching one, right?

    I am not “advocating” for any religion. I am stating the effects of opening up states to “the people”, and the results of states over time, even those state start “small.”

    If i had to summarize your position in three words it would be something like “off your meds”

    In prior times, people like you would have said “off your praying.”

    Take your [meds/prayer], and everything will be alright. Worship [God/sttae] and you’ll no longer be “crazy.”

    Are you a scientologist?

  147. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    16. April 2012 at 12:36

    Morgan I just checked out your link

    http://twitpic.com/18krwv

    Society A the rich have a “12″ while the poor have a “2″ whereas Society B the rich have a 6 with the poor with a 1.5.

    What is the basis for these numbers? In any case without knowing what the whole thing is based on, the truoble with that the relative wealth does have some consequence to. The poor are down by a little, the rich are down by a lot in Society B.

    Yet because they have one fourth of the wealthy in Society B down from only one sixth in Society A there is some relative improvement in Society B from the standpoint of the poor. This doesn’t mean it is overall a better society or not-I don’t know nearly enough to really be able to say.

    I’m just noting that relative wealth is not a matter with no consequence either.

  148. Gravatar of dwb dwb
    16. April 2012 at 12:40


    I am stating the effects of opening up states to “the people”, and the results of states over time, even those state start “small.”

    and? so you are saying we should not open up states to democracy?

  149. Gravatar of D R D R
    16. April 2012 at 12:44

    “You can’t say the state should exist and have a monopoly over using force to secure your property claim, while at the same time say that you will use force to secure your property claim.”

    You miss my point. I am saying that there is no protection of property but through force. We may explicitly (but more likely implicitly) submit to a system which we hope results in less force and/or more justice. Or we may institute a new system which we hope results in even less force and/or more justice.

    The power may be monopolistic, or it may be diffuse, but it’s still force which underlies the system.

  150. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 12:48

    dwb:

    “If you prefer to pay less, if you prefer to pay less and receive less war overseas services, less war on drugs services, but you’re not allowed to pay less on your own volition without being thrown into a cage by those taxing you, how in the world isn’t it theft?”

    its called a democracy

    Do you really believe that merely giving it a name, for show and tell purposes, actually justifies it?

    we persuade each other and then vote. thats the social contract.

    The “social contract” ideology was derived before democracy was even introduced in modern times my historically illiterate friend. The “social contract” was derived during, and to justify, monarchies.

    And there is no such thing as a social contract. It’s a myth just like religious contracts. The only contracts that exist are those that individuals agree to with other individuals, excluding everyone else not those individuals making those contracts.

    “We persuade each other”? Who persuades who exactly? What if individuals don’t all agree? Then of course persuasion is exposed as window dressing, and true power is revealed, and it isn’t mine, nor yours.

    when i dont like something i vote against it and get other people to vote against it (and vice versa). its far preferrable to say, the regime in North Korea, or the anarchy you are espousing.

    Preferable? You say that as if it’s preferable to everyone. It’s not preferable to myself, and that’s enough for me to legitimately reject it. Nothing you can say can overrule my own judgment for my own life. It’s like a dog barking at me.

    funny, i don’t feel particularly oppressed. not in the slightest.

    Neither do I.

    I dont even know anyone would would say they are oppressed.

    You don’t know many people.

    and you are not convincing me that I should feel oppressed either.

    Oh I’m sorry, I think you must have confused me for someone who is actually legitimately concerned with your feelings as so important that they should overrule my preferences for my own life.

    I actually don’t care if you feel or don’t feel oppressed. I am only telling you that the state does oppress individuals.

    If you don’t feel oppressed, then tell me, how can I distinguish whether or not you are or are not suffering from the Stockholme Syndrome? Your words exactly match one who does suffer from it. Maybe you forgot to take your meds, or you are taking too many of the wrong meds.

  151. Gravatar of Negation of Ideology Negation of Ideology
    16. April 2012 at 12:51

    Major -

    “This is why I call you Propagation of Ideology.”

    Your name calling doesn’t bother me, I’m just trying to get to the root of the issue. There’s only two choices. Either we have an orderly process for determining the rules for who owns and controls what, and for enforcing those rules; or we have a system where no one legally owns anything, and every day everything is up for grabs and we all have to fight over everything all over again (where life is nasty, brutish, and short).

    I prefer the first choice. And I also prefer that we all have a say in what those rules are. Things will not be perfect, but the alternative is hell on earth.

  152. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 12:52

    dwb:

    I am stating the effects of opening up states to “the people”, and the results of states over time, even those state start “small.”

    and?

    And? There is no “and.” That’s it. I only intended to argue that opening states up to “the people” enlarges them, because the claim I was addressing insinuated the opposite.

    so you are saying we should not open up states to democracy?

    I wasn’t saying that, but if you ask me, I say look to the evidence around the world. Which system of government has the largest “success” ratio? I look around the world, and I see that the highest ratio of “success”, meaning standard of living, maximal individual ownership, etc, it’s obvious that small city state monarchy societies are superior to democratic state societies.

    I am advocating for monarchy, I am just stating a fact.

  153. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    16. April 2012 at 12:53

    Major Freedom I must say it’s ironic that you accuse someone else of not taking their meds.

    You said to DWB:

    “If you don’t feel oppressed, then tell me, how can I distinguish whether or not you are or are not suffering from the Stockholme Syndrome? Your words exactly match one who does suffer from it. Maybe you forgot to take your meds, or you are taking too many of the wrong meds”.

    Sautoros you hear the Major’s comments and then think I’m the one who needs to be more civil?

  154. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 12:53

    I am not advocating for monarchy, I am just stating a fact.

    Yeesh.

  155. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 12:59

    Mike Sax:

    Major Freedom I must say it’s ironic that you accuse someone else of not taking their meds.

    I find it even more ironic that you fail to notice that I didn’t originally introduce any meds taking or lack thereof. dwb did. I am simply adapting to the prevailing language of my interlocutor. if he wants to psychologize over the internet, then he shouldn’t mind getting an internet diagnosis himself.

    Or did you just ignore his meds attack because you agree with him?

    You said to DWB:

    “If you don’t feel oppressed, then tell me, how can I distinguish whether or not you are or are not suffering from the Stockholme Syndrome? Your words exactly match one who does suffer from it. Maybe you forgot to take your meds, or you are taking too many of the wrong meds”.

    Sautoros you hear the Major’s comments and then think I’m the one who needs to be more civil?

    What is uncivil about asking the question I asked, and repeating the same lack of meds taking that was initially thrown at me?

    Maybe you too are suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome and felt personally insulted at the thought, so you conflated my argument with an uncivil attack against you, and, hilariously, hence dwb. Or, maybe you just don’t like it when those you don’t agree with, who are being treated as uncivil, dare stand up for themselves to their attackers?

    Stop being fake.

  156. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 12:59

    Okay. I’m going to post my last comment here now.

  157. Gravatar of D R D R
    16. April 2012 at 13:00

    Negation,

    “There’s only two choices. Either we have an orderly process for determining the rules for who owns and controls what, and for enforcing those rules; or we have a system where no one legally owns anything, and every day everything is up for grabs and we all have to fight over everything all over again (where life is nasty, brutish, and short).”

    That doesn’t change the fact that both systems are fundamentally coercive.

  158. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 13:00

    Scott:

    “giving money doesn’t always help; it’s surprisingly hard to overcome the disincentives problem.” Oh come on. There’s a bucketload of utilitarian approved charitable options that pass the disincentives test – Singer likes malaria. There’s Matt Damon’s Water program. Or how about Sponsor-a-child? Utilitarians don’t deny that giving is beneficial – they just impose an arbitrary cutoff point on when to stop giving – “as much as is reasonable”. I think that’s too easy, for the philosophy that claims to be the most rational justification for income-egalitarianism. As Mankiw reminds us, Americans who like to “tax the rich” frequently forget that in global terms, they are the one percent: http://www.globalrichlist.com/index.php

    “As far as hypocrisy…” I was replying to your comment on Singer admitting he wasn’t a saint – discussing with Tyler at the end how he spent money on expensive vacations which could have saved more lives. But a committed utilitarian would have bitten the bullet here too, cancelling all future vacation plans and giving the money to AIDS relief or something. Admitting you’re fallible doesn’t get you out of that. It’s not enough to “regard it as better” – you have to actually do it whenever you can, not just when you feel like it (revealed preference). In fact, the famous story about Singer is that he spent a tremendous amount of his own money to help his sick old mother (rightfully in my view, albeit hypocritically) which could have instead helped hundreds of poor orphans contributing far more to “aggregate utility”. Or even better, here’s Tim Minchin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DyDc4e3szHM

    As for Germans, see if your counterargument adequately addresses the original argument by Bryan here: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2010/09/when_are_we_the.html that I was quoting.

    “Have you ever considered the possibility that the institution of friendship (and its associated characteristics like loyalty) might itself engender happiness?”
    So you seem to have completely missed my argument. I’m not at all denying that friendship engenders happiness. (Though I so deny that my friendships are merely instrumental to the happiness I get from them, rather than objects of value in their own right) What I am questioning is how loyalty (or trust in general) is possible between individuals between whom non-aggression is understood to be overridable in the pursuit of utilitarianism. Indeed that’s probably why my instinct for non-aggression was selected for – because of the interpersonal trust and cooperation it makes possible. I think that’s why most normal people obey a default non-agression rule in their daily lives – they just have trouble generalizing it to the political level. So I suspect (and hope) that if it came right down to it, you and I wouldn’t differ all that much in our ethical choices, despite our superficial disagreement.

    “Tell me what else matters, and then tell my why it matters, and then explain why the reason you provide that it matters is not just ‘happiness’ disguised with a different term, such as ‘dignity.’”

    Let’s start with this one: truth. I believe it’s better to know the disappointing truth than the comforting lie. Learning in general is a fundamental value for me. Peace and non-agression are big ones for me too – even if I knew that the person would be happier if they did what I wanted them to. And trust, integrity, loyalty and friendship, as above. But why don’t I let Bryan Caplan fill out the list for me? (This is the critique that I meant to link to.)

    “The utilitarian intuition is a paper tiger, subject to a long-standing list of devastating counter-examples. Utilitarians’ standard replies are to (a) change the subject by denying the empirical importance of the counter-examples, and (b) dogmatically accept every absurd implication of their view while criticizing the “dogmatism” of everyone who demurs. If this isn’t ridiculous enough, utilitarians proceed to continuously violate their own ethic by failing to spend all their spare resources on desperate strangers. ”

    “People opt for less personal happiness all the time. Sometimes, of course, they are trading off happiness now for happiness later. But other times, they are trading off their own happiness for the happiness of others. Or they might give up some happiness to have more kids, more success, or more neuroses.

    [...]

    Incidentally, if humans really maximized their own happiness, there would be a big evolutionary puzzle: How come with have so many emotions when we only obey one? Why do we feel curiosity, for example? You could try to reduce curiosity to happiness, but that’s implausible. I’ve felt curious and sad at the same time. Haven’t you?”

    “I’m not saying that human happiness isn’t morally important. I’m saying that human happiness is one morally important thing on a long list of morally important things: desert, justice, honesty, achievement, truth, beauty, and liberty are merely the beginning. The only way to weigh them against each other is with clarifying examples and reflection. Morality would be a lot simpler if utilitarianism were true. But it’s better to be broadly right than simply wrong.”

    [from http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/02/how_deserving_a_1.html and http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2005/04/dont_believe_be.html

    I think individuals pursue their own objectives, and that it’s highly misleading to suggest that the only reason they do so is because it “makes them happy”. I have elaborated on this in the posts and links above. But yeah: look, Scott, I’m not going to argue this one. I know that ethical beliefs are not entirely responsible to reason. And I don’t want to ruin the utility of participating in a friendly and enlivening blog like this one by arguing too much. May you all maximise your utility functions. Have a nice day.

  159. Gravatar of Negation of Ideology Negation of Ideology
    16. April 2012 at 13:14

    D R

    “That doesn’t change the fact that both systems are fundamentally coercive.”

    Agreed. But I never disputed that. All rights are dependent on force. Laws against murder and theft are coercive. That doesn’t mean those laws shouldn’t exist.

  160. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 13:14

    Propagation of Ideology:

    Your name calling doesn’t bother me, I’m just trying to get to the root of the issue.

    Oops, it’s not name calling. It’s just a nick I have given to you. Sort of like Major_Drama_Queen, only slightly less offensive.

    There’s only two choices. Either we have an orderly process for determining the rules for who owns and controls what, and for enforcing those rules; or we have a system where no one legally owns anything, and every day everything is up for grabs and we all have to fight over everything all over again (where life is nasty, brutish, and short).

    That’s an epic false dichotomy. You’re presenting to me a choice that I don’t have to make. You’re ignoring the third option, where there are no laws, where everything is legally up for grabs, but people don’t have to fight over everything because the threat of violence from the individual owners prevents any attempt.

    The same way the mere threat of the state stops many people from taking wealth from others, from killing others, from hurting others, etc, so too can my threat of force against you stop you from taking my wealth.

    A lack of state laws in particular does not mean a lack of respect for laws as such. A lack of an agency trying to monopolize violence does not mean a lack of peace.

    There is no world state, and yet there hasn’t been a world war since forever. No, the wars called “world” war 1 and “world” war 2 were not actually world wars. They were localized wars between specific states in specific locations. They were no more world wars than MLB “world series” championships aren’t actually World championships of baseball.

    The lack of a state does not imply total war everywhere. Even in our world of states, which is world level anarchy, there are only a few states actually at war with each other.

    I prefer the first choice. And I also prefer that we all have a say in what those rules are. Things will not be perfect, but the alternative is hell on earth.

    False dichotomy yet again. Cripes, you’re worse than the middle age priests threatening eternal hell on Earth if people stopped going to church and stopped obeying the priests. “Without the Church, Satan will rule the Earth!” “Without religious law, there will be eternal war and hellish conditions everywhere!”

    Pshaw. You’re just fear mongering that which you don’t understand.

    I prefer the second choice, because I prefer peace to perpetual war and I prefer doing more of what I want versus doing less of what I want. It serves my selfish interests.

    Since you are calling for a group of people to wage war against not only myself but everyone else not in the war mongering state, I consider you to be an enemy, and not a friend.

  161. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. April 2012 at 13:23

    Just out of curiosity, MF, what if one party claims all the arable land and defends it with his own private army? Would that be acceptable to you?

  162. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    16. April 2012 at 13:25

    Accusing someone of having Stockholm’s syndrome is not uncivil?

    Then the word has no meaning. You do seem like someione with a major neurological disorder based on how wordy and long your piosts often get. I suspect I’m not the first one to think that here at Money Illusion either.

    Your sophomric attempts to psychoanalyze me failed. If you are a rich guy it wasn’t by being the Freud of our age.

    “Maybe you too are suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome and felt personally insulted at the thought, so you conflated my argument with an uncivil attack against you, and, hilariously, hence dwb. Or, maybe you just don’t like it when those you don’t agree with, who are being treated as uncivil, dare stand up for themselves to their attackers?”

    The point was because Sautoros started accusing me of calling someone a “bourgeois pig” and getting uncivil. The beauty is that the comments are here for anyone to see and I used no such language.

    I was just wondering what it is that I might have said is unvicil while making uninformed slurs about people not taking their meds and stockholm’s syndrome is civil?

    I haven’t said anything here that is fake or that I don’t believe.

  163. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 13:25

    Propagation of Ideology:

    Agreed. But I never disputed that. All rights are dependent on force. Laws against murder and theft are coercive. That doesn’t mean those laws shouldn’t exist.

    But you’re not against murder or theft per se, you’re just against certain people doing it, and in favor of other people doing it.

    If you really did believe that murder and theft should be stopped, then not only would you cease calling yourself “Negation” of Ideology (since the belief that there should be laws against murder and theft are themselves ideologies), but you would also have to be against even those in the state ending the lives of people who did not initiate force themselves, for example you’d have to be against war, and police shooting at people who are defending themselves against police aggression, but you’d also have to be against those in the state taking the property of others backed by coercion, for example you’d have to be against eminent domain, and taxation.

    It’s no use to you to merely insist that the same exact actions above, should be legal for some people (the state), and illegal for other people (those not in the state), and then attach a different word to the same exact action, and pretend to have solved the problem. You’d only be presenting an argument akin to Catholic priests raping little boys and then seeing a priest justify it by saying it’s not rape because he’s a priest, that he’s really engaging in some “holy” act that has its own word, like “penitence” or some other Orwellian doublespeak.

    You can label identical actions as different words depending on who engages in the action, but I won’t. I am not an ideologue who is at war with language.

  164. Gravatar of D R D R
    16. April 2012 at 13:30

    “The same way the mere threat of the state stops many people from taking wealth from others, from killing others, from hurting others, etc, so too can my threat of force against you stop you from taking my wealth.”

    Only if our mutual threats are both credible and sufficiently large. Behind that “can” lies some pretty heroic assumptions.

  165. Gravatar of D R D R
    16. April 2012 at 13:38

    “But you’re not against murder or theft per se, you’re just against certain people doing it, and in favor of other people doing it.”

    That’s plain low. You should be ashamed of yourself for putting that in print.

  166. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 13:40

    Mike Sax:

    Accusing someone of having Stockholm’s syndrome is not uncivil?

    You mean psychologists who diagnose people as having it, are being uncivil?

    Then the word has no meaning.

    So words can either be uncivil or have no meaning? Haha.

    You do seem like someione with a major neurological disorder based on how wordy and long your piosts often get.

    Ah, so you too want to psychologize over the internet. How wonderful! You’re someone with a major, acute, pronounced, penetrating, and encompassing neurological, emotional, intellectual, and psychological disease, based on some arbitrary criteria I just made up to make me feel better about myself, and hope that I am not labeled as crazy by random internet Statists.

    I suspect I’m not the first one to think that here at Money Illusion either.

    You’re right. When a visitor walks through the halls of an insane asylum, chances are that person is perceived as crazy by the room occupants.

    Your sophomric attempts to psychoanalyze me failed.

    How’s that? Because you merely say so? Denial is oh so expected from crazy people.

    If you are a rich guy it wasn’t by being the Freud of our age.

    No, because Freud was wrong about many things, which is why he’s no longer the dominant intellectual force in psychology. But you already knew that, right? You’re not crazy.

    “Maybe you too are suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome and felt personally insulted at the thought, so you conflated my argument with an uncivil attack against you, and, hilariously, hence dwb. Or, maybe you just don’t like it when those you don’t agree with, who are being treated as uncivil, dare stand up for themselves to their attackers?”

    The point was because Sautoros started accusing me of calling someone a “bourgeois pig” and getting uncivil.

    You were prevented from being uncivil by having someone call you on your attempt to bring up personal wealth into the discussion, which was clearly an attempt to try and paint me as someone who is wrong based on that wealth. If you weren’t called out on it, and I played along, then you would have kept going with that “Are you wealthy” path where we all know where it will end up.

    The beauty is that the comments are here for anyone to see and I used no such language.

    Yeah, you’ve been oh so pure and civil in telling me I have a neurological disorder, and then trying to psychologize me into being upset or afraid that others might agree with you.

    Oh how pure you are. So obedient. So calm. Exactly like how you would probably act in the presence of the police, or an abusive parent.

    I was just wondering what it is that I might have said is unvicil while making uninformed slurs about people not taking their meds and stockholm’s syndrome is civil?

    Hahaha, as you stated, it’s all there in black and white. “Neurological disorder”? You believe that’s being civil?

    Look in the mirror.

    I haven’t said anything here that is fake or that I don’t believe.

    You are being fake here. You’re claiming to be civil, when you’re not being civil.

  167. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    16. April 2012 at 13:40

    Sax,

    dude, 100% of the time Soc. A is more fair / just for the poor. Because the poor GET MORE SHIT.

    everyone, I encourage you to draw out your own bar napkins and test this:

    http://twitpic.com/18krwv

    Show it to someone poor, they will IMMEDIATELY choose A, because they IDENTIFY as poor and just look to see in which system they get more shit.

    Someone not poor, but bothered by those above them who have “too much” will say something like this:

    “This doesn’t mean it is overall a better society or not-I don’t know nearly enough to really be able to say.”

    EVEN IF the test is to be the most fair to the poor, those that CLAIM to care will dissemble in front of you.

    That is what Rawls was doing. He was giving capitalists a great way for crushing those who are not honest about their intent.

  168. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    16. April 2012 at 13:50

    Morgan you need to link to Rawls cause you aren’t making the case yourself.

    Simply having more stuff doesn’t matter it’s about purchasing power. Also relative differences in wealth between the rich and poor also matter. I’m not a pure egalitarian but can’t deny that you can’t just ignore relative differences as well.

    If Society A is beter you got to give me a lot more detail. What you have doesnt have enough to justify your claims.

  169. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 13:56

    D R:

    “But you’re not against murder or theft per se, you’re just against certain people doing it, and in favor of other people doing it.”

    That’s plain low. You should be ashamed of yourself for putting that in print.

    You support the state D R, and that’s what statesmen do. I can only go by what you say.

    You’re still willingly paying taxes to the state despite them slaughtering innocent people in the middle east. You’re still willingly paying taxes to the state despite them taking people’s wealth without their consent.

    This is a stark truth D R, that you have to reconcile with.

  170. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    16. April 2012 at 13:59

    “Yeah, you’ve been oh so pure and civil in telling me I have a neurological disorder, and then trying to psychologize me into being upset or afraid that others might agree with you”

    Your confusing the time for one thing. Sautoros made his “unvicil” complaint long before the above comment I made to you.

    As you started the psychoiogizing with your attack on DR you don’t have much leg to stand on when it’s done to you.

    “You were prevented from being uncivil by having someone call you on your attempt to bring up personal wealth into the discussion, which was clearly an attempt to try and paint me as someone who is wrong based on that wealth. If you weren’t called out on it, and I played along, then you would have kept going with that “Are you wealthy” path where we all know where it will end up.”

    I wasn’t prevented from doing anything but never painted you as someone who was wrong based on your wealth. I found it funny when you declared you were wealthy and wanted everyonie to know but that’s nothing to do with simply saying your wrong based on your wealth.

    I actualy observed above in answer to Morgan that not eveyrone supports the politician or policy that will necesarily beenfit themselves most come tax day.

    Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are the two riches men in the world-give or take. And they are both right about the need for some tax redistribution and raising the top rate back to 39.6% and imposing the Buffett rule.

    So no, it’s not simply about whether someone is personally wealthy or not. Certianly never claimed that it was.If you could quite for me the line that has you and Sautoros so out of breath about alleged incivility on my part I could better speak to it.

  171. Gravatar of D R D R
    16. April 2012 at 13:59

    Morgan,

    You are presenting only half of Rawls’ Second Principle. There may be more equality of opportunity in B than in A.

  172. Gravatar of D R D R
    16. April 2012 at 14:09

    “You’re still willingly paying taxes to the state despite them slaughtering innocent people in the middle east. You’re still willingly paying taxes to the state despite them taking people’s wealth without their consent.

    “This is a stark truth D R, that you have to reconcile with.”

    That is true. I don’t even remotely deny it. Ours is a system which is tolerant of death. We could elect people who are not so tolerant of death. But your system, too, is tolerant of death. I wouldn’t say that you “favor” death. Yet you support individualism, and that’s what individuals do. I can only go by what you say.

  173. Gravatar of dwb dwb
    16. April 2012 at 14:16

    @mf,
    seriously i dont know how so many contradictions can live in the same brain. no central planning but you like small city state monarchies. i presume you are the king. well, stockholm syndrome or i still dont feel oppressed. my advice, if you do, vote with your feet.

  174. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 14:45

    dwb:

    seriously i dont know how so many contradictions can live in the same brain.

    It would help if you at least expose one alleged contradiction to make tat accusation something more than just bloviating.

    no central planning but you like small city state monarchies.

    No, I don’t “like” small city state monarchies. Again, I am just being descriptive.

    i presume you are the king.

    You presume wrong. I am only King of myself.

    well, stockholm syndrome or i still dont feel oppressed. my advice, if you do, vote with your feet.

    I have. Then my feet landed on yet another territory with war mongering states.

    Why? Because people like you abound all over the world, the same way my feet would have landed on a territory with war mongering churches, because people worshiped the church.

  175. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 14:56

    D R:

    “This is a stark truth D R, that you have to reconcile with.”

    That is true. I don’t even remotely deny it. Ours is a system which is tolerant of death.

    Tolerant? Or positively supportive of it?

    Suppose I found out the guy who owns the corner store down the street is a murderer and thief. Suppose I continue to pay him my money anyway, because I like to eat Doritos.

    Suppose you then told me that I am willingly supporting a murderer and thief. Would it then make any sense for me to say “But in a perfect corner store world, he wouldn’t murder to steal. I support corner stores in principle, and so I can pay him my money despite me not liking his murdering and stealing”?

    We could elect people who are not so tolerant of death.

    How can people tolerant of death elect people who are not tolerant of death?

    But your system, too, is tolerant of death. I wouldn’t say that you “favor” death. Yet you support individualism, and that’s what individuals do. I can only go by what you say.

    Except I wouldn’t be lying to myself or spewing falsehoods to others about claiming to be against murder whilst tolerating murder. I could be against murder and not tolerate it, and ACT on that conviction, to the best of my ability. Plus there is the added bonus of finding out the true convictions of people underneath their well fed, well groomed exteriors.

  176. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 15:35

    Mike Sax:

    “Yeah, you’ve been oh so pure and civil in telling me I have a neurological disorder, and then trying to psychologize me into being upset or afraid that others might agree with you”

    Your confusing the time for one thing. Sautoros made his “unvicil” complaint long before the above comment I made to you.

    I am not confused about timing. I am going by what you are saying versus what you are doing, and noticing a difference.

    As you started the psychoiogizing with your attack on DR you don’t have much leg to stand on when it’s done to you.

    No, if you’ve been keeping up, you would have notived that dwb started the psychologizing on me.

    “You were prevented from being uncivil by having someone call you on your attempt to bring up personal wealth into the discussion, which was clearly an attempt to try and paint me as someone who is wrong based on that wealth. If you weren’t called out on it, and I played along, then you would have kept going with that “Are you wealthy” path where we all know where it will end up.”

    I wasn’t prevented from doing anything but never painted you as someone who was wrong based on your wealth.

    Then why did you bring it up? Why ask? What did you intend to do with the information once you found out? Say aw shucks and let it go? Please.

    At least be honest.

    I found it funny when you declared you were wealthy and wanted everyonie to know but that’s nothing to do with simply saying your wrong based on your wealth.

    I found it funny when you declared you were wealthy and wanted everyone to know, which is why I mimicked you. I wanted to be funny too.

    I actualy observed above in answer to Morgan that not eveyrone supports the politician or policy that will necesarily beenfit themselves most come tax day.

    Quite right. And so what implications does that have on identifying whether the mandatory payments to the state are theft or otherwise? No difference? Why or why not?

    Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are the two riches men in the world-give or take. And they are both right about the need for some tax redistribution and raising the top rate back to 39.6% and imposing the Buffett rule.

    Since when did the pronouncements of people become false or true based on their wealth? By that logic, the Sultan of Brunei should have won multiple Nobel Prizes.

    Gates and Buffet publicly pronounce for some tax redistribution, yes. But both of them had or have government contracts or investments that are financed by or depend on taxation. So how can we be sure they are stating this from an unbiased perspective?

    So no, it’s not simply about whether someone is personally wealthy or not. Certianly never claimed that it was.If you could quite for me the line that has you and Sautoros so out of breath about alleged incivility on my part I could better speak to it.

    OK, suppose I answered your question and said that I am relatively wealthy. Now what? Where will you go with that information?

  177. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    16. April 2012 at 15:49

    “There may be more equality of opportunity in B than in A.”

    That’s actually fine according to Rawls. Meaning, we start with the presumption of equality, and then we move from that whenever it has more upside for everyone, particularly the folks at the bottom.

    Let’s say Society A dangles the carrot of having your kids be better off than than those who don’t achieve as much as you do. The prize is that your kids get a leg up. That’s basically the edge case right. Almost turns Rawls on his ear.

    OK, Rawls would not look at how the avg. middle class kid gets effected by that rule. Rawls would be about how does this rule effect the kids at the very bottom.

    He really did put weight what is best for the folks on the real bottom. Does Society A give the poor the best chance at IMPROVEMENT and I think this is important…. globally.

    Which gets back to the graph I showed.

    We’re talking about Society A vs. Society B.

    And you could basically POLL poor people globally and see where they want to live.

    Holy shit, we do, and they all move here. (jk)

    Rawls was not about we could improve America if we changed this policy, we’d be more just.

    It was very much about an honest appraisal of the entire system as it is organized compared to other organized systems.

    There was a strong presumption with facts onthe ground, not hypothesis.

    Said another way WHY is the US richer? And if the thing that makes use richer is the very thing you want to stop or change, Rawls would at least force you to admit you want a less rich America.

  178. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    16. April 2012 at 16:24

    JV, I agree.

    Mike Sax, I oppose any and all income taxes, so I guess I favor a top rate of 0%. I’m so out in left field on our current policy issues that there is no reason to even ask me. If we want to help the poor we should legalize drugs. And legalize employment between consenting adults, and have a wage subsidy for low wage adult workers.

    I favor a progressive consumption tax, and don’t have strong views on the top rate. I’d be fine with 20% or 50%. I don’t see it as an important issue. How we treat the world’s poor is the key issue, not the top rate on the rich.

    BTW, Obama is proposing a top rate of well over 50%, he’s just refusing to admit it. And right now the tax rate on 10 year T-bonds is over 100%.

    Morgan, You said;

    “Someone making $70K a year who is STILL talking about income inequality, they really just want to pull Bill Gates down and beat him, they can’t say that, so they talk about the poor.
    Rawls did his work to shut them up.”

    That’s actually a very good comment. You might have changed my mind on that issue.

    MF, No, selfishness is something completely different.

    Saturos, You said;

    “MF, oh, I get it now. Scott is saying that it is plausible and likely that a millionaire would prefer to give away ten thousand dollars to someone who has only 100 000.”

    Where do people come up with these nutty interpretations of utilitarianism? Have I ever said that?

    Tony, You said;

    “Although it makes for a fun debate, I think DMU is a weak vehicle for pro-utilitarianism arguments.”

    I agree.

    Saturos, You said;

    “That’s only defensible if you believe
    a) we already owe the government money from birth, despite not having voluntarily contracted with them; or
    b) property doesn’t really belong to anyone”

    I love it when people seem to claim that it’s written in the stars that an invention is “property” 16 years after being invented, but is “not property” 18 years after being invented. That this is some sort of “natural right” that exists separately from any decision by society to create such a property right.

    Saturos, You said;

    “But a committed utilitarian would have bitten the bullet here too, cancelling all future vacation plans and giving the money to AIDS relief or something.”

    This is really getting silly now. The same objection could be raised against ANY moral system. There are 2 billion Christians, I doubt there are 2 Christians who actually love their enemies, turn the other cheek, etc. If we are going to judge moral systems by whether people achieve perfection then we will never get anywhere.

    Second, what does Singer’s lifestyle have to do with my post? Did I ever claim Singer lived a perfect utilitarian life? I don’t, why should he? I try to at least vote on utilitarian principles, even if it’s against my own self-interest. But I’m too selfish to do much more than that. On the other hand if your daughter were dying of marlaria, and Singer could cure her by forgoing a vacation to the Rockies, what would you tell him to do? Now ask whether your answer would be different if it was my daughter. How about someone else’s daughter? Utilitarianism is a theory of what’s best for society, we don’t expect to achieve perfection in this world, full of selfish people. If you are right that it’s easy for Singer to find ways to save lives if he forgoes his vacation, then I’d say the world would be a better place if he didn’t go on vacation. But I’m not going to condemn him for being moderately selfish, like most people. I’m no better than he is, probably worse.

    You said;

    “So I suspect (and hope) that if it came right down to it, you and I wouldn’t differ all that much in our ethical choices, despite our superficial disagreement.”

    That’s obviously true. It’s silly to argue utilitarianism in terms of personal life, as it’s just an argument about definitions. I’d have more respect for anti-utilitarians if they could come up with just one example, in all of human history, where public policymakers following utilitarian principles, correctly interpreted, made the wrong choice. Just one. In contrast, I can come up with all sorts of bad anti-utilitarian public policies, like the law against selling organs.

    I don’t at all buy Bryan’s argument on the killing of Americans/Germans etc. Of course most people are very patriotic, and hence not pure utilitarians. But that has no bearing on what should be viewed as right and wrong. As I pointed out, when liberal-minded Germans had time to sit down and calmly consider the situation, they realized that Germany was at fault and deserved to lose. I think there are now many American who accept that the Indians were justified in killing US soldiers at Custer’s Last Stand. I’m not saying all Americans, but many do.

    The world has a long way to go to instill more utilitarian moral values, but we are making progress. Just look at the huge progress of utilitarianism in the area of gay rights since Bentham was alive. That should be celebrated.

    Why is truth useful if not to make people happier? Would you tell your mother or girlfriend that her new dress made her look really fat and ugly, if you thought it was the truth? We often lie, when the truth would hurt in utilitarian terms. Obviously in areas like science and politics the truth will generally produce better outcomes, and can be supported on utilitarian grounds.

    I agree that trust, integrity, loyalty, and friendship are important, but primarily because they produce a happier society. Denmark is the happiest country on Earth, according to surveys, and also the society with the highest level of civic trust–so I won’t argue with you there. I doubt that correlation is mere coincidence.

    I probably define happiness more broadly than you do, so that may explain most of our differences. Curiosity makes me happy, for instance, and so does beauty. Sadness often makes me very happy. For instance, I found the movie “Nobody Knows” to be almost unbearably sad, and that film provided me with a lot of utility. Indeed without films like that I’d find life to be not worth living. For me happiness is not “feeling giddy,” it’s positive mental states.

    Everyone. Marxists say property is theft. Some libertarians say taxation is theft. Actually property is property and taxation is taxation. And it’s a waste of time trying to solve complex social science problems using simplistic logic.

  179. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    16. April 2012 at 16:26

    Morgan the US is not rich for the reasons you think it is. And if your poor the fact that per capita income or average income is the highest in the world doesn’t help you.

  180. Gravatar of D R D R
    16. April 2012 at 16:36

    “Except I wouldn’t be lying to myself or spewing falsehoods to others about claiming to be against murder whilst tolerating murder.”

    As opposed to whom, exactly? I have no idea to whom you are trying to contrast yourself.

    “I could be against murder and not tolerate it, and ACT on that conviction, to the best of my ability”

    That in no way implies that there would be less murder in your preferred system. You can do all that regardless of the system. What if your system resulted in a great many more murders?

  181. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 17:32

    ssumner:

    MF, No, selfishness is something completely different.

    It’s not, because it is selfishness that leads to people valuing $10,000 in their own hands, versus $10,000 in someone else’s hands.

    Saturos, You said;

    “MF, oh, I get it now. Scott is saying that it is plausible and likely that a millionaire would prefer to give away ten thousand dollars to someone who has only 100 000.”

    Where do people come up with these nutty interpretations of utilitarianism? Have I ever said that?

    Yes. You said that was plausible, and even likely.

  182. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 17:36

    D R:

    “Except I wouldn’t be lying to myself or spewing falsehoods to others about claiming to be against murder whilst tolerating murder.”

    As opposed to whom, exactly? I have no idea to whom you are trying to contrast yourself.

    As opposed to everyone who says they are against murder and theft, while supporting the state.

    “I could be against murder and not tolerate it, and ACT on that conviction, to the best of my ability”

    That in no way implies that there would be less murder in your preferred system.

    Of course it would. Murder can only be reduced or eliminated when all instances of it are at least identified. If instances of murder do not even get identified, it’s impossible to reduce it.

    You can do all that regardless of the system. What if your system resulted in a great many more murders?

    States are by far the most murderous institution in the history of mankind. It would be silly to believe that an absence of states will result in more murder.

  183. Gravatar of dwb dwb
    16. April 2012 at 17:45

    @MF
    States are by far the most murderous institution in the history of mankind.

    dont you find it interesting that stable democracies do not attack each other? I do. hmmm wonder if that means something.

  184. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    16. April 2012 at 18:42

    dwb:

    dont you find it interesting that stable democracies do not attack each other?

    Ah yes, the myth introduced by Tocqueville.

    Democratic peace is an artifact of the cold war. It is due to common strategic interests, rather than common domestic characteristics. Nuclear deterrence has prevented large scale wars. There are many examples of monarchies at peace and not going to war as well.

    There are MANY examples of democratic states going to war with each other. I’ll just list the post WW2 examples, although there a ton more prior to WW2.

    Second World War, 1940-45, Great Britain, United States, et al. vs. Finland.

    First Indo-Pak War, 1947-49, India vs. Pakistan.

    Iran, Guatemala and Chile, 1953, 1954 and 1973 respectively. United-States-backed coups in Iran, Guatemala and Chile.

    Lebanese Civil War, 1978, 1982, Israel vs. Lebanon.

    Croatian War of Independence, 1991-92, Croatia vs. Yugoslavia.

    Border War, 1995, Ecuador vs. Peru.

    Kosovo War, 1999, NATO vs. Yugoslavia.

    Israel-Lebanon War 2006, Israel vs. Lebanon

  185. Gravatar of Tony N Tony N
    16. April 2012 at 19:29

    ssumner:

    “I’d have more respect for anti-utilitarians if they could come up with just one example, in all of human history, where public policymakers following utilitarian principles, correctly interpreted, made the wrong choice. Just one. In contrast, I can come up with all sorts of bad anti-utilitarian public policies, like the law against selling organs.”

    Respectfully, I’m not so sure that there are many examples of public policymakers making choices reflecting correctly interpreted utilitarian principles. I imagine that if there were, you’d be confronted with the kind example that eludes you.

  186. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    16. April 2012 at 19:34

    Saturos: “So you would rather be impoverished and then find $1000 on the ground, than find $5000 on the ground today. Okay. That still says nothing about whether the $1000 is worth more to you than the $5000 – much less whether it is worth “more to someone else than the $5000 is to you”.”

    I don’t think it is just me. I suspect it is a fairly general thing, just as the law of decreasing marginal utility of income is, well, called a “law”. As to your first claim, it is not precise enough as stated for me to try to answer. If you mean that that preference does not determine whether I prefer $1000 to $5000 – of course it doesn’t. Unless I fear being too rich to enter into Heaven, I will always prefer the $5000. If you mean that it doesn’t show that I don’t prefer going from $0 to $1000 over going from my current wealth to $5000 – well, you are wrong. That is exactly what that preference shows. If you mean some third thing, then please try again.

    As to your second claim, I am not trying to show that. Trying to divine my intentions after I ask one question of Major Freedom does not appear to be working.

    Saturos: “I don’t have preferences over transitions, though you might.”

    Gordon: “So you now grant that we *can* have such preferences? No longer is it “absurd””

    Saturos: What’s absurd is that you prefer a choice set over another choice set. You do no such thing; unless your preference is for the act of choosing itself. Preferences operate on objects, not on sets. Preferences are exercised as choices between alternatives in a set; you can’t prefer one subset to another. Your preference cannot be for a set of choices, as you haven’t then chosen anything. You could label one of the alternatives “the act of choosing between A and B” and another alternative “the act of choosing between alternative C and D” – but now those aren’t sets; they are objects.

    Sorry, but that is simply false. I can (and do) have preferences over sets. Nothing that you have said rules out the alternatives in the set being sets themselves. I will label them “choosing between A and B” and “choosing between C and D”. (Adding “act of” to these labels is only misleading.) Now, if you want to call “choosing between X and Y” an “object” be my guest. As I said to Major Freedom, I’m not interested in arguing over definitions.

    Saturos: “Would you prefer to have a choice between a Snickers and nothing, or a Snickers and another Snickers” is an absurd question.”

    There is nothing absurd about it. A choice between a Snickers and nothing might net me nothing; a choice between a Snickers and Snickers will always net me a Snickers. It is a sure thing. I prefer facing the second choice to the first. Perhaps you meant a choice between a [Snickers] and a [Snickers OR Snickers]? I am indifferent to that, since the latter choice simply reduces to “Snickers”.

  187. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    16. April 2012 at 20:24

    Gordon: So, having cleared the brush away, which do you prefer: the transition “$0 -> $10″ or the transition “$100 -> $110″?

    Major Freedom: These are not transitions.

    The labels are irrelevant to the argument. Please see my last reply to Saturos.

    MF: There are two different ends with two different initial starting points. Since even initial starting points are the product of prior ends, you have to ask if a person would rather have (the end of) $100 or (the end of) $0, and then ask if they would rather have $110 or the alternatives.

    First of all, why do I *have* to ask this? In actual fact, I do not ask it. Second, starting by asking if a person would rather have $100 or $0 is pointless.

    MF: It’s still absurd, because the choice isn’t “going from” one sum of money to another. It’s having one sum of money to another. I prefer to end up with owning $110, so I prefer “$100 to $110″ over “$0 to $10.”

    But that is not the choice I posed. I did not ask what sum of money – $0, $10, $100, or $110 – you would prefer to have. I know the answer to that, and repeating it back to me does nothing to advance the argument. Nor did I state or imply that you would end up with $110 if you happen to prefer “$100 -> $110” to “$0 -> $10”.

    MF: “The core reason myself and Saturos are antagonistic towards your arguments on preferences between transitions, is probably due to a core philosophical difference in how we view human action. Personally, I view human action as ends oriented. Means and ends so to speak. This is the Humean, Misesian, Weberian conception of human behavior. You seem to adhere to a form of Deweyism, where human behavior does not have any ends per se, just a series of means that are themselves ends, as in a continual path, a “journey”. I am almsot certain that at some point in your life, you’ve heard of the saying “It’s the journey that matters, not the goal.” Perhaps you took that saying to heart, and it is now, intentionally or unintentionally, guiding your thoughts.”

    As it happens, Hume is a favorite of mine. Rather than trying to label my views or psychologize my thought process, let me suggest that you simply try to answer my questions – or ignore my posts. Transforming my question into one about whether you prefer $0 or $10 or $100 to $110 gets us nowhere. Let’s try another example.

    There are two groups of people. Those in group A have only $0. Those in group B have only $100. You are an A or a B, but you don’t know which. Would you prefer than the As receive $10 or the Bs receive $10?

  188. Gravatar of dwb dwb
    17. April 2012 at 03:49

    @MF,
    i could go through each example what would be the point. I still have not heard what you are actually in favor of, whats your alternative. Its easy and lazy to to come up with just negatives without looking at what the alternative is – which is what?

  189. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    17. April 2012 at 06:31

    “I oppose any and all income taxes, so I guess I favor a top rate of 0%. I’m so out in left field on our current policy issues that there is no reason to even ask me. If we want to help the poor we should legalize drugs. And legalize employment between consenting adults, and have a wage subsidy for low wage adult workers.”

    “I favor a progressive consumption tax, and don’t have strong views on the top rate. I’d be fine with 20% or 50%. I don’t see it as an important issue. How we treat the world’s poor is the key issue, not the top rate on the rich.”

    Scott, I can respect that you are in “left field” some might say “right field” LOL

    My only reason for brining it up is becuae while discussiions of philosophy and theory is interesting and necessary still you do sometimes wonder what the policy implications of a partiuclar philosophy is.

    For example we both agree about declining marginal utility with a rise in income. Yet clearly we see the issue of taxaation differntly. I’d probably also be willing to call myself a utilitarian.

    I promise to leave the tax issue after just one more thought on what you said. Obviously how the poor are treated is the whole point-for me part of the point of treating the world’s poor well is to do things that give us fewer poor. You spoke of the “world’s poor” which is differnt than speaking of the “nation’s poor.”

    What we can do about the American poor is different than what we can do for the world’s poor. In the second case probably less though there are some things.

    True, treating the world’s poor in the right way cumulatively is more important than what the top rate is. Yet, some-I myself for example-might think that the top rate has some bearing on how the poor are treated. A higher top rate gives us more revenue that can be used to help them. Not necessarily on just welfare which many color in a very pejorative way. Not me, I hvae no trouble saying that if someone simply has no means of independent support that we as a society should do somethign rather than letting them rot on teh street. By this measure we don’t have much welfare. UI isn’t acdtually welfare or SS or Medicare. But I would also support government jobs as a last resort.

    Of course a consuption or wage tax is another way to raise revenue. But as we both acknowelge the declining utiltiy of higher income a consuption tax leasds to less consumption which is not what we should want if we desire more prospertiy. I have trouble with the idea that a consumption and wage tax system would be fairer much less better for the poor-or even large parts of the middle class. You mention a wage subsidy-I find it hard to imagine the GOP Congress voting for one that is meaningful.

    I would seem to agree witih you on somethings like ending the war on drugs and immigration. But here’s what I wonder. You and Tyler Cowen think more immigration would be a good thing. With me you’re certianly preaching to the choir. Yet I’m presuming that both you guys-assuming you vote-are partial to the GOP.

    The GOP is implacably opposed to both in any way relaxing the drug laws and certianly doing anything for more immigration. I notice that libertarians are always willing to compromise their alleged social libertarianism for the economic libertarianisn that the GOP supports.

    But I don’t get that and it makes me feel like their libertarianism at least on social issues is pretty skin deep. If anyone is a libertarian how do they vote for a party that wrote the vaginal probe law down in Virginia and similar laws in other states.

  190. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    17. April 2012 at 12:29

    Scott,

    First of all, kudos to you for sifting through this epic thread. You’re committed. I know I said I wouldn’t do this, but I’ll have one last go at this.

    “Did I ever claim Singer lived a perfect utilitarian life? I don’t, why should he? I try to at least vote on utilitarian principles, even if it’s against my own self-interest. But I’m too selfish to do much more than that. On the other hand if your daughter were dying of marlaria, and Singer could cure her by forgoing a vacation to the Rockies, what would you tell him to do? Now ask whether your answer would be different if it was my daughter. How about someone else’s daughter? Utilitarianism is a theory of what’s best for society, we don’t expect to achieve perfection in this world, full of selfish people.”

    And here is where most critics of libertarianism (“teleological” libertarianism, as opposed to your instrumental kind) misunderstand. If my child were dying of malaria, of course I’d beseech him to save her if he could. Because I’m biologically selfish, I’d beseech him somewhat less in the case of someone else. But that misses the point. What I would not do is consider it morally acceptable to force Singer to give up his wealth to save my child, or anyone else’s for that matter. The fact that I would like to be helped doesn’t imply that I endorse coercing people to help me. (In fact I think Singer gives plenty of his wealth to charity already – 20%, I don’t think it is just to even exhort someone to be more charitable than that.) Of course, it’s easy for me to say that now, when I’m not in that situation. Because I’m a weak and fallible human, when I actually find myself in that situation I’d probably cave and attempt to rob people to save my child. Similarly, most people regard cannibalism as wrong, and yet (as the Joker was wont to point out) we easily descend to the moral level of beasts when under enough pressure. People are eating each other right now in North Korea. But is that going to make it any less wrong? And are we going to stop trying our level best not to do such a thing?

    One way to interpret this is as follows: If I could act now to tie my own hands so that I never could steal or cannibalize, like a gambler’s precommitment (though I would want to leave a little flexibility on the stealing), I would do so. Just as I believe it would be morally wrong for me to punch the person next to me, and am choosing not to, I also believe I should never do those things, and would bear out that belief by acting now to ensure my future self never does. This is in contrast to utilitarians who are willing to expropriate others’ money “if it improves aggregate utility”, yet will excuse themselves for their human failings when asked to give more of their own. My ethical beliefs say I should give more to charity, and therefore I feel guilty that I don’t. I’m merely “not as good as I could be”, and painfully aware of that. But yours say that not saving a life is as bad as taking one – and yet you blithely continue to passively murder. So I think you should either drop your absurd dogma, which imposes what I regard as unreasonable and unfair obligations on you, Singer, hungry Africans and everyone else – or else get up and maximise aggregate utility. Since I don’t believe in aggregate utility, I don’t regard it as a moral crime not to do that – but you should. And because I don’t believe you’re obligated to, I also don’t believe I’m justified in forcing you to (whereas you would believe that you would be justified in forcing me to, under the right circumstances.) This is what I meant when I brought up trust and friendship – no one really behaves like that in person, utilitarians included, or those are impossible. People only endorse coercion of distant others – they would never admit to harboring coercive intent toward others in person, because we’re evolved not to, unless the situation is sufficiently abstract that our moral-emotive response fails to kick in properly.

  191. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    17. April 2012 at 12:33

    I just think it’s an immense contradiction to say you think you ought to do something right now, but that you won’t. If you truly regarded it as morally obligatory to help someone, then you would do it. If I have promised someone money, but I say, “I’m too selfish” and default, knowing that he can’t collect, then I am defaulting on my moral obligation. If you are utilitarian, you are similarly obliged to give most (all?) of your spare income to charity – saying you’re too weak won’t cut it. In fact, Christians who are serious about their religion do try to live more like Jesus all the time – and when they default on their obligations or sin against others (and remember, for Singer letting orphans die is equivalent to murdering them), they do penance or beg God for forgiveness. In other words, they hold themselves practically accountable. Again, what I see is that Utilitarians don’t really believe that they are obliged to give oodles to charity, in the same way as they are obliged not to eg. physically attack people. Really, there should be no Utilitarians with two kidneys. You can’t believe you are obligated to help less fortunate people to the same extent as you are obligated not to hurt them and then refuse day after day to give up your spare kidney. I’m not a utilitarian, I have the luxury of saying that it would be merely virtuous or supererogatory to donate organs, but that one who doesn’t isn’t living in a way that’s morally inadequate. But you don’t. Still less do I believe that I am justified in forcing others to live up to utilitarian prescriptions I myself can’t fully satisfy. Regarding your comment on policymakers, it’s precisely because most people are too selfish to really be utilitarian, that I’m most afraid of what politicians can do and have done once inspired by the “maximise social welfare” imperative.

    “I’m not going to condemn him for being moderately selfish, like most people.” Nor would I. But it still seems to me a clear case of hypocrisy – and if that isn’t a cut and dried way of losing a philosophical debate, tell me what is. I’ll stop with this argument here, but for more, there’s Bryan’s latest: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/04/catholic_versus.html

    “Just look at the huge progress of utilitarianism in the area of gay rights since Bentham was alive.”

    No, you see Scott, gay rights is about rights. We have no way of knowing whether the satisfaction to gay people from not being discriminated against outweighs the dissatisfaction to all those distressed by them. Indeed most supporters would be horrified at compromising on the inclusion within society of their favored endangered minority no matter how much happiness resulted. Just as raping someone in their sleep is wrong even if they never find out and you gain much happiness from it. They may also likely argue that a woman has the right to abort her own fetus, no matter how much utility she is destroying.

    Relatedly, I see the march of “neoliberal values” as having more to do with the increasingly open structure and conditions of society forcing people to apply their innate instincts in a better way.

  192. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    17. April 2012 at 12:36

    “Would you tell your mother or girlfriend that her new dress made her look really fat and ugly, if you thought it was the truth?”

    Here’s a better example. I would tell my friend or sister the truth if I knew her husband was cheating on her – even though I expected the affair to pass undetected otherwise for the rest of their lives, and it caused them distress once it was found out. In your example, I probably wouldn’t – but that’s because I’m capable of balancing several values without needing to reduce them to a common denominator. Which brings us to:

    “I probably define happiness more broadly than you do, so that may explain most of our differences. Curiosity makes me happy, for instance, and so does beauty. Sadness often makes me very happy. For instance, I found the movie “Nobody Knows” to be almost unbearably sad, and that film provided me with a lot of utility. Indeed without films like that I’d find life to be not worth living. For me happiness is not “feeling giddy,” it’s positive mental states.”

    When I come to this blog to read and comment, I don’t do so because it makes me feel giddy. Nor do I do it *because* it makes me happy, or provides me with emotional release, or a “positive emotional state”. I do it because I value the blog, value the ideas in it, including the more general idea of improving the world, but also the idea of understanding economics better *for its own sake*. I don’t consume the blog merely as a means to the end of acquiring a positive mental state (though if I reflect on my choice, I find I’m happy with it) – I do it as, more or less, an end in itself. And I suspect the same goes for many others here.

    Utilitarianism of the “real” kind is premised on the notion that human life can be reduced to the pursuit of a single kind of benefit, either happiness or more broadly some “positive psychology”. This could in principle be quantified and compared across individuals. Humans act to increase their stock of “wellbeing” – even if it means watching a sad movie. But we don’t act, according to them, to watch a movie or listen to music as an end in itself, independently of how it makes us feel or of some psychological state it imparts upon us. We don’t simply value the object of having watched that movie because it is good. Not what it does for us, but because it was a good thing worth experiencing. Not because of the “satisfaction” of some kind which we derived from it, not because we were chasing the end state of being satisfied in some way to which the movie was but a means, but because of what the movie was in itself. In fact, if experiences were but means towards the end of boosting the quality of our own mental state, then it would be more efficient if we found away to provide ourselves with the mental-state-gains directly, independently of the object of experience. (That’s what drugs are for). Seriously, the things people choose in their lives are far too varied and complex to be reduced to the mechanical pursuit of positive internal states. Of course making choices which we regard as good makes us feel positive. But that’s not why we choose what we choose – we choose to worship our gods because of what they are, not the mental states they impart upon us. The idiosyncratic values of indivuals can be ranked ordinally, but there is no substrate which would be compared cardinally. I.e. I deny that wellbeing is fully captured by any variables measured by psychologists. You might think you do what you do because it gives you the mental state you were looking for – maybe often you just do want to feel happier, or something-er – but I suspect if you paid more attention to the phenomenology here you’d notice more to it.

    “Man does not seek happiness, only the Englishman” – Nietzsche

    P.S. I’m totally gonna rent Nobody Knows though, thanks for the tip.

  193. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    18. April 2012 at 01:02

    I can give you one idea of how to create a system that I (and probably Scott) would prefer immediately:

    1) Abolish all income taxes/subsides and replace them with the VAT.

    2) Enable every citizen for tax refund for a specified sum a year. Any person may submit any receipts to a tax office for a given year and have all the tax reimbursed up to that specified sum. Alternatively, just have government give every living person that specified sum no matter how “rich” they are. If they are truly rich, the government will gather much more than it gives. If they are poor then this means direct subsidy (negative tax).

    Use income only for determining transfers, that means that everyone who wants to be part of some social scheme has to submit something akin to income/wealth declaration. If the conditions are met, such person may be eligible for a government social scheme (financed by general VAT).

    Of course there is still space for other “taxation”. From the pure revenue point of view, government can still tax veblen goods or other luxury goods. This way only those hedonistic rich will be taxed, not the ones that themselves live relatively modest lives and use their income for reinvestment. Government could also be active in pigovian taxes that should be used to offset negative externalities so that the market retains its efficiency.

    If you would do this, you basically remove difference between income from wages and income from capital. Since there would be no “loopholes” (because there is no tax on income) people would not go into great lengths changing one form of income to another. You could make contract with whomever you wish without threat of bureaucratic nightmare as it is now.

    That is how I see the system right now. Government deliberately restricts people selling their labor from advantageous organizational forms (such as limited liability comnpanies) from the tax point of view. If your income stems from capital gains, you have a lot of ways how to lower your tax liability. There is nowhere near such ammount of tools for average laborer. By shifting the tax into consumption, you make these organizational forms irrelevant from the tax point of view. They will be only good for the things they were created – for safely pooling resources of individuals for new investment opportunities. Not for lucky individual to pool their income so they are not taxed – as it is now. In this sense, shifting taxation into consumption is very “lefty” thing as it may dramatically increase overall ammount of taxes actually paid by rich people.

  194. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    18. April 2012 at 05:23

    “These are not transitions.”

    The labels are irrelevant to the argument. Please see my last reply to Saturos.

    It’s not merely labels. They are referring to two different things, one is referring to a change, the other is referring to an end.

    I choose based on ends, not the changes. The changes presupposes goal seeking behavior.

    “There are two different ends with two different initial starting points. Since even initial starting points are the product of prior ends, you have to ask if a person would rather have (the end of) $100 or (the end of) $0, and then ask if they would rather have $110 or the alternatives.”

    First of all, why do I *have* to ask this?

    Because setting up two initial starting points is coherent only if they were themselves the product of choices.

    In actual fact, I do not ask it.

    That’s one reason among many why I reject your scenario.

    Second, starting by asking if a person would rather have $100 or $0 is pointless.

    It may be pointless as a hypothetical choice, but answering it is not pointless to this discussion. It shows how the two choice sets collapses down to a choice.

    “It’s still absurd, because the choice isn’t “going from” one sum of money to another. It’s having one sum of money to another. I prefer to end up with owning $110, so I prefer “$100 to $110″ over “$0 to $10.”

    But that is not the choice I posed. I did not ask what sum of money – $0, $10, $100, or $110 – you would prefer to have.

    But the sums of money are implied in the choice. It doesn’t matter if you are not consciously aware of it.

    It would be like me asking you if you’d rather transition, without any equipment, from a flying plane to the ground, or from your office to the store, and then after you say you’d rather choose the office to the store, on the basis that you don’t want to end up as a pancake, I then say “That isn’t a choice I am presenting to you. I am not presenting a choice of where you will end up, I am presenting a choice only of transitions. So make your choice based on that, not on where you will end up.”

    Then I will say you’re ignoring the ends implied in your choices, because I choose based on ends, not merely transitions. Sure, I’d love to fly through the air, but it has to have a desirable end. If it doesn’t, then I won’t choose it, regardless of how fun it would be to fly.

    I know the answer to that, and repeating it back to me does nothing to advance the argument. Nor did I state or imply that you would end up with $110 if you happen to prefer “$100 -> $110” to “$0 -> $10”.

    Then you are just butchering the English language, because offering a choice of “$100 -> $110″ to me says starting with $100 and ending up with $110. If that’s all you say, then you can’t then ad hoc say “Oh, you may or may not already have more than $110 through some other means.” Even if that were the case, I’d STILL choose $100 to $110, because that single marginal increase will increase my ending wealth, all else equal. Even if all else is not equal, I’m still better off.

    “The core reason myself and Saturos are antagonistic towards your arguments on preferences between transitions, is probably due to a core philosophical difference in how we view human action. Personally, I view human action as ends oriented. Means and ends so to speak. This is the Humean, Misesian, Weberian conception of human behavior. You seem to adhere to a form of Deweyism, where human behavior does not have any ends per se, just a series of means that are themselves ends, as in a continual path, a “journey”. I am almsot certain that at some point in your life, you’ve heard of the saying “It’s the journey that matters, not the goal.” Perhaps you took that saying to heart, and it is now, intentionally or unintentionally, guiding your thoughts.”

    As it happens, Hume is a favorite of mine. Rather than trying to label my views or psychologize my thought process, let me suggest that you simply try to answer my questions – or ignore my posts.

    Oh blow it out your keester Gordon. I’m not trying to label you, I’m trying to understand you, because as of now, I think you’re completely confused, belligerent, and seemingly not interested at all in understanding others.

    Transforming my question into one about whether you prefer $0 or $10 or $100 to $110 gets us nowhere.

    I didn’t transform it into that question. I took your examples and chose based solely on the end point. You say I can’t do that, but there is nothing in your examples that logically prevents it.

    Let’s try another example.

    There are two groups of people. Those in group A have only $0. Those in group B have only $100. You are an A or a B, but you don’t know which. Would you prefer than the As receive $10 or the Bs receive $10?

    Ah, so you’re coming from a Rawlsian perspective? Please note, I’m not trying to label, I’m trying to understand. Veil of ignorance type stuff? This example is different from the first, because before there were no groups, there was no uncertainty, and now there are groups and certainty.

    OK, let me take a shot at this.

    If I don’t know which group I am in, then right away you see how this is different from real life, because in real life every individual knows how much they have, right? That this question completely nullifies reality?

    If I don’t know which group I am in, and I have to choose which group gets $10 more, then I would choose group A, because I think it’s better for me to have a certain minimum of $10 with an uncertain upside gamble of $100, rather than a minimum of $0 with an uncertain upside gamble of $110.

    This choice you are presenting is a choice of risk tolerance, of choosing between two (risky) ends, and not transitions yet again. I would choose giving the $10 to group A because in that choice, I am guaranteed the specific end characterized by “a minimum of $10.” I’d rather have a minimum $10 than a minimum $0.

    Your example is still not a transition, but again it is two different ends. The one end is everyone in group A having $10 and everyone in B having $100. The other end is everyone is group A having $0 and everyone in B having $110. Risk is introduced because it is stipulated that I don’t know which group I am in. So I would choose group B given that criteria.

    If I knew which group I am in, which is closer to reality, then I would choose giving the $10 to whichever group I am in.

    dwb:

    “i could go through each example what would be the point.”

    So you don’t see a point to making arguments, unless you have an archetype to focus on while you argue? That you need to know which universal religion I adhere to so as to form a straw man “type” in your mind to attack?

    You can’t move forward unless you know which type of monster you’re dealing with so that you know which spell to cast?

    “I still have not heard what you are actually in favor of, whats your alternative.”

    I am in favor of my own unique philosophy.

    Its easy and lazy to to come up with just negatives without looking at what the alternative is – which is what?

    It’s easy? Quite the opposite. It’s easier to just play follow the leader like what you’re doing. It’s intellectually lazy as well because you let others do the thinking for you. There is zero originality in what you’re saying, and you have the gall to tell me I’m being intellectually lazy?

    You’re completely derailing this conversation into some personal vendetta. All I wanted to do was address the notion that democracy constrains the size of the state. I address that notion, and that’s it.

    I prefer not to play your silly game of telling you what category I consider myself belonging to, so that you can straw man that category and pretend to have addressed what I said.

  195. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    18. April 2012 at 11:26

    I am in favor of my own unique philosophy.

    Oh man, please elaborate :)

  196. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    18. April 2012 at 11:38

    You know what though, Scott, you’re right. I’m a Friedmanite at heart, and I’m happy to argue economic freedom on largely utilitarian grounds (I might even use the phrase “greatest good for the greatest number” when persuading people). In fact that’s what I usually do. So in that sense your utilitarianism really is “pragmatic”.

  197. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    18. April 2012 at 12:02

    Saturos:

    “I am in favor of my own unique philosophy.”

    Oh man, please elaborate

    Here on this blog? Impossible. It can only be elaborated within and through arguments.

  198. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    19. April 2012 at 00:14

    “If your income stems from capital gains, you have a lot of ways how to lower your tax liability. There is nowhere near such ammount of tools for average laborer. By shifting the tax into consumption, you make these organizational forms irrelevant from the tax point of view. They will be only good for the things they were created – for safely pooling resources of individuals for new investment opportunities. Not for lucky individual to pool their income so they are not taxed – as it is now. In this sense, shifting taxation into consumption is very “lefty” thing as it may dramatically ”
    increase overall ammount of taxes actually paid by rich people.”

    Dubois I’m not following you. You say there are lots of ways to shiled your income from a capital gains standpoint. Of course, one way is that cap gains are so undertaxed relative to earned income. Nor od I buy the idea of a “double tax.” I mean is you own a stock and the company pays taxes that’s not the same as you paying on your own holdings.

    Consumption taxes will end people shielding capitgal gains form taxes by simply not taxing them. As nonrich people-not oly the poor-spend a lot more money as a percentage of total income on consumption than even spendthrift rich people there’s no way to claim that a consumption tax is progressive.

  199. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    19. April 2012 at 07:43

    Tony N, OK, name any policy that made the world a happier place, that you oppose. What would it be?

    Mike Sax, You said;

    “What we can do about the American poor is different than what we can do for the world’s poor. In the second case probably less though there are some things.”

    Just the opposite, it’s far easier to help the world’s poor.

    You said:

    “Of course a consumption or wage tax is another way to raise revenue. But as we both acknowledge the declining utiltiy of higher income a consuption tax leasds to less consumption which is not what we should want if we desire more prospertiy.”

    Just the opposite, less consumption and more saving today leads to faster economic growth.

    The fact that the GOP won’t do a wage subsidy is beside the point. We are talking about optimal policies here. It’s just as true that the GOP won’t do a high tax rate on the rich (your policy.)

    The Dems are just as opposed to weakening the drug laws as the GOP. Indeed Obama is currently making the laws against pot even tighter. It’s the public, including GOP voters, who favor ideas like medical marijuana–both parties oppose these initiatives.

    Saturos, You said;

    “I just think it’s an immense contradiction to say you think you ought to do something right now, but that you won’t. If you truly regarded it as morally obligatory to help someone, then you would do it.”

    I never said it was morally obligatory, I said the world would be a better place if a rich person gave money to a starving person in such a way that disincentive effects didn’t negate the improvement in human welfare. How could anyone disagree with that? And I said I’d vote for public policies that boosted aggregate welfare in utilitarian terms. (I do see how people could disagree with that.) That’s different from saying it’s “morally obligatory”, I’m not sure if I even know what that means. People are selfish; it would be nice if they acted in a less selfish manner, that’s all I’m saying.

    You said;

    “In fact, Christians who are serious about their religion do try to live more like Jesus all the time”

    Yes, and 99.9999% of them fail almost every single hour of every day. And I try to live like a utilitarian, and often fail.

    You said;

    “they do penance or beg God for forgiveness. In other words, they hold themselves practically accountable.”

    How can I do this if I don’t believe in God? What makes you think I hold myself less accountable than the world’s 2 billion Christians?

    Regarding gay rights, I’d claim that the deontological arguments failed. Only when the media began presenting sympathetic gay characters did the younger generation turn away from bigotry. These characters allowed viewers to sympathize with the suffering of others, and led to support for gay rights for utilitarian reasons.

    I would not report the romantic affair to a friend in the situation you describe.

    You said;

    “Utilitarianism of the “real” kind is premised on the notion that human life can be reduced to the pursuit of a single kind of benefit,”

    I don’t see it that way. I think there are hundreds of different types of things that can boost utility. Perhaps the word “happiness” is getting in the way. I don’t mean life is all about putting smiles on peoples’ faces.

    I’m fine with drugs in theory, but of course many drugs provide quick happiness and long term misery, and hence can be rejected on utilitarian grounds. Some drugs treat mental illness, I have no objection to those in principle (if they work.)

    JV, Those are good points.

  200. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    19. April 2012 at 08:21

    Major_Freedom: Oh blow it out your keester Gordon. I’m not trying to label you, I’m trying to understand you, because as of now, I think you’re completely confused, belligerent, and seemingly not interested at all in understanding others.

    Strange, but I was thinking the same about you! ;-) In any event, I was not the first person to suggest that someone posting here, “blow it out your keester”.

    MF: Ah, so you’re coming from a Rawlsian perspective? Please note, I’m not trying to label, I’m trying to understand. Veil of ignorance type stuff? This example is different from the first, because before there were no groups, there was no uncertainty, and now there are groups and certainty.

    I am making use of the “veil of ignorance” (which Rawls got from Harsanyi, btw), but I would not say I was coming at the matter from a “Rawlsian perspective”. The example is different, of course, but it is just another way of illustrating the same point, an example that – I had hoped – is clearer. But now I am not sure about that. Did you mean instead to write “now there are groups and *un*certainty”?

    MF: If I don’t know which group I am in, then right away you see how this is different from real life, because in real life every individual knows how much they have, right? That this question completely nullifies reality?

    It’s a thought experiment, like, say, the evenly rotating economy (as discussed by Mises in Human Action). Models often abstract from real life to get at essentials. Such abstraction may or may not prove useful in explication, but I don’t see how it “nullifies reality”.

    MF: If I don’t know which group I am in, and I have to choose which group gets $10 more, then I would choose group A, because I think it’s better for me to have a certain minimum of $10 with an uncertain upside gamble of $100, rather than a minimum of $0 with an uncertain upside gamble of $110.

    I don’t understand what you mean by “with an uncertain upside gamble of $100″. You are already in one of the two groups. If you are an A, there is no chance that you will end up with $100 (or $110).

    With that aside, I think your choice is the one that all, or almost all, human beings would make. Do you agree?

    MF: The one end is everyone in group A having $10 and everyone in B having $100. The other end is everyone is group A having $0 and everyone in B having $110. Risk is introduced because it is stipulated that I don’t know which group I am in. So I would choose group B given that criteria.

    Well, now, I am puzzled why this restatement of yours leads you to change your mind. If, as you said above, it would be better for you to have $10 rather than 0, why are you preferring the alternative that could result in your having only $0?

  201. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    19. April 2012 at 08:59

    Gordon:

    Strange, but I was thinking the same about you!

    How original.

    I am making use of the “veil of ignorance” (which Rawls got from Harsanyi, btw), but I would not say I was coming at the matter from a “Rawlsian perspective”. The example is different, of course, but it is just another way of illustrating the same point, an example that – I had hoped – is clearer. But now I am not sure about that. Did you mean instead to write “now there are groups and *un*certainty”?

    Yes.

    I don’t understand what you mean by “with an uncertain upside gamble of $100″. You are already in one of the two groups. If you are an A, there is no chance that you will end up with $100 (or $110).

    It means I could be in group B and have $100, and I could be in group A with $10, given that I say group A should get $10. It’s stipulated I don’t know which group I’m in, so if I choose group A to get the $10, then I am guaranteed at least $10 no matter which group I am in, but because one of the groups (group B) has $100, there is a chance I might get $100. That’s what I meant by upside gamble.

    On the other hand, if I choose group B to get the $10, then continuing with the stipulation of me not knowing which group I am in, I might get $0 (if I am in group A) and I might get $110 (if I am in group B). There is no guaranteed positive amount minimum, and in my particular preference function, I value the end characterized by a certain minimum of $10 with an upside gamble of $100, over the alternative end of a minimum of $0 with an upside gamble of $110.

    So the end I am choosing is a guaranteed minimum of $10 with a potential of having $100, over the end of a possible $0 or $110.

    With that aside, I think your choice is the one that all, or almost all, human beings would make. Do you agree?

    I don’t know, but I would imagine so. At any rate, I don’t see how this uncertain example shows the validity of preferring transitions and how it makes goals irrelevant.

    Well, now, I am puzzled why this restatement of yours leads you to change your mind. If, as you said above, it would be better for you to have $10 rather than 0, why are you preferring the alternative that could result in your having only $0?

    Sorry, I meant I would choose group A. In a risky situation, I would choose group A because then I would be guaranteed a minimum $10.

    I guess I’m just not giving my full effort in responding to your series of posts. That’s why my responses have been rather sloppy.

    I think I have made it clear that one does not choose transitions, but rather one chooses among alternative ends. Both of your scenarios are clearly ends oriented choices.

  202. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    19. April 2012 at 10:39

    Gordon: With that aside, I think your choice is the one that all, or almost all, human beings would make. Do you agree?

    Major Freedom: I don’t know, but I would imagine so.

    OK, good. So, now, you have a choice between the As having $0 and the Bs having $100, or the As having $10 and the Bs having $90. Which do you prefer, not knowing if you are an A or a B?

  203. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    20. April 2012 at 02:05

    Mike: I am sorry, I should say that some people have easy way to shift their wages into capital gains which are taxed lower than wages. I am not American myself, but I imagine it works in a similar way as in my country. If you are consultant or some person that performs relatively independent – goal oriented work, then you are lucky. You can create limited liability company and let yourself be hired by other companies that will officially buy “services” from you. If you are one man company you may hire yourself for minimum wage and receive bulk of your income as capital gains – even if it really is mostly work. You may use tax loopholes – such as putting rent for your office (where you also happen to live), bills for gas and car repairs and multitude of other things as tax expenses of your company. In the absence of wealth or consumption tax you can easily negate almost all taxes from your income even if you are relatively rich.
    .
    So it is not only about capital gains tax rate, it is about expenses. Tell me how the tax office knows if the cleansing articles were used to clean your office, or your own house. If the dinner was a “business dinner” or a family dinner. If the business trip was not really just disguised private trip with your friend being in the same 5 star hotel (possibly in the same room) was purely by chance. If your internet and phone bills was used for business or private purposes. I hope you get what I mean.
    .
    Compare it to possibilities of a worker who works behind an assembly line. In my country government actively restricts such worker from creating LLC that could serve as a shell for him selling his “labor services”. The barriers are as follows:

    - There are regulation based on definition of so called “dependant activity”. It means that if you perform activity that needs to be under constant supervision, it has to be done exclusively under a wage contract. Otherwise your employer faces quite sever fines from labor bureau. The only exception from this regime are human-resources agencies that need to pass through tough regulation to get to sell the labor of the workers with whom they have sepearate contracts with. The “funny” thing is that government markets this restriction as a “protection” of the labor force.

    - There is a lot of bureaucracy that needs to be done if you have LLC. Average person would need to hire accountant for fixed costs which means that the returns are lower the lower your income (and potential tax evasion benefits) is.

    So the game being played right now is how to effectively evade taxes. The tax compliance falls almost every year – as it goes hand in hand with rising income inequality and rich having much more incentives to evade their taxes due to lower real impact of the barriers that government puts in place. This puts a lot of pressure pressure to increase tax rate, invent a new and ineffective taxes (with a lot of DWL) “improve” regulation (so that fewer workers cannot sell “services” instead of labor) etc.

  204. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    21. April 2012 at 15:43

    Gordon:

    Gordon: With that aside, I think your choice is the one that all, or almost all, human beings would make. Do you agree?

    Major Freedom: I don’t know, but I would imagine so.

    OK, good. So, now, you have a choice between the As having $0 and the Bs having $100, or the As having $10 and the Bs having $90. Which do you prefer, not knowing if you are an A or a B?

    I would choose A, again SOLELY due to the end, not any transition. I’d rather have a guaranteed minimum of $10 with a possible $90 than a crap shoot between $0 and $100.

  205. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    21. April 2012 at 19:02

    Major Freedom: I would choose A, again SOLELY due to the end, not any transition. I’d rather have a guaranteed minimum of $10 with a possible $90 than a crap shoot between $0 and $100.

    OK, and I think your choice would be quite widely shared. Now, much earlier you said:

    Some heretical economists know that inter-subjective utility comparisons are impossible. One cannot “add up” individual utilities to arrive at some “aggregate utility.”

    But, as the last example, shows, no adding up of utilities is needed to see that welfare would be increased by a transfer of $10 from the Bs to the As. It is something that (almost?) everyone prefers.

  206. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    21. April 2012 at 19:51

    OK, and I think your choice would be quite widely shared.

    Why are you avoiding/evading/ignoring the core position I am advancing that it’s not transitions, but rather ends that serve as objects of action? I am showing you in multiple ways that I act towards ends, not transitions, and yet you continue on as if transitions is still a valid object of action.

    Now you’re just saying that my choice is similar to what you suspect most people would choose, as if that serves to justify your point about transitions.

    But, as the last example, shows, no adding up of utilities is needed to see that welfare would be increased by a transfer of $10 from the Bs to the As. It is something that (almost?) everyone prefers.

    But this is in a context of a stipulation that I do not know which group I am in.

    In the real world, I do know, and so I would choose to give the $10 to whichever group I am in, NOT group A and only group A. My utility will be increased if I get the $10, regardless if I start with $0 or $100.

    Your analogy does not prove anything regarding the validity of preferring transitions, nor does it show that my utility is increased if poor people get a sum of money rather than wealthy people.

  207. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    21. April 2012 at 20:48

    Scott you said:

    “Just the opposite, it’s far easier to help the world’s poor.”

    and

    “Just the opposite, less consumption and more saving today leads to faster economic growth”

    I have no idea how you get to either claim. I mean it’s beyond not agreeing, I have no idea how it’s possible to get there.

    Right now we have lots of wonderful saving just like Steve Waldman says. I mean you yourself say the problem is lack of AD so how does more saving and less spending solve that problem. You want to solve the problem with more of the same.

    As far as your other claim, American policies are only performative to America, we have no ability to influence policies anywhere else. Again don’t know how you even got there perhaops it’s your plea for more neoliberalism.

  208. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    22. April 2012 at 08:02

    Mike, We can help the world’s poor much more by dropping money on them than we can help America’s poor with an equal amount of money.

    Just because Steve Waldman says we are saving a lot doesn’t make it true, we aren’t saving a lot. Have you looked at government saving recently?

    It’s not spending vs saving. Saving is spending on investment projects—you’ve been drinking the Keynesian Kool-aid. It’s consumption vs. saving. We don’t need less saving, we need less money hoarding.

  209. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    22. April 2012 at 11:00

    Major Freedom:Now you’re just saying that my choice is similar to what you suspect most people would choose, as if that serves to justify your point about transitions.

    Sorry, I guess I wasn’t clear. I was never trying to make a point about transitions; that was just a means to an end (so to speak!). When it became clear that you (and Saturos) would not readily accept the idea of preferences over “transitions”, I reformulated my point using the veil of ignorance construct.

    We can agree that there is no collective entity that experiences any increase in utility when wealth is transferred from the Bs to the As. Nevertheless, using the veil, we see that (almost?) everyone prefers to increase the well-being of the As, even at the expense of the Bs. Of course, this is only when the veil is used. As you point out, we prefer to get the benefit for ourselves. The veil removes this kind of partiality, as it was intended to do.

  210. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    22. April 2012 at 11:20

    Sorry, I guess I wasn’t clear. I was never trying to make a point about transitions; that was just a means to an end (so to speak!). When it became clear that you (and Saturos) would not readily accept the idea of preferences over “transitions”, I reformulated my point using the veil of ignorance construct.

    But that’s just it, I don’t see how your point is any more valid with the veil of ignorance example. I still see preferences for ends only.

    We can agree that there is no collective entity that experiences any increase in utility when wealth is transferred from the Bs to the As. Nevertheless, using the veil, we see that (almost?) everyone prefers to increase the well-being of the As, even at the expense of the Bs. Of course, this is only when the veil is used. As you point out, we prefer to get the benefit for ourselves. The veil removes this kind of partiality, as it was intended to do.

    Understood, except that particular “partiality” is an integral part of existence, of my own existence, of every person’s existence. Abstracting away from this is abstracting away from real world humans. Whatever the veil is intended to show, I submit it is not showing anything regarding humans. It is showing something about automaton, faceless robot like entities that have no self-awareness of their own existence.

  211. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    23. April 2012 at 07:00

    Major Freedom: But that’s just it, I don’t see how your point is any more valid with the veil of ignorance example. I still see preferences for ends only.

    The difference is that, in the first example, you objected that you did not understand what such a choice meant or how you would make it. With the veil example, you had no difficulty understanding the question or in answering it; indeed, in answering the same way I would. And there is nothing special about us in that regard. I am not claiming that in the veil example anything but end states are being compared. That is it’s advantage, given your objection to the first example.

    [t]hat particular “partiality” is an integral part of existence, of my own existence, of every person’s existence. Abstracting away from this is abstracting away from real world humans. Whatever the veil is intended to show, I submit it is not showing anything regarding humans. It is showing something about automaton, faceless robot like entities that have no self-awareness of their own existence.

    Of course the veil shows something about humans. We are human, and we would prefer for the As to have $10 over the Bs having $100. There are lots of situations in which we actual humans, not faceless robots, mitigate the effects of bias by, e.g., using a coin toss to decide who goes first.

    The veil idea reveals that, even though there is no “super entity” that experiences utility, our preferences are consistent with it being “as if” such an entity existed, at least in this case. Furthermore, using the veil sidesteps the contentious issue whether interpersonal utility comparisons can be made, by relying only on a single individual’s utility.

  212. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    23. April 2012 at 07:42

    Gordon:

    The difference is that, in the first example, you objected that you did not understand what such a choice meant or how you would make it. With the veil example, you had no difficulty understanding the question or in answering it; indeed, in answering the same way I would. And there is nothing special about us in that regard. I am not claiming that in the veil example anything but end states are being compared. That is it’s advantage, given your objection to the first example.

    If you admit that the veil example is still a preference over alternative ends, and not mere transitions, then the veil example cannot possibly be an example that shows how one could choose one transition over another transition.

    You are just saying the same thing Saturos and myself are saying.

    “[t]hat particular “partiality” is an integral part of existence, of my own existence, of every person’s existence. Abstracting away from this is abstracting away from real world humans. Whatever the veil is intended to show, I submit it is not showing anything regarding humans. It is showing something about automaton, faceless robot like entities that have no self-awareness of their own existence.”

    Of course the veil shows something about humans. We are human, and we would prefer for the As to have $10 over the Bs having $100. There are lots of situations in which we actual humans, not faceless robots, mitigate the effects of bias by, e.g., using a coin toss to decide who goes first.

    But I don’t choose the As having $10 over the Bs having $110. I choose ME to have $10 at minimum versus the alternative of ME having a chance between $0 and $110 and thus a minimum of zero.

    It isn’t saying anything about humans because I know which group I am in. I do not choose one particular group over the other for the group’s sake, I choose one or the other based solely on whether I will be the recipient of an end characterized by ($0,$10) or the alternative characterized by ($100,$110), and I have the power to choose where the $10 will go.

    Yes, we are human, and yes most humans would choose to give $10 to group A. But this isn’t saying what you seem to believe the example is saying. The example is asking whether I want a guaranteed $10 at minimum, or a chance between $0 and $110. It has nothing to do with any characteristics of the wealth endowments of OTHERS in group A or group B. Group A and group B are really just two alternative wealth endowments you are stipulating I will end up in, by chance. It is not showing “I prefer poor people with $0 to get $10, over rich people with $100 to get $110.” It is saying “I prefer ME to have at least $10, over the alternative of ME getting either $0 or $110 by chance.”

    It is not saying anything about an opinion or judgment I have for “humanity.” It is not showing any general rule of the form “If I see a group of poor people with nothing and a group of rich people with something, then I value the poor people getting at least something than the rich people getting even more.”

    The veil idea reveals that, even though there is no “super entity” that experiences utility, our preferences are consistent with it being “as if” such an entity existed, at least in this case.

    Not even close. The veil example does not show that at all. You are hastily and quite sloppily ignoring the very foundation of my choice criteria. You are pretending as if my choice criteria doesn’t even exist. This is what I mean by the veil example not showing anything about real world humans, but faceless robots who have no self-awareness.

    Of COURSE if you deny the individual self-awareness in a hypothetical example, you cannot help but attribute the self-awareness to something else other than you, in this case you attribute it to a “super entity”, and sloppily you say that while this super entity does not exist, humans nevertheless behave as if it exists. You might as well have said that all of us humans behave as if God exists, and we are all supposed to do God’s duty of what we believe God wants us all to do.

    You’re just spewing a mystical view of myself and other humans. You are denying my and every other individual’s uniqueness, and trying to convince me of the notion that I act as if I am not self-aware, as if there is a God, and I choose behind a veil that does not exist in the real world, which is just a conduit for choosing as if one is acting like a God, or according to God’s will. Of course your God is called “humanity”, meaning “equality”, where individuals behave to further “humanity” and “equality” rather than their own true selves.

    I do not share your religion. I do not behave “as if” there exists a super entity. I exist as if I exist as a self-aware person. I choose not according to wealth endowments of certain groups, as if I act on behalf of God, of “humanity”. I choose according to what benefits me as a person.

    Furthermore, using the veil sidesteps the contentious issue whether interpersonal utility comparisons can be made, by relying only on a single individual’s utility.

    It is not a problem to recognize the reality of uniqueness of humans. The only reason you perceive it to be an “issue” is because you haven’t yet come to terms with your own uniqueness. You worship a generality, a God, called “equality” or “humanity”, and you find that it continually presents challenges to you as a unique person. You trap yourself. And like so many people, you try to solve this dilemma not by recognizing your own uniqueness, but you go one step further into the absurd, namely, you actually deny that uniqueness, and try to put it on some collective concept. Christians use God, you use “humanity.” There is no fundamental difference. That “single individual’s utility” you speak of is not MY utility. It is some abstracted “humanity” utility, which of course gives you the illusion that I think and choose “as if” there really does exist a super-human entity.

    You’re just tricking yourself. The veil example only appears as a solution to the problem you perceive, because you have created a problem for yourself in denying myself, and thus yourself, of my, and hence your, own uniqueness. I choose to further my own ends. I only choose group A because you have stipulated in the example that I do not even know my own wealth endowment. You’re abstracting away from the real world of me, and thus you are abstracting away from real world humans. You are only asking me “Given that you have no clue how much wealth you have, would you rather have a chance at $10 or $100, or would you rather have a chance at $0 or $110?

    It is not true that every individual on the planet will choose the exact same answer. Even the existence of one person who chooses “$0 or $110″ completely nullifies any pretension you have that humans choose “as if” there is some super-human entity. Super human entities that choose cannot choose contradictory ends, and so the existence of some individuals choosing A, and some individuals choosing B, means that individuals are in fact choosing “as if” there is NO super-human entity, and they are in fact choosing “as if” there is only their own individual selves choosing their own most highly valued ends.

  213. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    23. April 2012 at 20:56

    @Major_Freedom, you are shooting in the dark at my views, and you are not coming close to hitting them. The first time you did this, you defended by saying that you were simply trying to understand my position, not label it. (Oh, yes, and that I should “blow it out my keester”. Such tough talk – why, I almost fainted.) This time you have outdone yourself with too many false presuppositions for me to untangle point by point. But I will address some of the more bizarre aspects of your reply.

    I have not expressed any “religion” – although from your tone, it seems that I have inadvertently attacked yours. If so, please accept my apologies.

    Asking what a person would prefer in a situation in which he is uncertain how he might benefit does not deny self-awareness or uniqueness. I assumed that when you answered the question you were self aware. As I used the veil here, it is like flipping a coin – something that, as I pointed out before – we do all the time without becoming “faceless robots”. You seem to be unable to disentangle my use of the veil from some objections to Rawls’ theory that you read somewhere. Oh, and please note that, in saying this, I am just trying to understand you.

    Furthermore, I do not attribute any awareness to a “super entity” – which is why I put the phrase in quotes. But, while there is no super entity, I am able to note when a result is consistent with what would be the case if there were such an entity. That this consistency is objectionable to you is not my problem. The point of using a veil-type example in this case is to show that the old arguments against making interpersonal comparisons of utility are beside the point. All that is needed is each individual’s own preferences in combination with uncertainty in order to get some old-fashioned utilitarian results.

    You also seem to be having some difficulty following what I have been saying, perhaps because your emotions are getting in the way. I have not said that you “have no clue how much wealth you have”. I said if you are an A, your wealth is $0; if a B, $100. And, of course, the example, doesn’t need lots of As and Bs; one of each gives the same result. Nor am I “abstracting away from real world humans”. There are indeed humans with $0 and some with $100. Or it could be $0 and $1000, or $0 and $10,000. But you keep conflating Rawls’ thick veil of ignorance with the simple example I gave, apparently so that you can knock down a straw man.

    Towards the end, you do to come around to some kind of an argument, with the point that perhaps not all human beings would prefer to benefit the As. If there are any such persons, then of course they would not be among the (vastly larger) group whose preferences are consistent with the results we would get with a “super entity”. So what? The “super entity” is just another metaphor or tool, like the veil or Adam Smith’s impartial spectator. But, in any event, I don’t think you can find such a person. Or, if you can, that he will stick with the Bs when I change their wealth to, say, $10,000, so that it is [$0 or $10] versus [$10,000 or $9,990].

  214. Gravatar of Doc Merlin Doc Merlin
    25. April 2012 at 07:30

    Singer as brilliant? Bah!
    This is the guy that doesn’t understand that utilititarianist ethics requires an arbitrary cardinalization of utility functions, that allows them to be comparable (note, economics doesn’t do this, it cardinalizes them but then is careful to make sure they aren’t directly compared across individuals.)

    He doesn’t even seem to understand the theory he claims to espouse.

  215. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    27. April 2012 at 13:02

    And just to beat this dead horse one last time:

    ““morally obligatory”, I’m not sure if I even know what that means.”

    Well, it’s morally obligatory for me not to murder anyone, so if someone killed me in self defense then that would be quite acceptable, without any moral censure or reprobation. But I don’t think, as Singer does, that you have a moral obligation to give all your surplus wealth to the poor, so I wouldn’t redistribute that income by force even if I could. I don’t think everyone who fails to save orphans is a murderer. But perhaps you’re not *that kind of utilitarian*. That’s fine: I’m more opposed to Singer than you.

    “People are selfish; it would be nice if they acted in a less selfish manner, that’s all I’m saying.”

    And what I want to say is that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge the merits of the way other people choose to live their own lives, provided they aren’t hurting anybody else. You know better than most what that attitude so easily culminates in: http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2012/01/20/145360447/the-secret-document-that-transformed-china After all, there’s a good reason why Rand and the rest of us “libertarian libertarians” get so antsy over anything that seems collectivist – the very impulse seems wrong. Sure, you could say it’s wrong to punish the profit-seekers on utilitarian grounds, but I feel safer with people who believe that it’s more than that, that it’s OK and good to seek your own profits. Of course, you should care about others too, and here I part company with many Randians.

    I’m with Tyler on the reprogramming – I think a humanist should care about the human race we have, not the one we hypothesize as a superior replacement. The most common mistake I think people make in moral philosophy is to think of self-interest as ipso facto bad. (Selfishness is loaded, of course.) First of all, self-interest is not the opposite of altruism (that would be misanthropy), though it does compete for scarce personal resources. And secondly, after all, when we advocate altruism, we are talking about serving *somebody’s* self-interest. Improving someone’s utility normally means moving up a preference scale derived from self-interest. It’s like the paradox, where all you want is to give your partner whatever she wants, and all she wants is to give you what you want, and all you want is to…

    Sure, we could arbitrarily reprogram everyone’s utility functions such that everyone derived maximum utility from a precisely equal division of widgets, ignoring immeasurable consumption – but then it’s just that, arbitrary. Whose utility are you maximizing now, “human beings” (that were given in the problem) or the Borg? You could also reprogram people so that everyone maximised their utility purely by eating grass. To maximize social welfare by redefining the nature of people’s preferences – now that seems like cheating to me.

    I don’t think it’s for us to decide what the optimal level of self-interestedness in humanity ought to be. At most, we can set an upper bound, and encourage “common decency”. I basically see you as interpreting utilitarianism in terms of this decency, which is fine, though prone to abuse in alternate hands. But again, I don’t think ethical reasoning can ever truly be that reductive.

    Finally, as if it wasn’t clear enough already how much Bryan and I agree on these things: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/04/the_argument_fr.html

  216. Gravatar of Kieran Latty Kieran Latty
    7. February 2013 at 05:25

    James’ maths above is wrong.

    With log utility, optimal distribution is invariant to heteroegeneity in the effiency of resource use.

    With the elasticity of marginal utility (e) above 1, MORE resources should be given to the less effcient person.

    Optimum ratio of income of the less efficient to more efficient resource user is given by;

    R1/R2= (E2/E1)^(e-1)/e where E/2/E1 is the efficiency ratio.

    (you can confirm that for log utility, e=1 and hence perfect equality is optimal irregardless of heterogeneity)

    This is similar to realted problems in intertemporal optimisation- when e>1 the income effect dominates the substitution effct and for example, interest rate rises lead to a fall in the optimal savings rate.

    Given e~1.5 more resources shoud be given to the less efficient utility machines!

    Of course, this does not apply is efficiency is defined as a constant multiplier of utility, only when it is a constant multiplier of income.

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