Civil War at Marginal Revolution!

Alex attacks Tyler's appeals to intuition in his discussion of the moral weight of animal welfare:

Tyler wants to find a theory that both rationalizes and is consistent with our intuitions. But that is a fool's game. Our intuitions are inconsistent. Our moral intuitions are heuristics produced by blind evolution operating in a world totally different than our own. Why would we expect them to be consistent? Our intuitions provide no more guidance to sound ethics than our tastes provide guidance to sound nutrition. . .

The reason to think deeply about ethical matters is the same reason we should think deeply about nutrition – so that we can overcome our intuitions. Tyler argues that we don't have a good approach to animal welfare only because he is not willing to give up on intuition.

Although Alex is right that our intuitions are not likely to be consistent, there is also no way to completely “overcome” or “give up on” them.

Consider Alex’s story abut Temkin, in which Alex and Robin bullheadedly give the utilitarian answer, despite Temkin's attempt to prime an anti-utilitarian judgment. Alex seems proud of himself. Is this a matter of Alex and Robin having “overcome” intuition? Certainly not! How did Alex and Robin arrive at the conclusion that it is even possible to compare value across persons, or that the prospect for “better” lives for more people may trump or override the respect owed to an individual's autonomy and dignity as a seperate person? What else but intuition!

As Sidgwick illustrated with such clarity, there is simply no getting to something like utilitarianism without a rationally unsupported intuition about the coherence and primacy of “the point of view of the universe.” Now, it is true that once you embrace THIS intuition, you'll certainly be in a position to contradict the intuitions of folk morality. But contradicting judgments derived from one set of intuitions with judgments from another set of intuitions clearly isn't a matter of “overcoming” intuition. And it surely isn’t the basis for a sense of superiority over other people’s wooly-headedness.

(Aside: And shouldn’t Robin, of all people–champion of Bayesian rationalism–when confronted by the credible data that almost all philosophers disagree with him, realize that the probability that he is wrong is exceedingly high, and so admit that he must be the crazy one. If Robin told a moral philosopher who was arguing in favor of the minimum wage that almost all economists disagree with him, wouldn’t he think it would, in some sense, be rationally mandatory for the philosopher to change his mind right there on the spot? Or at least that ongoing disagreement would be dishonest? If this aside is obscure to you, check out Robin and Tyler’s paper about disagreement.)

Tyler is grappling with what seem to me to be Derek Parfit-like concerns. (Tyler has co-authored papers with Parfit.) If Alex accepts something like utilitarian intuitions, as he seems to in the “sacrifice your child for the others” case, he ought to pay attention. Parfit is the most brilliant utilitarian alive, and his lucid exploration of the logic of the utilitarian intuition leads to a number of paradoxes and “repugnant conclusions” that I believe serve as reductio arguments against utilitarianism. Tyler is at least taking his own intuitive normative commitments seriously and thoughtfully exploring their limits and consequences, rather than proudly pretending that he doesn't have any.

I'd like to say a few other things about the method of reflective equilibrium, the human moral sense, and the (large) role for intuition in normative theories, but that will have to wait for later.

Listing Left

The Dan Savage is more to my taste than the Andrew Sullivan This is great:

And make no mistake, hetero readers: Santorum doesn’t just seek to stamp out the kind of relationship I enjoy with my longtime personal secretary. The Santorum wing of the GOP is targeting your privacy, your rights, and your pleasures, too. From porn (just as popular in red states as it is in blue) to divorce (more popular in red states than in blue) to masturbation (equally popular in red and blue states), the Santorums and Scalias and Bauers and Dobsons want to tell you how to live, who to love, and how exactly you should love ‘em. When Santorum made his famous “man on dog” comments he wasn’t just defending anti-gay sodomy laws, but anti-straight sodomy laws too. Santorum doesn’t just believe that the state should have the right to regulate gay sex out of existence, but two out of three most popular straight sex acts too. . .

Personal freedom is like free speech: Some people are going to exercise their personal freedom and/or freedom of speech in ways that make you uncomfortable. So long as they’re not imposing themselves on you, they should be left alone. And, I’m sorry, Rick, but the haunting fear—or certain knowledge—that someone, somewhere, is enjoying himself in ways that you think are sinful does not qualify as an imposition.

This isn't so hard to grasp, now is it?

Anyway, the social conservative dominance of the Republican party is about to move me, like Radley, to join the ACLU. Indeed, looking around from my lonely libertarian perch, I find that DLC Democrats are closer to my politics overall (not very close) than the mainstream alternatives. Perhaps I'll register Democrat, and start defending the DLC against the sophisticated attacks of “progressives.”

Fire Karen Tandy!

This quote from DEA head Karen Tandy has me mad enough to actually blog about actual news:

Today's arrest of Mark (sic) Scott Emery, publisher of Cannabis Culture magazine and the founder of a marijuana legalization group, is a significant blow not only to the marijuana trafficking trade in the U.S. and Canada, but also to the marijuana legalization movement.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars of Emery's illicit profits are known to have been channeled to marijuana legalization groups active in the United States and Canada. Drug legalization lobbyists now have one less pot of money to rely on.

Radley comments:

That to me sounds like the country's top drug cop announcing Emery's bust was more because of his political activism than because of his law-breaking.

Sounds to me, too. And this means that, not joking, we ought to demand Karen Tandy's head. She's announced, straight out, that the United State government intends to use its ability to arrest people and put them in jail as a tactic for squelching political speech that conflicts with the government's policies. It should come as a surprise to no one that the thrust of the free speech clause of the First Amendment is to ensure that government reflects the free deliberative will of the governed. The freedom to agitate for the alteration of government is a minimal condition for the legitimacy of government. Karen Tandy has not only announced that she is violating the fundamental conditions for the moral legitimacy of the power that she wields, but that she is also proud of it. She has flouted her oath to the Constitution, has wantonly abused her power, is a disgrace as a public servant and a citizen, and must be removed from office.

This isn't about marijuana, although the triviality of such a benign substance really brings home the enormity of Tandy's words. Every one of us believes, or may one day believe, that some government policy or other is deeply flawed (war in Iraq, abortion, take your pick). If a government official, with armed agents at her disposal, tries to justifies imprisoning a citizen on the grounds that he has sought through speech to change government policy, then that's a threat to all of us.

Mr. President: FIRE KAREN TANDY!

I hope people are already making the stickers and the t-shirts, and blast faxing their senators. She's really got to go.

What's the Matter With Frank?

Thomas Frank at TPM Cafe:

Times of overwhelming economic insecurity like the present ought to be times when Democrats of this variety prosper, when their values and their message find enthusiastic audiences around the country.

Is he drunk? “Times of overhwelming economic insecurity”? The sad thing is he wishes it was true, because he thinks if it was, then folks would be buying what he's selling. Lucky for all of us that it's not, and folks aren't.

But I must say, I love the daily TPM Cafe festival of indignant wishful thinking. Pundit's fallacy central!

Justice: Bigger than the State, Smaller than the World

David Gordon has an interesting discussion of Nagel's new Philosophy & Public Affairs article on “The Problem of Global Justice.” Apparently, Nagel defends Rawl's refusal to extend the two principles beyond the bounds of the nation state. I had always thought that those, such as Pogge, who attempt to extend Rawls to the global limit simply failed to truly understand Rawls's contractarian logic of reciprocity and mutual benefit. The possibility of political obligation is a function of shared partcipation in the cooperative enterprse for mutual advantage. Those outside our system of cooperation who are doing poorly cannot have a claim on those inside our system who are doing well simply because they are outside of our system. Neverthteless, Rawls's stipulation of a closed economic system and closed borders is not even a useful abstraction for the purposes of ideal theory. It's a disastrous distortion of socio-political reality. There is not intelligble sense in which “our” system of cooperation is coextensive with the borders of our nation-state.

Here is what Gordon says Nagel says:

In like fashion, Nagel holds, citizens of a nation are bound together. They share the obligation to obey their country’s laws; and, if they live in a democracy, they share responsibility for enacting these laws. In Rousseau’s term, they form the “general will.” Undue inequality interferes with these common bonds; hence we have egalitarian obligations to our fellow citizens. These we do not owe to citizens of other countries, since we are not bound to them in the same way. Justice, in this view, is not a “cosmopolitan” virtue, owed to anyone in the world; it is a “political” virtue that applies only to those subject to a common sovereignty. “The important point for our purposes is that Rawls believes that this moral principle against arbitrary inequalities is not a principle of universal application. . . . Rather, in his theory the objection to arbitrary inequalities gets a foothold only because of the societal context. What is objectionable is that we should be fellow participants in a collective enterprise of coercively imposed legal and political institutions that generate such arbitrary inequalities. . . . One might even say that we are all participants in the general will. A sovereign state is not just a cooperative enterprise for mutual advantage” (pp. 127–28).

Now, I hope Nagel is not using “general will” language in any strict Rousseauian sense, because I'm pretty sure that Rawls does not accept this, and doesn't get at the point of Rawls's argument for democracy. The point, somewhat deflated, is easy enough to understand, though. Obviously, two American citizens are tied together through their common relationship to a particular set of democratic processes and system of coercive public adminstration in a way that an American and a Canadian are not. Americans participate in the same elections, send their taxes to the same address, and drive on roads funded out of the same bank account, etc. Insofar as my tax rate, and the roads I'm driving on are a function of my participation in the same (system of) elections as other citzens, then I and another American might be said to bound together a special way. But Nagel seems to understate or miss a large problem when he says that “A sovereign state is not just a cooperative enterprise for mutual advantage.”

No doubt I'll have to read Nagel's paper, but it's not clear to me what being part of a “general will” adds that both legitimates the state, and reinforces state boundaries as the proper bounds of justice. (Why have lots of little general wills, and not just one big one?) In any case, one of Rawls's problems is that even if the boundaries of the state and the conditions for citizenship enclose and define one particular kind of cooperation for mutual advantage, the totality of morally relevant cooperative relationships are by no means contained by borders and shared citizenship.

John Tomasi likes to tell a story about a Martian anthropologist in a spaceship above Earth who is looking at a political map of our orb. (I'm embellishing on John's story, so don't blame him for stupid stuff I say.) Let's call it Glork to avoid the alien pronoun problem. Now, Glork is totally baffled about why Earthlings are so obsessed by these imaginary lines, because when Glork (with Glork's tentacle) presses the button on Glork's viewscreen to show the patterns of mutually advantageous cooperation among Earthlings, the relevance on political boundaries almost disappears. The geographical regions with the wealthiest and most physically robust beings areas are those where the patterns of cooperation are least constrained by political boundaries. Those places where cooperation is most limited to the inside of a region enclosed by political lines (as Rawls's closed system assumption requires) are the places where no compassionate Martian would wish an Earthling to live.

Now, suppose Glork presses a button to light up regions in different colors depending on their system of governance. Glork finds that the inhabitants of “liberal democracies” are more likely than inhabitants of regions governed by different systems to be engaged in systematic relations of cooperation with people outside their political unit.

Now, Glork aside, isn't this a big problem for Rawls/Nagel. The political system that they are eager to defend and justify is precisely the system where relations of cooperation are LEAST contained by borders and principles of co-citizenship. The American “general will” accounts for surpassingly little of American relationships of cooperative mutual advantage. Indeed, states are an enormous impediment to more extensive cross-border cooperation. On thing to be said in favor of liberal democratic states is that they are less of an impediment to cooperation than other political systems. Perhaps state-like jurisdictions are necessary for the stability of ongoing cooperation between people living in far-flung regions. Let's just allow that that's true. But if justice is the “first virtue” of a society, and a society is a fair scheme of cooperation for mutual advantantage, then I am in society with the people in Japan who made my computer. We traded on fair terms, and we're both better off. It seems just boneheaded to argue that the principles of justice apply can't apply extranationally simply because the Japanese don't vote in our elections and fund our highway system, etc.

But this line of thinking just doensn't get you to Pogge-like global justice, either. The principles of justice applies to people who are part of a shared system of cooperation. If I'm not part a shared system of cooperation with the Japanese and the Canadians, well I'll be damned. But the problem with folks, like wretchedly poor Africans, who globalist crytpo-Rawlsians want to send first-world money to on difference principle grounds, is precisely that they aren't sufficiently a part of a shared system of cooperation with themselves or the outside world. THAT IS WHY THEY ARE SO POOR. But that is also why contractualist logic implies that they don't have claims on the rest of us.

So, the contractualist logic of cooperation, reciprocity, shared benefits and burdens, identifies networks of trade as the main locus of a proper theory of justice, not the nation state or the whole wide world. Such a theory will need to be cosmopolitan, polycentric, and post-statist to track the moral reality of a globally interconnected world.

Constitutional Principles and the Cognitive Division of Labor

At EconLog Bryan argues that one reason constitutions matter is that the content of the constitution has an affect on what people will endorse. He cites a poll showing that more people say they like free speech if the language of the question ties it to the Constitution.

I bet examples like this would be easy to multiply. I suspect, for example, that the Supreme Court's rulings against regulation during the Lochner era not only restrained majority excesses; they also probably reduced the majority's support for regulation. No wonder political activists spend so much time in seemingly fruitless quarrels about “what the Constitution really means.” While many people seem to think that the Constitution always favors whatever policy they prefer, there are actually quite a few people who prefer whatever policy they think the Constitution favors.

Is this empirical evidence for Rawls's claim that constitutions create a basis for public deliberation and justification? Well, maybe. Here is, at least, a possible explanation/justification for the phenomenon Bryan observes.

The fact that a principle appears in the constitution implies that it was the outcome of an earlier political consensus. A citizen can reasonbably assume that there was some good reason why consensus settled on this principle, and so the principle has some support simply in virtue of being embedded in the constitution. In the absence of evidence that a constitutional principle is causing a problem, the rationally ignorant citizen is correct, ceterus paribus, to give more weight to a priciple appearing in the constitution than a principle not appearing in the constitution. Since rationally ignorant folk won't know what principles are in the constitution, a poll question that tells them that a principle is, while asking them if they agree with it, is likely to enjoy a more positive response.

This is just a specific example of the general principle that it is epistemically rational for cognitively limited agents to respect the cognitive division of labor and defer to epistemic authority. If you're shooting in the dark for epistemic authorities (identifying them is itself an epistemic problem) framers of constitutions and supreme court judges are good guesses.

Happiness Quotes of the Day

“Happiness is peace after strife, the overcoming of difficulties, the feeling of security and well-being. The only really happy folk are married women and single men.”

– H.L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy

“Of all the cankers of human happiness, none corrodes it with so silent, yet so baneful a tooth, as indolence.”

– Thomas Jefferson, Letter to his daughter, Martha Jefferson.


Which famously bigoted hero of liberty knows happiness? Not Mencken!

H.L.'s flare-up of Nietzschean misogyny gets it flat wrong. Marriage has a bigger positive effect on happiness for men than for women. Married men are much happier than single men, and, it seems, even a skoche happier than married women. The feeling of security and well-being, are surely components of happiness. But what these have to do with the following sentence are a mystery lost to time.

Of course, I'm talking about the cramped, mundane happiness of the bourgeouis here, not the wild, expansive happiness of the overflowing soul and indomitable will. As Nietzshe said, “Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does.”

Jefferson, very much the Englishman, nails it. Unemployment is VERY bad for you. Pace economists, it ain't experienced as “leisure.” Among the most important things for happiness are a sense of self-efficacy and self-control, and this sense slips when we're not productively engaged. We begin to feel adrift in the world, tossed by malign external forces we are impotent to resist.

So score one for TJ, who suggests a get-up-and-at-'em slogan for t-shirts and public school bulletin boards everywhere: “Indolence: the canker that corrodes with a baneful tooth!”

Happiness and Constitutional Political Economy

By far the best overview of the happiness literature from an economics and policy perspective is Frey & Stutzer's Happiness and Economics. Frey, a first class constitutional theorist, explores the big impact policy can have on happiness, but warns against construing the happiness function as an approximation of that unicorn of social science, the social welfare function, and then trying to maximize it. F&S point out that the goal of maximizing social welfare has traditionally faced three problems: (1) empirical emptiness; (2) aggregation (Arrow social choice stuff); (3) incentive compatibility (Buchanan public choice stuff). The happiness data perhaps solves (1), but it does not solve (2) or (3). Folks like Layard are particularly inept with respect to (3). Here's what F&S say:

Missing incentives. Deriving optimal policies by maximizing a social welfare function only makes sense if the government has an incentive to apply the optimal policies in reality. This is only the case if a “benevolent dictator” government is assumed. (Brennan and Buchanan 1985). From introspection as well as from empirical analysis in political economy (see, e.g., the collection of papers on political business cycles in Frey 1997), we know that governments are not benevolent and do not follow the wishes of the population, even in well-functioning democracies, not to mention authoritarian and dictatorial governments. Hence to maximize social welfare corresponds to a “technocratic-elitist” procedure, neglecting the crucial incentive aspect.

This criticism applies particularly when one tries to derive optimal policies by maximizing happiness.

This point cannot possibly be emphasized enough. Even if your theory of value, or your philosophical standard for policy evaluation, is “correct” in some metaphysical sense, this gets us almost nowhere. Why? First, people, especially agents of the state, must understand and broadly agree that it is correct. This is exceedingly unlikely. Second, people, especially agents of the state, must be motivated to reliably act in accordance with its prescriptions. But if understanding and agreement is unlikely, then motivation based on them is unlikely. It may be conceivable to structure incentives so that it is as if agents of the state were motivated by a commitment to a single normative standard, but it is usually unrealistic.

Here is F&S's approach:

There is a solution on hand that overcomes the problems posed by the impossibility theorem and by the government's missing incentives. Constitutional political economy (e.g., Buchanan 1991, Frey 1983, Mueller 1996, Cooter 2000) redirects attention to the level of social consensus where, behind the veil of ignorance, the basic rules governing a society–the fundamental institutions–are chosen or emerge. At the same time, the approach shifts from a (vain) effort to directly determine social outcomes to shaping the politico-economic process by setting the institutions.

. . . The fundamental institutions shape the incentives of policymakers. Once these basic institutions are in place and the incentives are set, little can be done to influence the current politico-economic process. Economic policy therefore must help to establish those fundamental institutions, which lead to the best possible fulfilment of individual preferences. Research in positive constitutional economics helps to identify which institutions serve this goal, and whether they do in fact systematically affect happiness.

F&S's research shows that procedural aspects of government, such as the directness of democratic participation and the degree of decentralized federalism, are themselves determinants of happiness. The Swiss are among the happiest people in the world not only because they are fabulously wealthy, but because the canton system allows for direct democratic rule of over local jurisdictions, with little interference from the central state.

Dominoes vs. The Great Leap Forward

If you missed Nathan Smith's TCS article on the ongoing saga of Social Security reform, do check it out.

Bush's plan for carve-out private accounts would have amounted, institutionally, to a sort of Great Leap Forward. DeMint's plan will set in motion incremental changes which may be compared to knocking down a row of dominoes. The first domino to fall is the payroll tax surplus in the Trust Fund. The second domino will be the excessive scheduled benefits that drive the program into long-term bankruptcy. The third domino will be the restriction of personal retirement accounts (initially created as lockboxes to stop the raid on the Trust Fund) to T-bonds. When that falls, all Bush's Social Security reform goals will have been accomplished, and we'll have a system of forced savings and private accounts.

Suppose that the DeMint plan passes and personal accounts are created from the surplus, then fast-forward two years. Now every working person under 55 — well over 100 million Americans — will own a personal retirement account consisting of US Treasury bonds. Since everyone and his brother knows that Social Security can't pay promised benefits in the long run, most young people will see these accounts as their sole source of real retirement security. But they'll also realize that the personal accounts are too small to underwrite a comfortable retirement. Moreover, they will learn that new money will cease being deposited in their accounts after about 2018, when the Baby Boomers' retirement puts an end to the surpluses.

At this point, there will be pressure from younger voters to increase the size of their personal retirement accounts. If, up until now, the Social Security program has consisted of one-sided class warfare, with the old fighting against the young and the young not defending themselves, personal accounts will clarify younger generations' stake in the fight.

Nice account of what perhaps should have been the strategy all along. I don't have a good independent sense of what DeMint's odds are. Probably not great, but better than than is being reported.