Safety Nets, Growth, and Liberation from Family

In his by-request post on safety nets, Tyler writes:

Most of all, the welfare state liberates the productive and the creative from their sometimes burdensome family ties. The welfare state is the Randian's secret dream, and that is what clinches the case for a government safety net.

I don't think I understand. How many productive and creative people take advantage of government assistance programs for the poor, or are liberated by them? It would seem that genuinely productive, creative people would need them least.

Probably Tyler means that Social Security and Medicare allow the productive and creative to foist their poor parents off on the state. True. But increasing incomes also allow the productive and creative to foist their not-so-poor parents off on “assisted living” facilities. Wealthier parents don't need their kids' money, and wealthier kids can afford to have somebody else worry about their parents. How much has the deadweight loss of our actually existing, almost entirely middle class to middle class “social insurance” tranfer system decreased economic growth over the last half-century? It is not obvious that the history of our real system compares favorably to even a slightly higher-growth counterfactual in terms of the kind of liberation from burdensome family ties Tyler is talking about.

If you're a Sen-type positive liberty advocate like Tyler, and don't so much care about the coercion implicit in transfers, your problem with safety nets ought to be the potentially psychologically debilitating effects of transfers on the recipients with respect to a sense of control, self-efficacy, motivation, etc. I do not doubt for a second that many, many people have been genuinely helped by public assistance. I do, however, have some doubt that the overall effect has been positive relative to some of the potentially feasible alternatives.

Norms of Reason and the Prospects for Technologies and Policies of Debiasing

clipped from
I have so far found most discussions and debates about the correction of
cognitive “biases” very confusing, including most of the posts on this blog.
Why? Because I find the very idea of a cognitive bias confusing any time I
really start to think about it. A bias is a bias only relative to some standard.
The cognitive shortcuts and blind spots identified in the heuristics and biases
literature may look like “failure” when laid against some idealized conception
of rationality, but why should we care about such conceptions of rationality
anyway? A hip hop dancer is making constant “mistakes” from the perspective of
the formal norms of ballet, but why on Earth would you judge hip hop from the
perspective of ballet?  You wouldn't. I'm making a “mistake,” in some
sense, by failing to have abs
like a Spartan in 300
But so what?
I've got a new post up over at Overcoming Bias…

Not That Kind of Libertarian: Puzzles of Children's Rights

McMegan writes:

I'm sorry if my nom de blog fooled you, but I'm not that sort of libertarian. Children are a perennial problem for libertarians, but what it boils down to is this: children (and to my mind, the severely disabled), have positive rights. They have a right to be fed, educated, clothed, sheltered, and given medical care on someone else's dime. And if their parents abdicate this responsibility, then it passes onto the community, including the state, even if none of us asked said parent to reproduce. So arguing that educating poor children is immoral . . . well, I hardly know what to say, except remind me not to get into a lifeboat with you.

I'm not that sort of libertarian either. But this is a problem. Children don't sprout from cabbage patches, as you may be aware. Here is the sequence of events, glossed over in Megan's argument, that must occur before a child becomes vested with a right to the property of other people.

(1) Coitus.
(2) Conception.
(3) The decision to carry the proto-child to term.
(4) Not putting the child up for adoption.
(5a) Abdication of parental responsibility.
(5b) Inability (for whatever reason) to meet parental responsibility.
(6) General positive right to be fed, educated, clothed, sheltered, and given medical care.

Does Megan propose the state confiscate children whose parents violate their special relationship-relative positive rights? If not, and such kids are simply subsidized, then doesn't this create an incentive for parents to violate their childrens rights so as to transfer the responsibility and cost to the state? If not sufficiently feeding, educating, etc. is a rights violation, shouldn't bad parents be fined, jailed or otherwise punished? If bad parenting imposes a cost on taxpayers, shouldn't bad parenting itself be taxed. But bad parents often have a negative tax burden anyway. What to do?

As an old Contemporary Moral Issues 101 fave puts it, if you have to obtain a license to drive legally, shouldn't you have to obtain a license to legally retain custody of a child after birth? What to do with the kids of parents unable to meet the requirements for a license. Shall we scatter them among wealthier homes like so much spice? Good idea! With an overburdened pension system, or scarcity of good labor generally, kids are a positive externality–but only if those kids are net taxpayers, not net tax consumers. So let's sterilize poor people, just to be careful, place kids of non-poor negligent parents in government programs/homes that will cultivate their potential for high levels of economic production (so our entitlement programs remain demographically stable), and give huge lump sum payouts for each child of couples with IQs two standard deviations above the mean.

I don't suppose that's Megan's kind of libertarianism either. Sam's Club Republicanism, maybe.

But seriously… having a kid and not taking care of it automatically entitles the kid to be raised by the taxpayers? Hmm. What happened to the intermediary institutions of civil society? Do we skip them? The state COULD give parents vouchers for food, etc. In fact, it does! (But not schools… God no! Not for schools!) But if these are in fact positive rights violating parents, do we really want to give them the vouchers? What kind of libertarian are you? I want answers, Megan. Answers!

On Positive Freedom: Is Society Metaphysical or Man Made?

One of the best discussions I know of on the difference between positive and negative conceptions of freedom is David Kelley's in A Life of One's Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State. This was the final word for me on positive and negative freedom for some time. Looking again at Kelley's argument, I find I am not as convinced as I once was.

Let's look at a few passages:

Freedom always involves the capacity to choose among a range of alternative actions. In that sense, freedom is a positive concept. But it is also a negative concept: the freedom to choose existss as long as no one interferes with the choice coercively, using force to prevent the person from selecting one of the alternatives. … A diner at Joe's Cafe has a more limited menu to choose from than does a diner at the Four Seasons, but both people are equally free to choose among the entrees available. The fact that Joe's does not serve oysters on the half shell is not an issue of freedom.

OK. The question that arises for me, then, is why is the guy at Joe's instead of the Four Seasons? If he (let's call him Frank) just likes Joe's, cool. But if it's because he cannot afford the Four Seasons, or a place with an equivalently broad and high-quality menu, then the question is, Why not? The answer to that question is important. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Frank, and every other person at his approximate level on the economic ladder, would have the means to choose from bigger menus if only his society's rate of economic growth had been just fractionally greater each year for the past two decades. Relative to faster growth, slower growth takes things off the menu. But is this an issue of freedom from coercion? Maybe, maybe not.

Suppose that people in Frank's society just like relaxing more than working, and so aren't extremely productive, leading to unimpressive rates of growth. Now, Frank is a highly motivated, hard-working, and would like to order off a Four Seasons menu, but simply can't because his entire society is too poor. The point of this is to emphasize the interdependence of opportunities. Things can be off your menu, not because you're lazy, or being coerced, but because of the (non-coercive) patterns in which other people are coordinating their behavior.

This brings us to Kelley's next paragraph:

To be sure, there is not always a hard and fast distinction between the number of alternatives one has and the degree of one's freedom to choose among them. Theoretically, any obstacle, restraint, or limitation may be looked at in either of two ways: we may view it (1) as something that eliminates one or more alternatives a person would otherwise have available or (2) something that prevents the person from choosing one or more alternatives. The difference lies in whether we consider the limitation as affecting the range of alternatives he has or the process of choosing among them. Advocates of positive freedom have exploited this fact, insisting that lack of a certain opportunity because of poverty, illness, or disability deprives a person of the freedom to choose that opportunity. Conversely, we could in principle view overt coercion, physical force, or violence, not as something that prevents a person from choosing an alternative but as something that removes alternatives he would otherwise have.

OK! Then Frank's case is confusing, right? It looks like a case of (1). He doesn't already have the menu, so his inability to choose from it is a moot question—not an issue of freedom. But suppose we get the exact same result—a low rate of growth—not from the indolence of the population, but from a few bad government policies that, say, restrict international trade. It turns out that Frank trades only with locals, so the trade restrictions don't coercively prevent him from trading with anyone he wants to. But by coercively limiting others' trade opportunities, others have less means, and thus less with which to buy Frank's services, which ends up badly limiting his trade opportunities. And that's why he doesn't already have the menu he'd like. Still a case of (1)?

Here's how Kelley asks us to tell the difference:

There are real differences between (1) and (2). One difference is whether the obstacle or limitation is imposed by reality or by other people. When some fact of reality affects the range of alternatives we face, it is wishful thinking to regard it as an obstacle to what we would otherwise be free to do. Facts are facts. The world operates a certain way, according to causal laws, and the constraints imposed by nature are the foundation for human choice, not a barrier to it.

I now find this remarkably unhelpful. Are other people's preferences and patterns of behavior, which create huge limitations on the alternatives open to me, “imposed by reality” or “by other people”?

Here's an illustrative example Kelly offers:

If I cannot run a five-minute mile, my incapacity does not abridge my freedom to do so; it is simply a fact about my nature. But if I can run that fast, and somebody forces me to wear lead weights as a handicap, he is restricting my freedom.

Now, imagine the following possibilities:

(a) a network of completely voluntary choices leads to air pollution as a side-effect; I could have run a five-minute mile had the air been cleaner.

(b) the anti-technology norms of my society, transmitted through education and social opproprium (no coercion!), have ensured that new physical performance technologies that, but for those norms, would have been invented, and would have made me able to run a five minute mile.

(c) bad government policy that does not directly prevent me from doing anything at any particular time, decreases the rate of growth, decreasing the amount of capital available for R&D, ensuring that new physical performance technologies that would have been invented aren't.

(d) If super-steroids were available, I could run a two minute mile, but the price is that I would die a week later, so the government bans them. It happens that nobody would have taken them, even if they weren't banned.

We could go on. The point is, many incapacities are contingent, and are very, very often a side-effect, intended or unintended, of human action. I understand why having weights forcibly attached to one's body is an especially vivid, salient, and emotionally compelling violation of freedom. But I can't see a principled reason why the very concept of freedom should apply only to coercive interference with the excercise of present capacities when present capacities are so dependent on contingent patterns of human interaction. I simply cannot see the special normative salience of coercion as a method for trimming the feasible set. I can definitely see why robust restrictions on the exercise of coercion are completely necessary for achieving the range and kinds of opportunities that allow us to create, develop, and fully excercise our capacities. But then that's why we should care about limiting coercion.

Kelley builds his argument on the Objectivist distinction between the metaphysical and the man-made, but it is hard to know what to make of the distinction once one makes note of the interedpendence of our capacities and opportunities. Are emergent social patterns—the consequences of human action but not human design—metaphysical or man-made? I think a little bit country and a little bit rock n roll.

The reason we fight so hard over the basic structure of our formal institutions and over the basic structure of our informal institutions (i.e., over our culture) is that those structures create patterns of behavior we as individuals have no choice but to engage in their actually existing form as if they were metaphysical, as if they were constraints of nature. We can't rewrite the laws of nature, but we can be less bound by nature by bending the laws to our will. This is how reason, science, and the institutions of market production liberate. We can TRY to rewrite the local laws of social coordination, and this may change the overall pattern of behavior, but the pattern won't be the one we were aiming at. Other people, other factions, are always also trying to rewrite the formal and informal laws, and the equilibrium that emerges (or doesn't) from the clash of ideas is nobody's idea. There is a sense in which science and technology make nature more tractable than people. Or perhaps it is better to see people as fully part of nature, and to see certain formal institutions and cultures—-like a system of strong individual rights and the beliefs and norms that back them—-as just other technologies of liberation from recalcitrant nature.

Happiness Blog Revamped; Actual New Content

Just a note to Fly Bottle readers who do not also read my Happiness and Public Policy blog… In an attempt to promote my coming-in-April Cato happiness paper, I'm revamping the happiness blog, and have resolved to post there at least once a day from now through a month after the release of the paper (in hopes of following up on any Internet discussion it may provoke [some, I hope!]). I don't want to duplicate all my happiness posts here, or note them every time I write one, so I've installed a little sidebar widget that shows new entries on the happiness blog, as you can see to your right.

I have also resolved to post more here as well, on generally non-happiness stuff, though probably not once a day. So let's see how that goes.

Feeling Scientifically

From the Feb. 12 New Yorker's wonderful profile [pdf] of Paul and Patricia Churchland by Larissa MacFarquhar [pdf]:

One afternoon recently, Paul says, he was home making dinner when Pat burst in the door, having come straight from a frustrating faculty meeting. “She said, 'Paul, don't speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and if it weren't for my endogenous opiates I'd have driven my car into a tree on the way home. My dopamine levels need lifting. Pour me a Chardonnay, and I'll be down in a minute.'”

I've actually come to think and talk a bit like this, though not to this degree. I believe it is true, as MacFarquhar writes of Paul Churchland:

The new words, far from being reductive or dry, have enhanced his sensations, he feels, as an oenophile's complex vocabulary enhances the taste of wine.

As anyone who has had the misfortune of being my girlfriend/primary oxytocin source knows, I have an annoying habit of microanalyzing my physical/subjective states. I only wish I had access to some kind of biofeedback machine so I could better calibrate my physicalist vocabulary. There are detectable qualitative distinctions between different kinds of positive and negative states, and there really is no reason why we should be so dumbfounded, inarticulate, or (usually our best) cleverly metaphorical when it comes to describing the character of our inner lives. Further, I think that once one gets a subjective grasp of the difference between the effects of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, adrenaline, glucocorticoids, prolactin, testosterone, etc., monistic conceptions of pleasure and happiness become almost self-evidently false, and a kind of pluralism comes to seem almost inevitable as the trade-offs between different kinds of physical/qualitative states become apparent. 

IQ, Clusters, and Francisco Gil-White

Tyler Cowen shares his thoughts on the idea that it is important to try to preserve the average level of a society's IQ, as though this is some kind of precious public good:

I don't assign special status to The Conservation of IQ for two reasons.  The first is the Flynn effect, or the fact that measured IQs have been rising steadily over time.  This implies some combination of a) IQ gains come naturally under conditions of progress, and b) IQ statistics are to some extent phony and don't measure real intelligence.  We can debate the mix, but either deflates fears that IQ is somehow especially scarce or endangered.  These data also suggest that IQ is an artifice to be unpacked rather than a primary category.

Second, defenders of the IQ view tend to read evolutionary biology and intelligence research.  My roots are in cultural history.  Clusters of amazing achievement come and go pretty quickly, usually through some mix of environmental effects and luck.  Look at Venetian painting.  It was much better centuries ago, but I doubt if Venetian IQs have been falling.  Once we see how such enormous differences can be explained by non-IQ factors, I again don't obsess over the variable.

I find this pretty persuasive. The most stimulating thing I've read about IQ lately is the chapter on the topic in Francisco Gil-White's webbed book on Resurrecting Racism: The modern attack on black people using phony science, which is mostly an attack on John Entine's book Taboo: Why black athletes dominate sports and why we’re afraid to talk about it. I did not know, for example, that the IQ test was invented by Binet and Simon specifically as a test of the cognitive skills middle/upper-class French public schools were trying to develop in their students, and explicitly not as an assessment of raw, genetic, mental processing power. I also didn't know that Sir Cyril Burt was a huge fraud. Gil-White's theory an adapted cultural capacity that helps accounts for cultural and cognitive variation (a theory he shares with Boyd, Richerson, and Henrich, among others), seems to me to make good biological sense, to help make sense of the Flynn effect, and to pose a big problem for the Murray-Herrnstein Bell Curve thesis. Reading Gil-White changed my p on the existence of genetically inherited general intelligence from above .5 to below.  I get excited when that happens!


Brief aside on clusters of achievement: I want better explanations! What accounts for 4th c.  BCE Athens? Late 18th-early 19th c. Scotland? Early 20th c. Vienna?  Philosophy mostly just coasts along on these efflorescence's of genius. What's going on?  Why aren't we having having one of these NOW, in the US? One idea is that our system of supporting our top intellectuals through the huge, geographically dispersed university system practically guarantees that no single place will develop enough of a critical mass of talent to create a world-historical outburst of brilliance. What if the world's best economists, philosophers, psychologists, etc., were clustered in the same place in the same way the world's best software engineers are clustered in Silicon Valley?   


Fun facts about Gil-White: (1)  he was canned from the Penn psychology department he says for his controversial views about recent history regarding several ethnic conflicts. I have developed no opinion on Gil-White's opinions about these matters. I just know he's a fascinating and intellectually solid theorist in biological anthropology.  (2) He is the son of Francisco Gil Diaz, who was Secretary of Finance for Mexico under Vincente Fox.