Cato Unbound in Unlikely Places

This month's Cato Unbound on the prospects of radical vs. Fabian libertarianism (more or less) has churned up some unusually churlish commentary. Peter Thiel's contribution in particular, in which he (rather wrongly, in my opinion) attributes the infeasibility of “democratic capitalism” in part to women's suffrage, has sparked a good bit of mocking outrage. Here's Michal Lind mostly being dense at Salon. Here's Owen Thomas at Valleywag (not a place I thought I'd find Cato Unbound mentioned.) Even Feministing! My colleague Jason Kuznicki, who organized and edited this issue of Unbound, has a good response to all this at Cato@Liberty. And when I have a bit more time, I'm going to write a post defending the desirability of liberal democracy, and the possibility of democratic capitalism (even with women voters!), against Thiel and Friedman's radicalist pessimism.

O' My Arlen

My quick take is that this sucks, because the more choke points in the policymaking process the better. That said, it probably doesn't change all that much unless Senate Dems can muster reliable intraparty unanimity. A few things that wouldn't have passed will, and those could be an important few things, but most final votes won't be different. The one way this hurts the Dems is that it makes a narrative of GOP obstruction less plausible, and if various things go south by the mid-terms, the Republicans can more plausibly say that all of it's the other guy's fault.

Still Here

No, I haven't been conscripted into the Mounties, though I appreciate the concern. Between the trip to Canada (which included an extra night due to the caprice of airlines), a couple of deadlines, and multi-day wedding program activities in Charleston, I haven't had much extra time to blog. But I'll get right back at it as soon as I finish a bit more “real” writing.

Support Gay Marriage, Support Religious Freedom

Jason Kuznicki points us to this excellent video…

As Jason says:

Couldn’t have said it better. If you take taxpayers’ money, you should have to treat all taxpayers equally. If you’re privately funded, you should be free to do as you like. Want to discriminate? Fine. Just don’t take tax money to do it.

And… if you support discrimination laws that touch purely private interactions and that benefit yourself, then you can hardly complain when others want those same benefits for their groups, too.

Vice and The Motive of Wealth

This argument from Matt Yglesias seems very poor, especially since Matt is a pretty basic utilitarian (unless he has changed his mind since we last talked about ethical theory) who therefore has no business handwringing about motives. Rehearsing an argument he'd been having on an email list, Matt writes:

I was saying that whatever one thought should be done with large financial institutions as a policy matter, surely we could agree that the executives at these institutions are primarily bad people.

It turns out we couldn’t agree on that. But my argument is pretty simple. These are people primarily motivated in life by greed. Not just by a desire to make some scratch, mind you. These aren’t immigrants who walked through the desert from Mexico in order to earn more money by washing dishes in a San Diego hotel. They’re not 24 year-olds looking for a hefty salary in order to pay off student loans. They’re multi-millionaires who want to earn millions more. It’s possible, of course, that Vikram Pandit really does find being a bank executive to be intrinsically interesting. But a good person, who’s primary passion was the life of a bank executive, would be donating the bulk of his massive compensation package to charity. But that’s not what Pandit’s doing. Rather he, like virtually all executives at major firms, is living a life that’s primarily oriented around an ethic of greed.

Now there’s a decent argument out there, familiar from Adam Smith and the whole tradition of economics, that a world full of greedy people isn’t necessarily quite the disaster that pre-modern ethical thinkers would have thought. This is all well and good. True even. But it’s a sign, I think, of a kind of sickness running through American society that we’ve lost the willingness to just say clearly that ceteris paribus greedy behavior is not virtuous behavior. In the spirit of decency, of course, we recognize that none of us are without sin.

I assume the motivations of the executives of financial firms are many and varied. Some executives are surely complete bastards and some of them are surely upstanding women and men of virtue. Matt's willingness to commit himself the the idea that these are bad people simply because of their occupation seems unhinged. I understand finance is unpopular now, but finance is only one of many ways to make money. If people motivated primarily by greed are bad people, and Matt cannot imagine another primary motive for financial executives, can he imagine other motives for any executive? How about small entrepreneurs animated by the prospect of hitting it big? Are movie stars, who do not donate the bulk of their massive compensation to charity, off the hook because they are also motivated by fame and self-love? 

Anyway, if Matt thinks the Adam Smith argument — that people moved by impulses other than benevolence or charity may nevertheless serve the general good — is “true even,” then what's the problem? Especially given Matt's utilitarian sympathies? Whether a person is “bad,” in the utilitarian framework, has little to do with motivation, and everything to do with results. As Tyler Cowen kept urging on Peter Singer, the consistent utilitarian should simply admit that an entrepreneur who creates a great deal of utility on the way to making and keeping huge sums of money is a much better person (a better utility engine) than someone who creates a much smaller amount of utility by giving away all but 10 percent of a relatively small income earned in a job that produces a relatively small amount of utility. One can be a folk moralist or a utilitarian moralist, but not both. If the pursuit of wealth produces more utility than charity — which it often will given the right institutions — then we might wish to reconsider what we are going to count as virtues and vices. Again, maybe Matt has given up on his utilitarianism, in which case he stands some chance of making sense relative to his own ethical assumptions. But I suspect he's catering to certain popular folk assumptions about the vice of greed to impugn the character of an entire class of people for reasons that are obscure to me. Maybe he can clarify what he's doing here. 

Now, I am willing to say that, ceteris paribus, a certain kind of grasping, unprincipled pecuniary self-interest is a destructive quality. If that's greed, then I'm against it. But I'm not willing to say the same thing about the pursuit of wealth generally.

I think we have recently punctured some dangerous misconception about the real value of certain kinds of “financial innovation,” and so we should reconsider how much those who have become wealthy in these fields have actually enhanced general welfare. I think a lot of execs basically failed to do their primary job: to manage their firms' assets responsibly on behalf of the owners of those assets: the shareholders and creditors. This makes them justifiable targets of outrage. We've learned a lot of lessons. I think we've been given reason to think much harder about the principal-agent problem — the mismatch of incentives between owners and managers — at the heart of corporate organization. I think we've learned just how “socially responsible” maximizing long-term value really is, and how anything that distracts from focus on long-term value creation (whether it be myopic bonus systems or irrelevant-to-the-business “corporate social responsibility” initiatives) is a potentially hazardous nuisance. The Smithian congruence between self-interest and the general welfare is not a natural fact of the world, but is mediated by social norms and the structure of institutions. We need to make sure the desire for wealth takes the right shape, and that the institutions within which people pursue wealth tend to actually work to convert “low” aspirations into real social benefits. But we've been given no special reason to second-guess the general utility of the desire to become wealthy. It is a crucial and necessary resource. And it remains a much more likely engine of utility than the desire for political power — a truly dangerous motive Matt tends to ignore.

None of this is to say that I think Vikram Pandit is a prince. For all I know he's a complete cad. And none of this is to say the man's a great force for the enhancement of human well-being. As far as I know, he's done more harm than good. But I don't know enough about him to say for sure, and I suspect Matt's in the same position. Anyway, I don't think we're likely to do much good if we reduce our view of the world to a children's cast of villians and heroes, and I'm relieved to hear that Matt's email list interlocutors won't agree to his cartoon assumptions.

[Update: See Conor Clarke, who replied in a very similar spirit, but much more concisely.]

Easter Thoughts of Culture War

I was recently reading somewhere about Christopher Hitchens' debate with William Lane Craig at Biola and someone in the comments of whatever blog I was reading made the observation that there are tons of Christian schools like Biola and Wheaton and so forth full of smart kids who undergo training in arguing for the existence of God. It's not like it's treated as an open question at these places. The Christian schools and their Christian students know the result they need, and they practice in the most persuasive arguments that deliver that result. None of these arguments are any good, of course, as there is no God, Jesus didn't rise from the dead, and so on. But my sense is that there are about a gazillion works of theistic/Christian apologetics for every God Is Not Great. But write a God Is Not Great or a The End of Faith and you're colored as some kind of obnoxious disrespectful lout out to set the lions on all those downtrodden Christian. Why is that? Even other atheists are encouraged to deplore the brazen “New Atheists'” alleged in-your-face lack of humility. I find this completely ridiculous. They're right, after all. I also think it's ridiculous that Christopher Hitchens represents the atheist side in approximately 75 percent of all debates about the existence of God. (Why should he hoard all the speaking fees!?) Why aren't more philosophy professors–few of whom believe in God–standing up to fight for truth? Well, lots of them don't like the dog and pony show of public debates, I'm sure. Lots of them don't want to be impolite. But I'd also guess that they find the arguments so boring that it's a drag to prepare. Nevertheless, this stuff matters and it's important to wean the culture off superstition. Hitchens is more than pulling his weight, but I'm afraid most intellectuals who also happen to be atheists aren't taking this culture war stuff seriously enough. So get in there faithless people! Mix it up! It's true that pretty much only other Christians care about Alvin Plantinga or William Lane Craig, but there are hoards of bright young Christians who really do think this stuff is more than polish on their parochial cultural inheritance, and that's really too bad.