Bruce Bartlett on Liberaltarianism

An excellent column from Bruce Bartlett. Some highlights:

But even these metro-libertarians tend to be more concerned about economics than social or foreign policy. The Cato Institute publishes an annual survey of economic freedom throughout the world, but produces no surveys of what countries have the most political or social freedom or those that have the most libertarian foreign policy.

Furthermore, economic freedom tends to be determined primarily by those measures for which quantifiable data are available. Since it is very easy to look up the top marginal income tax rate or taxes as a share of GDP, these measures tend to have overwhelming influence on the ratings. As a result, countries like Denmark, which are very free every way except in terms of taxes, end up being penalized. Conversely, authoritarian states like Singapore don't suffer for it because they have low taxes.

I'd very much like us to try to measure freedom more broadly. The fact that it is an “essentially contested” concept needn't cause too much worry. What we should try to do is compile a number of different indices that reflect a variety of widely accepted conceptions of freedom. My hypothesis is that we would find most of them highly correlated with another, and with a wide variety of social indicators. The ones that correlate poorly with the others and/or correlate poorly with various indicators of well-being and human development can probably be just thrown out.

More from Bartlett:

At the liberaltarian dinner, many of the liberals persuasively argued that the pool of freedom isn't fixed such that if government takes more, then there is necessarily less for the people. Many government interventions expand freedom. A good example would be the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was opposed by libertarians like Barry Goldwater as an unconstitutional infringement on states' rights. Yet it was obvious that African Americans were suffering tremendously at the hands of state and local governments. If the federal government didn't step in to redress these crimes, who else would?

Since passage of the civil rights act, African Americans have achieved a level of freedom equal to that of most whites. Yet I have never heard a single libertarian hold up the civil rights act as an example of a libertarian success.

One could also argue that the women's movement led to a tremendous increase in freedom. Libertarians may concede the point, but conservatives almost universally view the women's movement with deep hostility. They think women are freest when fulfilling their roles as wife and mother. Anything that conflicts with those responsibilities is bad as far as most conservatives are concerned.

I think part of the problem is that if you hold up the Civil Rights Act as an example of libertarian success, most libertarians will deny that you are one. I think both the Civil Rights Act and the women's movement did in fact lead to tremendous net increases in liberty. I think Bruce makes an excellent point. Federal intervention, while certainly limiting freedom of association and trumping more local jurisdictions, resulted IMO in an overall increase in freedom. That many traditional libertarian conservatives, such as Goldwater, seem to have been willing to sacrifice a great gain in overall freedom in order to maintain status quo levels local self-rule seems to me to betray a commitment to ancient ideals of liberty as community self-government in conflict with the modern idea of liberty as freedom from coercion.

I think one could buy into all of this and safely maintain libertarian bona fides. But I think that in order to endorse the freedom-enhancing nature of the influence of the women's movement, you need to accept that cultural norms and social expectations can restrict liberty without the backing of state coercion (though state coercion very often does reflect and reinforce liberty-limiting cultural norms and social expectations). I accept that you don't need state coercion to threaten liberty. That's where some libertarians draw the line. But, please note, if one thinks that culture and convention can limit liberty, it does not follow that one must also think that it is permissible for the state to intervene in order to change convention. One can believe that the state may legitimately act only to protect liberty. But that does not imply that the state must do anything in its power that might protect or enhance liberty.

The Sotomayor Reflex

God, I hate politics. It really does make people stupid, especially those whose tribe is out of power. When Sonia Sotomayor was nominated, I knew nothing relevant about her judicial philosophy or, much more importantly, about her actual record as a judge. You'd think you'd wait to learn something about this before saying something about her, but no. People just proceeded to go crazy on cue.

Like Damon Root, I'm in favor of libertarian judicial activism. But I know that Barack Obama is no libertarian, and I knew he wasn't going to nominate Kozinski or Posner. Too bad! So I was hoping for a relatively centrist liberal who sees some merit in libertarian arguments, especially about the protection of economic rights. As far as I can tell, there is nothing especially worrying about Sotomayor. She's obviously super-qualified. And from what I've read, she seems like a highly competent, fairly moderate liberal who sticks pretty close to the law (which nobody really likes when they don't like the law!) and is perfectly willing to side with Republican-appointed judges when that seems to her the right thing to do. What are people going batshit crazy over? I don't get it. And I really don't get why many Republicans have taken this opportunity to reinforce the already widespread impression that they are morally odious morons. God, I hate politics.

Hansonian Cultural Politics

Robin Hanson replies to my post below on cultural externalities and harm:

When I ask students to justify various subsidies and taxes, they are quick to say “externality,” but slow to identify specific plausibly-related side-effects, and even slower to seek opposing side-effects.  They usually just seek support for pre-existing intuitions.

Like Robert Frank and Geoffrey Miller, Will Wilkinson seems to me a bit too quick here to assume the activities he likes are less deserving of taxes.  I’ve been arguing mostly for consistent application of principles.  If we are to tax positional or unhappy activities, then let’s do that consistently, following our best data on positionality or happiness.   Let’s not just selectively apply a rationale to things we already intuitively disliked.

We have long had a clear theoretical basis for allowing businesses to harm each other via competition, but we have less clear a basis for allowing harm via changing expectations about car standards, female workers, neighborhood race, and marriage legitimacy.  So I won’t rule taxing such things out of hand.  But I will insist we first articulate a clear principle we are willing to apply consistently across a wide range of cases.

First, I think Robin may have missed one of my key points, which is that “negative externality” is not a synonym for “harm” in the relevant sense of the word. It begs the question to just go ahead and talk about various harms as if I had not just argued that they don't all count as harms just because someone is bothered by each of them.

Another of my key points was that the fight over what is and is not included in the category of harm is to a great extent what “culture war” is about. If Robin wants a clear theoretical basis for who ought to win these fights, then he needs a moral theory. But a clear theoretical basis is different than a decisive theoretical basis–a basis that all are bound to accept on pain of irrationality. I don't think there is any such basis. To put it another way, there is no clear theoretical basis for selecting a single, clear theoretical basis for determining what does and does not count as a harm. Indeed, no one is rationally bound to accept the normative assumptions underlying the case for economic competition–the clear theoretical basis for “harm” Robin is willing to accept. Many people understand perfectly well that anti-competitive measures such as subsidies or tarrifs buy temporary stability at the price of utility, and they think it's totally worth it.

Moral diversity and disagreement are ineradicable. Disagreement over what does and does not count as a harm is ineradicable. Something like agreement over various cases and principles emerges through the fight of what I call, following Richard Rorty, cultural politics. Part of the fight is to get intellectual types to agree that your theory of harm is compelling. One way we do that is to push on consistency. So we say to people who lose a job to offshore outsourcing that this is really no different than losing a job to a robot, but we don't think we should protect workers against robots. But this kind of thing only takes us so far. Most of the fight is to get sufficient buy-in from whatever forces shape public opinion and public attitudes. Natural human conformism takes care of the rest.

Robin might want to consider that moral categorization is by its nature contingently nominalistic. The fact that enough people just do consider one thing and not another thing a harm, due to the local history of cultural change and socialization, might seem to lack theoretical normative teeth, and leave little space for criticizing the actual system of norms. But the actual system of norms has actual normative teeth pretty much by definition. Which is why we work so hard fighting over the norms, whether or not we can come up with a unified, clear, coherent theory that accounts for their authority.

My sense is that Robin wants some kind of theory that allows us to avoid cultural politics. I don't think there is one. I think Robin complains that I share Miller's and Frank's reliance on intuitions about things we happen to dislike because I'm arguing with them from within what I see to be their prior liberal moral commitments, which I share. We're all liberals, which means we dislike many of the same things. We're not starting from nowhere. So I'm trying to show that their arguments leave them at a place at odds with something we all like very much: a pluralistic, liberal, open society tolerant of dissent, peaceful cultural conflict, and social change.

Robin wants to argue from a more abstract, culturally disembodied position. What must be true if positional or pro-happiness taxation makes sense, and what do these truths imply if applied consistently? I don't see this as much different from what I'm after. Geoffrey Miller and Robert Frank clearly endorse certain epistemic norms which make arguments from consistency, like Robin's, extremely effective. By their own lights, they owe Robin an answer. We're right to demand that serious intellectuals stick as close to possible to the best norms of rational argumentation, just as we're right to expect liberals to stick to their liberal commitments.

Anyway, one can't fault others for failing to cut nature at the normative joints, since there is no such thing. At some point, we lean pretty hard on things we already intuitively dislike, and if enough people agree with us, we win. Robin has a classic rationalist's skepticism about the authority of our intuitions, other than his intuitions about epistemic integrity, which puts him in the position of a revolutionary, prophethic outsider. This can be an extremely powerful position–if we don't decide Robin's just crazy. And we'll decide he's not just crazy insofar as we share his intuitions about the the authority of his conception of rationality. That Robin's so successful at selling his frankly unusual vision of unbiased rationality shows that he's much better at cultural politics than he gives himself credit for.

Cultural Externalities and Harm

Robin Hanson's ongoing discussion of positional goods, signaling, and consumption externalities at the new, exclusively Robin Hanson Overcoming Bias has been terrifically stimulating. I have a few thoughts about the relationship between externalities and “harm” that Robin's discussion has stirred up.

Suppose you're a Millian liberal devoted to the harm principle, which goes like this:

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

Now suppose you, like many economists, are inclined to leap a bit hastily from “negative externality” to “harm.” And then suppose you, like Robert Frank, have a strong view about consumption externalities. When I buy a really expensive car, this story goes, it subtly shifts my community's frame of reference for signals of social status and for judging the the adequacy or socially acceptability of certain vehicles. By diminishing the status signal sent by older and/or less expensive models, my choice exerts a subtle pressure for others to increase spending simply to maintain the constancy of the signal sent by their cars. If we decide to count this kind of effect as a “harm,” then sumptuary taxes pass Mill's test and therefore do not count as paternalistic. We need not even torture the language and call regulation to reduce consumption externalities anything stupid like “libertarian paternalism,” since it's not paternalism at all! Sure, the person facing a steep tax on luxury may be helped by a fiscal inducement to stay off the conspicuous consumption gerbil wheel, but that's by the bye. The point is to prevent “harm” to others through individual consumption choices.

As Robin has been insistently pointing out, how good-looking we are, the quality of our mates, how smart and funny we are when we talk, and the impressiveness of our children's achievements signals at least as strongly as our cars. If our investments in appearance, mate selection, Bourdieuian cultural capital, and children are not equally harmful, then why not? If you think regulating luxury consumption passes Millian muster, then why wouldn't regulating extremely impressive feats of oratory or athleticism?

I think this line of thinking can be taken even further. Many so-called “culture wars” are largely about cultural externalities. Consider Linda Hirschman-like arguments to the effect that women who choose to stay at home raising children impose a significant cost on women who wish to pursue professional success by reinforcing traditional stereotypes of women's relative strengths and by creating rational expectations among employers that firm-specific investments in female employees will have a lower than average expected payoff due to the possibility of maternity leaves or long-term exit from the labor market. The argument that stay-at-home moms ought to be stigmatized, or at least be extended decreasing levels of social esteem, is basically an argument for the cultural version of a tax on choices that have negative spillover effects for others. If the state took a side on this and actually did tax stay-at-home moms, would that pass Millian muster, on the grounds that mothering choices have spillover effects that “harm” other women?

I think that at this point Mill would suggest that something has gone dreadfully wrong. It looks like we've defined “harm” so loosely that the harm principle, so understood, could be the basis for the state regulation of any action whatsoever that affects anyone else in a way they don't like.

Consider pecuniary externalities. If I open a hot dog stand across the street from your hot dog stand, I will take some of your business, or force you to cut your margins, and thereby make you poorer. Have I “harmed” you in some way that requires that you be made whole, or that suggests the wisdom of the state's preventing future instances of such harm? The law says no, and the law is right. You have no right to local monopoly profits from hot dog sales. Indeed, pecuniary externalities are so valuable that there is a whole body of antitrust law ostensibly intended to promote them.

Now, when a black family moves into a neighborhood of white racists, thereby causing great unhappiness, or when the recognition of the legitimacy of gay marriages causes traditionalists to feel that their traditional marriages have been “devalued,” that's the cultural analogue of a pecuniary externality. Somebody really is getting hurt in some real sense. But I don't much care, and Robert Frank probably doesn't either, if some racists are disgruntled by their neighbors' color, or if some religious folk feel aggrieved by a perfectly accurate sense that the social esteem afforded their particular type of marriage has fallen in relative value.

Coasean logic focuses us on the duality of externalities. In the land of the deaf, there is no noise pollution. In the land of cosmopolitan enlightenment, there is no “there goes the neighborhood.” Progressive social change occurs through a revaluation of where to locate “the problem.” Is it in the signal or in the receiver? To identify a “harm,” and to invoke the harm principle, the moment there is a complaint, is the essence of reactionary politics. It is to shut down the very possibility of relocating “the problem” from the source of a reaction to the reaction itself. This would be the very opposite of the intention of Mill in On Liberty, which is at bottom a call for the cultural version of dynamic, ideally competitive markets roiling constantly with the hurt of lost market share.

Ryan Avent's Innovations in the Game Theory of International Relations?

In response to my point below about the transparently inconsistent reasoning about public goods employed by many defenders of the woeful cap and trade bill, Ryan Avent writes:

This seems almost deliberately dense. In particular, it makes no distinction between the world of billions of daily, anonymous transactions and the world in which a handful of great powers attempt to hammer out a diplomatic agreement. Unsurprisingly, it's very difficult to get millions of urban denizens to voluntarily come together to build and fund a road network or transit system in the absence of a coercive mechanism. The benefits are too broadly shared, and the incentive to free ride too great. But the smaller the number of players, the more concentrated the benefits, and the easier it is to find a mutually beneficial agreement.

I certainly wasn't being deliberately dense. Ryan is, as always, quite charitable in allowing that my denseness might have been involuntary. I am grateful. Perhaps it is this very denseness that prevents me from grasping how I was being dense. I persist in thinking that the standard mode of reasoning about collective action problems applies. So I patiently await instruction.

Ryan evidently believes it is almost obvious that the structure of the strategic problem in securing global climate policy coordination is less complex than the problem of putting together standard-issue public goods, like a system of roads. In the case of global climate policy coordination, we're talking not about diffuse millions but a mere “handful of great powers,” who will enjoy such concentrated benefits from an agreement that the normal worries about credible commitment, assurance, free-riding, and so forth do not really apply. So the absence of a coercive enforcement mechanism is pretty much irrelevant. Not only shouldn't we worry about the standard logic of interdependent strategic action, but it's almost deliberately dense to do so. My bad.

If only we'd known that global coordination problems among “a handful of great powers” was such a breeze, we'd have arrived at Kant's global federation of perpetual peace centuries ago. Come to think of it, why were there two massive World Wars and a Cold War last century? It's almost as if the great powers were being deliberately dense. But I guess we now know the trick of aligning the perceived interests of great powers: just make some kind of effort to cooperate. Go ahead and move unconditionally, even if your own country's move actually signals quite clearly that there is next to zero political will to bear the costs of an agreement with teeth. And then what you do is you wait for other great powers to be impressed and encouraged and convinced by the immense advantages that will accrue to them once they jump on board. It's easy once you know how.

Or maybe that's not how Ryan thinks it goes. But then how does it go? I still don't get it.

Other things I don't get:

(a) The idea that “great powers” are headed by some kind of unified intelligence or agency that can make agreements and just stick with them. I thought the governments of states–even authoritarian ones–were semi-stable coalitions of various and often conflicting interests subject to the vagaries of mass public opinion.

(b) The idea that the benefits of global climate policy coordination — which will not be realized for many decades — will accrue to the relevant state decisionmakers and so provide them with sufficient incentive to make and stick to an agreement, but that the costs of coordination — which will be significant and immediate — will somehow not be borne by those decisionmakers (e.g., “the people” will not complain about these costs in a politically threatening way) and so will not overwhelm the posthumous payoff in the political accounting.

(c) The triviality of time inconsistency problems. I had thought that time inconsistency problems–that the government now cannot really bind the government later–were endemic to politics. This makes it almost impossible for a current government to credibly promise that a policy will persist over time. I had thought you needed some kind of mechanism (which we do not appear to have) to align the incentives of the parade of future decisionmakers to sticking with it over time.

(d) The option value of empty gestures. The Waxman-Markey bill appears to everyone–even advocates like Ryan–to be mostly a bust, if not a complete bust. It remains unclear to me why a transparently bad bill does more to improve the U.S.'s bargaining position than no bill.

I don't see that Ryan addresses any of this as he goes on:

[T]here are fewer than ten relevant players, and only two really relevant players not already committed to reductions — the US and China. Given that climate negotiations are part of a repeated game between the two great powers (that is, they're more or less constantly talking about one economic or political issue or another), it seems very likely indeed that an American pre-commitment to emission reductions would facilitate a similar Chinese commitment.

India? Cheap talk?

The repeated game between the U.S. and China looks to me trickier than this. First, it's better for China in the short and medium term if we tax carbon emissions and they don't. They sure will be happy to see us go first. (It will, among other things such as encouraging capital flight to China, give them more slack with which to clean up things like SO2 that really do matter to them in the short term.) So then what do we do if they don't play along? Impose carbon tariffs? Then we have probably just started a trade war with our chief source of inexpensive manufactured goods. Is this the repeated game Ryan has in mind?

Ryan sums up:

Will Wilkinson works for Cato, and Jim Manzi writes for National Review, two great outposts of climate change denialism and do-nothingism. It occurs to me that if more of their compatriots were willing to discuss the issue responsibly, then upwards of 90% of the GOP might not be committed to a policy based on utter stupidity, and a better bill might be feasible. Instead, they're busily arguing against Waxman-Markey. That's their right, but it certainly says quite a bit about their priorities.

I wonder if Ryan would like to be more explicit about what he thinks my priorities are. I'll tell you what I think my priority is: to make people, especially poor people, better off. I am against this bill because I honestly believe it will leave many people worse off and make almost no one other than politically-connected domestic interest groups better off. I think Ryan has a different assessment of its likely effects, but I don't see any need to slyly impugn his motives. If he thinks his argument is so winning, then it might benefit him to drop this kind of well-poisoning rhetoric, which is beneath him, and start actually winning the argument.

The Happiness Gender Gap Again

Stevenson and Wolfers' paper, “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” covered in the Times back in 2007, has just been released as an NBER paper, giving it a second wind. Ross Douthat in his column today argues that it means that we need to do a better job stigmatizing single motherhood. That's one way we could go. In my 2007 Free Exchange post on the subject, I suggested destigmatizing female indifference to familial responsibility.

[We should] strongly and repeatedly reinforce the point that women should not have to do so much of the unpleasant domestic and child- and parent-care work. It seems to me our culture remains awash in quasi-Victorian super-sentimenal romanticism about the mother-child bond, which makes women feel guilty if they approach childrearing with the same sort of genial detachment of even attentive, involved, and loving dads. Surely many men ought to do more of this work. But I think men doing more is less important than women doing less. Neither women nor men ought not be made to feel guilty if they outsource this work to daycare, nannies, or assisted-living facilities.

The happiness studies show that men now spend less time unpleasantly occupied than they used to. That's good! Our focus should not be on the equitible distribution of unpleasantness, but on an overall reduction. The best path is cultural change that lowers to women the cost of opting out of unfair social expectations—expectations that lead them to spend too much of their time devoted to unpleasant acts of altruism.

There's no logically logical reason why Ross's restigmatization campaign can't go hand in hand with my destigmatization campaign. Ladies: don't be a single mother, because that would be bad for you, and if you are a mother, ignore your kids more, because that would be good for you! But I'm afraid there's a kind of deep cultural logic that rules out this sort of arrangement.


IMO, Jim Manzi continues to own defenders of the preposterous cap and trade bill. His latest assessment of the state of play:

So let’s review the overall bidding, at least as I see it:

1. Everybody agrees that if Waxman-Markey becomes law, and it does not lead to a global, binding and enforced agreement to severely reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, then it makes U.S. taxpayers worse off economically.

2. I have presented an economic argument that even if such a global agreement were achieved it would accomplish in the best case a net increase in NPV of global consumption of 0.2%, and a practical argument that it would almost certainly reduce global economic welfare. These specific arguments remain undisputed.

3. Those who argue that Waxman-Markey would lead to a global agreement have provided no evidence that it would have this negotiating effect, and are presenting what is, at best, a pretty idiosyncratic negotiating premise that by giving away our leverage as one participant in a collective action problem we will somehow increase our ability to get others to sacrifice on our behalf.

The thing is, Jim's arguing from the basis of extremely generous assumptions.

Many of the people making a big deal about the bargaining value of this bill rarely (never?) use similar logic in similar circumstances. The idea is that coordinated international action toward carbon reduction is a global public good, and that the probability of effective coordination increases significantly if the U.S. acts unilaterally. HOW DOES THIS WORK? Standard statist-liberal reasoning about public goods is that they will not be provided unless there is a  coercive mechanism in place (e.g., a state) to solve the assurance problem. But there is no state with global jurisdiction. So am I to understand that folks making the argument about the crucial role for Waxman-Markey in solving the international collective action problem don't really believe the standard story about the need for coercion in assuring compliance? Because that would sure change a lot of debates about a lot of things! To put it another way: if you think that the probability is low that smaller-scale public goods can be provided through voluntary mechanisms without government, shouldn't you think the probability is even lower the larger the scope of the coordination problem?

The Varieties of Conservative Collectivism

In my latest column for The Week, I argue that David Brooks is wrong about the problem with individualism and that self-professed individualists, such as Glenn Beck, are really just as collectivist as Brooks, but with a flag fetish and a penchant for Ye Olde Constitution fonts. I speculate that this has something to do with why the GOP is busted.

Happiness and Income Inequality

Yglesias writes:

I think the links between taxation, spending, and inequality are the most plausible explanation of the fact that the highest-taxed countries are the happiest. It can’t be that paying taxes makes Danes happy. But plausibly, living in a relatively egalitarian society makes people happy.

I wrote a paper about this! At the time, the studies showed no notable systematic relationship between income inequality and happiness. (I know Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers are looking at the question again with the bigger, better Gallup survey, so maybe they'll offer a somewhat differnet, more accurate picture.) Danes say they're really happy and have the lowest inequality. But Americans are nearly as happy and have high inequality for an OECD country. Mexicans are a quite upbeat lot, but have really, really high income inequality. So there's not much of a clear pattern in the data. The effect of inequality on happiness appears to be pretty strongly ideologically mediated. Unsurprisingly, high inequality tends to be disquieting to egalitarians. But it doesn't so much bother meritocrats. Additionally, the causes of high inequality are various. Economic predation by political elites (lots of Latin America and Africa) is pretty likely to create a sense of victimization and injustice. But high levels of wealth creation in more or less fair institutions but with relatively little fiscal redistribution (the U.S.) doesn't bother people as long as they think the system is more or less fair. So the national income inequality variable itself tends to have little or no independent effect. The effect it does have depends on other things people believe and care about and the specific causes of inequality in different places. Anyway, why would you expect nation-level income inequality to figure much into an individual's assessment of life satisfaction? People don't experience national Gini coefficients. They worry about their neighbor's car.