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.