When I was in Madison, I was arguing against a large group of students who were anti-globalization and pro-communal gardens. What happened? Part of it could be explained by the fact that my significant other hangs out with a right leaning crowd, but now it’s moved to individuals she doesn’t even associate with!

Earlier, I published a rather long exchange with a self-proclaimed libertarian. I actually think he was a libertarian. Now, the group I argue with professes to advocate libertarianism, but tends, in my view, to advocate anarchism. In my view, these kinds of views tend to be motivated by anti-government sentiment, but haven’t been thought through clearly enough to be clear, complete, or consistent.

Here’s a recent discussion I had on Facebook with two other “libertarians”:

L1: Libertarians embrace the concept that humans are born with inherent rights. We reject the idea that a natural right can ever impose an obligation upon others to fulfill that “right.” – MO Libertarian Party Platform (2010 proposed addition) This reminds me a Rand Paul’s answer to the question “Is healthcare a right?” [followed by a link to Rand Paul’s answer].

Me: That is nonsensical. Any “inherent right” requires enforcement, which is a claim on others. An unenforced or unprotected right cannot plausibly be called a “right”.

L1: Andrew, I don’t understand- who enforces my rights?

ME: Typically, it’s the government in some form, though it could be some other body or an individual. Your right to life (sometimes construed as a right “not to be killed unjustly) is protected by the legal and judicial system (e.g., laws against murder and power granted to judicial bodies) and the executive branch (law enforcement). In my view, a right to life necessarily entails a claim right to enforcement of violations against your right. I’m not sure what good or how meaningful it would be to have unprotected rights. Your right to liberty and the “pursuit of happiness” is protected by laws that restrict violations of your right to move about freely. Let’s say you are kidnapped and locked in a room with a phone. Should you be able to call law enforcement to arrest the kidnapper and release you from the room? If you believe the answer is yes, then you believe that “a natural right can…impose an obligation upon others to fulfill that right.’” I take a more extreme view. I believe that a person’s right to life entails an even greater claim than law enforcement. For example, if you see a child drowning in a water fountain nearby (let’s say 10 ft away), I believe you have an obligation to try your best to save her. She has, in my view, a claim right on you derived from her right to life.

In general, I don’t think it’s helpful to discuss issues in terms of rights. I may change my mind some day. I don’t think it’s helpful to ask, “Do individuals have a right to X?” We decide whether or not individuals have rights, and we generally do so based on whether or not we think it will benefit society. It used to be the case that individuals didn’t have a right to public education. But, we decided that our society would benefit if we granted universal public education, and then we started saying “Individuals have a right to public education.” We did the same things with the right to life and the right to move about freely, it just happened a long time ago. The question shouldn’t be “Is health care a right?”, it should be “If we granted universal access to health care, would it benefit individual and aggregate well-being?”

L1: I can see what you mean about law enforcement being a claim on others, since we are forced to pay for it.

But I still feel doctors shouldn’t be forced to provide us healthcare, farmers shouldn’t be forced to provide us with food, homebuilders shouldn’t be forced to build us houses, teachers shouldn’t be forced to educate us and our neighbors shouldn’t be forced to pay for it all. I also think all of these examples are not rights – they are privileges.
I would rather educate not legislate issues of morality. And of course we have an obligation (this is exactly what Rand Paul said in the video)

ME: I heard Rand Paul use a similar line of reasoning in the video. But we don’t “force” or coerce anyone to provide the goods that come along with rights, we compensate them. We compensate law enforcement officers and judges who protect the right to life and the right to move about freely; we compensate the farmers who provide the food welfare recipients purchase using food stamps; we compensate the doctors who provide Medicare patients with care (though arguably not at a fair price).

All things equal, I would rather educate than legislate issues of morality, too. It’s a lot easier! But sometimes coercion is necessary. It may not be enough to say to the burglar that breaks into your house and steals your belongings, “Hey, don’t you know that that’s immoral? Let me give you some books that explain why…” and then hope he comes back a week later a changed man with all your stuff. It seems appropriate to have a coercive force (law enforcement and due process) that protects individual property rights, and deters others from violating them.

L1: I didn’t say we force them, I said they shouldn’t be forced, which seems the way things are headed. I agree that they are compensated but then there’s the question of do you think your neigbor should be forced to compensate for your “rights”?

And if we make all these privileges into rights and we force our neighbors to pay for our “rights”, then why work? Even communication is considered a right now a days. I feel only law enforcement, that protects my inherent rights such as property rights, can be justified. As of now, I can’t justify forcing my neighbor to pay for my healthcare, shelter, food, education, cell phone, etc.

L2: I don’t see how even law enforcement can be logically justified. First of all, the bulk of law enforcement is committed to punishing those “guilty” of victimless crimes and, in the pursuit of such, cause far more violence than they stop or prevent.

Second, even when it comes to legitimate crimes such as rape and murder, law enforcement provides for no restitution for victims. Instead, it forces the victims to pay for the incarceration of the perpetrators in an environment that encourages recidivism.

Third, despite the dubious value of the “services” provided by law enforcement, we have a gun pointed at our heads forcing us to pay for it. None of us are given the option of signing up or opting out. Even if we choose to invest in far superior means of defending our life and property than what law enforcement provides, we are still extorted into paying for their “services” under pain of kidnapping and imprisonment in a government run rape room. I reject any use of violence that is not defensive in nature, and pointing a gun at someone to make them hand over their money is utterly immoral, no matter how wonderful the cause (be it universal health care, law enforcement, or anything else).

ME: I suggest you read the SEP entry for punishment: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/punishment/

Your understanding certainly points to a few complexities involving the justification of punishment. However, I believe it ends up being justified both on utilitarian and retributivist grounds.

Your “collecting taxes is immoral” argument is also confused. You don’t have a right to live in this country. It’s the collective property of the United States. If you choose to live here, you ought to obey its laws and pay its taxes. That’s the social contract. If you choose to break the contract, then we, collectively, have a right to put you in the rape room. Now, you certainly should be able to leave and become a pirate or live in Somalia, or some other anarchist state if you like, and you probably should if you think you’d be better off. But if you want to take advantage of our superb market system, infrastructure, and democratic government, you ought to pay your dues and stop bitching.

L2: Regarding punishment, given the varying values and desires that people who are victimized by criminals might have, I think the optimal way of responding to this problem is via a free market. To the extent that retribution is really useful, I’m sure it would be represented therein.

As for the rest of your reply, I disagree with it entirely. From the notion that we own nothing but that all belongs to the state, to the validity of a social contract, to the acceptance of violence against those who have done others no harm, to the laughable notion that we have a “superb market system,” I’m saddened by your view. Perhaps I’m mistaken in this assumption, but assuming that you would support the use of violence against me simply because I disagree with you, I see little reason to continue any conversation with you.

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Over break, David Brooks released his annual Sidney awards, naming the best essays of 2009. I had a chance to read several of them, and enjoyed them immensely.  Here’s my revised list:

1. The Cost Conundrum by Atul Gawande [New Yorker]
2. How American Health Care Killed My Father by David Goldhill [Atlantic]
3. The Rubber Room by Steven Brill [New Yorker]
4. The Goldstone Illusion by Moshe Halbertal [The New Republic]
5. Is Food the New Sex? by Mary Eberstadt [Hoover Institution Policy Review]
6. Offensive Play by Malcolm Gladwell [New Yorker]

If you have a chance, take a look at these. You won’t regret it.

Here’s how they really feel. This is from a survey in 2003. Issues are ranked by % agreement. Economists were given a list of statements and asked whether they agreed or disagreed.

  1. Flexible and floating exchange rates offer an effective international monetary arrangements. 95%

  • Tariffs and import quotas usually reduce the general welfare of society. 94%

  • Pollution taxes or marketable pollution permits are a more economically efficient approach to pollution control than emission standards. 94%

  • A ceiling on rents reduces the quantity and quality of housing available. 93%

  • The U.S. trade deficit is not primarily due to nontariff trade barriers erected by other countries. 91%

  • If the federal budget is to be balanced, it should be done over the course of the business cycle rather than yearly. 90%

  • Fiscal policy has a significant stimulative impact on a less-than-fully employed economy. 86%

  • An appropriately designed fiscal policy can increase the long-run rate of capital formation. 85%

  • Cash payments increase the welfare of recipients to a greater degree than do transfers in kind of equal cash value. 84%

  • Surpluses in the federal budget should be used to retire the national debt. 83%

  • The redistribution of income in the United States is a legitimate role for government. 83%

  • Inflation is caused primarily by too much growth in the money supply. 83%

  • The Earned Income Tax Credit should be expanded. 80%

  • A large federal deficit has an adverse effect on the economy. 80%

  • Tax policy does not have a significant impact on the likelihood that a family unit will remain in tact. 76%

  • Welfare reforms that place time limits on public assistance have increased the general well-being of society. 76%

  • The increasing inequality in the distribution of income in the United States is not due primarily to the benefits and pressures of the global economy. 75%

  • Wages and price controls are not a useful policy option in the control of inflation. 74%

  • In the movement from a nonmarket to a market economy, it is important that the ownership of productive resources be privatized at the onset. 74%

  • Minimum wages increase unemployment among young and unskilled workers. 73%

  • Antitrust laws should be enforced vigorously to reduce monopoly power from its current level. 73%

  • Economic evidence suggests there are too many resources devoted to American agriculture. 72%

  • The Federal Reserve should focus on a low rate of inflation, rather than other possible goals, such as employment or economics growth. 72%

  • Management of the business cycle should be left to the Federal Reserve; activist fiscal policy should be avoided. 72%

  • The distribution of income in the United States should be more equal. 68%

  • Lower marginal tax rates reduce leisure and increase work effort. 68%

The only one I disagree with is #9. This statement is undoubtedly based on a theoretical shift in economics in the 1930s, when economists began to equate utility (an individual’s well-being) with the satisfaction of his or her preferences (undertaken to simplify economic models). This theory was further simplified by Paul Samuelson’s revealed preference theory, which equated choices with preferences and preferences with utility. Under this theory, unconstrained choices make everyone better off. But, there are good reasons to question the foundational assumptions of this reasoning.

The other statements are, in my view, true, though many of them need to be qualified.

Most philosophers of science are empiricists. They believe that observational evidence is ultimately what should lead us to accept or reject the claims of scientists about the real world. Economics is a science of sorts. Though it may differ methodologically from the so-called harder sciences (e.g., physics), it is similar in that it is supposed to give us knowledge about the real world.

At a recent Show-Me Institute book club, I was discussing the methodological views of Ludwig von Mises with others. Mises’ view of economic methodology was essentially Kantian. Kant’s view relied on two distinctions: analytic-synthetic, and a priori-a posteriori. Analytic statements are definitional, while synthetic statements are about the world. The truth of a priori statements can be determined prior to experience, while a posteriori statements require experience to determine their truth. Here’s a trusty table I constructed from Wikipedia examples:

Analytic:”All bachelors are unmarried.”
Synthetic: “All bachelors are unhappy.”
A priori: “7 + 5 = 12.”
A posteriori: “Tables exist.”

Before Kant, no one believed that there were such things as synthetic a priori statements, i.e., statements about the world that can be determined prior to experience. Kant argued that the axioms of Euclidean geometry were examples. In his view, no one could argue that these axioms were false (since they were definitional) even though they revealed knowledge about the real world. Non-Euclidean geometry has not been especially kind to Kant; nor have philosophers of science.

Mises’ view is essentially Kantian; it merely treats the basic axioms of economics as his ‘synthetic a priori’ truths.

What I tried to communicate at book club was that the postulates of economics are not like the axioms of Euclidean geometry since they first require induction in their formulation. J.S. Mill (whose methodological views I tend to favor) was acutely aware of this when disseminating his methodological view all the way back in 1836. You can find a summary here.

There’s a meme going around about top 10 books that have influenced your personal philosophical views. Here are mine:

(1) A Treatise on Human Nature [David Hume]

Made me an empiricist.

(2) On Liberty [J.S. Mill]

The power of the marketplace of ideas. How and why exactly does liberty apply to welfare?

(3) A Theory of Justice [John Rawls]

The best account of our intuitions about justice to date.

(4) The Descent of Man [Charles Darwin]

How should we think about moral personhood? Why should we give special consideration to humans?

(5) The Selfish Gene [Richard Dawkins]

Tremendously influenced my understanding of culture and cultural evolution.

(6) The Republic [Plato]

The groundwork for the whole of political philosophy.

(7) Groundwork on the Metaphysics of Morals [Immanuel Kant]

How should we treat persons? What moral considerations are there aside from consequences?

(8) Utilitarianism [J.S. Mill]

Still the best arguments for the most powerful, i.e., influential theory of morality.

(9) New Foundations of Cost-Benefit Analysis [Matthew Adler & Eric Posner]

Convincingly made the case, in my view, for operationalizing utilitarianism in economics. This book was, and still is, the basis for nearly all my thinking about public policy issues.

(10) Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy [Daniel Hausman & Michael McPherson]

How does our ethical understanding influence economic theory and guide us in making decisions of public policy? What are the philosophical foundations for welfare economics?