Voters’ Best Interest

December 17, 2010

by Chidem Kurdas

Ronald Dworkin, a well-known legal scholar, describes last month’s election results as depressing and puzzling. In a commentary in the New York Review of Books, he asks, “Why do so many Americans insist on voting against their own best interests?” 

The New York University law and philosophy professor is not the only left-liberal to pose this question. It is a common belief  that many people irrationally side with capitalist fat cats while opposing Obama administration policies that benefit themselves, such as the new medical entitlement.

“Why do they vote in such numbers for the party favored by the bankers and traders who brought on the economic catastrophe?” wonders Mr. Dworkin.

The argument here is that many voters will reap the benefits of increased government action but do not have to worry about the costs, which will be borne by the well-off.  Hence it appears to be rational for a large part of the electorate to favor bigger government, trusting it to take from the relatively rich and give to the relatively poor, like a gigantic many-headed Robin Hood.

Higher-income groups indeed carry a large chunk of the tax burden. So why do individuals in lower-income brackets oppose the growth of government? Well, for one thing, they and their children will still bear part of ballooning cost. Two, they or their children have the possibility of climbing up the income ladder, thereby joining the rich who are being soaked. The left-liberal argument assumes that upward mobility is not really in the cards and people are irrational to think of it—in other words, it rules out the American dream.

But there is more. The political-bureaucratic class, as the middleman that does the redistributing of wealth, takes to itself a hefty share of the pie. Obviously, its goodies include capitalizing on a political career to get plum jobs on Wall Street, as for instance Obama’s former budget director Peter Orszag just did at Citigroup, reportedly for a salary in the several million dollars. Bankers and public functionaries are often the same people moving back and forth through a revolving door. Knowing this, voters who take a dim view of bankers are unlikely to love them in their guise as public agents.

The more the government does, the greater the various opportunities for the political class—this is the one group that benefits hugely from the limitless expansion of Leviathan.

Perhaps the most important reason we may vote against what Mr. Dworkin identifies as our best interest is that some of us don’t relish being turned into wards of the state.  The sight of so many tentacles of government increasingly insinuating themselves into our existence, including our health insurance, was surely a big factor in this election.

The right to lead your life with less political-bureaucratic-legal meddling and  to preserve this right for the next generation goes beyond economic calculation. This is a moral issue. Perversely, redistribution advocates claim the moral high ground, as William McGurn points out in the Wall Street Journal. That’s because liberty does not enter their calculus.

Here’s a new puzzle: why do people like Dworkin argue for the best interests of the political class?

66 Responses to “Voters’ Best Interest”

  1. Troy Camplin Says:

    Elites support the elites. It is they who are supporting their own “class” interests.

  2. Lord Keynes Says:

    Dworkin is expressing partisan (pro-Democrat) opinions, obviously.

    You say:

    The argument here is that many voters will reap the benefits of increased government action but do not have to worry about the costs, which will be borne by the well-off.

    On the contrary, progressive liberal/social democratic policies are usually done with progressive taxes where people pay by the level of income.
    Paying in $9,058 in tax when you earn $50,000 is hardly trivial – it is a real cost for a person in that income bracket. The point is that you pay taxes for something in return: public goods and services.

    The more the government does, the greater the various opportunities for the political class—this is the one group that benefits hugely from the limitless expansion of Leviathan.

    Such a situation is neither inevitable nor a necessary consequence of government.

    The sight of so many tentacles of government increasingly insinuating themselves into our existence, including our health insurance, was surely a big factor in this election.

    You are mistaken. There is a vast amount of evidence from reasonably well sampled polls that the majority of the US public favours a national/universal health care system:

    http://www.wpasinglepayer.org/PollResults.html

    This is a moral issue. Perversely, redistribution advocates claim the moral high ground, as William McGurn points out in the Wall Street Journal. That’s because liberty does not enter their calculus.

    And what ethical theory do you support exactly? I take it you believe ethics is objective and not subjective?

    Rothbard’s natural rights/natural law ethics is ridiculously flawed. For a start, see here:

    Kai Nielsen, “The Myth of Natural Law,” in S. Hook (ed.), Law and Philosophy: A Symposium, University Press, New York. 1963.
    L. A. Rollins, The Myth of Natural Rights (1983).

    Thus natural rights/natural law can give no support for some Austrian anarcho-capitalism system.

    On Mises’ utilitarianism, praxeologists have absolutely no argument against the moral case for rational government intervention in general, let alone basic universal healthcare:

    http://socialdemocracy21stcentury.blogspot.com/2010/10/rothbard-on-mises-utilitarianism-why.html

    If you want to try Kantian ethics, that system rather easily leads to a justification for progressive taxes and other liberal state interventions.

    For more discussion here:

    http://socialdemocracy21stcentury.blogspot.com/2010/10/economics-and-ethics-brief-survey.html

  3. Pietro M. Says:

    Was it Dworkin or Dahrendorf who said that Buchanan’s logrolling is unlikely, irrelevant, difficult to imagine and/or bizzarre?

  4. Roger Koppl Says:

    Well said, Chidem.

    We should also remember that we have no incentive to vote our interests because no one vote matters. The probability that your individual vote will turn the election is essentially zero. Thus, voting is expressive, not rational, as Buchannan and Brennan have explained.


  5. Great post.

    As Chidem suggests, a large percentage of Americans uphold individual liberty as a value and vote accordingly. That may be expressive, as Roger suggests, but is also rational if seen as part of a wave as happened in the 2010 elections.

    Dworkin doesn’t even have the political facts correct. Which is the party of Wall Street? Wall Street overwhelmingly supported both Clinton and Obama in the primaries, and then Obama in the general election.

    Wall Street has long had a connection with the democrats, going back to the House of Morgan. It was commercial bankers in days of old that were Republican.

    More generally, the Democrat party relies on the ultra-rich of Wall Street, Hollywood and the Silicon Valley for funds. The Republicans depend on small-to-medium size contributions.

    None of this is to question that the political class as a whole is separate and apart from ordinary people. That’s a topic for another post.

  6. Roger Koppl Says:

    Right on, Jerry.

    BTW: Expressive voting theory is one reason to reject the economistic claim that voters will vote their narrow self interest. It does *not* say that what is expressed must be irrational.

  7. gcallah Says:

    Lord Keynes:
    “On the contrary, progressive liberal/social democratic policies are usually done with progressive taxes where people pay by the level of income.”

    That’s not “on the contrary” (or even “to the contrary”), Lord Keynes. You just said the exact same thing Chidem did using different words!

  8. Lord Keynes Says:

    gcallah,

    The statement made above:

    The argument here is that many voters will reap the benefits of increased government action but do not have to worry about the costs, which will be borne by the well-off.

    Why ignore the words “but do not have to worry about the costs”?
    This clearly implies that the majority of taxpayers do not have significant costs in a progressive tax system.
    But they do.
    Paying $9,058 in tax when you earn $50,000 is a significant cost.
    Even paying $3000 on $30,000 a year is a real and significant cost.

    Don’t tell me that people don’t worry about this. But whatever their worry they get public goods and services in return for their tax, and, according to well sampled polls, the majority of them do in fact want that.
    The principle behind tax for public goods is much like insurance – a cost that is felt to be justifiable for the benefits you get in return.

  9. Pietro M. Says:

    There is surely a hiatus between the agent-rethoric and the agent-practise in political systems.

    The better known instance, and the more often mocked at, is the relatively high social status of the friends of the poor proletarians.

    The nicest example I know is a friend of mine. One day she talked against consumerism and in favor of “degrowth” (a new ideological rubbish with some minor following in Italy: we are actually succeeding in it, albeit unwittingly), the day after she talked about how much she would have loved to have a fur, a SUV, and some more jewelry to show up when bringing her (future) kids to school. N.B.: she’s absolutely not a moron, she’s very clever.

    Interest politics is for the organized few who have some thousand bucks to lose or gain and an organization to put to work. For most, politics is just a way to acquire a cleaner conscience.

  10. Nikolaj Says:

    It is revealing that Dworkin is actually castigating the voters for having any other motivation apart from maximizing their short-term economic interest. Just like his friend Rawls, he assumes that the reason why people vote or have some political philosophy is always that they think they would end up higher on the income ladder, irrespective of any other considerations. Rawls never suspected that someone could chose the “system of natural liberty” over his own welfare state even if s/he were convinced s/he would end up with less income under that system. It is amusing how the “humanitarian” liberal socialists always assume that man is an egoistic beast, and castigate him whenever he fails to behave accordingly! They simply despise liberty.

  11. Mario Rizzo Says:

    It is a wonder the paternalists do not get into the argument. If Dworkin is right and people do not vote their best interests then surely they need a nudge in that direction. Perhaps the flow of information to the poor and middle class from “liberal” groups should be subsidized — or something else clever.

    On the other hand, if people do not act in the own best interests when making market decisions nor when making political decisions then perhaps all decisions by ordinary people need to be adjusted by the elite.

    However, isn’t it more likely that people will make decisions in their own interests in the market where they tend to bear the consequences of their own mistakes than in the political sphere where they do not?

  12. Gene Callahan Says:

    “Just like his friend Rawls, he assumes that the reason why people vote or have some political philosophy is always that they think they would end up higher on the income ladder, irrespective of any other considerations.”

    But Dworkin is very explicitly saying they didn’t vote that way, and offers two explanations of why, both of which turn on things other than “place on the income ladder.”

    And here is Rawls:

    “the problem of political liberalism is: How is it possible that there may exist over time a stable and just society of free and equal citizens profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines?” (Political Liberalisms, p. xxv)

    So it is pretty apparent neither of them holds a belief anything like the strawman Nikolaj has created.

  13. Nikolaj Says:

    Gene,

    Ralws’ main argument for his redistributive model is that if people were put behind the “veil of ignorance” they would decide in a risk-aversive manner to accept the system in which they would be protected by government against poverty. Rawls assumes that it is impossible that I know that I am going to end up lower in the system of natural liberty and still accept it (eg.because I simply hate socialism and redistribution mroe than I value my own “income security”). Rawls’ agent behind the veil of ignorance is exactly the same as Dworkin’s “rational”, self-interested welfare recipient who relies on the gigantic Robin Hood government and understands that he is going to be better-off in a glorious Obamacare system. For both of them it is somewhat puzzling that some people simply despise their philosophy and prefer rather an uncertain system of liberty, although in that system there are no guaranties of income.

  14. Nikolaj Says:

    It seems that Dworkin is so delusional that he could not think off any other reason for the wish of many people to “take their government back” apart from – racism. And also, the fact that Obama is so “smart and articulate” (and they are stupid and hence reflectively hateful of Obama:)) It’s simply impossible that people can be that stupid to not see the glories of a liberal utopia promoted by Obama and his ilk, or to reject their agenda philosophically (because in the mind of an inhabitant of the People’s Republic of Massachusetts “nobody” can take seriously libertarianism, or even the libertarian sentiments of any kind). If not stupid, people then must be evil racists or populist bigots.

  15. Current Says:

    Lord Keynes is quite right about utilitarianism here. If Chidem believes in utilitarianism then he has “absolutely no argument against the moral case for rational government intervention in general, let alone basic universal healthcare”.

    However, that doesn’t mean there is no argument. All it means is that the argument becomes an economic one about the utilitarian benefit of comparative economic policies.

  16. Troy Camplin Says:

    I’m not a big fan of utilitarianism, but it seems to me that if the argument is “the greatest good for the greatest number,” then there certainly can be a utilitarian argument against government intervention in general and universal health care, as neither of these in fact contribute to the greatest good for the greatest number, but either benefit a few at the expense of everyone else or concentrate power (or both).

  17. Gene Callahan Says:

    Troy Camplin: “government intervention in general and universal health care, as neither of these in fact contribute to the greatest good for the greatest number, but either benefit a few at the expense of everyone else or concentrate power (or both).”

    Well, per Lord Keynes’s terms, these would be IRrational government interventions, then. What he is saying is that utilitarianism offers no principle by which we can reject intervention tout court; if one found one that does promote the greatest good, as a utilitarian, one would have to accept it. (As did, say, Mises for the provision of defense and law enforcement.)

    And Current, Chidem is a “she.”

  18. Gene Callahan Says:

    ‘Rawls assumes that it is impossible that I know that I am going to end up lower in the system of natural liberty and still accept it (eg.because I simply hate socialism and redistribution mroe than I value my own “income security”).’

    Well, no he doesn’t. He wouldn’t have to try to persuade you the choice he recommends is correct if he thought it impossible for you to choose otherwise. And recall that Rawls first requires that redistribution violates no basic rights. Now, you and he disagree about what those basic rights are (yours would include a much stronger notion of property rights than his), but it is just not correct to picture Rawls or Dworkin as giving free reign to voters’ narrow self-interests “irrespective of any other considerations,” since they both incorporate fundamental rights that must not be violated.

  19. Troy Camplin Says:

    Indeed. Which is one reason I said I’m not a utilitarian. I side with Hayek in siding rather with liberty, even if it turned out to be “less efficient” — which, fortunately, is not the case.

  20. Current Says:

    > And Current, Chidem is a “she.”

    Ah, thanks.

    > I side with Hayek in siding rather with
    > liberty

    I don’t believe that’s what Hayek thought. He was a rule utilitarian who favoured liberty for long-run utilitarian reasons.

  21. Troy Camplin Says:

    That’s what Hayek said.

  22. Current Says:

    > That’s what Hayek said.

    Er, what is? Are you agreeing with me or disagreeing?

  23. Roger Koppl Says:

    Hayek is an indirect utilitarian. But some people define “utilitarianism” narrowly so that indirect utilitarianism does not count as utilitarianism. So, you know, you gotta be a bit circumspect about some of these labels. The danger of words and all that.

  24. Roger Koppl Says:

    Oh, I forgot to ask Troy: Do you really mean to say that you pick your ethical theory to line up with your independently arrived-at political preferences? Doesn’t that, um, sort of limit your capacity for critical self evaluation of your own ideas? Presumably, I didn’t correctly understand you when you said, “Which is one reason I said I’m not a utilitarian.”

  25. David Hoopes Says:

    Mario:
    “Perhaps the flow of information to the poor and middle class from “liberal” groups should be subsidized — or something else clever.”

    Thank you. That made me laugh out loud.

  26. Nikolaj Says:

    Calahan,

    Rawls talsk about the “basic rights”. but, he excludes the private property fromt hose basic rights! He recognizes only the personal property (tooth brush, computer etc). What kind of paradigm is that?

    The basic problem is that Rawls in the original position behind the veil of ignorance allows to the people to decide only an a very narrow and simple-minded utilitarian grounds; a maxi-min logic. He simply assumes that all people are risk-aversive and all accept collectivistic philosophy. Read Nozik’s critique in the “Anarchy, State and Utopia”; the only, and I mean literally the only justification Rawls gives for redistribution, i.e. his “difference principle” is that wealthy need the cooperation of the poor in order to preserve the social order. Nozick adds that the same argument can be used to justify redistribution in favor of the wealthiest group, since the poor also need the willing cooperation of the wealthy. Rawls simply assumes as given what has to be proved – that redistribution is morally justified. He never proves that it is justified.

  27. Gene Callahan Says:

    “Rawls talsk about the “basic rights”. but, he excludes the private property fromt hose basic rights! He recognizes only the personal property (tooth brush, computer etc). What kind of paradigm is that?”

    I didn’t say you ought to like Rawls’ ideas. I said you were mischaracterizing them as being about narrow self-interests “irrespective of any other considerations.”

  28. Troy Camplin Says:

    Roger,

    I am not a utilitarian because it does not use principles by which to judge things other than the vague “most good for most people most of the time.” If I then judge that the most good for most people most of the time is complete egalitarianism, then I can justify seizing everyone’s property and redistributing it equitably, because I believe it would be the most good for most of the people. By what judgment would we be able to say what is “good”? Good for whom? Based on what? It leaves out the most basic question of ethics, which is the nature of the good.

    However, your question prompted a much longer set of musings on ethics from me, and the relationship between ethics and politics here:

    http://zatavu.blogspot.com/2010/12/ethics-toand-politics.html

    (I didn’t want to take up a ton of space here.)

    I hope you (and others perhaps) come read it and leave comments. Of course, I have talked about ethics quite a bit on my blog, so feel free to browse around and comment at will. :-)

  29. Pietro M. Says:

    A question: does a moral theory called utilitarianism really exist? I haven’t studied much philosophy, but a basic question such as this makes me think that the utilitarism doesn’t prescribe anything because it has nothing to do with ethics.

    I don’t mean utilitarianism in the sense of “the greatest utility for the greatest number”, which is a meaningless statement, absent an objective scale of preferences.

    Whas is a moral theory? A theory that tells us what’s right or wrong.

    Utilitarianism doesn’t: it tells us to chooose what is useful. But “useful” is no less a judgment of value than “right”: it doesn’t solve the problem of moral theory, it just shifts it to another field ridden with the very same logical problem.

    Do we mean a metatheory of ethics, i.e., what we should know about ethics before choosing substantial aims, i.e., before even acting?

    Once again, utilitarianism tells us to consider utility, or in the consequentialist reading, to consider consequences. This is as obvious as it is irrilevant. I know of no “fiat iustitia pereat mundus” moral theories which don’t consider consequences, although Rothbard’s often come close, especially when he didn’t like consequences.

    The sentence “I defend this on utilitarian grounds” doesn’t mean anything different from “I defend this because I like it”, which is no better shape as a valid argument than “I defend this because I believe in natural rights”. Utilitarianism does not exist.

    Consequences do not judge themselves: it takes moral judgement to judge, and consequentialism does not beget moral judgement.

    I see no reason not to support the null hypothesis that moral judgement is logically a ultimate given with no better foundation than our innate and/or acquired preferences over rules and/or outcomes.

  30. Current Says:

    I don’t have time to defend utilitarianism right now. But, I’m sure we’ll get a chance to talk about this again.

  31. Roger Koppl Says:

    The poor innocent word “utilitarianism”! The larger point for this blog is that liberalism in the tradition of Hume and Smith was first and foremost a theory of society. Add just about any basically beneficent norm to that theory and most policy issues are resolved. I think a lot of personal ethical issues are also addressed by social theory plus beneficence.

  32. Pietro M. Says:

    Uhm, I was probably making things too complex.

    I read this as suggesting that classical liberalism is quite robust to any humane moral system, i.e., it is almost natural for everyone except of course sociopaths. This should effectively set aside the untreatable issues of moral theory and the is/ought problem.

    I’m tempted to agree, but a question suddenly comes to my mind: why has classical liberalism been so consistently and persistently out of fashion, to use an euphemism, in the last one hundred years or more?

    If it is robust to a variety of ethical systems, and it is based on a valid scientific view of how society works, then either the dominant ethical system is at fault with liberalism, or the scientific view underlying liberalism is wrong, or the whole world except a few classical liberals employs a wrong theory of society. I think I can convince myself of some moderate version of all these three possibilities.

    There is a fourth option. There may be institutional issues with a liberal society which make it prone either to collapse into a socialdemocracy, or worse (very much worse, says history). As if defending liberty were a prisoner’s dilemma and the growth of power a stable equilibrium path for societies.

    I fear this answers my question better than the first three hypotheses.

    Ok, I stop talking to myself.

  33. Lord Keynes Says:

    A question: does a moral theory called utilitarianism really exist?

    Yes. You should know that it is often called “consequentialism” rather than “utilitarianism” today.

    The most recent and sophisticated defense of “rule consequentialism” is Brad Hooker, 2000. Ideal Code, Real World: A Rule-Consequentialist Theory of Morality, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England and New York.

    In the past, there have also been a number of other forms of utilitarianism, such as:

    (1) act utilitarianism (Betham; J.J.C. Smart)
    (2) ideal utilitarianism (G.E. Moore; Hastings Rashdall)
    (3) preference utilitarianism (R. M. Hare; Peter Singer)
    (4) two-level preference utilitarianism (R. M. Hare)
    (5) motive utilitarianism (Robert Adams)
    (6) negative utilitarianism (Popper, Christoph Fehige and Clark Wolf)

  34. Current Says:

    Thanks for that I’ll be sure to look up those folks in the future.

  35. Pietro M. Says:

    What I said also applies to consequentialism. I wrote:

    “Consequences do not judge themselves: it takes moral judgement to judge, and consequentialism does not beget moral judgement.”

    I know there are many utilitarians and consequentialists out there, but I’m not at all sure their positions are any different from a philosophical redressing of their own value judgements. I don’t see how it could be different, for the reasons explained above.

    Utilitarianism may be as much a rethorical device as naturalism.

    Thanks for the literature.

  36. Roger Koppl Says:

    Pietro:

    I don’t think we should be that surprised if liberal social theory is not more popular. We were not programmed by natural selection to be good economists! I think there is probably a literal sense in which such theory is unnatural. Several scholars have pointe out, for example, that conditions in band-level society approximated a zero-sum game in at least some important decision contexts.

    I also think you might be too pessimistic. It is a marvel that we have civilization at all. And the growth of that last 200 years has been astonishing. If you have not done so already, you might have a look at Hans Rosling dynamic graph on this topic:

    Finally, I don’t think anyone denies that “it takes a moral judgement to judge.” Any utilitarian ethical system has a “moral judgement” to the effect that we want things better for people.

  37. Gene Callahan Says:

    “Any utilitarian ethical system has a “moral judgement” to the effect that we want things better for people.”

    I think you are just restating Pietro’s point here, Roger. This leaves utilitarianism empty, because it doesn’t tell us what is “better”! All the actual moral work comes in deciding that. E.g., “better” could mean “Yields the best shot at Aristotelean flourishing” or “Paves the way to Buddhist enlightenment” or “Everyone has the most stuff possible” or “Everyone has their best shot at leading an authentic life absent false consciousness” or… You get the idea.

  38. Roger Koppl Says:

    Yeah, so “utilitarian” and “consequentialist” cover a variety positions. Is this a point that is somehow doubted or disputed? The label attached to more than one view. How is that a criticism of any of the views thus labeled? You seem to suggest it is a criticism when you describe utilitarianism as “empty.”

  39. chidemkurdas Says:

    So, Gene, re ‘This leaves utilitarianism empty, because it doesn’t tell us what is “better”!’ I’m a bit confused whether you agree with this. Utilitarianism is indeed empty–or not?

  40. chidemkurdas Says:

    Lord Keynes–
    Re “The principle behind tax for public goods is much like insurance – a cost that is felt to be justifiable for the benefits you get in return.” Are you saying current taxes are justifiable or taxes in theory can be so justified?

  41. chidemkurdas Says:

    Re Mario Rizzo– “However, isn’t it more likely that people will make decisions in their own interests in the market where they tend to bear the consequences of their own mistakes than in the political sphere where they do not?”
    Certainly people are better informed in making decisions in the market. This relates to Ilya Somin’s talk at the Colloquium. Political decisions can be made on the basis of one’s general impression, without knowledge of myriad policy details. Thus someone may be against a government requirement that they buy health insurance without reading the thousands of pages of the ObamaCare law.

  42. Lord Keynes Says:

    Are you saying current taxes are justifiable or taxes in theory can be so justified?

    Definitely in theory.

    In practice, it depends on which country you talking about.
    In Western Europe, Australia, Canada, or New Zealand, taxes are undoubtedly justified, given the benefits people get in return in the form of public goods.

    The US is a different issue – no universal health care, and a contemptibly poor system of social security by the standards of other Western nations.

  43. Current Says:

    In some ways I understand those who say that utilitarianism is empty. The problem is the happiness is an aspect of the private mind. So, a utilitarian thinker can argue “X makes men happy” and jig the X so that it meets his or her preferred political system. But this is really cheating isn’t it? The one problem is the privateness, that’s what drives the criticisms of interpersonal utility comparison. The other part of the problem is that many utilitarians claim only particular types of happiness count. Mill claiming that Pigs don’t count but Socrates does, for example. As Gene mentions there are then all sorts of other proposed benchmarks.

    But as Roger points out all this means is that there are different types of utilitarianism. What it doesn’t help with is deciding arguments between them.

    I think that same issue occurs with other moral philosophies too though.

  44. Current Says:

    The undead “Lord Keynes” brings up another set of issues. Firstly, I don’t think that the justification of taxes was just being brought up as a practical question. I think Chidem’s point is under what circumstances are they justified generally?

    The other important aspect of this is what theory of consequences is adopted, and that’s where economics comes in. I’m sure the noble lord isn’t foolish enough to take into account only current utility. In that case there is the question of how current policies affect the economy in the future. So, it’s not all cut and dried even if the morality and the particular variant of utilitarianism choose is the same.

  45. chidemkurdas Says:

    Re the justification of taxes, there is also the question of whether the public services — or some of them — could be performed and paid for privately. “Lord Keynes” assumes it is a given that the services have to paid for by taxation.

  46. Gene Callahan Says:

    ‘Yeah, so “utilitarian” and “consequentialist” cover a variety positions. Is this a point that is somehow doubted or disputed? The label attached to more than one view. How is that a criticism of any of the views thus labeled? You seem to suggest it is a criticism when you describe utilitarianism as “empty.”’

    No, Roger, I’m saying it attaches to any view whatsoever. Everyone wants the “best results” — the only real moral dispute is about what those “best results” are.

    It is as if, in a debate about scientific methods, someone puts forward the view that they are all for “good methods.”

  47. Troy Camplin Says:

    I think the point is that precisely because “utilitarianism” or “consequentialism” cover a variety of positions, they cannot be consider theories of ethics. You have to have an ethical theory first, then apply utilitarianism. Which suggests it might be a social theory at best. Well, that’s what it really is, I might as well use Smiths invisible hand or Hayeks spontaneous order (which is really the same theory if you get right down to it).

  48. Lord Keynes Says:

    I’m sure the noble lord isn’t foolish enough to take into account only current utility. In that case there is the question of how current policies affect the economy in the future.

    And Keynesian demand management, including tax policy, has highly beneficial effects on the economy in the future.

    A proper institutional system to reduce the uncertainty of economic life – of which demand management is a part – is precisely something that is both morally and economically justified.

  49. Troy Camplin Says:

    There is nothing Keynesian which has benefited the economy.

  50. Roger Koppl Says:

    Earlier I said, “some people define ‘utilitarianism’ narrowly so that indirect utilitarianism does not count as utilitarianism.” Now Gene defines it so widely that everything counts. Okay, whatever. As I said at first, “you gotta be a bit circumspect about some of these labels.” In any event, Chidem’s original point was a good one. Dworkin errs in thinking it a puzzle that voters do not vote their narrow self interest as those interests are perceived by, um, Dworkin.

  51. Gene Callahan Says:

    I didn’t define utilitarianism this way: utilitarians define it this way. For instance, I see some fellow just a few comments back characterizing it thus: ‘Any utilitarian ethical system has a “moral judgement” to the effect that we want things better for people.’

    I am just pointing out the consequence of this sort of definition, namely, that it turns out that then, everyone but sociopaths is a utilitarian, and the term is drained of any definite meaning.

    There have been utilitarianisms with more punch, for instance, Bentham’s pleasure/pain hedonic calculus. But who believes that anymore, after all the severe difficulties to which it has been shown to be subject?

  52. Current Says:

    LK,

    > And Keynesian demand management, including tax
    > policy, has highly beneficial effects on the
    > economy in the future.

    I understand that you believe that. My point is that someone can disagree with you about that and still be a utilitarian and still be in the same sort of utilitarian camp as you.

    > A proper institutional system to reduce the
    > uncertainty of economic life – of which demand
    > management is a part – is precisely something
    > that is both morally and economically justified.

    Is there really any difference between moral and economic justification in a utilitarian position though. Surely, when you cite both you do so because you believe that it aides long run utility overall.

    If so then I generally agree with your starting point, but not with your overall view. I live in “Western Europe” in Ireland where there is generous welfare and free healthcare. I don’t consider either of them to be beneficial in the long term, I would much prefer the US system.

  53. Current Says:

    The question Gene brings up is whether other moral system are all consequentialist in the simple ways he mentions.

    I don’t believe that they really are. Does every advocate of natural rights believe that it would be “best for everyone”? I don’t think so. For example, I don’t think every natural rights advocate would claim that a political order based on natural rights would be best for everyone even in the long run.

  54. Gene Callahan Says:

    So, current, your saying some people advocate natural rights, but think it’s worse for people if they follow them?! As I said, this comes down to how we define “best”: the natural rights advocate is going to readily admit that your income might be lower, you might suffer physical harm, etc. if you respect natural rights. But they are going to contend what really is best is that you follow them, even at the expense of less material welfare.

    Think: “What does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?”

    The dispute between Jesus and Bentham is not whether or not they want things better for people: they both do. Everyone but sociopaths does. It’s that they have radically different views on what is “better.”

  55. Lord Keynes Says:

    Is there really any difference between moral and economic justification in a utilitarian position though.

    Absolutely. A case that is allowed even by Mises is fire regulations:

    “Economics neither approves nor disapproves of government measures restricting production and output. It merely considers it its duty to clarify the consequences of such measures. …. There are certainly cases in which people may consider definite restrictive measures as justified. Regulations concerning fire prevention are restrictive and raise the cost of production. But the curtailment of total output they bring about is the price to be paid for avoidance of greater disaster. The decision about each restrictive measure is to be made on the ground of a meticulous weighing of the costs to be incurred and the prize to be obtained. No reasonable man could possibly question this rule” (Mises, L. 1998 [1949]. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, Ala. p. 741).

    But once Mises conceded that rational interventions are possible on utilitarian grounds, and that there is a rule for allowing them, he blatantly contradicts his other argument:

    “Thus the doctrine and the practice of interventionism ultimately tend to abandon what originally distinguished them from outright socialism and to adopt entirely the principles of totalitarian all-round planning” (Mises 1996: 723–724).

    This is the gaping hole in Mises’ Classical liberalism, as I have shown here:

    http://socialdemocracy21stcentury.blogspot.com/2010/10/was-mises-socialist-why-mises-refutes.html

  56. Roger Koppl Says:

    @LK:

    I think you are off target on this one. In the second quote Mises uses the word “interventionism,” which suggests some idea of a system, rather than just the recognition that “capitalism” will run better with some state measures you could call “interventions.” Doesn’t the “ism” part make all the difference here?

    Interventionism was defined as a sort of halfway house between the supposed evils of unalloyed capitalism and unalloyed socialism, a third way. I think there’s room to dispute whether Mises was right claim that middle-of-the-road gets you on the path to redder-than-red socialism. I think there is room to question what Mises’s theorem in this regard really even was. So there is something to talk about here. But I really don’t get how his attack on “interventionism” as he defined it somehow contradicts the rather humble claim that a fire code might work okay.

  57. Current Says:

    What I don’t understand here is what this bit of Mises connected with fire laws has to do with what I said.

    That was:
    “Is there really any difference between moral and economic justification in a utilitarian position though.”

    Mises is a utilitarian, he doesn’t make this distinction I mention here. He’s quite clear about that, you don’t have to read it in from paragraphs about fire codes.

    Mises isn’t a natural rights advocate with a few utilitarian exceptions, he is a utilitarian. He specifically criticises the natural rights point of view.

    My question was, LK, are you? I take it from the other things you’ve written that you are.

    The problem you highlight with the remark about fire codes has little to do with debates about utilitarianism. As Roger points out the problem is with his definition of “interventionism” and an “unhampered economy” which are really much more fuzzy than he would like.

  58. Current Says:

    Gene,

    When I’ve discussed things like this with other natural rights advocates like Stephan Kinsella they haven’t really said what you’ve said.

    Sure, they generally believe that following their system of natural rights will lead to good outcomes for everyone. But, that’s not the criteria by which they normally discuss policy.

    To make things clearer. We have what I’ll call Problem A, which is how to maximize happiness according to some view of what constitutes legitimate happiness. Then we have Problem B, which is what some specific set of proposed natural laws mean for human behaviour. In my view Problem B is generally simpler than Problem A. You can choose to approach both problems, or either of them.

    The utilitarian argument is looking at everything from the direction of problem A. Now, granted a person can rejig their view on what a valuable form of happiness is in order to come to a particular solution to Problem A. But that is really very tricky because Problem A is tricky. Their proposed view on valid happiness may justify a completely different sort of world than that they advocate.

  59. Lord Keynes Says:

    > I think you are off target on this
    > one. In the second quote Mises uses the
    > word “interventionism,” which suggests
    > some idea of a system, rather than just
    > the recognition that “capitalism” will run
    > better with some state measures you could
    > call “interventions.”

    Mises makes a distinction without a difference.

    His position is self-contradictory. In Human Action, Mises contends that interventionism is unacceptable and will lead to socialism or chaos, but then makes it perfectly clear that there is room for what he thinks is intelligent and rational government intervention, which can be justified by “meticulous weighing of the costs to be incurred and the prize to be obtained.” This decision-making process is certainly also in the domain of democratic politics in a community.

    Thus he proposes a system of rational interventions on utilitarians grounds: in other words, a set with a number of elements (interventions) in that set.

    On this basis, one could easily construct a rational and moral case for many government interventions, from drug regulation and consumer protection all the way to Keynesian deficit spending.

    As I said, there is a devastating contradiction here:

    http://socialdemocracy21stcentury.blogspot.com/2010/10/was-mises-socialist-why-mises-refutes.html

    http://socialdemocracy21stcentury.blogspot.com/2010/10/rothbard-on-mises-utilitarianism-why.html

    I also highly recommend:

    Schuller, G. J. 1950. Review of Human Action: A Treatise on Economics by Ludwig von Mises, American Economic Review 40.3: 418–422.

    Schuller, G. J. 1951. “Mises’ ‘Human Action’: Rejoinder,” American Economic Review 41.1: 185–190

  60. chidemkurdas Says:

    RE “Lord Keynes”: “And what ethical theory do you support exactly? I take it you believe ethics is objective and not subjective?”

    Truth, I don’t see why one has to stay at an abstract level of theory. We live in a country that was built on a set of rules, the Constitution, based on liberty as the accepted object.

  61. chidemkurdas Says:

    My point is that as an end value, one does not need to justify liberty. As a separate matter, one can justify it as a means to economic ends, since free societies have done better economically in the past 200 years. But the economic benefit of liberty, however substantial, is not really what makes people seek freedom.

  62. Gene Callahan Says:

    Lord Keynes makes a good point here. Furthermore, historically speaking, the idea that interventionism is unstable while laissez-faire is robust is the opposite of the facts. The interventionist economy of the Middle Ages lasted for centuries with only very gradual change. Meanwhile, any period remotely approaching laissez-faire only appeared for a couple of decades in a couple of countries in the nineteenth century, and proved imminently unstable!

  63. Roger Koppl Says:

    LK:

    I think it’s pretty that Mises’ critique of “interventionism” was not meant trash *all* “interventions.” It tries to deny that you can could get and keep a “middle of the road” *system* that is not basically capitalism nor yet basically socialism. Mises is attacking the idea of a system that is somehow neither the one nor the other. To try to get some sort of killer contradiction out of his comments on such topics simply side-steps Mises’ analysis of “interventionism.”

    Maybe Mises was wrong to say that middle-of-the-road takes you straight to hell. Personally, I think Mises probably was wrong about that. But you are not engaging the issue by finding some supposed contradiction to his rather obvious remark that you gotta weigh costs and benefits of any proposed policy.

  64. Roger Koppl Says:

    Ack. “pretty clear that Mises . . . “

  65. Current Says:

    It seems as though this discussion is moving from utilitarianism and ethics, towards Mises discussion about interventionism. I want to say a couple of things about those previous topics.

    In his blog posts I think LK has confused these issues. I think Rothbard confuses them too.

    Many people have criticised the theory of cumulative interventionism, “Lord Keynes” is certainly not the first. I think it is something that can happen in particular circumstances and that those circumstances have happened often in history. But, that’s a separate debate from the debate between utilitarianism vs natural rights.

    It’s quite possible to support Mises policy proposals without believing completely in his theory of interventionism.

    LK quotes Rothbard:
    “The point here is that Mises, not only as a praxeologist but even as a utilitarian liberal, can have no word of criticism against these statist measures once the majority of the public have taken their praxeological consequences into account and chosen them anyway on behalf of goals other than wealth and prosperity.”

    To begin with this confuses democracy with utilitarianism. If one generation say this it’s still quite possible for a utilitarian to say that this generation are acting to the detriment of future generations.

    More importantly, even if we assume that the current generation take into account future generations we can’t assume they are fully informed. Rothbard says that a utilitarian “can have no word of criticism against these statist measures once the majority of the public have taken their praxeological consequences into account”. This brings up the question of how well informed the public are, of “praxeological consequences” or any other aspect of economics. If I thought the public were adequately informed I would be quite happy if the public decided they still wanted some statism. My case, and I think Mises case too, is that they aren’t well informed.

  66. Current Says:

    > Furthermore, historically speaking, the idea that
    > interventionism is unstable while laissez-faire
    > is robust is the opposite of the facts. The
    > interventionist economy of the Middle Ages lasted
    > for centuries with only very gradual change.
    > Meanwhile, any period remotely approaching
    > laissez-faire only appeared for a couple of
    > decades in a couple of countries in the
    > nineteenth century, and proved imminently
    > unstable!

    In my view, when discussing how interventionism begets interventionism Mises wasn’t talking about stability. He was talking about progress.

    Mises wasn’t saying that a situation where his circle of interventionism takes place would necessarily lead to instability, he was saying that it would lead to impoverishment.

    I don’t think discussing medieval times is really very relevant. Mises points out how modern societies depend on the capitalist mode of production, and on very extensive division of labour. He wasn’t talking about times before that was the case.

    I think it is perhaps a valid criticism of Mises to point out that in the 20th century interventions haven’t always created more interventions. I’m sure though that Mises would say that all that was because of ideas and he always allows for them to change and change a course that would otherwise be inevitable.


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