Loyalty Oaths Compared: An Orwellian Exercise

A key tenet of American’s civic religion is that the McCarthy-era persecution of Communists and Communist sympathizers was both paranoid and immoral.  Academics are especially strident in their commitment to this tenet.  And since they are academics, they’re especially dismayed by academia‘s persecution of Communists and Communist sympathizers.  The most infamous form of this persecution: the loyalty oaths many universities imposed on their employees.  Sign the oath, or lose your job.

What exactly did these loyalty oaths say?  Here’s UC Berkeley’s Loyalty Oath of 1950.


Constitutional Oath (Constitution of the State of California, Article 20, Section 3)

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of my office according to the best of my ability.”

As passed by the Regents, April 12, 1950

“Having taken the constitutional oath of the office required by the State of California, I hereby formally acknowledge my acceptance of the position and salary named, and also state that I am not a member of the Communist Party or any other organization which advocates the overthrow of the Government by force or violence, and that I have no commitments in conflict with my responsibilities with respect to impartial scholarship and free pursuit of truth. I understand that the foregoing statement is a condition of my employment and a consideration of payment of my salary.”


Notice the mild wording of this Loyalty Oath.  A person who personally advocates the violent overthrow of the government could truthfully sign it as long as he belongs to no organization that shares his position.  A philosophical communist in full sympathy with Stalin could truthfully sign it as long as he is personally an “impartial scholar” in “free pursuit of truth.”  Needless to say, every species of democratic socialist could readily sign, as could every kind of anti-anti-Communist.

By way of contrast, let’s compare UC Berkeley’s new Diversity and Inclusion Oath.  Well, it’s actually much more.  An Oath merely requires you to parrot someone else’s words; what Berkeley now mandates is a self-authored Diversity and Inclusion Vow in order to determine eligibility for employment.  The university then scores your Vow for orthodoxy.  Part 1 of its rubric, “Knowledge About Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” assigns you a prohibitively low score if your statement contains stuff like:

Little expressed knowledge of, or experience with, dimensions of diversity that result from different identities. Defines diversity only in terms of different areas of study or different nationalities, but doesn’t discuss gender or ethnicity/race. Discusses diversity in vague terms, such as “diversity is important for science.” May state having had little experience with these issues because of lack of exposure, but then not provide any evidence of having informed themselves. Or may discount the importance of diversity.

That’s right, merely “discounting the importance of diversity” virtually bars you from faculty employment.  Imagine if the 1950 Oath required you to, “Affirm the great importance of the fight against Communism.”  Or sanctioned those who merely “discussed anti-Communism in vague terms.”

The rubric continues:

Seems not to be aware of, or understand the personal challenges that underrepresented individuals face in academia, or feel any personal responsibility for helping to eliminate barriers. For example, may state that it’s better not to have outreach or affinity groups aimed at underrepresented individuals because it keeps them separate from everyone else, or will make them feel less valued.

This would be akin to a 1950 Oath that mandated support for current anti-Communist tactics.  Something like: “For example, may state that it’s better not to support right-wing dictatorships because it creates the false impression that capitalism and democracy are incompatible.”

What’s afoot?  Orwellian doublethink of the highest order. Sure, the hated 1950 Loyalty Oath seems far less onerous than the new Diversity and Inclusion Vow.  But the people who refused to sign the 1950 Oath were heroes standing up for freedom of conscience.  The people who question today’s orthodoxy, in contrast, are hate-mongers who need to be excluded from high-skilled employment.

Newspeak-to-English translation: Full-blown Stalinism is no big deal, a mere difference of opinion.  Yet even tepid doubts about whether mandatory discrimination against high-performing groups has already gone far enough are anathema, anathema, anathema.

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What Is Populism? The People V. the People

“Populism” has received many definitions and historical interpretations. Some analysts take it simply as a more active form or stretch of democracy, but this may underplay the existence of very different theories and practices of democracy. One analytically useful definition of populism was given by political scientist William Riker in his 1982 book Liberalism Against Democracy. He defines the essence of populism as a political ideal in which the will of the people ought to be public policy: “what the people, as a corporate entity, want ought to be social policy.”

“The people” and “the will of the people” have long been invoked by populists of the right and populists of the left. Carlos de la Torre (University of Florida) summarizes the history of populism in Latin America (see his article of the Oxford Handbook of Populism, 2017):

I understand populism as a Manichaean discourse that divides politics and society as the struggle between two irreconcilable and antagonistic camps: the people and the oligarchy or the power block. Under populism a leader claims to embody the unitary will of the people in their struggle for liberation.

The idea of the will of the people being incarnated in a popular leader was strongly expressed by Hugo Chávez, whom de la Torre quotes as saying:

This is not about Hugo Chávez, this about a people. … I am not an individual, I am the people.

Closer to us, both Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren have invoked the will of the people, in a less flamboyant manner:

Elizabeth Warren (quoted by David Frum in The Atlantic, December 2019):
“We have to … have leadership from the inside, and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”

 

Donald Trump at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, on September 25, 2019:
“A permanent political class is openly disdainful, dismissive, and defiant of the will of the people.”

Jack Holmes, politics editor at Esquire, who believed that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primaries platform was reasonable, wrote (“The President’s War on Democracy Is a War on the American People,” August 14, 2020), speaking of president Donald Trump:

Since democracy is our mechanism for communicating the will of the people into the laws and policies that govern our lives, this does not merely make the president an enemy of democracy. It makes him an enemy of the people. He ought to recognize the phrase.

Populists of the left and populists of the right invoke the same will of the people against each other. Populism is the people against the people.

Which brings us back to William Riker, who explained, on the basis of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and social choice theory, that the “will of the people” simply does not exist. It does not exist because there is no “the people” to have a will like an individual has. The “will of the people” is a rhetorical device to exploit a large proportion of the individuals who are the only reality under “the people.” The people’s preferences cannot be aggregated into a sort of social superindividual without being either dictatorial or incoherent, which is the essence of Arrow’s theorem. Those who pretend to represent the will of the people, from the French Revolution until 20th-century populist experiments, can only be authoritarian rulers, with or without the legal forms of democracy. (See also my Econlog post “Missing Something About Populism?“)

The tyrannical strand of the French Revolution—there was also a classical-liberal strand, rapidly overcome—was anchored in the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who made “the people” and “the will of the people” the foundation of his political philosophy (see his The Social Contract, 1762; see also Graeme Garrard’s short piece, “The Prophet of National Populism“). Rousseau may be the father of modern populism of the left and of the right.

Perhaps this illustrates what John Maynard Keynes wrote at the end of the General Theory:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

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What Is Populism? The People V. the People

“Populism” has received many definitions and historical interpretations. Some analysts take it simply as a more active form or stretch of democracy, but this may underplay the existence of very different theories and practices of democracy. One analytically useful definition of populism was given by political scientist William Riker in his 1982 book Liberalism Against Democracy. He defines the essence of populism as a political ideal in which the will of the people ought to be public policy: “what the people, as a corporate entity, want ought to be social policy.”

“The people” and “the will of the people” have long been invoked by populists of the right and populists of the left. Carlos de la Torre (University of Florida) summarizes the history of populism in Latin America (see his article of the Oxford Handbook of Populism, 2017):

I understand populism as a Manichaean discourse that divides politics and society as the struggle between two irreconcilable and antagonistic camps: the people and the oligarchy or the power block. Under populism a leader claims to embody the unitary will of the people in their struggle for liberation.

The idea of the will of the people being incarnated in a popular leader was strongly expressed by Hugo Chávez, whom de la Torre quotes as saying:

This is not about Hugo Chávez, this about a people. … I am not an individual, I am the people.

Closer to us, both Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren have invoked the will of the people, in a less flamboyant manner:

Elizabeth Warren (quoted by David Frum in The Atlantic, December 2019):
“We have to … have leadership from the inside, and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”

 

Donald Trump at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, on September 25, 2019:
“A permanent political class is openly disdainful, dismissive, and defiant of the will of the people.”

Jack Holmes, politics editor at Esquire, who believed that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primaries platform was reasonable, wrote (“The President’s War on Democracy Is a War on the American People,” August 14, 2020), speaking of president Donald Trump:

Since democracy is our mechanism for communicating the will of the people into the laws and policies that govern our lives, this does not merely make the president an enemy of democracy. It makes him an enemy of the people. He ought to recognize the phrase.

Populists of the left and populists on the right invoke the same will of the people against each other. Populism is the people against the people.

Which brings us back to William Riker, who explained, on the basis of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and social choice theory, that the “will of the people” simply does not exist. It does not exist because there is no “the people” to have a will like an individual has. The “will of the people” is a rhetorical device to exploit a large proportion of the individuals who are the only reality under “the people.” The people’s preferences cannot be aggregated into a sort of social superindividual without being either dictatorial or incoherent, which is the essence of Arrow’s theorem. Those who pretend to represent the will of the people, from the French Revolution until 20th-century populist experiments, can only be authoritarian rulers, with or without the legal forms of democracy. (See also my Econlog post “Missing Something About Populism?“)

The tyrannical strand of the French Revolution—there was also a classical-liberal strand, rapidly overcome—was anchored in the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who made “the people” and “the will of the people” the foundation of his political philosophy (see his The Social Contract, 1762; see also Graeme Garrard’s short piece, “The Prophet of National Populism“). Rousseau may be the father of modern populism of the left and of the right.

Perhaps this illustrates what John Maynard Keynes wrote at the end of the General Theory:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

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The Risks of Friendship: A Socratic Dialogue

The scene: Ancient Athens.  Glaucon is standing in the Parthenon, wearing a face mask.  Socrates enters without a mask.

Socrates: Greetings, Glaucon!  How do you fare during this awful pandemic?

Glaucon: [jumps 5 feet]  What the hell are you doing?  Are you trying to kill me?

Socrates: No, why would you think so?

Glaucon: We’re indoors and you’re not wearing your mask!

Socrates: I’m 20 feet away from you.  And the Parthenon is cavernous.

Glaucon: You should be wearing a mask.

Socrates: Very well. [dons mask]  Feel safe enough to talk now?

Glaucon: [unconvincingly] Sure.

Socrates: I suggest we go outside to continue the conversation with greater ease.

[One minute later, outside the Parthenon; Socrates and Glaucon are 25 feet apart.]

Socrates: I must admit, Glaucon, I’m very puzzled.

Glaucon: About what?

Socrates: About your level of fear.

Glaucon: [with trepidation] Oh, I’m not afraid.

Socrates: Well, what do you think are the odds that I’ve got the plague right now?

Glaucon: Uh, one in a thousand?

Socrates: Reasonable enough; I’m asymptomatic after all.  Now, supposing I was sick, what are the odds that I would have infected you within the Parthenon while wearing a mask?

Glaucon: One in twenty?

Socrates: Plausibly.  And what are the odds I would have infected you in the same scenario without wearing a mask?

Glaucon: One in five?

Socrates: Very well.  Now as we both know, susceptibility to the plague depends heavily on age and underlying conditions.  We’re both fifty.  Do you have any underlying conditions?

Glaucon: Thankfully, no.

Socrates: Then according to a table Plato compiled for me, your odds of death if infected are about 1 in 2000.

Glaucon: It’s not just about the risk of death, Socrates!

Socrates: It never is.  There is also the unpleasantness of the plague’s symptoms, and a small chance of long-run harm.  Still, the same goes for almost all risks.  Those who survive a fall from a horse usually suffer pain for a week or two – and a small fraction are maimed for life.  So we can still fruitfully compare your risk of death from plague to other mortality risks, never losing sight of the fact that death is only one of many possible tragic outcomes.

Glaucon: [nervously] Fine.

Socrates: Very well, let us calculate the risk I imposed on you earlier by not wearing a mask.  We multiply my risk of infection times the change in your infection risk times your mortality risk.  That comes to 1/1000 * (.2-.05)* 1/2000, which rounds to about 1-in-13 million.

Glaucon: And that seems small to you.

Socrates: Wouldn’t it seem small to any sober man?

Glaucon: Well, is it really so awful to wear a mask?

Socrates: I wouldn’t mind if the numbers were more favorable.  If I were endangering a thousand people like you, I’d happily wear the mask.  As it stands, though, your fear seems paranoid and your outrage seems unjust.

Glaucon: Look, why should I have to endure any risk for your comfort?

Socrates: You’re enduring a risk right now.  Surely you don’t imagine that your infection risk magically falls to zero as soon as you exit the Parthenon?

Glaucon: Well, why should I have to endure an unnecessary risk?

Socrates: It is “necessary” that we speak at all?  Hardly.  And we could slash our risk further by separating a hundred feet and shouting at each other.

Glaucon: Now you’re just being difficult.

Socrates: I only wish to understand you, Glaucon.  Is that your horse over there?

Glaucon: Yes, Pegasus is his name.

Socrates: A noble moniker.  Now do you know the annual risk of dying on horseback?

Glaucon: About one in ten thousand?

Socrates: Indeed.  Yet you’ve never fretted over the risk of death by horse?

Glaucon: The daily risk is 365 times lower, or hadn’t you considered that?

Socrates: Quite right.  The daily risk of death by horse is therefore about 1-in-4 million – less than one-third of the risk that terrified you inside the Parthenon.

Glaucon: As long as I’m alone, I’m not exposed to any risk of plague at all.

Socrates: And as long as you’re unhorsed, you’re not exposed to any risk of death on horseback.  Yet during the minutes you’re on horseback, you’re a model of composure.  Why then are you so fearful of plague?

Glaucon: Plague is contagious.  Death on horseback is not.

Socrates: I’ve seen you riding with your son, slightly endangering his life as well as your own.  That’s not precisely “contagion,” but you can hardly claim that you’re endangering no one but yourself when you ride Pegasus.

Glaucon: If I catch plague, though, I could be responsible for the deaths of thousands.

Socrates: Possible, I’ll grant.  If I were returning home from a plague-infested land, I’d understand your scruples.  You wouldn’t want to be the conduit for mass destruction.

Glaucon: Indeed not.

Socrates: By now, however, this plague is already well-advanced.  You’re highly unlikely to make it noticeably worse.  Indeed, by this point the average person infects less than one extra person.

Glaucon: I might not be average.

Socrates: You are right to say so.  Still, shouldn’t our knowledge of averages guide our behavior?  In any case, let us return to the key issue: Why are you so fearful of talking inside the Parthenon without masks when the risk of death is vanishinly low?

Glaucon: Perhaps we should sponsor a raging Bacchanalia, then?

Socrates: I think not.  A drunken festival of a hundred people would probably have a thousand times the plague risk of a two-person conversation.  We should avoid that until the plague subsides.

Glaucon: So you admit the danger?

Socrates: I always did.  I’m not saying that plague is harmless.  I’m saying that you’re reacting to risk qualitatively rather than quantitatively.

Glaucon: Meaning?

Socrates: You’re much more afraid of a tiny plague risk than a larger horseback risk.  Why do you think that is?

Glaucon: Have you ever seen someone die of plague?

Socrates: Have you ever seen someone die on horseback?  Both are terrible tragedies, with a long list of ugly secondary risks.

Glaucon: Look, you’re in denial.  Everyone in Athens is scared of the plague.  Your risk analysis is beside the point.

Socrates: How can risk analysis ever be “beside the point”?

Glaucon: We as a society have decided to fight the plague, and you’re going to have to do your part, like it or not.

Socrates: Glaucon, what is my profession?

Glaucon: What?

Socrates: I said, “Glaucon, what is my profession?”

Glaucon: You’re a philosopher.

Socrates: Indeed.  As as a philosopher, what is my mission?

Glaucon: To defy and aggravate others?

Socrates: Hardly.  As a philosopher, my mission is to improve the thinking of my fellow Athenians, my fellow Greeks, my fellow human beings.

Glaucon: [sarcastically] Very noble.

Socrates: I take a certain pride in my efforts.  How, though, am I supposed to improve their thinking?

Glaucon: I don’t know.

Socrates: The answer, seemingly, is: By asking questions.

Glaucon: [weary] Yes, yes.

Socrates: Now Glaucon, when you urge me to “do my part,” what do you have in mind?

Glaucon: Wear the mask, Socrates.

Socrates: I’m wearing one now, to put you at ease while we converse.  In more crowded conditions, I’ve worn a mask out of prudence and decency.  But as a philosopher, obediently wearing a mask is woefully inadequate.

Glaucon: Well, what more should we do?

Socrates: I don’t know about non-philosophers.  For we philosophers to “do our part,” however, requires us to challenge popular fallacies and innumeracy.

Glaucon: Isn’t this just an elaborate rationalization for putting your own comfort above the lives of your fellow Athenians?

Socrates: Possibly.  More likely, though, your agitation is an elaborate rationalization for putting conformity above reason.

Glaucon: Your numbers could be wrong, you know.

Socrates: Indeed, I suspect that all of my numbers are wrong.  As we learn more, each of my numbers will be revised.

Glaucon: If you don’t really know the risks, why are you lecturing me?

Socrates: Because, Glaucon, you’re approaching the uncertainty emotionally rather than analytically.  Uncertainty is a poor argument for panic.

Glaucon: I was never “panicked.”

Socrates: Very well, let us take off these masks, enter the Parthenon, and continue the conversation in comfort.

Glaucon: Are you crazy, Socrates?

Socrates: And a corruptor of the youth, from what I hear.  Do you think there will be a trial?

Glaucon: Look who’s panicking now!

Socrates: A fair point, my dear Glaucon.  A fair point.

Glaucon: Look Socrates, it all comes down to this: There’s no reason not to just go along with society’s expectations here.

Socrates: No reason?  What about friendship?

Glaucon: I don’t follow you, Socrates.

Socrates: Since this plague struck, I’ve barely seen you.  Mask or no mask, you avoid me, as you avoid almost all human contact.

Glaucon: Well, what do you expect me to do?

Socrates: Weigh the tiny risks to health against the immense value of friendship.

Glaucon: You’re making too much of this, Socrates.

Socrates: Am I?  The great Epicurus taught us that friendship is one of the highest of goods.  Friendship is essential to human happiness, and a life well-lived.

Glaucon: You speak unjustly me to, Socrates.  I am and ever have been your friend.

Socrates: I know, which is why your panic pains me so.

Glaucon: If you’re really my friend, you will share my concern for my own safety.

Socrates: I do, Glaucon.  If you were in serious danger, and I could save you by shunning you, I would grieve.  Yet shun you I would.

Glaucon: Very gracious of you.

Socrates: I know you would do the same for me.

Glaucon: Again, most gracious.

Socrates: The plain fact, however, is that you are not in serious danger.  By the numbers, you are in the kind of minor danger that you’ve always accepted in the past.

Glaucon: And?

Socrates: And so I say the time is long since past to resume our normal friendly relations.  In troubles times, minor adjustments are often wise.  But abandoning your friends out of fear of minor risks is folly, Glaucon.

Glaucon: [forced] Well, thank you for your candor, Socrates.

Socrates: [resigned] May we meet again in saner times, my friend.

Glaucon: Good day to you, Socrates.  Good day.

[Glaucon and Socrates go their separate ways.]

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Escaping Paternalism Book Club: My Final Response to Questions

I’m now ready to wrap up my side of the Escaping Paternalism Book Club; Rizzo and Whitman will have the last word, coming soon.  Hope you enjoyed the ride!

Response to final questions:

Knut Heen:

When the unit of measurement is cash, discounting is standard practice and non-controversial.

When the unit of measurement is utils, discounting is somehow highly controversial.

This is a surprisingly complex issue, but I think I handle it pretty well here.

Denver:

(This question is for anyone)

What argument would it take, or what evidence would you have to see, to conclude that paternalism is justified, at least to some extent?

As usual, I appeal to Mike Huemer’s libertarian presumption.  If the social benefits of paternalism substantially exceed their social cost (by a factor of say 5), then paternalism is justified.  My case for autonomy closely parallels my case for pacifism, which goes like this:

1. The immediate costs of war are clearly awful.  Most wars lead to massive loss of life and wealth on at least one side.  If you use a standard value of life of $5M, every 200,000 deaths is equivalent to a trillion dollars of damage.

2. The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain.  Some wars – most obviously the Napoleonic Wars and World War II – at least arguably deserve credit for decades of subsequent peace.  But many other wars – like the French Revolution and World War I – just sowed the seeds for new and greater horrors.  You could say, “Fine, let’s only fight wars with big long-run benefits.”  In practice, however, it’s very difficult to predict a war’s long-run consequences.  One of the great lessons of Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment is that foreign policy experts are much more certain of their predictions than they have any right to be.

3. For a war to be morally justified, its long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs.  I call this “the principle of mild deontology.”  Almost everyone thinks it’s wrong to murder a random person and use his organs to save the lives of five other people.  For a war to be morally justified, then, its (innocent lives saved/innocent lives lost) ratio would have to exceed 5:1.  (I personally think that a much higher ratio is morally required, but I don’t need that assumption to make my case).

Inverting this: If the costs of paternalism are low, and the long-benefits are large and fairly certain, paternalism is justified.  Otherwise, not.  In the real world, of course, all three conditions rarely hold, especially for adults.  And as Rizzo and Whitman emphasize, when we calculate costs and benefits, we should always include the burden paternalism imposes on responsible people, as well as the dysfunctionality of actually-existing paternalist policy.

Last, let me reply to Rizzo and Whitman on objective welfare, point-by-point:

We should emphasize that Bryan’s position was not our primary target in the book.  Many behavioral paternalists (i.e., new-school paternalists) explicitly disavow the notion of objective welfare, even if they sometimes unwittingly slip into that frame of mind.  Like most economists, behavioral paternalists embrace the subjectivism of preferences and personal values.  We have met them on that playing field.

Do behavioral paternalism “sometimes unwittingly slip” into that frame of mind?  Or do they habitually do so?  RW’s exegesis of this literature convinces me of the latter.

By contrast, although Bryan is not a paternalist, he shares the old-school paternalists’ fundamental value judgment:  that some people’s preferences are just wrong, and they would be better off if corrected.  This is a philosophical position we do not share, so perhaps we should simply agree to disagree.

You may not share this philosophical position explicitly.  But if you monitor your daily thinking, how consistently do you avoid it?  If a bright child stubbornly insisted that he wanted to play with a loaded gun after you thoroughly warned him of the risks, would you really deny that you make him better off by giving him what he needs instead of what he wants?

Furthermore, what if we interpreted “better off” as “having a happier long-run emotional state?”  This hardly seems like an abuse of the English language.  Would you still deny that some people “would be better off if corrected”?

However, Bryan also suggests that we, too, have accepted some notion of objective welfare.  In response to a passage in the book where we concede – for the sake of argument – that we could indulge our intuition in certain very extreme cases that people are acting irrationally, Bryan responds:  “I agree that ‘intuition’ (or just ‘common-sense’) says this.  The reason, though, is that ‘well-considered well-being’ is a thinly-veiled version of objective well-being.  The morbidly obese are plainly acting in accordance with their own preferences, but they are acting contrary to their own long-run happiness.”

On this point, we strongly beg to differ.  Well-considered well-being is not just thinly veiled objective well-being.

Logically, these are different concepts.  But in practice I say that virtually everyone – Rizzo and Whitman included – uses “well-considered well-being” as a place-holder for “objective well-being.”

We dispute the notion that anyone who thinks carefully enough will choose Bryan’s personal values!  On this front, the behavioral paternalists are right:  the appropriate standard of well-being is the one you would impose on yourself.  If the morbidly obese person looks at his life and genuinely concludes, “You know, all thing considered, this is the life for me,” we, as economists, have no objective basis for saying otherwise.  If there are legitimate grounds for deeming this person irrational and possibly in need of help, it’s because his behavior is making him worse off from his own perspective.

Perhaps we “as economists” have no objective basis for condemning a life of morbid obesity.  But how about as philosophers?  As human beings?

We would also observe that the appeal to “common sense” is potentially tyrannical – not in Bryan’s hands, but in the hands of those who don’t share his libertarian value commitments.

Of course.  And as I said, acknowledging the existence of China is potentially tyrannical, too.  As long as we deny that China exists, it makes no sense to impose trade barriers on China.  But the wise course is not to deny the obvious, but to acknowledge the obvious, then argue for the controversial.

Common sense is often shorthand for “what we happen to like.”  Laden with social desirability bias, common sense can become a cudgel for imposing one’s own values on others.  Which is not to say we should never apply common sense; again, we might be willing to indulge that intuition in some extreme cases.  But it is playing with fire, so to speak.

Most of this, too, is common sense.  “People are quick to define their personal tastes as common sense” is common sense!  But that doesn’t mean we should reserve intuition for “extreme cases”; it means we should carefully weigh intuitions.  Appeals to common sense underlie all science, so we might as well embrace it.

To be very clear, we don’t dispute the existence of objective standards.  In principle, we can objectively define the choices that will maximize health, or lifespan, or long-term financial wealth.  But how should those things be weighed against other values, such as spontaneity, indulgence, and hedonic pleasure?  That is a matter of personal preferences and values.

Again, this sounds good, but I doubt Rizzo and Whitman even try to consistently apply it.  If a precocious child used this framework to defend his choice to play with a loaded gun, RW would still veto him for his own good.  And wisely so.

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Teaching Responsibility

Someone on Facebook recently asked people to tell the most important thing they learned from their father. Here’s the one I came up with and it was really 2 things I learned.

From an early age, I was told by my father that none of my possessions was as important as my life and so if there were ever a case where I needed to save my life by giving up one or some of my possessions, it was worth it.

I ended up applying that lesson early.

I lived in a small town of 1,200 people in rural Manitoba. One day, when I was about 7, I was walking home with a friend from school. To do so, we had to cross a railroad track. This particular day, for some reason, we were crossing in the middle of the train yard and not where there was a street crossing.

We were involved in our conversation and my friend was slightly ahead of me. I happened to look up and see a box car coming toward me at about 10 mph and it was about 15 feet from me. I was on the track with my bicycle. I didn’t even hesitate; I dropped the bike on the track and ran ahead to where my friend was. The whole back of the bicycle was crushed and I retrieved it and carried it the few remaining blocks home.

When I got home, I told my father what had happened. He congratulated me for using my brain.

Here’s what he didn’t do: offer to pay to get me a new bike. Our family didn’t have a lot of slack in the budget but my sense was that even if we had been substantially wealthier, he wouldn’t have paid. He wanted me to learn responsibility.

I went to a local bike repair place and sold the good front wheel to the guy for $7.50. That would go toward a new bike that was priced at about $40. So I started saving for a new bike.

A few months later, my father came back from the town fair where he had run into the local guy who had been on top of the box car moving it to a different part of the rail yard. The buy had felt bad about what had happened and offered my dad $10 toward a new bike. My dad told me that he had turned him down because it wasn’t the guy’s fault.

When my dad told me this, I was furious and I argued with him. But he made the point that I, not the guy, was responsible for what had happened. I saw his point and became less furious. By the next day, I wasn’t furious at all.

How I got a new bike within a few months is an interesting story in itself, but not closely related to the lessons I learned.

I learned about the value of my life and about the importance of taking responsibility.

 

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What’s the Moral Case for Capitalism?

 

Economist James Pethokoukis at the American Enterprise Institute writes:

But it may not be enough to point out liberal democratic capitalism and creative destruction create a wealthier, healthier, and more interesting society. I mean, that should be enough. Maybe not, however. What about the “moral” case for capitalism and the economic growth it generates like no other system ever devised or imagined? Does capitalism make a better society in non-material aspects? Harvard University economist Benjamin Friedman made a powerful affirmative case that it did in his 2005 book, “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth.”

So far so good. Then Pethokoukis quotes Benjamin Friedman:

The experience of many countries suggests that when a society experiences rising standards of living, broadly distributed across the population at large,  it is also likely to make progress along a variety of dimensions that are the very essence of what a free, open, democratic society is all about: openness of opportunity for economic and social advancement; tolerance toward recognizably distinct racial, or religious, or ethnic groups within the society, including new immigrants if the country regularly receives in-migration; a sense of fairness in the provision made for those in the society who, whether on account of limited opportunities, or lesser human endowments, or even just poor luck in the labor market, fall too far below the prevailing public standard of material well-being; genuinely contested elections that determine who controls the levers of political power; and democratic political rights and civil liberties more generally. Conversely, experience also suggests that when a society is stagnating economically—worse yet, if it is suffering a pervasive decline in living standards—it is not only likely to make little if any progress in these social, political, and (in the eighteenth-century sense) moral dimensions; all too often, it will undergo a period of rigidification and retrenchment, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.

Most of these are good. But Friedman seems to be implying that rising standards of living lead to a bigger welfare state, and that that’s good. I’m not the only one who thinks Friedman is saying that. Pethokokuis thinks so too. Pethokokuis writes:

It’s an appealing intuition that Friedman supports through a political and economic analysis of US and Western European history. For example: The Great Society was passed in the Go-Go 1960s, while the economic volatility of the 1970s was followed by a decline in public support for welfare programs and immigration.

The Great Society was a substantial increase in the welfare state and, therefore, a substantial decline in economic freedom, which includes people’s freedom to choose how to allocate their resources.

So the moral case for capitalism, according to Friedman and Pethokokuis, is that it leads to greater wealth, which leads to bigger government and, in some areas, less freedom.

I don’t think that’s a good moral case for capitalism. It’s contradictory. More capitalism should mean less government control over resources, not more.

But is there a moral case for capitalism? Yes, there is. The moral case for capitalism is that it lets each person make his/her own choices about how to live: what work to engage in, what to spend money on, whom to associate with, how to arrange his/her private property, what substances to ingest in his/her body, and how to spend his/her leisure time, to name six.

HT2 Don Boudreaux.

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Economists at War

Most economists go through their lives wondering if any of their work has had an effect on the world beyond academe. The seven economists that Alan Bollard writes about in Economists at War probably never had to wonder. Bollard, an economics professor at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, traces the effects seven economists had on their governments’ policies before, during, and after wartime. He starts with the oldest economist, Takahashi Korekiyo, born in Edo (now Tokyo) in 1854, and ends with the second youngest, John von Neumann, born in Budapest in 1903.

The book’s weakness is that Bollard doesn’t always give enough background for a non-economist to understand the issues fully. Its strength is in its fascinating stories about the seven men’s lives, the various challenges they faced, and their views of the world. Especially interesting are their views of Communism, which three of the economists—Leonid Kantorovich, Wassily Leontief, and John von Neumann—lived under for all or part of their lives. Fortunately, this strength outweighs the weakness in Bollard’s discussion of economic issues.

These are the opening 2 paragraphs of David R. Henderson, “Economists Waging War,” my recent review of Economists at War: How a Handful of Economists Helped Win and Lose World Wars, by Alan Bollard.

Bollard’s treatment of Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler’s finance minister, changed my view of Schacht. What I knew about him, I knew from a short section of Milton Friedman’s book Dollars and Deficits. It turns out that he had a few virtues. I write:

One of the more interesting characters in the book is Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler’s finance minister from 1934 to 1937. Schacht, who is most famous among economists for implementing currency exchange controls in the 1930s, was more free-market oriented than I had thought. In 1914, he was appointed Administrator of the Dresdner Bank in Occupied Belgium, where he clashed with the German military. They simply took whatever supplies they wanted, while Schacht, sympathetic to the occupied Belgians, wanted to maintain a market-based economy. Schacht was involved in the currency reform that ended German hyperinflation, which lasted from 1921 to 1923. Schacht was not a Nazi but made peace with the Nazis. He often conflicted with Hermann Goering about how to run the German economy and, unfortunately, Schacht often prevailed. I say “unfortunately” because if Goering had prevailed, Germany’s wartime economy would have been less efficient. To his credit, Schacht often talked back to Hitler. Indeed, in 1939, he wrote a memo to Hitler condemning his treatment of the church and of the Jews. As president of Germany’s central bank, the Reichsbank, he even used Reichsbank resources to print and distribute 10,000 copies of a speech he had given in which he condemned Nazi policy. Because of his alleged association with some of the Germans who tried to kill Hitler in July 1944, he was imprisoned. Later, he was tried at Nuremberg. Although the U.S. prosecutor wanted him found guilty and the Soviet judges agreed, the British judges disagreed and he was freed. Schacht later went into development economics and died in 1970 at age 93.

Read the whole thing.

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The wheel of ideology revisited

I plan to argue that libertarianism is likely to shift from being a right wing ideology to a centrist ideology. To do so, I’d like to revisit a post I did back in 2011, which proposed a three part ideological framework. The post was a bit half-baked, so I hope to improve it here by grounding it in more clearly thought out principles.

Here’s the graph I proposed, drawn by commenter Vlad Tarko:

Why not a two side ideology—left and right?  Or how about the four-quadrant approach favored by many libertarians?  Why do I have three ideologies, each combined with two value systems, leading to 6 outcomes?

Let’s start with the left/right ideological axis, which has been around since at least the French Revolution.  Intellectuals on the left would probably define “right wing” as follows:  The right supports government policies that favor the stronger groups in our society.  These might be economic policies that protect the rich.  They might be ethnic nationalism that favors the dominant ethnic group.  They might be rules that enforce the moral values of the dominant religion.  They might be pro-military policies.  According to this view, the left supports government policies that favor the weak and downtrodden.

This perspective has a grain of truth, although of course the left also favors policies that support groups such as intellectuals, educators, public employees unions, and others that are hardly weak and downtrodden.  Nonetheless, this left/right dichotomy does make some sense.

Then I’d argue that modern political systems tend to move society toward a “two tribe” structure.  Even in the multiparty democracies in Europe, you often end up with one governing coalition and a primary opposition party.  And of course referenda are even more intrinsically binary.  Thus a society with 13 tribes ends up with a political system with two super-tribes, each of which is a coalition of smaller tribes.  This is how the left/right spit forms.

But then why three ideologies?  There’s a third option—government policies that do not directly favor any tribe—the minimal state.  (Yes, I know that laissez-faire indirectly favors some people, I’ll come back to that important point later.)

But why not four ideologies:  Government policies that favor tribe A, policies than favor tribe B, policies that favor neither and policies that favor both?  On closer inspection, it’s not really possible for policy to favor both.  Consider the four policy regimes:

1. Tax everyone $1000 and give all the money to tribe A.

1. Tax everyone $1000 and give all the money to tribe B.

3. Tax everyone $1000, and give $1000 to everyone.

4.  Tax no one.

On closer inspection, option 3 and 4 are basically identical.  So in a two-tribe polity, there are three possible ideologies.  Have policy favor A, have policy favor B, or laissez-faire (do nothing.)  Just as a math set with {0, 1, -0 and -1} is identical to a set with {0, 1 and -1}.

Back around 1800, laissez faire ideology (classical liberalism) was viewed as a left wing ideology.  That’s because governments had traditionally extracted taxes from peasants to provide a more lavish lifestyle for aristocrats.  By the late 1800s, classical liberalism began to be seen as a more right wing ideology, which allowed “robber barons” to exploit downtrodden workers.  In America, it has continued to be viewed as a right wing ideology (often called libertarianism), even in recent decades.  But this may be about to shift.

In a recent post, I pointed out that many conservative intellectuals are becoming highly dissatisfied with ideas associated with laissez-faire, such as “neoliberalism” and “radical individualism”.  These new conservatives are increasingly willing to embrace a strong state that promotes conservative values.  This might include nationalism, protectionism, immigration restriction and enforcing religious values.  If this shift becomes real and sweeps most of the conservative movement, then the libertarian position will no longer be seen as particularly right wing.  It may not be seen as left wing (as progressives are moving left in recent years), but it will be seen as more centrist than before–at least in a left/right sense.  A sort of radical centrism.  That idea is probably more understandable to Latin Americans.

Let’s apply the three ideologies to housing policy:

1. The left:  Nimbyism to protect low-income neighborhoods from gentrification.

2. The right:  Nimbyism to protect affluent neighborhoods from construction of apartments for the working class.

3. Classical liberals:  Yimby!

The previous post also posited that there are two value systems for each ideology.  For the left and the right there are both “corrupt” (i.e. selfish) and idealistic proponents of their ideology.  It makes less sense to use this dichotomy for libertarians, as their ideology forces them to oppose interventionist policies that favor their own financial interest.  You might object, “But don’t low taxes favor the rich?”  Yes, but a truly corrupt rich person would not be satisfied with low taxes, he’d demand affirmative government policies (tariffs, subsidies, etc.) that favored his financial interests.  But that policy would not be libertarian.  He’d become a right winger who hid behind “pro-capitalism” rhetoric.  We’ve all met that sort of person.

Instead of an idealistic/corrupt dichotomy, in the 2011 post I found it more useful to divide libertarians up into “consequentialists” (such a utilitarians) and “deontologicalists” (who believe freedom is a “natural right”).  To be clear, I’m not arguing that libertarian intellectuals are more pure than left or right intellectuals.  Indeed true believers in any of the three ideologies tend to be idealistic, and the corrupt part of the left and right tribes barely pays any attention to principled arguments.

To the extent that a few people seemed to find my wheel to be clever, it was because of the way the six groups related to each neighbor.  This is the part of the post that The Economist (Will Wilkinson?) chose to excerpt:

My goal here is to set things up in such a way that each group has a values affinity to those on one side, and an ideological affinity to those on the other side. So you could circle any two adjoining groups, and describe a common feature:

1. Progressives/Pragmatic libertarians: Both tend to be secular utilitarians, or at least consequentialists

2. Pragmatic and dogmatic libertarians: Both favor very small government

3. Dogmatic libertarians and idealistic conservatives: Both are nostalgic for the past, and revere the (original intent of) the Constitution.

4. Idealistic conservatives and corrupt Republicans: Both are Republicans.

5. Corrupt Republicans and corrupt Dems: Both believe in realpolitik, are disdainful of fuzzy-headed, idealistic intellectuals.

6. Corrupt Democrats and idealistic progressives: Both are Democrats

Thus on values there are three pairings: utilitarian, natural rights, and selfish. On ideology there are three different pairings: Democrat, Republican and libertarian.

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US Government Punishing Americans Again

Many people must be puzzled. What’s the point of international sanctions? Why should the Chinese owners of TikTok or WeChat obey sanctions imposed by the US government? Chinese nationals are not bound to obey American laws and decrees. Here’s the thing: US government’s sanctions are obeyed because they order AMERICANS to stop dealing with the foreign entities officially targeted. The sanctions are perhaps not officially directed towards Americans but it is only because they indirectly target them that they are obeyed; if anybody is prosecuted and goes to jail, it will be Americans.

I explained that in a previous post: “American Sanctions: Why Foreigners Obey,” Econlog, October 1, 2019). The cases of TkiTok and WeChat provide as clear a confirmation as possible. The Wall Street Journal (“Trump Executive Orders Target TikTok, WeChat Apps,” August 7, 2020) reports:

The orders bar people in the U.S. or subject to U.S. jurisdiction from transactions with the China-based owners of the apps, effective 45 days from Thursday. That raises the possibility that U.S. citizens would be prevented from downloading the apps in the Apple or Google app stores.

TikToc is reported to have more than 37,000,000 American users, mainly young people.

Sanction decrees are a bit like tariffs: they punish the nationals of the government that imposes them.

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