"Libertarian Paternalism"

Check out Dan Klein’s excellent response to Sunstein and Thaler’s “Libertarian Paternalism is not an Oxymoron” paper. Dan basically calls bullshit and accuses S&T of arriving at a provocative title by fudging the meanings of ‘libertarian’ and ‘paternalism’. Sunstein’s reply to Klein is pretty pathetic, as Klein notes.

S&T strike me as holding the utterly dull and correct position that the design of institutions, insofar as they are going to be designed, ought to take into account the effects that they have on human well-being, and so if people are likely to do better under one of two non-coercive institutional schemes, pick the one under which they will do better. How this principle is patricularly libertarian or paternalistic is beyond me, and Klein too.

Electoral Correctness

Chris Betram offers a meditation on the downside of Condorcet, which Will Baude calls “disturbing,” and I guess it might be if you had inflated expectations for democracy. Funny thing about Condorcet talk, though, is the notion that there is something like a “correct” answer to the presidential election.

The probability that each voter will give the correct answer, essential to the formula, obviously requires the existence of a correct answer. Now it is conceivable that there may be some correct answer, relative to some broadly accepted standard of evaluation, on the question of which of two competing policies is better. And so perhaps there is a correct answer on the question of which of two competing packages of policies is correct. We might then think of each candidate as representing a package, and that the correct answer to the election amounts to choosing the guy who represents the correct policy package.

But there are complications. Candidates lie. Candidates sometimes don’t have an articulated policy on this or that issue, and often they avoid articulating one. Historical contingencies (e.g., 9/11) can cause an unpredictable but fundamental shift in policy. Etc. And those are just some of the problems about knowing what a candidate actually stands for, or would likely do in office. There is also the reasonable idea that political values are plural and incommensurable, and so there just may be no such thing as the correct answer in certain cases.

With candidates as close together in policy as Bush and Kerry, I think it is in principle impossible to pin a probability on answers to the question of who will leave us better off overall. Unintended consequence are usually unintended because unforseen, and they are often unforseen because unforeseeable. The way policies interact with a dynamic economy, technological innovation, cultural change, and so forth, makes it such that democratic choices tend to be choices under conditions of uncertainty (where it is impossible to sensibily assign probabilities) and not risk. We either get lucky with our leaders or we don’t. So, it’s not clear what, if anything, the Condercet Theorem could have to do with the election.

Now, that said, I happen to know that the correct answer to the election is, naturally, Michael Badnarik. And Badnarik’s infinitesimal electoral returns will be just about what we’d expect given the Condorcet theorem, and a realistic assumption of voter competence.

Financial Paternalism as Self-Defense

I’m intrigued with this line of thought from Arnold Kling in terms of political theory:

I believe that the need for saving has grown tremendously over the past century, primarily because the lifespan has lengthened and more medical care for the elderly is available and desired. I don’t think that as individuals or as public policy advocates we have come to terms with this increased need for savings.

Also, we have very different propensities to save. Given the huge need for savings, what this could lead to is a world where the savers subsidize the spendthrifts. I don’t think it’s fair that if I consume temperately and save carefully for future contingencies that I should then be viewed as a “soft target” for soak-the-rich tax policies. I want to force other people to save, so that they do not come whining to me (or to the government) when they don’t have money to pay their health bills when they get older.

From a purist libertarian perspective forced savings are right out because they are, well, forced. But if we take it as probable that people who fail to save will lobby the government to transfer wealth from those who have saved, then the choice is not between voluntariness and coercion, but between forms of coercion. (You could say that Cato, a major proponent of social security privatization, is ipso facto, a major proponent of forced savings.) Although forced savings is a violation of some elements in the property right bundle (you can’t use your property any way you like until the time comes), it at least preserves some property right. In contrast, a transfer program runs roughshod over property rights. Others’ needs trumps one’s property.

When you think about it, they’re both transfer programs. In the case of forced savings, the transfer is from your present self to your future self. The liberty of your present self is limited, but you at least have some chance of later internalizing the benefits of the limitation on your liberty. (It’s also a transfer away from those whose businesses benefit from high levels of present consumption.) In the straightforward transfer case, the transfer runs from you to somebody else entirely.

It strikes me that the left ought to prefer forced savings over outright wealth transfer in at least many cases. I can’t see how a welfare liberal can account for the justice of transfers in cases where people become deprived in old age due to their own failure to plan and save. Arnold is right that it’s not fair that a prudent fellow who forgoes present consumption should get taken to the cleaners down the line by those who happily enjoyed their higher discount rates until the income started to dry up. It seem right for Arnold to demand that those who might be inclined in the future to predate upon his savings be forced to save in order to preserve his own future stash. An added benefit is that by forcing people to save, you create a more widely distributed vested interest in the performance of the market. Indeed, forced savings strikes me as so much better than redistribution, it puzzles me why liberals haven’t been long promoting it as a partial alternative to redistribution. Or have they?

Moral Hazard and International Aid

Approaches to global justice like Nussbaum’s are simply inadequate until they can seriously address the problems of moral hazard that seem to me to utterly swamp considerations in favor of large-scale global redistribution. This simply recapitulates the moral hazard argument against certain forms of welfare programs at the domestic level. The best work on this is David Schmidtz’s writings on “Guarantees.” Nussbaum is very cavalier in her talk about “entitlements.” She needs to address Schmidtz’s argument that we need to not be guaranteed all that we need in order to even begin to approach an answer to Peter Bauer.

Nussbaum is also facile about institutions:

The third of Nussbaum’s Ten Principles for the Global Structure is: “Prosperous Nations Have a Responsibility to Give a Substantial Portion of their GDP to Poorer Nations.”

Well, OK. Earlier, with regard to institutions, she says:

In the domestic case, we can easily say quite a lot about what institutions bear the burden of supporting the capabilities of the nation’s citizens: the structure of institutions laid out in the nation’s constitution, together with the set of entitlements prescribed in the constitution itself. This structure will include legislature, courts, administration and at least some administrative agencies, laws defining the institution of the family and allocating privileges to its members, the system of taxation and welfare, the overall structure of the economic system, the criminal justice system, etc.

The difficulty is that almost no amount of money does much good unless domestic institutions are robust enough to actually facilitate their citizens’ “entitlements.” Clearly, citizens of rich countries have reason to reject policies that throw their money down a hole. And how do you build minimally acceptable institutions? Well, that’s the problem folks like Mercatus’s Global Prosperity Initiative work on, and it’s hard. GPI isn’t very sanguine about the effectiveness of aid in the absence of certain institutional prerequisites. (Check out the critical public interest comment on the Millenium Challenge Account.)

So what is Nussbaum even saying? We already know that most aid is ineffective, and that there is no good reason to believe that more aid will be significantly more effective in the absence of deep institutional reform. And deep institutional reform cannot simply be bought or willed into existence, but, barring colonization, must generally emerge from within? So what is that bigger chunk of our GDP supposed to be doing?

It’s not at all clear to me that Nussbaum even has a positive argument for her prescriptions. She strikes me as offering little more than a set of normatively toothless utopian aspirations.

Nussbaum on Capabilities

Interesting paper by Nussbaum: Beyond the Social Contract: Capabilities and the Social Contract.

I was already moving in a Sen/Nussbaum capabilities direction even before I started to become skeptical of the usefulness of happiness as the standard of evaluation in contractarian normative modeling. So I’m pretty interested in what Nussbaum has to say. My guess is that I’ll feel a lot like I do when I read Rawls, that he’s right about the way to think about the issue, but wrong about some of the important facts that feed into the normative analysis. Will report later.

[Update: I take it back. Nussbaum’s is not the right way to think about the issue. She basically abandons the logic of contractarian reasoning simply because it cannot straightforwardly generate obligations to redistribute to people in poor countries. She does not argue that we have such a duty; she just asserts it. This is a problem not only because she punts on the question of the source of that obligation, but because she in effect ignores the logic of stable cooperation. If a system is not mutually advantageous for its participants, there is little reason to believe it will garner compliance, and thus define a stable order. But the point of contractarian reasoning is that it is non-utopian and has the analytical resources to identify the conditions for stable order. Nussbaum ends up merely stating an aspiration based in the assertion, rather than the reasonable derivation, of obligations to others. She therefore doesn’t lay out a serious international political theory. She is, however, quite right about many of the problems of Rawls and Pogge/Beitz at the international level.]

We the People . . .

aren’t very smart.

Louis Menand has an enjoyable summary of some of the work on democratic choice in response to Phillip Converse’s classic “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.” Converse was the first systematically to point out that very few of us have any idea what we’re talking about when it comes to politics. Menand highlights three theories about democracy in light of Converse.

The first is that electoral outcomes, as far as “the will of the people” is concerned, are essentially arbitrary. . .

A second theory is that although people may not be working with a full deck of information and beliefs, their preferences are dictated by something, and that something is élite opinion. . .

The third theory of democratic politics is the theory that the cues to which most voters respond are, in fact, adequate bases on which to form political preferences.

My own view is some combination of the first and second theories. However, I believe that the opinions of the elite are also “essentially arbitrary.”

Menand’s penultimate paragraph is excellent:

Man may not be a political animal, but he is certainly a social animal. Voters do respond to the cues of commentators and campaigners, but only when they can match those cues up with the buzz of their own social group. Individual voters are not rational calculators of self-interest (nobody truly is), and may not be very consistent users of heuristic shortcuts, either. But they are not just random particles bouncing off the walls of the voting booth. Voters go into the booth carrying the imprint of the hopes and fears, the prejudices and assumptions of their family, their friends, and their neighbors. For most people, voting may be more meaningful and more understandable as a social act than as a political act.

All this raises the question of the moral legitimacy of democracy. For here we are imposing coercive sanctions on people solely due to the fact that some critical mass of essentially ignorant people have happened to decide to choose one way rather than another. Although I am inclined to shit on democracy when given the chance, I acknowledge that it is superior to the alternatives. My main argument for a broad franchise is that it tends to create the illusion of legitimacy, and the illusion of legitimacy lends itself to a kind of political stability that each of us has reason to desire.

In other “the people are stupid” news, the AP runs a story by Jerry Schwartz about voter ignorance. Samuel Popkin, doyen of the “gut rationality” school of political choice is featured here as well as in the Menand piece. Popkin’s view about heuristics are not impressive. At best he establishes that our electoral preferences are not entirely arbitrary, but reflect some non-irrelevant information about candidates. This is not heartening.

After treating us to a fairly entertaining parade of voter incompetence Schwartz slinks back to civics class where Fishkin and Ackerman await to lecture us on the virtues of hanging out in elementary school gyms calmly “deliberating” about the commonweal as local chomskyites and christian evangelicals rip out each others’ throats. My comments on deliberative democracy are here.

Brighouse on Desert

Harry Brighouse keeps the debate on desert aflame.

It is as obvious to me that no-one deserves political power as that no-one deserves their talents, or deserves to live in an environment in which those talents attract the contingent rewards that they happen to attract. (Steffi Graff’s income more than doubled in the year after Monica Seles was stabbed. Did she deserve to be in that environment? No. So in what sense did she deserve her increased income? Not any foundational moral sense, surely?) Is Wilkinson denying this?

I find this to be a puzzling response. Yes. I’m denying a lot of this, because it’s pretty crazy.

Now, as a matter of fact, I think very few people deserve political power. But not because nobody deserves anything, but because the mechanisms of democratic choice generally fail to even loosely track desert. But sometimes people are elected because of their merit and, to the extent unequal political power is legitimate, they deserve their office and its powers. None of this is to say that there exist no non-desert grounds for legitimate political power.

People of course don’t deserve their talents, insofar as a talent is pure potential given at birth. People of course do deserve their talents if they have deliberately cultivated and brought them to fruition through effort and work. If I am a wonderful violinist, I no doubt got to be that way by some combination of native ability and years and years of hard practice and discipline. If Harry doesn’t believe that people deserve their cultivated talents, then I wonder why not. It’s obvious to me, and I think most people, that people do deserve their cultivated talents. I don’t deserve to be the sort of person who is ABLE to become good at the violin. But if I worked hard to realize my ability, then I deserve the ability that I’ve earned through my dedication and hard work. I take this judgment to be a deep and fundamental part of our moral self-conception. I think people who disagree have either broken or ideologically distorted intuition. Of course!

Surely Steffi Graff did not deserve to be in a Seles-free environment! But this has no bearing whatsoever on whether Graff deserved her winnings that year, since she had no responsibility for stabbing Seles. If she won a bunch of matches played according to the rules of tennis, then she deserved to win them, and deserved the prize money. Isn’t this obvious? Suppose that 30 years ago a fetus was aborted who, in the nearest possible world in which she was not aborted, became the best women’s’ tennis player in history and dominated all the major tournaments. By Harry’s logic, we then have to say that almost all of the major tournament winners neither deserved to win, nor deserved their prize money. I consider this a reduction to absurdity. (Michael Phelps is living a lie!)

More of the same:

Politicians who win do not deserve to win at the very least because they do not deserve to live in systems which reward their particular talents (very few UK MPs would reach the top in the American political system, and very few American members of Congress would reach the top in the UK system; desert just doesn’t help out here). There are good, desert-free, reasons for designing a political system one way or another. I don’t see how desert could possibly come into it.

Again, I don’ think politicians tend to deserve their power, but I think they could in principle. Anyway, I guess I should just make explicit that I reject this form of argument:

(1) S doesn’t deserve to be in context C.
(2) S does A in context C, and thereby gets some reward R.
So, (3) S doesn’t deserve R.

I don’t deserve to be in a universe where our actual laws of physics obtain. But I eat, and thereby preserve my life in virtue of the laws of physics. So I don’t deserve to live? I know this is an utterly stupid argument, but I don’t really see how other arguments of this form really differ. Try a Michael Phelps example. Michael Phelps doesn’t deserve the existence of the 100m freestyle, which happens to be well-suited to his particular physical talents. Michael Phelps wins the Olympic gold in the 100m freestyle. So Michael Phelps doesn’t deserve the Olympic gold. But of course he does deserve the gold, simply in virtue of swimming faster than his competitors in accordance with the official rules.

I haven’t gotten to the core of Harry’s comments, but I need to run. So more later.

Negative and Positive Rights

I started this long post a month or so ago when there was a bunch of talk about positive and negative liberty, etc. I found much of the discussion confused. I never finished this post, which ended up getting me confused, but I thought I would share what I had in any case. Comments welcome.


First, I don’t think there are natural rights of any kind. Rights are conventional. If they are justified it is because they enable or otherwise contribute to a general system of mutually beneficial cooperation.

Rights are a kind of action-guiding moral relation between persons. Negative rights and positive rights are different because they are different kinds of relations. All moral rights have a dual entitlement/obligation structure. A negative right is, from one side, an obligation to constrain one’s own actions in certain ways, and, from the other side, an entitlement to constraint from others. Negative rights are negative not because they include no element of entitlement — all rights do — but because one is entitled simply to a sort of forebearance from others. One is owed a pattern of constraint, a series of omissions, the absence of certain kinds of action. A positive right is, from one side, an entitlement that certain actions be performed, and, from the other side, an obligation to perform them.

Suppose there is a negative moral right to property. This means only that one is entitled to have one’s property go unstolen (or not used without permission) by others, and that others are obligated to satisfy this entitlement. (Don’t confuse the entitlement to constraint from other with respect to some things one has with an entitlement to those things. One may have a morally binding property right to something that one is not entitled to, in some senses of ‘entitle’. But the fact that I am in possession of something I do not morally deserve does not imply that it is thus fair game for others. The system of useful constraints that defines our negative rights may tell us that that the best policy is to leave people with things that have fallen into their laps in certain ways, and so they are entitled to constraint from others with respect to those things, even if they are not in some sense entitled to them.) The negative right to property does not in itself imply a positive right to the provision of the enforcement of property rights. This would be a confusion. One is entitled simply to constraint from others, who are obligated to provide it. Or one might think. (As I am sometimes tempted to think.)

If we do not meet our obligations, and there is consequently a general problem of predation, then we might think that this is an extra problem that will need to be addressed. Notice that if everyone voluntarily, by force of conscience, met their obligations of constraint, then there is no problem of providing a service or positively contributing to the provision of a good. Conceptually speaking, a negative right asks us nothing but forebearance. No labor. No money. No goods. No services. Just constraint.

But this really is a simplification. Because individual reasons in contexts of collective action are to some extent interdependent, it may be that I do not have a reason (and thus obligation) to constrain my behavior unless others will. In which case, there is no right to property, say, independent of a context of general compliance. If most of us constrain ourselves voluntarily, then all of us have a reason to do so as well. But if enough of us won’t constrain ourselves, then none of are obligated to. In such cases, the pattern of constraint we are aiming at may require a coercive element, and the existence of a coercive framework may be a necessary condition for our rights-defining entitlements and obligations.

What’s going on here? One might say that whether property rights are negative or positive depends on the mechanism of compliance and assurance. If compliance with principles of constraint can be generated internally, by sympathy, psychological sanctions, and other moral emotions (or at least through non-coercive social sanctions), then property rights are negative. If compliance must be generated externally through a system of publicly financed law enforcement, then property rights are positve.

But I’m not sure that this is the right way to think of it.

I think even under a system of coercive enforcement, we should want to say that property rights are negative rights. An interesting thing about the use of coercion to enable coordination is that the coercion, per se, does not provide most of us with our motivating reason for action. We need coercion to motivate people who wouldn’t otherwise be motivated, and to publicly assure us that others are so motivated. Given this assurance, knowing that others will comply, we will have a reason to likewise comply. Our reason will be grounded in the expected advantages of cooperation, and this may move us totally independently from an expectation of coercive sanctions for non-compliance. So the coercion is creating a context in which we can be entitled to constraint from others and obligated to constrain ourselves. The right to property, as such, is negative. But, barring voluntary compliance, the right exists only when coercion solves the assurance problem.

Scanlon on Objectivity

In “Contractualism and Utilitarianism,” and then again in What we Owe to Each Other, T. M. Scanlon compares the alleged objectivity of morality with that of mathematics. In fact, her writes:

In moral judgments, as in mathematical ones, we have a set of putatively objective beliefs in which we are inclined to invest a certain degree of confidence and importance. Yet on reflection it is not at all obvious what, if anything, these judgments can be about, in virtue of which some can be said to be correct and defensible and others not . . . Second, in both morality and mathematics it seems to be possible to discover the truth, just by thinking about it. Experience and observation may be helpful, but observation in the normal sense is not the standard means of discovery in either subject.

Scanlon goes on to plump for a Brouwer sort of mathematical intuitionism (a sort of constructionism, really), which he seems to think stands as a plausible third way between naturalistic nominalism and platonism in mathematics. He wants us to think of morality in the same way. Straightforward non-cognitivism is like nominalism, Moore/Prichard/Ross intuitionism is like Platonism, and contractualism is like Brouwerian intuitionism.

He goes on to write,

Neither mathematics nor morality can be taken to describe a realm of facts existing in isolation from the rest of reality. Each is supopsed to be connected with other things. Mathematical judgments give rise to predictions about those realms to which mathematics is applied. This connection is something that a philosophical account of mathematical truth must explain, but the fact that we can observe and learn from the correctness of such predicitions also gives support to our belief in objective mathematical truth. In the case of morality the main connection is, or is supposed to be, with the will. Given any candidate for the role of subject matter or morality we must explain why anyone should care about it, and the answer to this question of motivation has given strong support to subjectivist views [Emphasis added.]

So, as Scanlon has it, in both cases, we take our intersubjective agreement to provide support for the objectivity of the relevant domain. Secondarily, we take the connection of math and morals to other things as evidence of objectivity. We think math is objective not only because we agree a priori on procedures of correct mathematical reasoning, but because bridges stay up and planes fly. For morals, there is some connection to the will. What might this mean?

I want to play along with the analogy, but it’s worthwhile to first point out the significant differences between math and morals. Scanlon is on firmest ground when he notes that math and morals are alike in the sense that they both seem more or less objective, but that it’s not clear what mathematical and moral judgments are really about. Some of us get queasy when we start thinking about Numbers and Moral Properties. So, OK.

But in much of math we have formal, mechanical, algorithmic decision procedures. We have PROOF. This is why we think intersubjective consensus is so hot in math. Morality is of course not at all like this. Moral reasoning is messy, often inconclusive, and subject to lots of disagreement about cases, even if there is agreement on principles, and also lots of disagreement on principles, even if there is agreement on cases. You cannot tell someone that it is incorrect to oppose free trade because they forgot to carry the one. Second, the way in which mathematics successfully and precisely describes real physical systems is EXTREMELY IMPRESSIVE. The fact that bridges stay up, planes fly, and that I can be writing all this on a laptop, is to my mind the knock-down case for the objectivity of mathematics. If I was already a Kantian, then of course math would decribe the world, since math is in that case a bunch of very general relationships between the forms of intuition, from which, in the first instance, my mind “constructs” “the world.” But I am not a Kantian. I think math just is an extremely abstract characterization of the world out there, and it’s objective because the world is mind-independent. And morals has, what? A connection to the will.

Let’s take this seriously. Start with Kant. An action is right just in case the maxim of the action can be willed as a law of nature. What’s this about? My somewhat anachronistic hunch is that Kant, in his talk about a Kingdom of Ends, is talking about a system of optimal social coordination. If you can will a maxim as a law of nature, you are conceiving of it as a viable part of a stable, harmonious, mutually advantageous system of individual behavior. A kingdom of ends has the same pleasing complex harmony of a natural, emergently ordered complex system. In the case of a natural system, the macro-level order is a function of the bona-fide natural laws governing the micro elements. In a kingdom of ends, citizens freely WILL maxims, but the system as a whole looks AS IF each individual was deterministically governed by natural law. That a certain macro-level social order is generally beneficial to its members is just a fact about the world. If we grant that that suitably universalizable maxims are consistent with that kind of objectively good order, and other maxims are not so consistent, then our moral judgments will have some kind ojective subject matter.

The connection to the will, however, is obscure. Although an optimal social order will be by definition good for us, its realization often requires considerable forebearance on our part. If we attempt to locally maximize our well-being, and others do as well, we’ll all do worse than we might. That’s why we generally won’t be able to universalize maxims based in present desire. But my ability to constrain maximization now requires an expectation of constraint in others. How do we ensure commitment to mutual constraint and mutual gains? Kant stipulates a thing called the good will, which, although not related to desire (it is part of the noumenal self) is able to motivate action according to qualifying maxims. It’s not clear how this helps, though. It doesn’t seem like it makes sense to do one’s part in bringing about a kingdom of ends if not enough others will. Perhaps our interest in autonomy provides a compensating benefit. (NOTE: This is by no means Kant scholarship! This is a idiosyncratic pet quasi-Kant.)

Scanlon, like Kant, takes the content of our moral judgments to be about a kind of social ordering. Instead of a good will, he posits a general desire to be able to justify our actions to others in terms they cannot reasonably reject (‘reasonably reject’ meaning something like “reject as part of an ‘informed, unforced general agreement’ about our terms of association”). Now, if you could catch Scanlon saying something about an optimal social order, you could take him to be saying that our judgments about what we could reasonably reject are really judgments about the kinds of prinicples that are consistent with an objectiviely optimal order. But Scanlon won’t have that, since there is no clear, independent standard for optimality. That is, well-being can’t be understood independently of our conception of ourselves as beings who act on reasons we could justify to others, and considerations of well-being is just one consideration in the fuzzy calculus of who could reasonably reject what. (E.g., Bob, Bart and Bill have a choice over two distributions of utils. Suppose that no transfer or redistribution is possible. A: Bob: 100; Bart: 200; Bill: 300, or B: Bob: 99; Bart: 200; Bill: 1000. Bob has a superficial reason to reject B because he gets one less util. [Indeed, maximin demands A.] But Bill certainly has a reason to reject A, because he gets 700 less. It’s not really reasonable for Bob to deprive Bill of 700 utils just to get an extra one for himself. How do we know? WE KNOW!) But, if there is some objective fact of the matter about a really worthwhile social order, and our judgments about wrongness, and our dispositions to act consistently with out judgments, tended to track truths about the kind of actions consistent with this kind of social order, then Scanlon would have a strong claim to objectivity connected in the right sort of way with the will.