Archive for January, 2010

I was watching a Mises Institute video (not worth linking to) about a new English-language Bastiat compendium (new as of I don’t even know when), and the scholar who edited the works called Bastiat an economist. It got me thinking: I don’t like the term “economist.” It presupposes that something needs economizing. In fact, narrowly speaking, I hate “economists” (for a thorough exposition of this sentiment, see The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb). The job description assumes a central planner role. A technocratic role. An OMB/CBO/Peter Orszag/bulls***ter who makes ridiculous claims about, for example, Social Security’s solvency*, based on “economic projections.” It assumes someone who studies economics but thinks that “economics” allows them to know and do much more than it actually does.

“High priests and lowly philosophers” — read it. Economists really shouldn’t act like they transcend the title “lowly philosopher.” That’s why I love Bastiat, Hazlitt, and others (e.g. Stossel) who are outside of the “economics” establishment. They’re observers and lowly philosophers, not technocrats. For all the purported benefits mathematics has brought to economics, I think they have been outweighed by the air of sophistication and accuracy they have afforded economics, exploited by those who wish to use the “science” for authoritarian ends. See “The Pretence of Knowledge,” because if you haven’t read it already you must. This is why Austrians are legit. They realize the limits of their knowledge.

More generally, I hold great respect for scholars who do not reside in academia (or who can at least avoid groupthink within it). I include the aforementioned Bastiat and Hazlitt, along with Mises (virtually unknown in America while he resided here), Hayek (scorned until his unexpected Nobel in ’74), even Rand, and my new favorite intellectual terrorist, Taleb. And of course, the Austrians. Perhaps their status as outsiders in the intellectual tradition of economics has kept Austrian economists free of the pretensions of the mainstream. In any event, I consider economics to be enlightened philosophy — normative arguments must be informed by an understanding of what is, which is why Austrian concepts such as spontaneous order, entrepreneurship, and market processes are so useful.** Useful in a philosophical sense, however — not analogous to the physical sciences, which is what many (most?) mainstream economists desire to emulate.

*Along the lines of intellectual herding, I’m infuriated every time I hear an academic knock Wikipedia, or hear the oft-uttered, sarcastic “Well if its on the internet it must be true.” To which I reply “Well if its in print it must be true.” For first-rate intellectual fraud and ideological rationalization, check out this book on Social Security by Peter Orszag. While researching the (nonexistent)  Social Security Trust Fund a couple of years ago, I came across this book and Orszag immediately made my top 5 most despised public intellectuals. Other notables include Naomi Klein and the notorious Michael Moore (not an intellectual, but you get the idea).

**I highly recommend The Foundations of Morality by Henry Hazlitt. It’s a beautiful synthesis of philosophy with economic understanding to produce a rule-utilitarian ethical system. It doesn’t answer all questions, of course, but its a great approach. And as discreetly as possible, I’m going to concede defeat in my debate with Seth.

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Earlier I made the argument that deontology requires consequentialism.  Over at Less Wrong, Alicorn has a great exploration of consequentialism and deontology that complements the discussion here.

If a deontologist says “lying is wrong”, and you mentally add something that sounds like “because my utility function has a term in it for the people around believing accurate things.  Lying tends to decrease the extent to which they do so, but if I knew that somebody would believe the opposite of whatever I said, then to maximize the extent to which they believed true things, I would have to lie to them.  And I would also have to lie if some other, greater term in my utility function were at stake and I could only salvage it with a lie.  But in practice the best I can do is to maximize my expected utility, and as a matter of fact I will never be as sure that lying is right as I’d need to be for it to be a good bet.”5… you, my friend, have missed the point.  The deontologist wasn’t thinking any of those things. The deontologist might have been thinking “because people have a right to the truth”, or “because I swore an oath to be honest”, or “because lying is on a magical list of things that I’m not supposed to do”, or heck, “because the voices in my head told me not to”6.

Read the whole thing.

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Last week commentator and all-around great guy Brice weighed in with two long responses to two separate posts. There’s quite a lot going on in his comments but they’re fairly interrelated, so rather than deal with them in the comments section, it makes sense to make a unified response here. Sit back, grab some coffee and get ready to nerd up because this is a big one. Let’s go with Part I. (more…)

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I clearly need to develop my thoughts about consequentialism further.  When I attacked the mistake of deriving libertarianism from first principles earlier, I actually thought Aaron and I were in agreement.  Once Aaron and I had a conversation with another person about Kant’s deontological ethics, and both Aaron I remarked to each other later how silly it was that this person advocated Kantian ideas.

I’m not so sure Aaron and I really do disagree.  Aaron gives deference to utilitarian technologies, which neoclassical economists certainly use, but with an important caveat, that utility is ordinal, not cardinal.  What does this mean?  It’s incoherent to compare the value of $10.00, a market price, of any particular good or service, between two different individuals.  Individuals value what they purchase subjectively.  Trade-offs will be different; individuals have different utility functions.

Ordinal utility serves as a good universal principle.  So does self-ownership, and so does the importance of property rights.  I don’t dispute that these are valid principles that can be universally applied.  Rather, I’m arguing that these principles must be defended consequentially.  I don’t think that Rand solved the is-ought problem, and Aaron hasn’t either.  Even just by describing a solid, consistent principle that can be universally applied doesn’t mean that it has been derived from the intrinsic nature of the principle.  My intuition is that if we evaluate such principles, we’re constantly judging them on the basis of their consequences.

Suppose I tell a progressive that health care should be allocated on a free market.  They object that the consequences of such a policy mean that some people would not be able to afford some minimum amount of health care.  They evaluate the consequences of my recommendation, because in their mind, the consequence they desire is for all people to afford care.

Suppose a Marxist tells me that property is theft, and that all goods and services should be allocated centrally.  I evaluate the problems with this by noting that the failure to legally recognize private property for private goods distorts incentives, and will mean forgoing wealth that is otherwise possible with free markets.  I evaluate the proposed Marxist principle consequentially.

I don’t think Kant was being honest.  What makes a categorical imperative categorical?  Do we not need to evaluate the consequences of a universal principle?

Suppose that I propose, as the basis of an ethical system, that it is proper for every individual to to murder all other individuals, as many people as they possibly can.  This is pretty clearly a terrible ethical principle, but why is it?  Think of what it implies consequentially.

In evaluating ethical claims, consequentialism is unavoidable.

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It’s been a pretty hectic week, and it’ll be the weekend before I get a chance to respond to the various issues raised. For now, I thought everyone might be interested in this list of Scott Brown’s positions on issues besides health care. Enjoy. Sounds like a 70% solution to me.

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What Went Wrong – Every Wednesday, Big Think features new experts to examine the causes of the financial crisis. Some excellent pieces, with competing views and thoughtful commentary.

Style and Substance – Excellent piece from Micheal Barone.

Supreme Court Fail – Ilya Shapiro corrects Justice Breyer’s radically flawed conception of government.

Libertarianism at the Movies – I love Dark City, not least because of the delightful Jennifer Connolly. I now really want to see Brazil.

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I disagree with Seth, and by extension Professor Hanson. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with first principles, it’s just that most first principles are incorrectly derived. I do agree with Prof. Hanson when he reminds me of this classic xkcd. And if you don’t think xkcd is funny, well, sometimes you’re right but not this time.

I disagree with both Seth and Prof. Hanson when the later writes

Liberty is a fine heuristic, but efficiency is more what I want, so I’m willing to consider sometimes violating your liberty axiom.  Like you I am wary of big government, but because of bad consequences that often follow, not a liberty axiom violation.

Efficiency is a fine ideal, and in the absence of a valid first principle, it’s probably the most appropriate one. The question is, can there be a valid first principle? Seth categorically denies that. Instead, as Seth begins, “consequentialism is true”. In many respects it is. Someone who dies in a car accident and someone who has a heart attack are in most respects similar. Dead is dead. (more…)

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