This post is so very, very long...
- For several reasons my view is that any starting point in this kind of discussion should involve as little intervention in peoples lives as possible beyond preventing physical coercion. This comes from general scepticism that many of our beliefs are true, general safeguard against overconfident authorities and respect for individual autonomy; what gives anyone the right to tell other people what to do?
- This starting point can be successively and cautiously modified through a process of trial and error. For example, free immigration should be a default position, but maybe should be restricted in as far as this protects the institutions of law and order, private property and enforcement of contracts that allow for general prosperity (of citizens and the world in general).
- The distribution of property (land in particular) is an issue. Libertarians don't always acknowledge this.
- There is often a trade-off between short term and long term solutions. Government will often be able to achieve easily specified goals faster or better than would otherwise be possible. The Manhattan Project and the moon landing are examples. But that doesn't mean that the goals are worthy, or that the costs are worth it. Many of these projects will succeed by luck and many others appear like a good deal because we either forget the cost, or because the cost is difficult to know.
- It's really easy to slip into a utilitarian moral framework, when people will almost always reject utilitarianism in many other cases. People might be ok with forced removals if the costs exceed the benefits (though I'm deeply sceptical that this analysis can be done well), but we don't want to enter this kind of discussion when it comes to torture, the death penalty or gay marriage (which leads to the next point).
- Trying to squirm out of the above point leads people to denounce studies showing that torture is effective, that the death penalty deters murder or that growing up with gay parents is harmful. We should not do this! We must try to separate positive questions from normative ones. I oppose the death penalty (in most cases) regardless of its effects on the crime rate.
- When talking about capitalism, pointing out the contrast between Mrs Mugabe and the starving masses isn't that relevant. The comparison should be Mr Buffet and assembly line worker (which don't much bother me). Trevor doesn't like me endlessly prattling on about America, but in this case it is an example of what we should be thinking about.
- The relative efficiencies of the free market compared to various government interventions cannot be properly debated on blogs, or even really by individual economists. I constantly wanted to stick Milton Friedman, Hayek et al into the conversation. This should be countered by other nobelists who advocate government involvement (in one way or another). This ties in with my concerns in recent posts.
My attitude is to look at the overall view of professional economists here. Academic economists still lean left on average politically, but are much more free market than any other group academic or otherwise (other than libertarians).
- The consensus of intellectually honest committed democratically committed economists from the 20's till the 70's was that government should be very involved. And the argument was made in terms of efficiency. Reading some old news stories makes it seem weird how entrenched this was. The efficiency argument has largely been dropped; it's now framed more in terms of social justice. This is my impression, but I've never taken a course in economics.
- But we still need to specify what goals we want to achieve. Which is what I wanted from Trevor; I want people to set their own goals. Economists who want government involvement usually want to make us richer, which is a noble aim, but I don't agree that the government should stick its nose in to make us richer or more efficient. I view the amazing efficiency of the free market as great but not essential for the free market case.
- I think pursuit of profit (subject to various side constraints, like not murdering your competition and being an arsehole etc) is the best way of doing good for society, even before you give any of your earnings away. Giving money away, but I wonder if it is appreciated enough that giving money away is often a great way of wasting it.