Saturday, March 22, 2008

Thoughts on recent debate

This post is so very, very long...

  1. 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?
  2. 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).
  3. The distribution of property (land in particular) is an issue. Libertarians don't always acknowledge this.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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).

  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.


Trevor Black said...

1. I agree that I would put sufficient trust in authorities to direct behaviour. I also agree that, given this low probability that this direction will be `benevolent’, it is more practical to reduce government intervention to a minimum. I don’t think it is as simple as 100% Free choice in the same way as I have no right to stop a friend from driving drunk, but perhaps I have an obligation. That may be a bad example because driving drunk can harm others, but I am not sure standing by and watching someone self-destruct is acceptable. Intervening when a friend is addicted to drugs, or a parent is drunk, or someone is in a debt spiral…

2. I suppose maybe the examples I gave would be `justified modifications’ of 1?

3. Land is the major issue I have. Like you mention, money in the bank can be borrowed against, but large expansive private property put to little use other than a private playground (where said land may have been in the family for generations after being secured through war rather than economic contribution) is a problem.

4. I am thinking about things like the Gautrain, or other coordinated approaches. Perhaps if there was no government, business would get together and sort things out. But it is difficult to figure out how to deal with the `free loader’ problem of people who don’t contribute but still benefit.

5. I realise that the best way or rather the only way to show that a philosophy is `wrong’ is to show inconsistencies in argument. I think respect for life is more fundamental than for Free Choice. Free Choice is pretty fundamental and shouldn’t be tossed aside easily though. I agree with your point here though, and think we do need to work towards a consistent philosophy.
7. Correct, she isn’t a good example. Mr Buffet isn’t a good example either as he leads a very middle class life (pays himself and lives off a salary of $100,000 a year.) He is an example of how capitalism can work and it is his words that `Dynastic Wealth is the greatest enemy of Meritocracy’. There are plenty of examples of the problems of contrasting wealth in South Africa, and I don’t think you disagree with me that it is a problem. Just go to Dainfairn in Joburg, or take a drive through Hout Bay… or past Cape Town International Airport.

9. The problem is it is tough to define Efficiency when you don’t know what weight to place on each individuals well being. Pure Capitalism may very well be the most efficient system at producing maximum overall profit. The debate now seems to be around Stakeholder vs. Shareholder based societies.

10. I feel that the elimination of poverty, basic health for all, access to information, and the provision for equal economic starting points should be common societal goals. I do not advocate wide-spread government involvement beyond that.

11. I also don’t think giving money away is very efficient. I admire the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation and think tangible goals like those in number 10 are a much better way of economic empowerment than giving money away.

mutt said...

1. dude. Surely you know that I agree that we might have a moral obligation to intervene in a friend or family member's self destruction. But that's exactly the point, it is the duty of friends and family, or maybe community. I do not think its the governments right to take a moral stand on anything, or take an active in peoples lives.

2. I'm thinking along the lines of the principle of taxation, vaccinating children, prisons, basic safety net. My bar for what is acceptable is VERY high and still very free market.

3. And your issue with land taxes?

4. How does the free-rider problem apply to the gautrain? Won't passengers need tickets?

5. I think proper respect for life and dignity involves letting people make their own choices.

6. Other than that quote, what examples are there of dynastic wealth in capitalist societies being a big problem? South Africa is a terrile example, the current situation is direct result of horrendously un-free market government interference.

I want great leaders mostly to dismantle and mitigate the awfull policies of other leaders.

Trevor Black said...

3. no issue. Who collects them in your Government Free World. Who decides how they are spent?

4. Passengers will yes, but, for example... the business who benefit by more efficient transport of customers don't have to pay... Whatever example I use will have some offset like passenger tickets, but there are examples of things where clearly Government needs to intervene... e.g. National Security, and there, there are clearly freeloaders if it wasn't paid for by taxes.

5. As one of the principals in the balance, agreed. You don't believe in children making all their own choices, is the point at which people be `set free' based on something as arbitrary as age, or should their be other criteria?

6. See example in 3. Why should someone have an economic headstart because of something as random as birth rather than ability? There is such a thing as Economic Power, and I see no reason why it (like political power through hereditary monarchy) should simply be handed to children. The inefficiency is that like moronic kings, the people given the power may not have `earned it'. For more examples, think of some of your friends who have had `unfair' advantages... and you know the examples of which I speak. These are a form of `Dynastic Wealth' in my opinion and are to be spurned.

stuart said...

3. Ummmm... huh?

4. My bad. I think the Gautrain is a TERRIBLE idea. If it were done privately many people would benefit without paying, another of the many glories of capitalism .yay!

5. age is a good one. basically when people achieve a particular level of maturity and competence. I think many 15 years olds should qualify.

6. I get why this kind of inherited advantage is aesthetically unappealing, but i don't see why it's a problem.

Just like wealth, ability is VERY unevenly distributed at birth. A pure meritocracy isn't much better that this dynastic wealth thing from this kind of moral perspective.

I've very surprised that the thing that bugs you most in the world isn't the absence of completely free immigration .

Greg Torr said...

1. Stuart, I can't believe you think it the duty of the community to set people straight.

3. Has Stuart become an anarcho-capitalist since I've been away?

5. Crazy people, criminals.

Stuart said...

1. I don't think this is an iron clad thing, and I'm not actually a member of the kinda community I have in mind. I'm thinking of some kind of intervention or exclusion by a community voluntarily joined. Basically a club that's enforcing it's rules.

Greg Torr said...

I think your last point (pursuit of profit is the best way of doing good for society) is the one that lefties have most difficulty buying into (witness recent Obama quote). I completely buy it though.

That's why I think corporate social responsibility is so misguided. Companies should aim to make profits, nothing more. Their only "stakeholders" that they should care about is their shareholders.