Bastiat on Tabarrok on Cost-Benefit

Over at Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok writes:

Tyler asks, following philosopher Alastair Norcross, whether it could ever satisfy a cost-benefit test for one person to die a terrible and tortured death in order to alleviate the headaches of billions of others by one second. Tyler begs off with “a mushy mish-mash of philosophic pluralism, quasi-lexical values” and moral conceit. I will have none of this. The answer, is yes.

Bastiat presciently commented:

The plans differ; the planners are all alike.

Ditto for “libertarian” planners.

The Elephant In The Living Room

Arnold Kling:

I believe that what we need going forward is a policy of disarming Muslims. I believe that we must keep devout Muslims away from weapons, and keep weapons away from devout Muslims. I can work with Muslims, send my children to school with Muslims, and be friends with Muslims. I do not have an issue with their religion, as long as they do not have weapons. However, the combination of weapons and Islam poses unacceptable danger to the rest of us.

Sean Lynch, in response:

Steps to solving the “Muslim question”:

1. Take away their weapons
2. Make them wear labels so we can distinguish them easily (to make sure they don’t get weapons again).
3. Move them all to ghettos
4. Round them all up and stick them in concentration camps.
5. …
6. Profit!

This doesn’t seem that large of a leap to me. If, as Kling opines, armed Muslims pose an “unacceptable danger”, then given the fact that “arms” are impossible to prohibit effectively, something fairly close to Hitler’s final solution is on the table.

The interesting thing, however, isn’t how evil Kling’s argument is but how loudly the implications of it were ignored by the libertarian readers of and contributors to Catallarchy. This is a theme I’ve seen before, most notably in debate with immigration restrictionists. In each case, the piece of public policy as presented requires certain obvious crimes against individuals. In each case, that fact is roundly, almost universally, ignored or evaded.

Does anyone have any guesses as to why?

Libertarian Conspiracy in Full Swing

Liberal meathead Alan Wolfe writes in “Why Conservatives Can’t Govern”:

[R]ight-wing pundits are furiously blaming right-wing politicians for failing to adhere to right-wing convictions. Libertarians such as Bruce Bartlett fret that under Republican control, government has not shrunk, as conservatives prescribe, but has grown. Insiders like Peggy Noonan complain that Republicans have become–well, insiders; they are too focused on retaining power and too disconnected from the base whose anger pushed them into power. Idealistic younger conservatives bewail the care and feeding of the K Street beast. Paleocons Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak blame neocons William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer for the debacle that is Iraq.

All of which is true. But why is it that conservatives can’t govern? Simply, because they’re all nihilist libertarians:

Contemporary conservatism is first and foremost about shrinking the size and reach of the federal government. This mission, let us be clear, is an ideological one. It does not emerge out of an attempt to solve real-world problems, such as managing increasing deficits or finding revenue to pay for entitlements built into the structure of federal legislation. It stems, rather, from the libertarian conviction, repeated endlessly by George W. Bush, that the money government collects in order to carry out its business properly belongs to the people themselves. One thought, and one thought only, guided Bush and his Republican allies since they assumed power in the wake of Bush vs. Gore: taxes must be cut, and the more they are cut–especially in ways benefiting the rich–the better.

Ooh, you liberals are so smart. You caught us! That’s right, we sneaked a full-throated, red-blooded libertarian into the White House while you guys were laughing it up about his language blunders. And now he’s implementing the libertarian agenda: tax cuts for the rich and pork for the rich!

Despite the fact that Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Bush the Younger have all presided over massive increases in federal spending, proposed and signed legislation expanding the welfare, warfare, and regulatory state, and played the Great Game in various regions of the world, the real problem is that they’re all closet libertarians. Call me crazy, but perhaps the problem is that conservatives don’t actually want smaller government, but want votes from those who do. You know, like the liberals who promise black people salvation through government while destroying their communities?

Conservatives have been walking and talking like big government people for a long time, with the occasional nod to tax cuts. Are liberals so dumb that they take conservative politicians at their (occasional) word?

In Support Of A Consequentialist Analysis Of Immigration Policy

Contra John T. Kennedy’s rebuke of Patri Friedman, I present a concrete example that should set the discussion to rest.

The situation is simple: we have an illegal immigrant from an indisputably “hostile to freedom” culture who is residing in the United States. American immigration deports him.

What’s wrong with that, Kennedy? Isn’t it at least worth considering the future liberty you might gain?

A picture of this illegal immigrant is reproduced below:

1 less Communist = better consequences
Above: Illegal immigrant from hostile-to-freedom culture being deported by American law enforcement.

Memo To Patri: I Got Yer Tradeoff Right Here


You write on immigration:

If you believe (as Russell claims to) that in a country like the US, an influx of people hostile to freedom will reduce the freedom of people in that country, one is led inexorably to an uncomfortable conclusion. Namely, that the impact on freedom is the combination of gains from the increased freedom of the immigrants and losses from the decreased freedom of the residents. We can let in the coercers and be coerced, or we can coercively keep them out.I

Now, there is plenty of room for debate about the resulting net impact. But if immigrants truly are anti-freedom, then the real question is how to evaluate this tough tradeoff. Not whether libertarians can have their immigration and a small government too.

Do you really propose to trade the lives and liberty of some people against those of others? Anyone who endorses such a tradeoff as a matter of policy ought in principle to be willing to implement that tradeoff himself. Anyone endorsing a closed border ought in principle be willing to personally employ deadly force to keep people from crossing the border.

Eventually the moment of truth comes: You have a Mexican in your sights and nothing but your bullet can stop him from crossing into the United States. Now you get to make your “tradeoff”. Are you willing to trade his life for the marginal liberty you could retain for America by killing him? Could you conceivably defend such a tradeoff here and now as libertarian?

If you’re not willing in principle to shoot the Mexican then it should be clear that you ought not hire others to do it for you or endorse such as a matter of policy. And if you are not prepared in principle to do such a thing then what precisely are you proposing to trade? Preferring one outcome to another is no tradeoff in and of itself, your preferences don’t cost anyone anything. Only your actions can impose costs and produce benefits.

The life and liberty of others are not yours to trade. I think you would understand this perfectly well if you were face to face with the individuals in question but when you consider them collectively in the abstract you are seduced through a weakness for wonkery into imagining that men have no choice but to trade in such values.

Thanks, Ron, Now Shut Up

Ronald Bailey over at Reason is talking about the need for consumer-driven health care. Well and good. He mentions the problems of the current healthcare – which are legion – and says that a solution is needed. His solution?

My advice to President Bush on how really to jumpstart consumer-driven health care: mandatory private health insurance. Poor Americans would be offered a voucher with which they would buy private health coverage. Such vouchers could be paid for by abolishing Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Programs.

But they won’t be, Ron, and you know it, because you know what underlies all of this: the barrel of a gun. Why you think the solution is to point the gun in everyone’s face is beyond me, but you’re either clearly ignorant or clearly evil about this.

Dear Karen (No, Not That One)

Over at our old friend, Karen Kwiatkowski has a bit of advice for Hamas. If you’ve been under a rock recently, Hamas is a Palestinian terrorist organisation whose political arm just won a majority in the Palestinian parliament. She does so by way of comparing Ireland and Palestine.

Unfortunately, throughout the article she conflates Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. Ireland was overrun by the English in the late 16th century. In the early 19th century, it was incorporated into the United Kingdom, and its local government was abolished. In the early 20th century after many bloody rebellions, most of Ireland decided to secede from the United Kingdom, and the UK sanctioned it. However, the northern part of the island voted to stay united with the United Kingdom. Hence, Ireland broke into two political units: the independent Republic of Ireland (after a tenure as the Irish Free State) and Northern Ireland, which is still united with the United Kingdom.

The violence in Northern Ireland has lasted most of the previous century. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) supported a break with the United Kingdom and a union with the Republic of Ireland. The Unionists supported the continued union of Northern Ireland with Great Britain as the United Kingdom. Recently, the most violent wing of the IRA, the Provisional IRA, chose to lay down its arms. But don’t be fooled by this: in 2003, the most recently elections for regional government in Northern Ireland returned the radicals on both sides of the Republican/Unionist divide – Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, respectively. This has soured the hopes for peace and some sort of coherent and liberal legal system or systems. More of Northern Ireland’s more recent troubles can be read here.

Karen says:

What happened to Ireland? I surely don’t know, and as an American, whatever I think I know about some other country’s history and political condition is probably way off base. But I do know this. The current Heritage Economic Freedom Index places Ireland number three in the world. Ireland has scored 1.99 or less every year since 1998, and scored 2.19, 2.19, and 2.2 in the three years preceding 1998. Scoring below “1.99” is Heritage-speak for systemic economic freedom!

Dear Karen, you are confusing Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. The Heritage Economic Freedom Index is referring to the Republic of Ireland, not Northern Ireland. The Republic has indeed liberalised some over the past two decades or so, mostly at the behest of the minority Progressive Democrats. It has enjoyed rising GDP growth, although whether that GDP growth is mostly on paper and not in the pockets of the average working Irishman is some matter of debate.

Northern Ireland, on the other hand, has been economically dead for a long time. You are right that prosperity does not come in an atmosphere of violence, hatred, and mistrust. But you are mistaking the peaceful Republic with the dangerous North. Hamas, Fatah, or anyone in Israel do not face any easy answers for achieving peace or protecting human liberty.

Consequentialism: Means Redefining Ends

Patri Friedman has written that consequentialism is a means to his libertarian ends:

It’s important to distinguish between consequentialism as an end and as a means. I am not a utilitarian – my morality is not defined solely by results. I have strong internal beliefs that taxes, theft, and coercion are wrong. But these beliefs are not very proscriptive.

Ok, its wrong for my property to be stolen. How best to prevent that? Locks? Alarms? Constant vigilance? What about taxes? Work on the black market? Expatriate? Try to change the system? But in what way? Which leads to the big questions – why did government spending increase so much last century? How can we prevent a libertarian country from devolving into statism? What legal system will best safeguard my rights? How can I direct my efforts so as to achieve maximal effect on my own freedom?

Knowing my general philosophy is easy, but knowing how to make it happen is extremely difficult. The general approach is the same as any other question of strategy. Realistically consider your options, strengths, weaknesses, and the consequences of various approaches with respect to your goals. Pick the best and get to work. Often the answers will involve compromises and alliances.

In this case, answering the above questions requires seriously trying to understand and analyze the world. It takes a lot of thought, and one soon realizes that there are few simple answers. I view libertarianism as a science, not a religion, with tough compromises instead of easy platitudes.

If it seemed like libertarian rhetoric worked, I’d be out there thumping the Fountainhead and preaching the virtue of selfishness. But while such sermons are easy to generate, only the choir listens. Anyone can rant vaguely and passionately about how things ought to be, and many of them do. Yet (with a few notable exceptions) the world spins on unchanged.

Conversion is desirable, but very difficult. Yet while people disagree vehemently and inflexibly on morality and rights, they all tend to like systems that work and make them happy. Its not that this appeal is desirable as an end, but that its a key means to actually make change happen. Finding such changes may require compromise, but I’ll take a small real step towards freedom over an imaginary large one any day.

Such an approach misses out on the self-righteous glow of loudly insisting that the world conform to your desires, but it actually has a chance. Clicking your heels together three times only works in the movie . To actually get somewhere, you’d best find a map, plan a route, and sometimes be willing to take the long way round.

This view is very close to the consequentialism of Micha Ghertner at and it increasingly influences other bloggers at Catallarchy.

Patri holds consequentialism to be a means to his moral ends but he really doesn’t take moral ends seriously. His assertion that he believes theft is wrong is undermined by his inability to make a meaningful distinction between morality and personal preference.

These two statements mean the same thing:

(1) I believe theft is wrong.

(2) I believe the statement “Theft is wrong” corresponds to reality.

Patri says (1) but he doesn’t mean (2). What he means when he says (1) is simply that he prefers that theft not take place. This begs the question of why he shouldn’t prefer theft that benefits him.

David Friedman conceded he didn’t know how to derive oughts. Patri and Micha have made the leap from that to moral nihilism – any oughts they consider are simply personal preferences which have no moral content in traditional terms.

Their consequentialism thus becomes the means to groundless ends. And because the ends are groundless the means push them around. And why not? Why prefer libertarian preferences?

Thus encouraged, we increasingly see Catallarchs applying consequentialist means without reference to libertarian ends. Should we outlaw suicide? Well , Scott Scheule may have started with the libertarian preference that people be free to do what they choose. But that preference has been trivialized and assumed baseless, so how can it stand up against a muscular utility maximization via Kaldor-Hicks efficiency? It’s always a lot more exciting to prefer the course of action that entitles you to roll up your sleeves and sort people out. People are eggs; efficiency is a mouth watering omelet.

David Friedman wrote:

One could object that the economist, defining efficiency according to what questions he can answer rather than what questions he is being asked, is like the drunk looking for his wallet under the street light because the light is better there than where he lost it. The reply is that an imperfect criterion of desirability is better than none.

The problem is the Catallarchs like the streetlight so much that they forget what they were looking for.

Libertarians Will Always Be Losers

Courtesy of S. Maravillosa comes this juicy snippet of libertarian gossip:

Op-Eds for Sale
A columnist from a libertarian think tank admits accepting payments to promote an indicted lobbyist’s clients. Will more examples follow?

A senior fellow at the Cato Institute resigned from the libertarian think tank on Dec. 15 after admitting that he had accepted payments from indicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff for writing op-ed articles favorable to the positions of some of Abramoff’s clients. Doug Bandow, who writes a syndicated column for Copley News Service, told BusinessWeek Online that he had accepted money from Abramoff for writing between 12 and 24 articles over a period of years, beginning in the mid ’90s.

I judge this to be a natural consequence of being a libertarian wonk. Suppose that you’re a budding libertarian pundit with aspirations of respectability. You’ve read the arguments against government, and you, like everyone else, have exactly nothing to say contrary to them. They’re airtight. But what are you going to say the first time someone asks “What are ya, some kind of anarchist?” If you reply with a “yes”, you’re done. Virtually everyone in the mainstream thinks that “anarchist” is a synonym for “violent nutball”. So you say “No, I believe in a smaller government with limited power…”, even though you know better.

In a word, you lie.

You lie because you have your eyes on the prize. The end justifies the means, because you can’t get from here to there without appealing to the voting masses’ simple prejudices and superstitions. As time goes on, the lies come easier. Sugar-coat this, gloss over that, ignore the other. You get good at telling people what they want to hear.

And if your job consists of telling pleasant lies, why not make as much as you can from for it? What’s the difference in principle between telling lies for a salary and telling lies for a salary plus a payment on the side? Let’s see:

Bandow isn’t the only think-tanker to have received payments from Abramoff for writing articles. Peter Ferrara, a senior policy adviser at the conservative Institute for Policy Innovation, says he, too, took money from Abramoff to write op-ed pieces boosting the lobbyist’s clients. “I do that all the time,” Ferrara says. “I’ve done that in the past, and I’ll do it in the future.”

Ferrara, who has been an influential conservative voice on Social Security reform, among other issues, says he doesn’t see a conflict of interest in taking undisclosed money to write op-ed pieces because his columns never violated his ideological principles.

Especially when your ideological principles are somewhat… elastic.

Bandow’s real problem is that he picked a political ideology whose adherents have to tell themselves they’re more principled than Republicans and Democrats. In reality they aren’t, they’re just more confused. The R’s and D’s are quite plainly after power. The libertarian types, on the other hand, like to pretend that they have principles. As I’ve said before, that pretense gets in the way of effective action in electoral politics. In this particular case, the conservative pundit can laugh off being paid for op-eds while the libertarian pundit gets to slink out the back door for the exact same thing. It’s yet another example of why libertarians are destined to be perennial losers in partisan politics.

Cato Bound

Cato launched a new blog/magazine this month and their first feature has been a discussion of three prescriptions from James Buchanan for fixing the Constitution.

Buchanan’s first proposal is a pretty tame piece of wonkery: a balanced budget amendment. His second proposal is more interesting because it’s incoherent, he advocates a generality wherein the state can make no laws which discriminate in imposing costs or providing benefits for individuals. He quickly demonstrates the incoherence of the idea by offering a flat income tax as an example of a law that doesn’t discriminate. Anthony de Jasay explains why this notion of generality makes no sense.

Buchanan’s final proposal:

“The Madisonian construction is flawed by its authorization of government regulation through the much abused Commerce Clause. The authorization should be restricted to the prevention of interferences with voluntary exchanges and should not extend to the prohibition, or the coercive dictation of the terms, of such exchanges. Nor should any differentiation be made between exchanges within the domestic economy and those made with others outside the political jurisdiction.”

Buchanan adds:

“Such a requirement is little more than explicit acknowledgment that persons possess the natural liberty to enter into and exit from agreements, without concern for collectively imposed constraints.”

Well. How will this constitution, even with Buchanan’s amendments, be anything but collectively imposed constraint?

Maybe I’ll consider my natural liberty to enter into, and exit from, agreements credibly acknowledged when Buchanan explains how I can opt out of his arrangement.

Balko On Perfectly Acceptable Government

Radley Balko speaks for libertarians:

“It’s perfectly acceptable for a constitutionally-limited government to act to prevent the outbreak of deadly, highly-communicable diseases. If the bird flu is as lethal and transferable as some have suggested, protection from it amounts to a public good worthy of government attention, provided said attention is proportional to the extent of the threat, transparent, and accountable.”

Translation: It’s perfectly acceptable for the government to put a gun to your head to compel you to participate in collectivist schemes when it will produce a sufficient public good.

But what about all Balko’s caveats you ask? They amount to nothing.

Is this government accountable? Sure, it’s accountable to the voters. How could government be more accountable than that?

Ah, but is our government constitutionally limited? Yup, as much as it can be. There’s a note in the cookie jar that says “We promise to never reach in the cookie jar. Sincerely, We The People”. Now of course the fact that they got the note in the cookie jar in the first place implies they’re going to reach in there whenever they feel the need, but you can’t really improve on the note. It’s as limiting to We The People as any such note could be in principle.

But is the public good produced sufficient? And is the government action proportional and transparent? Well someone has to judge, but who? It can only go back to accountability. The voters judge whether the benefits are sufficient and whether the means are acceptably proportional and transparent.

We pretty much already have everything Balko wants in politics, he just happens to disagree with most voters about the weights to assign to the costs and benefits of government actions. So he spends his life arguing with them about how much of your life should be stolen and what it should be spent on.

And that passes for libertarianism.

Via Beck.

The Limits Of Wonkery, or You Can’t Get There From Here

Arnold Kling notes a fundamental problem. In response to questions from Tyler Cowen, Kling writes

I am working on a monograph on health care policy, for one of the infamous think tanks. I am coming around to the view that there is no health care plan that is politically feasible. The American people believe that they have a God-given right to as many health care services as they want, paid for by someone else. As an economist, the best I can do is point out how this belief stymies health care pollicy. But in the absence of cultural change, Tyler’s constraint binds too tightly.

Kling goes on to further characterize the issue:

The thrust of Tyler’s constraints seems to be that economists need to offer ideas that are practical and implementable under current political conditions.

And that in fact is what most policy wonks are trying to do: find a solution that’s palatable to elected officials. The problem with that is that the theoretical best solutions are almost always going to involve laissez nous faire – reducing government intervention. But what politician is going to willingly put himself (or his constituents!) out of work?

I think I’ve formulated a pretty fair rule of thumb with regards to public policy:
The likelihood of the implementation of a given piece of policy wonkery is inversely proportional to that policy’s effectiveness.

Want to raise the minimum wage? It won’t help, but it’d sure be easy. Want to abolish the Federal government? It’d help a great deal, but don’t hold your breath waiting for Congress to pass your Congressional Abolition Act. Want to have a government official implement an effective policy? Sorry, all sold out of Cakes You Can Eat And Then Have, Too.