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Friday, July 11, 2008

I Report, You Decide

All right kids, I have work to do so I will leave this as an exercise for the class. At least one person here is being a moron. In response to someone saying that the government ought to tax bads (like carbon emissions) rather than goods (like income), a cynic says:

I know there's plenty of tongue in cheek going on here, but this is truly the reductio ad absurdum that disproves the Pigou Club. The Government is put in charge of deciding what is good and what is bad. I do not trust them that far.

Then Mike Moffatt says:

What the writer fails to realize is the deciding what is good and bad is exactly what government does. Every government decision naturally involves some subjective ethical decision. What the author is advocating here is not some limited government libertarian fantasy - he is advocating for anarchy. (emphasis original)

And then Moffatt trots out the murder example: "If you object to governments deciding what is right and wrong, how can you possibly support laws against murder?"

This of course is just a response to the more general maxim, "You can't legislate morality," which often comes up in drug legalization debates. The pro-prohibition person then says, "Sure we legislate morality all the time."

My gut reaction is that Moffatt is dead wrong; even if you are a minarchist, your theory of government certainly is NOT, "We let politicians decide what is right and wrong." It's wrong to swear at your grandma or cheat on your spouse; that doesn't mean the government should levy a Pigovian tax on such behavior.

But is the other side wrong too? I don't think so, but since I agree with them in the specific issue maybe I'm biased. I.e., since presumably the cynic I quoted above is not an anarchist, and since he thinks the government ought to ban some things that are wrong, is he overstepping when he says he doesn't trust the politicians to pick what is right and wrong?

(HT2EE. Incidentally, you might want to check the link out. Lots of libertarian bashing going on over there. Speaking of which, is Crash Landing the Pakistani training camp for libertarian Net warriors? Is Gene the Osama...oh wait, Osama was financially successful.)

20 comments:

  1. Mike Moffatt10:20 AM

    Thanks for the link.

    I'll address your specific points later this week. But I wanted to comment on this specifically:

    "he thinks the government ought to ban some things that are wrong, is he overstepping when he says he doesn't trust the politicians to pick what is right and wrong?"

    Clearly someone is picking what is right and wrong here (otherwise how would governments know what to ban). So if not elected government officials, then who should choose? The EPA? The courts? The church? The military?

    I don't find Caplan's argument here overstepping so much as incoherent. It boils down to "governments shouldn't determine right and wrong, except for when they should."

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  2. I'm not really qualified to comment on the economics of the debate, but I had a couple thoughts to offer.

    There is a good utilitarian argument for the position that the government shouldn't be able to tax negative externalities to discourage them: government is terrible at everything it does. Government always oversteps its bounds. Government action always seems to have unintended consequences that need fixing with more government activity. It doesn't take a market anarchist to observe these facts.

    I don't know how good a free market would be at limiting pollution and punishing people/companies who trespass against others with their pollution, but the utilitarian argument against government doing it is that the government is worse at it.

    Also, a lot of people like to sneer at libertarians for being unrealistic and impractical, but to assert that we can limit the scope of governmental action to taxing negative externalities, punishing criminals, and generally promoting justice and economic efficiency—and that governments are good at these things—is truly willfully ignorant, Utopian fantasy.

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  3. Shameless self-promotion: I dissected the dispute about Caplan's post on my blog and tried to separate which premises exactly were in dispute.

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  4. Mike Moffatt2:48 PM

    "I don't know how good a free market would be at limiting pollution and punishing people/companies who trespass against others with their pollution, but the utilitarian argument against government doing it is that the government is worse at it."

    That's not an argument - that is an assterion presented with an utter lack of evidence.

    RE: Trespass solutions to pollution (which you will note still require a government willing to enforce property rights). Consider the following:

    Stylized Example - Someone gets sick from air pollution (which happens all the time - go visit a respiratory ward and you'll see what I mean) and racks up a $10,000 medical bill. For the sake of argument, assume that 90% of that pollution came from automobiles and there are 30,000 registered cars in the area.

    I have clearly been harmed here. But what is my option - to sue each and every driver in the city for an average of 37 cents to cover my damages?

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  5. Hi Mike,

    First, sorry for implying you were a "moron." I wouldn't have said that ("Twas all in good fun!") if I thought you would follow the link here...

    Second, I really don't think it's true that "we let the politicians pick what is right and what is wrong." It's not even true that "we let the government punish things that are wrong," or at least, you have to parse that sentence in a very careful way.

    Under any theory of limited government--where there are certain areas that are proper ones for government regulation, and other areas that are not--we certainly do NOT let the politicians determine what is right and what is wrong.

    E.g. take free speech. I really don't think it's useful to say, "The reason that you don't go to jail for distributing racist literature, is that the politicians have determined that it is right to do so."

    No, it's reprehensible to do so (at least for certain kinds; I don't think Charles Murray's book counts as "racist" though some would). But it's legal because the government has no business regulating speech / books / etc.

    You see what I'm saying?

    So by the same token, murder is illegal (under most theories of government) not just because, "The politicians decided it was wrong," but for far more specific reasons.

    And so in conclusion, I basically agree with that guy you quoted, who said he doesn't trust the politicians to determine what is right and wrong.

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  6. is Crash Landing the Pakistani training camp for libertarian Net warriors? Is Gene the Osama...oh wait, Osama was financially successful...

    I'm not sure about the above, but you should be getting a visit from the Secret Service soon. You realize that after you speculated in a post on how Hillary good take Obama out, that Hillary loaned Obama her plane and they were forced into an emergency landing becasue there was problem in the steering. Is Hillary reading your posts,Bob. And how poetic she is. She reads about taking Obama out at Crash Landing, and then proceeds do so by a crash landing.

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  7. Mike Moffatt6:23 PM

    But it's legal because the government has no business regulating speech / books / etc.

    Except the U.S. government *does* all of these things. See:

    - Telecommunications Act of 1996
    - Communications Decency Act
    - Digital Millennium Copyright Act
    - International Traffic in Arms Regulations

    That's just for starters. I bet you $20 I can find at least two dozen laws in the United States that place limits on free speech.

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  8. Silas: Not ignoring you (on this one!), but I haven't read your post yet.

    RW: I am out of the loop. Did something really happen with a plane?

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  9. That's just for starters. I bet you $20 I can find at least two dozen laws in the United States that place limits on free speech.

    Whoa, hang on a second Mike. Suppose I say, "I don't trust governments to pick who gets cooked."

    Are you going to point me to a book on Nazi Germany and roll your eyes at how dumb I am?

    The guy you "blew up" on your site didn't say, "The government isn't picking winners and losers," rather he said, "I don't trust them to do so."

    And neither do I.

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  10. Mike said:

    That's not an argument - that is an assterion [sic] presented with an utter lack of evidence.

    Was that intentional? I think I will label my opponents' unsupported claims as "assterions" from now on. Is sounds like a stupid thing Megatron would say.

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  11. I am out of the loop

    Oh yeah, master behnd the scenes operator, play innocent now, as if THIS wasn't your diabolcal plot gone wrong, one day after you told Hillary to do it, at this blog!

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  12. Mike Moffatt7:09 AM

    Yes, the asstertion thing was a typo.

    "Whoa, hang on a second Mike. Suppose I say, "I don't trust governments to pick who gets cooked."

    Except that's not at all like what you said. What you said was:

    "we let the politicians pick what is right and what is wrong."

    The first statement implies you think governments *shouldn't* do it. The second statement implies you think governments *don't* do it. There's a world of difference between the two.

    Also, I got a kick out of the fact that after I mentioned 4 acts passed by a Republican-dominated congress you started talking about Nazi Germany. :)

    In seriousness, though, all I'm getting out of this from guys like Caplan is that:

    1. Governments don't decide between right and wrong, except when they do.

    2. Governments shouldn't decide between right and wrong, except when they should.

    Again, if governments aren't picking between winners and losers and deciding what's right and wrong, why does a year's worth of Federal Registers take up about 70,000 pages and several *feet* worth of shelf space?

    Or go back to the discussion of murder - specifically taking a human life. The government has decided exactly when such an activity is permitted, such as:

    - Capital punishment
    - Abortion
    - Warfare (such as the Civil War)

    Plus there are different categories of 'illegal' taking of life which stretch from 1st degree murder to vehicular manslaughter.

    If the government isn't making subjective moral judgements here, then what exactly are they doing?

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  13. Mike,

    I don't understand why you think I (or Caplan or the guy you quoted on your website) ever denied that governments are in the business of doing things we don't trust. They do it all the time. We're saying, we wish they would stop! But if I said something misleading above, I'm sorry for the confusion. In any event, you don't need to quote the federal register, etc.; I agree with you that governments act as if they can do whatever they want, so long as it seems like "a good idea" at the time.

    OK, so what is my point then? It is this: Under any theory of government except those enshrining totalitarianism, there are limits on what the government can do. It is simply not true that politicians get a blank check to determine "what is right and wrong," or to "pick winners and losers."

    So for example, right now if George Bush said, "Brett Favre, you are going to marry my daughter next week because she has a crush on you, and I want to make her happy--and if you object, I'm sending you to Gitmo," I think we would all say, "Whoa, I don't trust the president with that kind of power! He can't pick whom citizens marry!"

    Would you then say, "You libertarian dolt, he just did! Shut up and come back with a decent argument next time." ?

    So same thing here. Caplan gave plenty of examples of negative externalities, where most people would agree government should levy a tax to internalize the externality.

    Also, in reference to the guy on your website, I think part of his fear/suspicion was fueled by the fact that politicians will lie about something being a negative externality in order to tax it, or a positive externality in order to subsidize it. I.e., he doesn't trust them with that kind of power.

    If you want to say, "Nah, global warming is a huge deal and if we are vigilant in watching the politicians, I think giving them the power to tax emissions is justified," OK fine. But you are acting as if Caplan or the guy you quoted are making basic mistakes in logic, as if they are ignorant of the fact that governments overstep their proper boundaries all the time.

    No, they are aware of this, and in fact that's partly why they don't trust the politicians! They ignore the Constitution, so why would they listen to a bunch of resource economists telling them the optimal carbon tax?

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  14. Mike Moffatt10:40 AM

    "I think giving them the power to tax emissions is justified"

    I guess my point is that the Feds already have this power*, so we're not giving them anything, so what's the fuss about?

    * Barring the 10th amendment, of course, but given how the Feds and Supreme Court have trampled over it, it might as well not exist. It didn't stop noted tree-hugging socialist hippie Richard Nixon from creating the EPA.

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  15. "That's not an argument - that is an assterion presented with an utter lack of evidence."

    The entire history of the Western world is not a lack of evidence. The fact that you ignore, deny, or gloss over how utterly bad governments are at doing anything fairly or efficiently shows that you're just going to believe in government almost no matter what. Based on how bad governments screw things up, both economic and social (a lot of evidence I've read, heard, and experienced over the years) and how much better the free market does (a lot of evidence gathered over the years), it is unlikely that this is the ONE thing government is better at.

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  16. Mike Moffatt11:01 AM

    "The entire history of the Western world is not a lack of evidence. The fact that you ignore, deny, or gloss over how utterly bad governments are at doing anything fairly or efficiently shows that you're just going to believe in government almost no matter what."

    If you want to discuss the merits of anarchy, it's a discussion I'm willing to have.

    But Caplan et. al. aren't suggesting the totally and utter removal of all forms of government - which at least would be a consistent position. They're saying that governments shouldn't do things, except when they should.

    "and experienced over the years) and how much better the free market does (a lot of evidence gathered over the years)"

    The free market, which you refer to, involves all kinds of government involvement. Who do you think enforces property rights, contracts, etc?

    Some libertarians like to say taxation is theft. Yet many also have no problem taxing person T to pay for a court system, jails, etc. for when person A kills person B.

    And you say *I'm* the one ignoring, deny and glossing over government involvement?

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  17. "I have clearly been harmed here. But what is my option - to sue each and every driver in the city for an average of 37 cents to cover my damages?"

    Clearly, provided that you have empirical evidence of where the pollution came from, you have a right to damages from the polluters. Please don't mistake my anti-state and anti-tax mentality as a free pass for polluters or a brushing off of this problem, which I think is a tough one for libertarians to answer.

    Libertarians have argued that in the absence of a state, the owners of the roads and/or the manufacturers of the cars would be responsible. The manufacturers are the ones responsible for the amount that their automobiles can pollute, but the drivers are the ones responsible for how much they do pollute. The amount that various drivers have polluted the lungs of the respiratory patient is reflected in the number of miles that they have driven on the roads close to the patient's homes, and it makes sense to me that the owner of the property (roads) from which the pollution emanates is at least largely responsible for such pollution, so the road-owner would be susceptible to a tort lawsuit.

    Maybe I feel like the car manufacturers would be liable because they have deep pockets, or maybe there is in fact a solid moral reason. I have thought about this before, but clearly not enough.

    Making the road-owners (and, by extension, the users of their roads) pay for the victims' medical bills is preferable to making everyone in society pay for the medical bills via taxation, whether they used those roads or not and whether they drove very much or not.

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  18. "But Caplan et. al. aren't suggesting the totally and utter removal of all forms of government - which at least would be a consistent position. They're saying that governments shouldn't do things, except when they should."

    I think you're right that I didn't really see the finer points of Caplan's argument and didn't really address them. I wasn't exactly trying to address them, just having a State-vs.-market argument...

    But, no, I'm with Bob: I do think taxation is theft and it's coercive, and that it is never acceptable under any circumstances, so State functions should be entirely replaced with market ones. I don't ignore or deny the involvement of the State in any freedom-promoting or market-supporting processes, because I think for every good thing it does it does two bad ones.

    If I'm not mistaken, Bob himself wrote a short book about market solutions that would replace State ones (unless there is another Robert P. Murphy giving Bob a good name). He and others have presented those arguments much better than I can.

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  19. Ha ha Petrie you outed me! I debated whether to admit to Moffatt that I was a free market anarchist but I didn't want to muddy the waters. I.e. even if I were a nightwatchman limited government type, I would still be arguing with Mike.

    Mike, at this point I don't really understand your position. Caplan et al. are talking about what the government ought to have the power to do. You're not dealing with their points by referring to what the government is doing.

    I don't trust the politicians with the power to decide what is an externality and whether it should be taxed. I agree with you that they're not going to call me up and get my permission.

    BTW if you are still checking this, how did you get your About.com position? That looks like a big professional site. Is it smoke and mirrors or are you important? :)

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