‘The good news is that we have the ability to tame the Darwin economy. The best solution is not to prohibit harmful behaviors but to tax them. By doing so, we could make the economic pie larger, eliminate government debt, and provide better public services, all without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone. That’s a bold claim, Frank concedes, but it follows directly from logic and evidence that most people already accept.’
It’s good to know there are people arguing for such a collectivist moral and political philosophy out of the Origin Of Species and Darwin’s theories of natural selection. Of course, this view requires our betters to gently steer the Ship Of State through the stormy seas of human irrationality, manipulating its levers of taxation wisely, with only the stars of reason, Darwinian group selection, and the dismal science as their guides.
Ben-Ami invokes the fact/value distinction:
‘Students have long been taught that economics is a ‘positive science’ – one based on facts rather than values. Politicians are entitled to their preferences, so the argument went, but economists are supposed to give them impartial advice based on an objective examination of the facts.’
Well, if we do use the fact/value distinction, we should acknowledge that all economists (e.g. Milton Friedman) would fall short of achieving factual knowledge on this view….but point taken. There is a deeper debate about where to ground our knowledge and what it is that we know. Economics and potentially unfalsifiable theories are here presented as knowledge upon which to organize all of our lives. Ben-Ami goes on:
The focus of The Darwin Economy is to work out how best to resolve such conflicts. To do so, he turns to an influential approach developed by Ronald Coase, a Nobel laureate in economics based at the University of Chicago in the late 1950s. His concern was to find a pragmatic way to resolve conflicts rather than having to rely on moral principles
To illustrate his argument, Coase gave the example of a confectioner who had used his business premises for many years. A doctor moved in to occupy the neighbouring property and the confectioner’s machinery did him no harm till he built a consulting room at the end of the garden, next to the confectioner’s premises. The noise and vibration of the machinery began to disturb the doctor’s work.
Coase then made the following assumptions:
- If the doctor did nothing it would cost his surgery $20,000 in damage;
- If he moved to a different location it would cost him $10,000;
- The factory owner could eliminate the noise by installing soundproofing at a cost of $5,000;
- The costs for the two to negotiate were minimal.
From these premises, it is clear that the two sides should be able to negotiate an agreement with each other for the installation of soundproofing. This is the case even if the government does not make the factory owner responsible for noise damage.
Why not just use the power of taxation to nudge people where you want them to go…if you already happen to know what is rationally in their best interest (or the common interest) anyways? Individuals come into conflict with each other while pursuing their own rational self-interest, and eventually many use the State to resolve their conflicts (property disputes, tort law etc), so why not just head them off at the pass?
And if you’re worried about your freedom?:
”To those who believe that such measures can lead to the denial of individual freedom, Frank enlists an unlikely ally: John Stuart Mill. The nineteenth-century British philosopher is normally seen as the arch proponent of liberty, but Frank turns him into its opposite. Mill supported the maximum possible freedom for individuals with the important caveat that they should not be able to harm others. For instance, I should be free to criticise individuals as harshly as I like but I should not have the right to punch them in the face. Frank extends the harm principle to cover more or less any behaviour that could be deemed harmful. His argument is not that harmful behaviour should always be banned, but government should in many cases impose extra taxes to make it more expensive.’
Don’t worry, these folks are on your side against the interests of large corporations, pretty much all industries, crony capitalists, the oligarchy etc. J.S. Mill’s harm principle is being used to rectify the harm done to individuals by the State through the laws by wielding that State power rationally. If an individual lives downwind of say, a smelting plant, and comes to develop a disease he thinks can be proven to have been caused by the plant’s activities, he might be able to file suit. This of course, may be proper legal recourse, but is also used to defend global warming, as virtually any industrial activity can be held legally and morally responsible for causing harm to the individual on this view (acid rain, climate change, rising sea levels, poorer air quality etc). Scientism abounds amidst deep thinking and actual science.
I could see this view getting much more traction in Britain, and Europe more broadly, because there is a much more entrenched Left (many more actual Communists, Socialists, Big Labor parties, Social Democrats, Humanists, Marxists etc) milling around. Europe is actually run by techo-bureaucrats largely because such a large techno-bureaucracy is arguably the product of such Leftism and certain strains of collectivist, post-Enlightenment thought.
But is this really where the modern American Left is, as well?
There are lots of threats to liberty out there, and when you think about just what’s happened to our American institutions these past few generations, and who’s running them, then the strands of liberalism that dwell there makes more sense.
Culturally, we see more inroads for this point of view as well.
Related On This Site: …Repost-From The Spiked Review Of Books Via The A & L Daily: ‘Rescuing The Enlightenment From Its Exploiters’… Behavioral economics and libertarian paternalism and below all that some liberal totalitarianism (the personal is political crowd)…Ross Douthat Responds To Paul Krugman At The NY Times: ‘Can We Be Sweden?’
Update And Repost- From YouTube: Leo Strauss On The Meno-More On The Fact/Value Distinction?’…Morality away from a transcendent God, but back toward Hume through the cognitive sciences?: Franz De Waal At The NY Times 10/17/10: ‘Morals Without God?’
Steven Pinker curiously goes Hobbesian and mentions an ‘international Leviathan’: At Bloggingheads Steven Pinker Discusses War And Thomas Hobbes…Timothy Snyder Responds To Steven Pinker’s New Book At Foreign Policy: ‘War No More: Why The World Has Become More Peaceful’
The market will make people better off, but always leaves them wanting more and in a state of spiritual malaise, which invites constant meddling. Can economic freedom and free markets reconcile the moral depth of progressive big-State human freedom?: Milton Friedman Via Youtube: ‘Responsibility To The Poor’…A Few Quotations From F.A. Hayek’s: ‘Why I Am Not A Conservative’…libertarians share a definition of liberty
Robert Bork called them the New Left: A Few Thoughts On Robert Bork’s “Slouching Towards Gomorrah”