Our author, Daniel Ben-Ami, makes some good points while reviewing Robert Frank’s the Darwin Economy. Here are some quotes from the Princeton Press page on the book (found at the link):
‘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?
Why not make this the knowledge which justifies the authority which oversees your life choices?
Why not grant such ideas, and the people implementing such ideas, power?
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.’
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 don’t know if the below quote by Jerry Pournelle is true in all cases, but it highlights the problem technocrats never talk much about: Human fallibility…institutional incentives, and how things so often look in practice beneath the latest theories of knowledge:
‘Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people”:
First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.
Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.
The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization’
Steven Poole at Aeon: ‘We Are More Rational Than Those Who Nudge Us.’
‘And so there is less reason than many think to doubt humans’ ability to be reasonable. The dissenting critiques of the cognitive-bias literature argue that people are not, in fact, as individually irrational as the present cultural climate assumes. And proponents of debiasing argue that we can each become more rational with practice. But even if we each acted as irrationally as often as the most pessimistic picture implies, that would be no cause to flatten democratic deliberation into the weighted engineering of consumer choices, as nudge politics seeks to do’
Taxing soda in Seattle schools has unintended consequences. It’s not just taxation, it’s banning happy meals altogether.
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Leo Strauss argued there is great danger in this approach, i.e. the problems of Europe. Political science, the social sciences, economics and the explanatory power of these products of reason and rationalism could increasingly form the epistemological foundation for explaining the world, people’s interior lives, how we ought to live and what we ought to do. This includes where our rights come from and who should be in charge: Update And Repost- From YouTube: Leo Strauss On The Meno-More On The Fact/Value Distinction?’