Tonight On The No Treason Channel

Scott makes a positive statement, the deontologically oriented folks at No Treason confuse it for a normative statement, hilarity ensues.

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To be fair I don't think

To be fair I don't think it's only Scott's statement that's at issue; think of it more as the spark for a full-blown debate on libertarian methodology just waiting to engulf the blogosphere in flames! :end:

Oh, and Happy New Year everyone!

When and by what was the

When and by what was the phrase "hilarity ensues" popularized?

The first google hit I got

The first google hit I got for "origin phrase hilarity ensues" speculated it came from summaries of 80s sitcoms, as in "Man marries woman. Man meets woman's mother-in-law. Hilarity ensues."

By the way, I guess this is

By the way, I guess this is as good a time as any to remind everyone that we're all on the same side, more or less. We all want the government out of our lives; does it really matter why?

does it really matter

does it really matter why?

No, as long as "why" is logically consistent and is not contradicted by the evidence.

I should note that in the comments of Scott's post, JTK corners Scott into making a crucial mistake abut what economics is.

I should note that in the

I should note that in the comments of Scott’s post, JTK corners Scott into making a crucial mistake abut what economics is.

More than likely, though in my defense, I do stress that economics is not my field of expertise, and my claims about it are not made with a great deal of confidence. Corrections are always invited.

Scott, economics is a

Scott, economics is a positive science. Samuelson is known for recommending policies that are not economically efficient but that he finds otherwise desirable.

Schuele claimed that laws

Schuele claimed that laws against suicide might be "economically efficient." In ordinary language, "efficient" is a normative term, not a purely positive one; "efficiency" is a virtue and "inefficiency" a vice in any method that can be so described.

Of course, you could claim that the "economically" qualifier indicates a term of art, not the ordinary language use. Fine, but the technical definitions of both Pareto efficiency and Kaldor-Hicks efficiency typically appeal directly to normative categories such as "better off," "worse off," "wealth," etc.

Exercise for the writer: give me a definition of "economic efficiency" that both (1) makes it a positive rather than a normative category, and (2) justifies the normal use of the term in economic analysis and advocacy. (Until you have done so, your claim that Kennedy is confusing positive and normative claims seems unfounded.)

Rad Geek, "economic

Rad Geek,

"economic efficiency" is a term of art. See David Friedman's Price Theory for a good account of why some terms in economics are actually positive though they sound normative. Also see my comment just prior to yours. Samuelson is (in)famous for recommeding policies that he knows are economically inefficient, because he does not accept economic efficiency as an ought.

David, I'm well aware of the

David, I'm well aware of the technical definitions of "efficiency" in economics and of the party line that given these technical definitions, economic claims about efficiency are strictly non-normative. But I'm disputing that party line, and what I'm asking for is an elaboration of those definitions that doesn't fall back on normative terms. (As for Samuelson, I think there is simply philosophical confusion, both by him and by his colleagues, about what he is doing. He might very well think that his claims about economic efficiency are strictly non-normative claims; but that's hardly demonstrated by his endorsement of policies he knows to be economically inefficient on other grounds. That only demonstrates that he thinks that there are other norms that trump whatever normative weight "economic efficiency" may or may not carry.)

For example, Pareto efficiency is standardly defined as a situation in which no further Pareto improvements are available, and a Pareto improvement is defined as a change that makes at least one person better off and nobody worse off. But "better off" and "worse off" are themselves normative terms. Schuele specifies that he means to refer to Kaldor-Hicks efficiency. But Kaldor-Hicks efficiency is standardly defined by direct reference to Pareto efficiency. Scott didn't use the standard definition for K-H efficiency, but instead glossed it in terms of "wealth," but "wealth" is itself a normative term. (Having a large pile of something only counts as being wealthy if the thing you've piled up is a good thing to have lots of.)

So the challenge is: explain to me what Schuele meant, or plausibly could have meant, by "economically efficient" without falling back on normative language. If you are using Kaldor-Hicks efficiency as standardly defined, or as glossed by Scott, you will have to explain how you are using the terms "better off," "worse off," "wealth," or whatever in such a way that they are not in fact normative, in spite of appearances.

I disagree with you about

I disagree with you about where exactly the positive/normative distinction lies. If we suppose that we have a general idea of what people like and how much they like it, we can say that a particular arrangement will or will not be Kaldor-Hicks efficient.

That's a positive statement, not a normative one. Yes, we take preferences into account (possibly inaccurately). But we simply consider these as positive facts. Normatively, we may still say that certain preferences (e.g., the desire not to starve to death) are better or more worthy than others (e.g., the desire to build another vacation home), and that policy should reflect this (e.g., through wealth redistribution).

In fact, I think Scott did just this, as he said that he was not endorsing laws against suicide.

Efficiency is not a

Efficiency is not a normative term. In most usage it is actually a quantitative measurement, a car with greater efficiency gets better miles per gallon than a less efficient car. Likewise, in economics, efficiency is a quantitative term. We could take a bunch of people, arbitrarily give them a bunch of stuff, then have them exchange their stuff according to some rules (or lack of rules) for some period of time. We can then poll each person to determine whether there are any further trades that would make them better off. Efficiency then is just a measurement of how many possible trades there are remaining. Better off and worse off are to the economist just a tally of what each individual under study thinks (or more appropriately reveals) of his situation. Yes, each individual must make a normative claim, but the economist makes no such claim, he just tallies those claims.

Now, I think there is a close correlation between economic efficiency and my normative beliefs, thus I am likely to make normative claims based on economic efficiency. But more likely I'll use economic efficiency to determine not my ends but rather how well a proposed means gets me to my ends.

Brandon Berg: In fact, I

Brandon Berg: In fact, I think Scott did just this, as he said that he was not endorsing laws against suicide.

Again, this by itself does not prove that Scott regarded his claim as merely positive and not normative. All that it proves is that he's open to regarding whatever value (whether some or none) efficiency might have as trumped by the value that something else has. (Normatively, being wealthy is better than being poor. That's part of what "wealth" and "poverty" mean. But there are plenty of cases in which it may better to realize some other value, at the cost of being less wealthy, than it would be to maximize wealth. That doesn't mean that "being wealthy" is a strictly non-normative category. It just means that it's an overridable norm.)

David: Efficiency is not a normative term. In most usage it is actually a quantitative measurement, a car with greater efficiency gets better miles per gallon than a less efficient car.

This is obviously not true. Your ability to quantitatively calculate efficiency, as the term is ordinarily used, depends on you first identifying what counts as a benefit and what counts as a cost. An increase in miles per gallon, for example, only counts as an increase in efficiency because, in this case (but not in all) getting more of the dependent variable (miles traveled) for the same or less of the independent variable (gasoline burned) counts (prima facie) as a good feature for the car to have. Which is a normative judgment. (Which in turn depends on your identifying the dependent variable as a benefit, i.e., a good thing for the car to produce, and the independent variable as a cost, i.e., a bad thing for the car to demand, or something which is bad in itself and valuable only for its consequences. These are, again, normative judgments.)

There are in fact plenty of cases where efficiency involves getting less for the same or less for more (e.g. less exhaust for the same amount of gasoline, less waste heat for more revolutions of the turbine). The only thing that all of the cases of efficiency have in common with each other and not with cases of inefficiency is not any kind of quantitative positive relation, but rather the normative relation of increasing things good to have and decreasing things bad to have. The ordinary use of the term "efficiency" simply has no cash value denominated in purely quantitative terms.

Brandon Berg: If we suppose that we have a general idea of what people like and how much they like it, we can say that a particular arrangement will or will not be Kaldor-Hicks efficient. That's a positive statement, not a normative one. Yes, we take preferences into account (possibly inaccurately). But we simply consider these as positive facts.

David: Better off and worse off are to the economist just a tally of what each individual under study thinks (or more appropriately reveals) of his situation. Yes, each individual must make a normative claim, but the economist makes no such claim, he just tallies those claims.

Fine. So here's a conventional textbook definition of Pareto efficiency. (Since Kaldor-Hicks efficiency is defined in terms of Pareto efficiency, we'll leave that as a further exercise.)

(PE) A situation is Pareto efficient if and only if there are no available changes that would make at least one person better off and make nobody worse off.

Your suggestion is that we make Pareto efficiency non-normative by making "better off" and "worse off" refer to positive facts to the effect that the preferences that the people in question happen to have are satisfied or frustrated. So the more explicit definition is something more like:

(PE?) A situation is Pareto efficient if and only if there are no available changes such that (1) there is at least one person for whom the change would satisfy at least one currently unsatisfied preference, and (2) there is no one for whom the change would frustrate at least one currently satisfied preference.

Is this an accurate way of spelling out what you mean when you claim that economic efficiency, as Scott was using the term, is non-normative?