Throwing the Baby Out With the Bathwater

Don Boudreaux approvingly posts this excerpt from James Buchanan's most recent book, which rankled me unexpectedly:

If the idealistic vision of politics is accepted, if the activity does, indeed, consist in the continuing search for some 'good' that exists independently from individual value creation, there could be little justificatory argument for democratic structures. In this setting there is a necessary bias toward allowing 'experts' to lead the search. There is little room for democracy in this basically Platonic vision. If, however, transcendent values do not exist, and persons must create their own values, how can those of some persons be deemed more important than those of others? In this vision, there is a necessary initial bias toward natural equality, the setting within which Adam Smith accepted as the framework of his ideas.

Now, without having read the full context of this paragraph I can't be sure that what I'm about to say is totally fair to Buchanan, but since Don has read the context and says unambiguously that Buchanan rejects the notion that "some 'good' ... exists independently from individual value creation" (and concurs with him) I can only assume he's accurately representing Buchanan's position.

Will Wilkinson has talked a few times about what he calls "economic folk morality" -- the tendency of economists to make a conceptual slide from positive economic analysis to normative ethical arguments without actually making this transition clear, often smuggling in other premises in the process. It's often harmless (I've done it myself), but can result in some confusions, and I think the above argument by Buchanan is a good example. Treating all preferences (values) as having equal significance is fine and proper when doing a formal analysis of whether this or that state of affairs is economically efficient, but importing this assumption to the world of ethics is dubious at best, and at worst defeats the entire purpose of ethics. Here in the real world, we do in fact believe (and regularly assert) that some values are better than others, sometimes demonstrably so, and this assumes some sort of objective goodness against which things are being measured.

At this point there are some (maybe even a few posters here, possibly even Don and Buchanan) who would respond that all statements in the vein of "X is objectively better (in an ethical sense) than Y" are reducible to statements along the lines of "I prefer X to Y". My response to this line of thought is to say "careful where you point that thing." This is a scorched earth argument that ends up leaving nobody, not even the one making the argument, with anything stand on: it leaves us with no coherent way of asserting that a liberal political order that allows people to pursue their own values is any more good than, say, a totalitarian one that doesn't. We're left impotently signaling our preferences at one another with no room for critical argument.

Contra Don and Buchanan, liberalism emphatically does not and cannot rest on the rejection of a good independent of subjective valuation. I think the correct argument, liberalism's true "indispensable core," is not moral subjectivism but fallibilism -- the notion that we don't know what the good life truly is, that even if we did know we couldn't be entirely sure that we had it right, and that experts are subject to the same foibles as the rest of us. This allows us to maintain Don's conclusion that "I am as capable of choosing my values as, say, Krugman is capable of choosing his -- and I am much more capable of choosing my values than Krugman is of choosing my values" without blasting the ground out from underneath our own feet.

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If, however, transcendent

If, however, transcendent values do not exist, and persons must create their own values, how can those of some persons be deemed more important than those of others?

There's your slide.

it leaves us with no

it leaves us with no coherent way of asserting that a liberal political order that allows people to pursue their own values is any more good than, say, a totalitarian one that doesn’t. We’re left impotently signaling our preferences at one another with no room for critical argument.

---Does it? I'm not sure. We can assert that our preferences have an objective basis, without asserting that our priorities are universal priorities.

For example, I prefer System X because it produces Outcome Y and because it maximizes Value Z. Those are objective standards. But they need not be the only objective standards. My preference for System X depends on how I weigh various other values. My preference may be both objective and subjective. (objective in the sense that it is based on real, empirical evidence; subjective in the sense that the way in which I establish my priorities is necessarily unique to me)

A liberal political order is objectively better for people who prefer freedom, long-term macroeconomic growth and stability. A totalitarian regime is better for people who prefer....well, other things.

Jon, that's all true so far

Jon, that's all true so far as it goes, and operationally that's how I often argue. But it requires leaning very heavily on people's ethical intuitions to do the normative legwork for us once the objective qualities of system X have been pointed out, and completely ignores the interesting question of our reasons for valuing things.

Cornelius, the slide I actually had in mind was mixing up "value" with "good," but that sentence also merits some attention. People simply don't create their own values all the time or even most of the time (I daresay not at all, but that would likely be too strong) -- many of them are inborn and many others are picked up uncritically through cultural transmission.

completely ignores the

completely ignores the interesting question of our reasons for valuing things.

--It's certainly relevant that we value things, but is it relevant why we value them?

....having asked that, I should add that I'd like to see research explaining why humans have "altruistic" concerns. Perhaps it's an evolutionary, biological mechanism, and perhaps it's a part of the socialization process. In either event, the explanation would be natural and not a result of some transcendent moral value.

I'd say it sure is relevant,

I'd say it sure is relevant, unless you think "just because" is a satisfactory answer.

I'm as allergic to words like "transcendent" as you are, so I agree that any explanation is going to have to be naturalistic.

I’d say it sure is

I’d say it sure is relevant, unless you think “just because” is a satisfactory answer.

----Why not? Who, other than me, has the standing to decide what I ought to value or why? Perhaps I value my son's life for biologically ingrained survival reasons (which, come to think of it, may be outdated today); perhaps I do so because of the way the socialization process molded by brain; perhaps I just happen to believe that he's a solid frood and his well-being is more important than my own.

Any of those rationales can lead to the same conclusion. Is one of them an acceptable basis for a moral system, while the others are not? And if not, who gets to say so?

That's why I keep coming back to "preference". It explains morality, regardless of the genesis of the preference.

"Who, other than me, has the

"Who, other than me, has the standing to decide what I ought to value or why?"

Anyone who can make a good argument about the matter, obviously. I don't understand why you think we can rationally discuss means but are so eager to throw rational discussion overboard when it comes to ends.

Well, we can both discuss

Well, we can both discuss it, but the actual creation of my own moral values is necessarily unique to me. I may decide that my moral system is utilitarian, altruistic, completely self-interested or any combination of values and no outside agent can gainsay that. They can agree or disagree, but the system is entirely internal to me.

Outside of a transcendent moral system, it really cannot be otherwise. We can discuss with -- and possibly even persuade -- one another than our system ought to be otherwise, but even that necessitates an internal, subjective change in priorities.

"Entirely internal" to you?

"Entirely internal" to you? Only in the trivial sense that the alchemy involved happens in your brain, but I'm not sure what spatio-temporal location has to do with it.

The discussion and persuasion can only happen if we have some objective stuff to discuss and persuade about. That's really my main point: value and good are not the same thing, and it can be both sensible and correct to tell someone that they ought or ought not value something because [argument]. If we treat all preferences as equally priveleged we can't do that.