Robin Hanson: Not Enough Nazis

Finally, a principled utilitarian.

In a recent debate with Robin Hanson, Bryan Caplan said:

...Robin endorses an endless list of bizarre moral claims. For example, he recently told me that "the main problem" with the Holocaust was that there weren't enough Nazis! After all, if there had been six trillion Nazis willing to pay $1 each to make the Holocaust happen, and a mere six million Jews willing to pay $100,000 each to prevent it, the Holocaust would have generated $5.4 trillion worth of consumers surplus.

Let's consider another example. Suppose the only people in the world are Hannibal the millionaire, a slave trader, and 10,000 penniless orphan slaves. The slave trader has no direct use for his slaves, but likes money; Hannibal, on the other hand, is a ravenous cannibal. According to Robin, the "optimal outcome" is for Hannibal to get all 10,000 orphans and eat them.

In his review of the the debate Caplan confirmed:

I suspect that many attendees saw these examples as "cheap shots." But when I pressed Robin, he predictably bit both bullets.

...meaning, I take it, that Hanson conceded these are in fact his views and not exaggerations.

In a related post at Overcoming Bias, Hanson approvingly quotes Scott Sumner:

One of the most common strategies of the anti-utilitarian position is to assume some societal set-up which shocks our sensibilities, and then assume that it would satisfy the utilitarian criterion of maximizing aggregate happiness. Thus we might be asked to imagine a scenario where the total pleasures of the slave-owner exceed the suffering of the slaves ... Bryan has an even more shocking example where the benefits to Nazi’s from the Holocaust exceeded the suffering to the Jews. ... At the end of these thought experiments we are told that unless we are willing to embrace the society envisioned in the thought experiment, we must, on logical grounds, give up on utilitarianism.

I have several interrelated objections to this style of philosophical inquiry. I’d like to start with Richard Rorty’s assertion that the narrative arts (novels and film) produce liberal values. ... So if Rorty is correct, how do we know that slavery was so awful? Because we have been exposed to accounts of slavery in the arts which vividly showed how the suffering of slaves was immeasurably greater that the frivolous pleasures of the slave-owner. Can we then turn around and use an imaginary slave-owning society that passes the utilitarian test as an argument against utilitarianism? I’m not sure that we can, unless one can show that our initial visceral reaction against slavery is based on non-utilitarian grounds, i.e. based on some abstract philosophical principle. And that’s much harder than many people might imagine.

Hanson says "This seems to me a powerful argument" and "The argument, I think, is more that we overgeneralize from the stories where we first picked up our morals. For example, we first hear stories where slave owners gain less than slaves lose, and then come to see all slavery as bad."

The argument is that slavery gets a bum rap due to bad publicity: OF COURSE people are going to think slavery is bad when that's the moral of so many stories they hear!

It seems clear that Hanson sees no fundamental difference between a preference for vanilla ice cream and preferences for slavery, cannibalism, torture and genocide. All that matters is how much you will pay for your preferences and how much others will pay for theirs.

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Undermining from within

Robin Hanson appears to be undermining utilitarianism from within (inadvertently, presumably). I wish him the best of luck.

While I disagree with his hypothesis (that morality comes from stories) on various grounds, I agree with the idea that a naturalistic account (e.g. psychological, biological, evolutionary, game-theoretic) is possible of why our moral views are the way they are. I just think he's way, way off base on the particular explanation.

To be fair I wouldn't construe that as Hanson's hypothesis

To say one thinks an argument is powerful is not to say one is persuaded by it, it says one thinks the argument must be dealt with.

Curious as to why this post isn't in the Community feed

I'm wondering why this blog entry didn't make it into the Community feed while my next post did. Are the entries for the community feed individually selected by an editor?

Okay, I'm confused.

Earlier I was seeing my "The Blind Leading the Rationally Irrational" post in the Community feed but not, my "Robin Hanson: Not Enough Nazis" post.

Now that situation is reversed, I see the latter in the Community feed but not the former.

Sometimes feeds lag the blogs

Best to let some time go by before drawing conclusions. The current situation seems right, considering that one was tranferred to the main page.

Gotta know

Best to let some time go by before drawing conclusions.

But is a kiss sill a kiss? And a sigh still a sigh? And do the fundamental things apply?

Oh.

Now I see that my first post is in the Community feed and the second is in the Catallarchy feed.

Are the Catallarchy posts selected individually by an editor from the Community feed?

(I would have emailed these questions to an editor or webmaster if I saw one listed.)

Yes

Yes, a human editor selects.

Got it.

Thanks.

Utilitarianism vs. Autonomy

Each of the hypotheticals discusses how much one person would be willing to pay to exercise control over some other person. The hypotheticals lead to unappealing results, presumably discrediting utilitarianism. But what if you modify the hypotheticals in one fashion: the payments are offered to the person to be controlled? If the Nazis offer $1 trillion to 7 million Jews in exchange for their lives, and the 7 million Jews find these terms agreeable (because they wish to leave large inheritances to others, say, or because they want to drain the Nazis of $1 trillion), is utilitarianism now discredited?

Now return to the original hypothetical, but in this guise: Just before the deal is consummated, the 1 trillion Nazis announce that they’re reneging and will simply take the lives of the 7 million Jews by force. Does the horror of this hypothetical illustrate something bad about utilitarianism – or about theft and murder?

Ironically, while Friedrich Nietzsche decried utilitarianism, he acknowledged that individuals exercising a “will to power” would come into conflict, and that the more willful would tend to prevail. This looks a bit like inter-subjective utility optimization.

Now return to the original

Now return to the original hypothetical, but in this guise: Just before the deal is consummated, the 1 trillion Nazis announce that they’re reneging and will simply take the lives of the 7 million Jews by force. Does the horror of this hypothetical illustrate something bad about utilitarianism – or about theft and murder?

Both.

You've illustrated that if you add the constraint of the nonaggression principle (in the form of obtaining consent from all parties before acting), then rights are no longer violated, and if you take away that constraint, then rights can be once again violated.

The deontological principle of nonaggression wins this round, and utilitarianism is exposed as irrelevant or worse.

The role of consent in utility and autonomy

You've illustrated that if you add the constraint of the nonaggression principle (in the form of obtaining consent from all parties before acting), then rights are no longer violated, and if you take away that constraint, then rights can be once again violated.

The deontological principle of nonaggression wins this round, and utilitarianism is exposed as irrelevant or worse.

Why do we value consent? Utilitarians value it because it signals that a transaction actually increases social utility. But libertarians might also value it as a means of ensuring autonomy. But autonomy relative to what?

Let’s go to the classic hypothetical of the one lone Nazi monopolizing all the food. He derives so much pleasure watching the rest of the world starve that he will not engage in any trading. In other words, if there is any sense of the concept of inter-subjective utility, this is a formula for minimizing it. But any effort to arrive at another outcome would require violating the non-aggression/autonomy principle.

Can I find, finally, a principled libertarian who will advocate letting 7 million Jews, 10,000 orphans, one slave trader, on cannibal, and untold numbers of Jewish orphans (whether or not they’re also slave traders or cannibals) die as a result of a Nazi plot? And if I can, by what standard should I find libertarianism more appealing that utilitarianism?

Why do we value consent?

Why do we value consent? Utilitarians value it because it signals that a transaction actually increases social utility.

How about dropping the useless and meaningless talk of "social utility" and sticking with consent as your core principle? What does utilitarianism buy you that wasn't already obtained with voluntarism? Consent is real: you can see when a person has consented and when they have not. But utility - you can't see it, you can only imagine it. Granted, revealed preference can indeed be seen (we can see people make choices), and in that limited sense utility can be seen, but it is a restricted kind of utility. It is not "social utility". It is not even cardinal but ordinal.

Let’s go to the classic hypothetical of the one lone Nazi monopolizing all the food. He derives so much pleasure watching the rest of the world starve that he will not engage in any trading. In other words, if there is any sense of the concept of inter-subjective utility, this is a formula for minimizing it.

You seem to have described a case where "inter-subjective utility" is maximized, not minimized. A more classic case is that of the "utility monster" - which you may have intended to describe (you write, "he derives so much pleasure"). This is a problem for utilitarians.

It may also be a problem for "consent" deontology, but if so then it merely places it on the same footing as utilitarianism. I'll modify your example so that it favors utilitarianism: suppose that the Nazi food monopolist does not derive very much pleasure from keeping the food to himself but refuses to sell because he derives even less pleasure from anything else. If his food were stolen then he would be mildly annoyed.

In that case, utilitarianism recommends the food be stolen and "consent" deontology arguably recommends the food not be stolen.

My problem with this is that this hypothetical was concocted to favor utilitarianism by adjusting the degree of pleasure. It would be easy to construct a hypothetical adjusted to make things go the other way, favoring "consent" deontology over utilitarianism. So this class of hypothetical is a wash.

But any effort to arrive at another outcome would require violating the non-aggression/autonomy principle.

As you describe it, it would also seem to violate utilitarianism. I've "fixed" your example so that it favors utilitarianism, but I've also pointed out that I could easily "fix" it so it goes the other way, favoring "consent" deontology. So this class of example doesn't decide between utilitarianism and "consent" deontology.

Can I find, finally, a principled libertarian who will advocate letting 7 million Jews, 10,000 orphans, one slave trader, on cannibal, and untold numbers of Jewish orphans (whether or not they’re also slave traders or cannibals) die as a result of a Nazi plot? And if I can, by what standard should I find libertarianism more appealing that utilitarianism?

Libertarianism does not compete with utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a philosophy of morality which attempts to ground morality, providing it with a philosophically valid foundation, and which therefore is badly damaged when it is demonstrated to be useless or worse even in wildly unrealistic hypothetical scenarios. Libertarianism is a political philosophy that advocates substantial policy reforms in the real world, and therefore deals with the real world and with realistic scenarios. Some libertarians are utilitarians. The failure of "nonaggression" deontology to produce intuitively moral results in certain artificially constructed hypotheticals is not a problem for libertarianism as such, though admittedly it may be a problem for those libertarians who have attempted to ground their libertarianism in "nonaggression" deontology.

In real-world cases, "nonaggression" deontology gets things right, and therefore can be used as a super-reliable rule of thumb. In real-world cases, (a) it is not at all clear what utilitarianism even recommends, in part because utility is invisible (i.e., utility of the sort needed by utilitarians), and (b) a lot of utilitarians end up advocating wildly socialistic policies. Utilitarian libertarians have their work cut out for them attempting to explain the basics of economics to socialist utilitarians. "Nonaggression" deontology is, if nothing else, a wonderful, time-saving shortcut that immediately yields the conclusions that the wisest and most intelligent and knowledgeable utilitarians struggle mightily to rediscover for themselves, forced as they are to wade not only through the ins and outs of economics but also through the fundamental deficiencies of utilitarianism itself - e.g. the epiphenomenality of the kind of utility that is required by utilitarians. The superiority of utilitarianism to "consent" deontology in some (by no means all) artificially constructed scenarios which have been deliberatedly adjusted to favor utilitarianism, is easily trumped by the superiority of "consent" deontology to utilitarianism in real-world scenarios.

What does utilitarianism buy you?

How about dropping the useless and meaningless talk of "social utility" and sticking with consent as your core principle? What does utilitarianism buy you that wasn't already obtained with voluntarism...?

* * *

[U]tilitarianism recommends the food be stolen and "consent" deontology arguably recommends the food not be stolen.

What does utilitarianism buy me? Only the lives of 7 million Jews, 10,000 orphans, a cannibal and a slave-trader. In contrast, consent dooms these people to starvation. (Well, all except the cannibal.) Some people would regard this as a relevant point of distinction.

Are these hypotheticals too hypothetical? Recall that the problem arises when the Nazi monopolizes the food supply – an arguable violation of antitrust laws. Utilitarianism provides a rationale for antitrust laws. Does consent?

Admittedly, utilitarianism lacks precision; it appeals to a concept that is difficult to measure, and therefore anyone can appeal to it as grounds for supporting any result. That fact does not lead me to conclude that we should leave to fate those 7 million Jews, 10,000 orphans, one cannibal and one ... um ... one .... Hello, slave-trader? Hey, has anyone seen slave-trader?

Oh. Well ... oh well. But from now on, I want some of you Jews to keep an eye on the cannibal, ok?

No it does not

What does utilitarianism buy me? Only the lives of 7 million Jews, 10,000 orphans, a cannibal and a slave-trader. In contrast, consent dooms these people to starvation.

In one hypothetical, and in another it dooms all of them, as I already explained. So that class of hypothetical is a wash. It does not favor utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism provides a rationale for antitrust laws. Does consent?

So much the worse for utilitarianism. Anti-trust in reality is different from anti-trust in theory, and laissez-faire is the superior policy. A case in point is Standard Oil. I don't have good references at hand on Standard Oil, but just to give you a flavor of my view, this page seems to have a similar view of it. From the page:

What about Rockefeller's Standard Oil?

Standard Oil was punished for dropping the price of oil more then half, by buying up competitors in order to gain greater economies of scale -- as their market grew they were able to achieve greater economies of scale, and thus lower their production costs, and thus lower their prices, while increasing their profits. Of course, by taking over inefficient refineries and charging lower prices, their inefficient competitors were unable to compete successfully (i.e., they were free to enter the market and compete, but because they were not as productive they could not 'win'), and so under antitrust 'Standard Oil' was punished for being too successful.

Writes Dominick Armentano [professor of economics at the University of Hartford],

The little-known truth is that when the government took Standard Oil to court in 1907, Standard Oil's market share had been declining for a decade. Far from being a "monopoly," Standard's share of petroleum refining was approximately 64% at the time of trial. Moreover, there were at least 147 other domestic oil-refining competitors in the market — and some of these were large, vertically integrated firms such as Texaco, Gulf Oil, and Sun. Kerosene outputs had expanded enormously (contrary to usual monopolistic conduct); and prices for kerosene had fallen from more than $2 per gallon in the early 1860s to approximately six cents per gallon at the time of the trial. So much for the myth of the Standard Oil "monopoly."

This page has a longer account, and also gives an account of several other cases of antitrust action.

Real-world problems of utilitarianism, consent

What does utilitarianism buy me? Only the lives of 7 million Jews, 10,000 orphans, a cannibal and a slave-trader. In contrast, consent dooms these people to starvation.

In one hypothetical, and in another it dooms all of them, as I already explained. So that class of hypothetical is a wash. It does not favor utilitarianism.

Ok, I get it now.

To be sure, precisely because we can’t directly measure utility, in practice utilitarianism becomes the philosophical underpinnings of simple compassion. “I think the world would be better if government did X, and here’s a philosophy to justify compelling you to cooperate.” Socialistic, if you will.

This gives me a new appreciation for the theorist/consequentialist debate. Most of the criticisms I encounter about socialism is that it leads in sub-optimal results – that is, that it fails to maximize social utility. Indeed, the very definition of a good “consequence” for a policy seems to be synonymous with the idea of an outcome that optimizes social utility.

Utilitarianism provides a rationale for antitrust laws. Does consent?

So much the worse for utilitarianism. Anti-trust in reality is different from anti-trust in theory, and laissez-faire is the superior policy.

Interesting. I often encounter people who criticize unionization on the grounds that it permits employees to band together to engage in a price-fixing conspiracy while prohibiting employers from doing the same. I rarely encounter people who argue for legalizing price-fixing.

The superiority of utilitarianism to "consent" deontology in some (by no means all) artificially constructed scenarios which have been deliberatedly adjusted to favor utilitarianism, is easily trumped by the superiority of "consent" deontology to utilitarianism in real-world scenarios.

Does that remark strike anyone else as curious?

On the one hand we have the subject of this thread, utilitarianism, which is criticized because, at least conceptually, it would permit some person or group with has an especially great capacity to experience utility to wield dictatorial power. On the scale of hypothetical-to-practical concerns, I have difficulty thinking of a more hypothetical one than this.

On the other hand we have consent, which prohibits any (non-contractual) regulation. On the scale of hypothetical-to-practical concerns, I have difficulty thinking of a more practical one than this. No recourse against the guy upstream who uses everyone’s water supply as a sewer for his livestock, or at least threatens to, except to pay extortion money? Or does the definition of consent involve an elaborate and ever-evolving concept of private property rights (including limitations on externalities, control of intellectual property, etc.) that are both established and enforced non-consensually?

I have relatives in Europe who indeed challenge the wisdom (and expense) of varies policies adopted with the purported aim of promoting the greatest good for the greatest number. I am also aware of places in this real world in which there is no effective enforcement of regulation of any kind. There is no question in my mind which part of our real world I’d rather live in. If we’re interested in real-world scenarios, that is.

Cartels

I often encounter people who criticize unionization on the grounds that it permits employees to band together to engage in a price-fixing conspiracy while prohibiting employers from doing the same. I rarely encounter people who argue for legalizing price-fixing.

I don't know who you're talking to, but quite a lot of libertarians will tell you that neither unions nor price-fixing cartels should be made illegal. I'm one of those. If unions and price-fixing cartels are harmful (as I believe they can be), the market is such that their very harmfulness is their own undoing. See for example the collapse of the American auto makers - they have collapsed under the weight of their unions, thanks to the market - specifically, thanks to their mostly Asian competitors, who have taken away their customers. We don't need the government to make unions illegal, because if unions cause harm then they will be destroyed by that.

However, government often intervenes into the economy to prop up economic failures. This acts against the healthy, curative effect of the market. For example, the government has acted to prop up the failed American auto makers. Laissez-faire dictates that the government leave economic failures alone to fail.

No recourse against the guy upstream who uses everyone’s water supply as a sewer for his livestock, or at least threatens to, except to pay extortion money?

This can be settled with property rights.

Or does the definition of consent involve an elaborate and ever-evolving concept of private property rights (including limitations on externalities, control of intellectual property, etc.) that are both established and enforced non-consensually?

In the anarcho-capitalist model even law evolves consensually.

I don't know who you're

I don't know who you're talking to, but quite a lot of libertarians will tell you that neither unions nor price-fixing cartels should be made illegal.

Indeed,
http://herve.dequengo.free.fr/Molinari/SRSL/SRSL_6.htm

(sorry no English translation ^^, bug Roderick T Long to finish his,
http://praxeology.net/GM-RSL.htm)

Consensual property rights

In the anarcho-capitalist model even law evolves consensually.

Ok, thus far I've succeeded in avoiding reading much about anarcho-capitalism, but I fear my luck is running out. How can private property rights be created and enforced, and externalities controlled, consensually? I think of private property rights as rights I hold against the world (as contrasted with contractual rights, which are rights I have relative to a contracting party). How could I ever hope to secure the consent of everyone in the world? I suspect I'm gonna need to understand this better before I can hope to understand other parts of this discussion.

It may not be that important

thus far I've succeeded in avoiding reading much about anarcho-capitalism

I don't know how many libertarians go for a-c, so as far as addressing most libertarians it may not be important. I brought it up because it seemed an opportune context to mention it.

You only need other people

You only need other people consent to make use of their property. If you acquire an unowned property, you do not need anybody's consent.

Market Anarchism (anarcho-capitalism)

I was defending regimes which defend negative rights only relative to more coercive utilitarian regimes. I prefer anarcho-captialism. I think the name market anarchism is slightly better but the literature has mostly used the term anarcho-capitalism.

Anarcho-captalism is not any sort of negative rights protecting system, except in effect. You may have a negative moral claim against the world but there is no party responsible for upholding or vindicating that claim. A-C simply relies on the natural observable properties of markets. The theory is essentially that unfettered markets will tend to produce liberty and justice because liberty and justice are efficient.

The best book for understanding the theory of how this could work may be David Friedman's _The Machinery Of Freedom_. Short of that, his web site has a significant amount of supporting material. For instance:

http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Anarchy_and_Eff_Law/Anarchy_and_Eff_Law.html

Getting down to real world cases.

nobody.really writes:

On the one hand we have the subject of this thread, utilitarianism, which is criticized because, at least conceptually, it would permit some person or group with has an especially great capacity to experience utility to wield dictatorial power. On the scale of hypothetical-to-practical concerns, I have difficulty thinking of a more hypothetical one than this.

Let's step back from gruesome hypotheticals for now then and look at at actual governments. Do governments tend to behave better when they are attempting to respect individual rights or when they are attempting to maximize social utility?

Governments have produced far more gruesome real world results while attempting to do the latter than while attempting to do the former. The worst slaughterhouse regimes of the 20th century were all based on theories of maximizing utility while the best were generally based more on theories of negative rights.

Libertarianism

Utilitarianism is a philosophy of morality which attempts to ground morality, providing it with a philosophically valid foundation, and which therefore is badly damaged when it is demonstrated to be useless or worse even in wildly unrealistic hypothetical scenarios.Libertarianism is a political philosophy that advocates substantial policy reforms ...

I think Hanson qualifies as a principled libertarian so he fits nobody.really's criteria:

Can I find, finally, a principled libertarian who will advocate letting 7 million Jews, 10,000 orphans, one slave trader, on cannibal, and untold numbers of Jewish orphans (whether or not they’re also slave traders or cannibals) die as a result of a Nazi plot? And if I can, by what standard should I find libertarianism more appealing that utilitarianism?

You can apparently find that guy at Robin Hanson's house, but rejecting his reasoning doesn't mean rejecting all strains of libertarianism.

Libertarianism is far from monolithic, it's a collection of political philosophies.

Couldn't have said it better myself

The worst slaughterhouse regimes of the 20th century were all based on theories of maximizing utility while the best were generally based more on theories of negative rights.

And that’s a fine articulation of the difference between utilitarianism and negative rights.

Sure enough, many, many people have died due to regimes and their theories. Bad, bad, bad. And indeed, utilitarians regard them as bad. Utilitarianism can be badly implemented – as can any philosophy, I surmise. Except perhaps a philosophy of negative rights, because it requires no implementation. A perfect philosophy!

Now, how many people have died due to poor quality drinking water, bad sanitation, bad public health, uncontrolled disease, inadequate maternal care, ineffective disaster relief? Indeed, if you believe the forecasts, how many will die due to global warming?

The Holocaust may have killed as many as 21 million. Bubonic plague killed 200 million.

Yet, because those plague deaths were not the result of government action, you attribute no weight to them. You gaze upon those 200 million deaths with blithe indifference. Utilitarians don’t.

Read Guns, Germs, Steel: Huge numbers of human plagues arise simply from domesticating animals. Now, doubtless somebody on this list will argue that animal domestication only arose due to proto-governmental interference with private transactions, or the failure to defined and enforced property rights consensually. Yet when I think about the relative lack of plague currently sweeping the world, and this bizarrely long life expectancy that we’re currently being subjected to, I can’t help but ponder if these phenomena are somehow related to all those nasty, intrusive governments trying to increase people’s utility.

I envy you; I really do. If our kids were both dying of cholera, you’d be able to console yourself with the knowledge that they were at least able to elude the designs of all those meddlesome government agents who were trying to save them, thereby freeing themselves to die of a nice, natural cause. We utilitarians are denied such solace.

Not so

Except perhaps a philosophy of negative rights, because it requires no implementation.

Not so. As JTK pointed out:

The worst slaughterhouse regimes of the 20th century were all based on theories of maximizing utility while the best were generally based more on theories of negative rights.

This statement refers to actual regimes, and therefore to implementation of a philosophy of negative rights.

You gaze upon those 200 million deaths with blithe indifference.

A false charge which doesn't even deserve a response, and moreover a change of subject. As JTK pointed out:

The worst slaughterhouse regimes of the 20th century were all based on theories of maximizing utility while the best were generally based more on theories of negative rights.

That is a statement about actual results. You are making (false) claims about intentions, about what people supposedly are or are not indifferent to. You are engaging in a (bad) bit of mind-reading, while JTK is pointing out the observable consequences.

Yet when I think about the relative lack of plague currently sweeping the world, and this bizarrely long life expectancy that we’re currently being subjected to, I can’t help but ponder if these phenomena are somehow related to all those nasty, intrusive governments trying to increase people’s utility.

You are simply taking the complex whole of the world, with its multiple parts, and singling out the part that you like to give credit for the good that has happened. Anybody can do that and it proves nothing. I think it is possible to do better than that.

If our kids were both dying of cholera, you’d be able to console yourself with the knowledge that they were at least able to elude the designs of all those meddlesome government agents who were trying to save them, thereby freeing themselves to die of a nice, natural cause.

That's a load of bullshit which doesn't deserve a response. It reveals how sloppy your thinking must be (if you actually buy it yourself), and it's moreover an attempt to bully your opponent with (stupid) claims about his character.

Let me rephrase....

Ok, let’s settle down. Myself especially.

Admittedly, that last post got more combative than my ususal. Let me state unequivocally that nothing jkt3 said provoked that tone. Rather, I always draft that way when I’m on coffee; I tone it down later. But this time I had to run. And since I was posting to a thread discussing Jews, Nazis, orphans, slave traders and cannibals, I figured I couldn’t really do any additional harm tone-wise. Anyway, I certainly didn’t mean to express such venom toward jkt3 in particular, and I’m sorry if jkt3 (and everyone else) might have drawn that conclusion.

Yet when I think about the relative lack of plague currently sweeping the world, and this bizarrely long life expectancy that we’re currently being subjected to, I can’t help but ponder if these phenomena are somehow related to all those nasty, intrusive governments trying to increase people’s utility.
You are simply taking the complex whole of the world, with its multiple parts, and singling out the part that you like to give credit for the good that has happened. Anybody can do that and it proves nothing.

Great. Please explain how protection of negative property rights stopped the spread of polio and smallpox, and how it keeps people from continuing the age-old practice of dumping sewage in the river.

Here’s the issue: What outcomes do we value, and what do we believe about the causes of those outcomes?

Libertarians obsess about the harm of government – and not without justification. But in that obsession, they can sometime be reluctant to acknowledge that there might be other sources of problems in the world as well. A laissez-faire government may be great for keeping your taxes low, but would presumably not be so good for dealing with natural disasters. After all, is a plague or earthquake caused by human fraud or coercion? If not, then no problem, right?

Therefore when jtk3 poses a question comparing laissez faire government to utility optimization government solely on the basis of the number of people killed, he draws a correct conclusion. Utility optimizing governments are activist governments; they kill people. But they also SAVE people from things like disease and natural disasters that laissez faire governments presumably wouldn’t. And throughout history disease, natural disasters, and even avoidable accidents have been bigger killers than governments. If you only look at the harm associated with government action, and not also at the harm assoiciated with a LACK of government action, then you’re only evaluating half the equation.

But, as constant observes, there’s no way to PROVE that government intervention improves health outcomes. How can anyone demonstrate the cause of the disease that does NOT arise, the death that does NOT occur? In contrast, it’s relatively easy to show the deaths resulting from people in uniforms shooting each other. (Ok, I guess I could say that we shouldn’t judge Nazis harshly because, after all, there’s no way to prove that those Jews wouldn’t have dropped dead anyway. But let’s just skip it.)

Suffice it to say that I believe that public health programs – often mandated (as with inoculations and fluoridated water supply) and paid for by taxes imposed and enforced non-consensually – have improved public health outcomes. But, to be sure, no one can ever prove the cause for the death that doesn’t happen. So if you want to deny that government intervention has had any role in improved public health outcomes, hey, suit yourself.

Tone doesn't interest me

I don't take offense even when it's intended. I'm not saying it was.
I don't care.

Great. Please explain how protection of negative property rights stopped the spread of polio and smallpox, and how it keeps people from continuing the age-old practice of dumping sewage in the river.

A fair question would be how could protection of negative property rights solve the problem. Privatizing the river springs immediately to mind.

Of water, disease, and other thing that don't respect borders

Please explain how protection of negative property rights stopped the spread of polio and smallpox, and how it keeps people from continuing the age-old practice of dumping sewage in the river.

A fair question would be how could protection of negative property rights solve the problem. Privatizing the river springs immediately to mind.

Exactly; that’s the standard answer to the Tragedy of the Commons problem.

But, as I’ve been discussing with Constant, HOW does a consent-based system do that? By what authority could anyone claim to bestow ownership over a river – especially a river which has historically been used (translates to "in which every member of the public would claim a property right to use") as a public sewer?

Allocating water rights is a gargantuan challenge even within a world with coercive governments. Riparian rights, water easements and trespass, surface water depletion and contamination; aquifer depletion and contamination, pollution control and Maximum Daily Loadings, fish population management, storm water management, choices to dam, choices to release water from the dam ... it’s hugely complicated. So the suggestion that such rights could be resolved consensually among the limitless pool of people who might claim the right to use the river in this fashion strikes me as a bit naive.

Now back to disease. As I understand it, “negative property rights” refers to the right to be left alone, unmolested by any other person’s coersion or fraud. Which is great. But if you’re not being left alone by the disease-bearing rats, are you supposed to bring a lawsuit against the rats for coersion?

Or what if the disease isn’t coming from rats? What if it’s a communicable disease coming from your neighbor. (Don’t worry. He doesn’t suffer from the disease; he’s merely a carrier). By what authority could anyone tell the neighbor that he must accept a shot to cure the disease, or go into quarantine? It’s a perfectly natural disease, after all, and there’s no evidence that he contracted it intentionally. Surely his right to live unmolested with bodily integrity trumps all other concerns?

Or what if the neighbor is wiling to accept treatment – if you’re willing to pay him enough? Oh, and there’s a nosy reporter hanging around prepared to report any settlement you reach with your neighbor; legions of other disease carriers are preparing to drop by in an effort to secure a similar deal, as soon as they know how much you’re willing to pay.

Or what if there is no treatment? Finding the treatment will be expensive. Everyone in the neighborhood would benefit from finding this cure – but they also know that you live closest to the neighbor, and so they figure if they hold out long enough you’ll foot the bill for the research yourself.

Face it – negative property rights are a great way to handle problems that arise from another person’s actions. But they’re not such a great tool for handling problems that come from another person’s inaction, or from non-persons.

I don’t doubt that somebody somewhere might devise a theoretical means of dealing with these problems consensually. But I bet those negotiations would be greatly facilitated if everyone knew that a coercive solution would be imposed if no consensus is reached.

Privatization

Lockean homesteading would be a good way to privatize a river just discovered.

Of course you can't go from the current situation to privatization by consent because there is no fair way to divvy up loot among the members of a collective.

I don't much care how it is privatized, it would be a great improvement to simply make it the private property of Barack Obama.

If you want to pursue some sort of buy-in from the population at large then give every individual in the world an equal share and let people buy and sell shares.

Now back to disease. As I understand it, “negative property rights” refers to the right to be left alone, unmolested by any other person’s coersion or fraud. Which is great. But if you’re not being left alone by the disease-bearing rats, are you supposed to bring a lawsuit against the rats for coersion?

No, rats can't violate rights. The rats are simply your problem like the weather.

By what authority could anyone tell the neighbor that he must accept a shot to cure the disease, or go into quarantine?

None.

It’s a perfectly natural disease, after all, and there’s no evidence that he contracted it intentionally. Surely his right to live unmolested with bodily integrity trumps all other concerns?

Sure, on his property and the property of those who consent to have him.

Or what if the neighbor is wiling to accept treatment – if you’re willing to pay him enough?

If we like, fine.

Oh, and there’s a nosy reporter hanging around prepared to report any settlement you reach with your neighbor; legions of other disease carriers are preparing to drop by in an effort to secure a similar deal, as soon as they know how much you’re willing to pay.

I don't have legions of neighbors. Intentionally.

I can't imagine why you think private property owners would not have the means to arrange their own survival.

You think so many died from plague...

...as a result of an unwillingness to violate rights?

It seems to me that people in the countries where negative rights are best defended have tended to be very healthy by world and historical standards. Free markets are far more conducive to health than forcefully imposed utilitarian schemes.

All right, then!

Then perhaps we’ve simply misunderstood each other. If the policies of the nations that produce the best health outcomes do not offend your concept of “free markets” or represent “forcefully impose[d] utilitarian schemes,” then I won’t gainsay you. You can praise those policies for defending negative rights, I can praise them for promoting social utility, you say potAto, I say patAHto. We'll ultimately cast very similar votes.

I thought I was offering a utilitarian argument to a utilitarian

I was arguing that coercive utilitarian states are inferior to states which tend to protect negative rights - on utilitarian grounds.

I don't prefer markets primarily because they tend to strongly outperform alternatives, but utilitarians should.

And to be clear I think that markets are the reason people tend to be healthier under regimes which tend to protect negative rights. I suspect you think it is non-market interventions. That would not explain the observation that freer markets coincide with healthier populations.

More on utility vs. negative rights

I was arguing that coercive utilitarian states are inferior to states which tend to protect negative rights - on utilitarian grounds.

I don't prefer markets primarily because they tend to strongly outperform alternatives, but utilitarians should.

This is akin to the classic statement, “People who believe that the ends justify the means always come to bad ends.” Perhaps there’s some empirical support for this idea. But perhaps not. Perhaps we just have evidence that a lot of people are insincere about the principles by which they profess to live.

Thus far you haven’t actually asserted that states that tend to protect negative rights are utility-maximizing – but you haven’t denied it, either. So let’s consider both options.

1. Assuming that such states are utility-maximizing, do you then have any objection to utility maximization? It seems to me that you only have an objection to misguided efforts at utility maximization. And hey, me too, just as I have an objection to misguided efforts at negative rights enforcement.

2. Assuming that such states are NOT utility maximizing, then how would you compare a state that adopted policies that maximized social utility to at state that adopted policies that left people on average with greater problems, but at least those problems were not (easily) blamed on government? Which state would be preferable, and on what grounds do you base your preference?

(Compare: Joe is angry at his secretary for not getting him out of that meeting in Chicago; she knows he has a phobia about crashes. So he barks at her to make his travel arrangements. Should she make flight reservations, knowing that flying is the safest form of travel? Or should she reserve a car, knowing that driving gives Joe a sense of control -- and therefore safety -- even if it’s illusory? That is, does she best serve him by faithfully minimizing his risk, or minimizing the complaints she must endure about his risk?)

Where in the world...?

I think that markets are the reason people tend to be healthier under regimes which tend to protect negative rights. I suspect you think it is non-market interventions. That would not explain the observation that freer markets coincide with healthier populations.

Yeah, I get that.

So, just to be clear, where do you believe we would find the healthiest populations?

Glad THAT's cleared up

I don't take offense even when it's intended. I'm not saying it was.
I don't care.

Thanks for being such an understanding cock-sucker.

Sorry for Late Response

Sorry for not responding earlier, I just came across this post. Google alerts failed me here it seems. Regarding "Hanson sees no fundamental difference between", almost any two things are different in some says; tell me what fundamental difference you see, and then maybe I can tell you if I agree that difference is there. I certainly don't agree slavery is always bad. It would be a reasonable outcome of a private law contract, for example; prison is in essence slavery.