Bryan Caplan  

The Posnerian View of Human Nature

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Here's a great Posnerian sentence:

I would be inclined to search as hard as possible for nonmoral costs before concluding that morality is a major motivator of behavior, especially with regard to crimes, like tax evasion, that do not have an identifiable victim.
He continues:
In the case of many crimes, the benefits to most people of perpetrating them would be so slight (and often zero or even negative) that sanctions play only a small role in bringing about compliance; enforcement costs needn't be high in order to deter when nonenforcement benefits are low. Some examples: the demand for crack cocaine among white people (including cocaine addicts) appears to be very small. Both altruism and fear deter most people from attempting crimes of violence, quite apart from expected punishment costs. The vast majority of men do not have a sexual interest in prepubescent children. Well-to-do people often have excellent substitutes for crime: any person of means can procure legal substitutes for illegal drugs (for example, Prozac for cocaine, Valium for heroin). Fear of injury deters most people from driving recklessly or while drunk.
I've previously argued, against McCloskey, that a society made up of totally selfish agents could still be a pleasant place to live. I think Posner moderately underestimates the role of morality in daily life, but he's still a lot closer to the truth than McCloskey.

What do you say?

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Les writes:

" ... crimes, like tax evasion, that do not have an identifiable victim"

This is incorrect. When some people cheat on taxes, all honest taxpayers are victimized.

Consider Kant's categorical imperative, which states: “Hence there is only one categorical imperative and it is this: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”

So, would tax evaders be content that everyone should cheat on their taxes? I don't think so, because then tax evasion would be universal, and tax evaders would no longer profit at the expense of their fellow citizens.

So tax evasion is unethical towards the evader's fellow citizens, and is not a victimless crime.

John Jenkins writes:


Posner did not say that tax evasion is a victimless crime. He said that tax evasion did not have an identifiable victim. A person who evades taxes is not stealing, right then, from an identifiable person. There is no way to identify the victim of the crime ex ante (we don't even know who all actual tax-*payers* are until after returns are all filed).

Invoking the Kantian cant doesn't get you anywhere because one could conclude that there is an optimal level of tax evasion that is not zero that one could happily will everyone to undertake for a variety of reasons (especially given the competence of government).

Your argument is therefore (i) not with anything Posner actually said and (ii) not nearly as air tight as you think it might be.

TGGP writes:

When some people cheat on taxes, all honest taxpayers are victimized.
Viewing the state as a gang of criminals whose power is inherently inimical to their subjects, it is the taxpayers who are causing harm to those who cheat rather than the other way around! Did Henry David Thoreau victimize anyone?

So, would tax evaders be content that everyone should cheat on their taxes?
If it were possible for everyone to pay no taxes, I think that would be great. I just think like Ben Franklin that they are as inevitable as death.

Morgan writes:

Yes, a society made up entirely of selfish humans would be an extremely unpleasant place to live because humans have evolved to engage in altruistic behavior as a survival mechanism. A society of entirely selfish people would be a society of humans in an unnatural state, and therefore, unhappy.

Virtue of Selfishness nonsense aside, our society would quickly collapse if not for the altruistic actions of many. Like any philosophy, when reality interferes with theory, it is the good intentions of individuals which smooth over the rough edges and prevent catastrophe.

Think about a contract. Can it possibly include every possible contingency? Not in reality. Instead it is the good intentions of the participants which result in a successful business transaction when the unexpected almost inevitably occurs.

ed writes:

In a sense, legal taxpayers are equally "victimized" when I take perfectly legal actions to shelter my income from taxes.

stan writes:

Selfishness, as defined by many people, and apparently Morgan, does not exist.

Floccina writes:

Division of labor means that helping others survive helps me.

An example:
If I lived on a remote small island not severely constrained by resources, it would clearly be a negative for everyone on the island if the one baker or miller or smith etc. died or left. The world is not so resource constrained that we do not net benefit from one another. No man is a rock economically.

8 writes:

It is a sign of the times that so many confuse morality with the law. Exhibit A,B, and C are Bill Clinton, Enron, and George Bush. All claimed to be following the law and all acted immorally. (Perjury, stealing, and torture all explained with legal defenses.)

A totally selfish society would not function. Punishment only catches a small amount of cheaters. We are given many chances to cheat undetected as well. In a totally selfish society, we would spend vast resources to detect all amounts of cheating or we would simply reduce our trade and interaction.

Also, why do you assume there will be justice in a selfish society? It would probably resemble the criminal world. The rules against murder in the mafia, for instance, are far more lax than in moral society. You might protect your wife or daughter from being raped, but you'd do nothing to help a stranger. You might not like slavery, but you wouldn't lift a finger to stop your neighbor from keeping them. The strong would dominate the weak, as occured for most of human history.

Mason writes:

I thought there were no purely alturistic acts. If I give you money it's because I want to give you money, it makes me feel good, I'm selfish.

PS I'm looking for feed back on Global Warming bet (is there a flaw in its construction?) posted here

Scott Scheule writes:

Prozac a substitute for cocaine? Posner's either got lousy coke or FANTASTIC Prozac.

Troy Camplin writes:

And then there is Marc Hauser's argument from "Moral Minds" that morality is innate. Of course, it is like any other instinct in that it can be trained, or undermined to some degree. That's why ethical education while young is important. It's like language -- we are born with the instinct to speak, but without speakers around, your language abilities won't develop.

Bill Stepp writes:

Tax evasion is victimless; indeed taxation is a crime against taxpayers by the criminal gang known as the State. Taxation is involuntary servitude.

Regarding human behavior/action, the selfishness angle is irrelevant. All action, including altruistic action, is self-interested, meaning it arises from the acting agent's own value scales.
Rand didn't get this because she was more of less ignorant of economics.

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