David R. Henderson  

Levatter and Brennan Converge

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My friend Ross Levatter, whose article I lauded in my previous post, often makes fun of me for being so optimistic. By the way, as I told him recently, the best argument I've ever seen against my optimism was this one, from commenter Bob Lince on a previous post on this issue:

The famous movie director Billy Wilder was an Austrian Jew who worked as a newspaperman in Germany before the rise of National Socialism led to his emigration to the U.S. In 1945 he returned to Germany with the U.S. Army in order to supervise the German production of a film on concentration camps.

Wilder's mother, grandmother, and other family members died in the camps. He is quoted (in a book reviewed here: http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?type=&id=434&fulltext=1&media=#article-text-cutpoint) as somberly remarking:

"You've got optimists and pessimists. The first died in the gas chambers. The others have swimming pools in Beverly Hills."

It's my guess there is no correct solution to the "half-full glass" problem.


What's this have to do with the current issue? Well, yet again, I see the glass as being half full. At the end of yesterday's post, I challenged Jason Brennan as follows:
I think it is now up to Brennan to explain why he thinks his thought experiment is about economics at all.

And, guess what? Jason has explained. He writes:
You're right that the issue is not actually about economics.

That's progress. It was understandable that Ross Levatter thought the issue was, in Jason Brennan's mind at least, somewhat about economics. Otherwise, how would one understand Jason's previous dismissal of Ross's first critique:
My most charitable guess is that Levatter is just widely misinformed about the state of economics.

If his thought experiment is not at all about economics, then Levatter's degree of information or misinformation about economics is irrelevant.

But now to the more-substantive philosophical issue that Levatter addresses. I probably should have highlighted this concluding paragraph of his piece that sums it up best:

In "Imagine Markets Stink. It's Easy If You Try," Brennan states "Libertarianism doesn't follow from fundamental principles or axioms that are not open to question. Rather, to get to libertarianism, if you are at all sensitive to consequences, you need to make a series of empirical arguments about how institutions work. Now, in light of existing social science, it's pretty clear that large-scale economies need to be run fundamentally on market principles. But it's highly controversial to what extent government should supplement, enhance, regulate, or supplant markets in order to generate what consequence-sensitive libertarians would themselves agree are better outcomes." Since he was responding to me, the implication is that I disagree with this claim. That is not true. What IS true is that Brennan's thought experiment does not in any way suggest or imply or aid in developing any such empirical argument. That's because it's stated in such an extreme fashion as to lose most all discriminative power. A person who is even minimally "consequence-sensitive" can easily agree with Brennan that in the confines of his thought experiment he would no longer seek a Nozickian/Rothbardian society while not agreeing AT ALL that "it's highly controversial to what extent government should supplement, enhance, regulate, or supplant markets." Brennan's thought experiment doesn't track the intensity of one's devotion to deontologic principles. It doesn't strongly track the intensity of one's sensitivity to consequences. It may be good for shocking undergraduate philosophy virgins, but, for all the reasons I've provided, I'm frankly surprised he finds it of any pedagogic value at all.

I would have dropped the last sentence: it's too harsh. There is some pedagogic value. But, as Levatter says, "It doesn't strongly track the intensity of one's sensitivity to consequences."


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy



COMMENTS (11 to date)
Ross Levatter writes:

Thanks, David, for your input in this little philosophical imbroglio, which you've made more interesting than it otherwise would have been.

It IS unfortunate that some commenters (not here, but elsewhere on the web) seem to think I was personally affronted by Prof. Brennan saying, "charitably," that "Levatter is just widely misinformed about the state of economics". That's not true. I was surprised and amused, but not affronted. We all have our own personal debating styles. Mine is more confrontational than yours and I'd been warned by several libertarians in academics that Jason's is even more confrontational than my own.

No, as you noticed, what led me to respond was not personal affront but the clear underlying assumption by Jason that his thought experiment was about economics. So (though I haven't had a chance to read it yet) I'm glad to hear he may be rescinding, or at least modifying, that claim. Perhaps I can retire bruised but not entirely bloodied.

I did, however, with your permission--and not because I like to toot my own horn, but because, given your prominence in the field, I was truly flattered by your statement--want to repeat what you told me once regarding my economic acumen. You said, more or less, "Ross, you clearly have the strongest understanding of economics of any physician I know!"

We both went on to agree that was a very low bar...:-)

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ross Levatter,
You’re right that I did say that.

Pajser writes:

Benner's thought experiment is not complicated and I'm surprised that it is discussed so much on meta-level, and so little on object-level. On object-level, strict adherence to private property produces serious poverty, because each owner of any private property can ban any kind of pollution (including electromagnetic waves) as "trespassing" and shutdown the whole world industry. Standard answer of the libertarians is that they advocate restriction of private property, i.e. they allow to state to define allowed level of pollution.

MingoV writes:
... there is no correct solution to the "half-full glass" problem...
I like this one:

George Carlin: Some people think of the glass as half full. Some people think of the glass as half empty. I think of the glass as too big.

GinSlinger writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for rudeness. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

philemon writes:

@Pajser

Or they can negotiate to achieve a win-win--the would be polluter/trespasser agreeing to pay the property owner compensation (see works of R. Coarse, passim)

(Note: the state is still important, e.g., in providing the framework for negotiation and enforcement. But this is not the same as them directly defining allowed levels of pollution.)

Dan King writes:

There's this post on economic optimism (and pessimism) here: http://trotskyschildren.blogspot.com/2013/10/those-nattering-nabobs-of-negativism.html

Pajser writes:

Philemon, I think I understood Coase theorem. If small circle around factory is polluted then people will negotiate the compensation. If some owner (maybe anarcho-primitivist) doesn't accept realistic compensation, polluter moves to other place and everyone is happy. However, in reality the radius of the pollution is so large (infinite?) that polluter cannot escape from few primitivists unless the state steps in and and say "sorry primitivists, you must accept level of the pollution x and leave poor Sellafield guys and others alone," the result of negotiation will be world without industry.

Am I wrong?

Tracy W writes:
"You've got optimists and pessimists. The first died in the gas chambers. The others have swimming pools in Beverly Hills."

But were the people who left Europe before the 1930s optimists or pessimists? The more I learn about European history the more I find myself thinking that hopping on a rickety sailing ship to travel half the world turned out to be the safe choice.

Ross Levatter writes:

Responding to Pajser's first comment:

First, it's "Brennan," not "Benner."

Second, to repeat two points I have already made elsewhere (on FB):

1. I'm not willing to pick sides in the grand historical debate between deontological reasoning and consequentialist thinking. I referenced Randy Barnett's assessment on this (from a quarter century ago) in my first essay, and I know Roderick Long has written a nice piece on it here, but we're all aware (even us amateurs) of examples where each theory, taken alone, seems to lead to intuitively incorrect results. I was focusing instead on what I saw as a poor means/ends match. I was simply claiming, not that there are per se problems with thought experiments--as Jason has noted, you can't even do undergrad philosophy without them--but that his particular thought experiment was not up to the task he set for it, the goal he enunciated for it. A medical analogy: The surgical treatment for duodenal ulcers is a gastrojejunostomy, and this can be performed using either an antecolic or a retrocolic approach. Two surgeons arguing about which approach is better are like philosopher Aeon Skobel and political theorist Jason Brennan arguing about deontological vs consequentialist reasoning. I'm like the surgical tech saying, "Whichever way you want to go, you shouldn't be using a sledgehammer; you should be using a scalpel." Jason's tool is simply wrong for the job, as I tried to explain in a variety of contexts in my two essays at libertarianism.org.

2. I want to be very clear about this. It's important to be clear because it seems like Jason has difficulty sincerely believing that one can condemn his thought experiment without being some sort of wacko cartoonish ideological simpleton. Note, for example, the URL of his "Imagine Markets Stink" essay on BHL (www.bleedingheartlibertarians...if-you-cant-imagine-that-markets-could-suck-then-youre-might-be-an-ideologue/). I AGREE with Jason that there is a tension between accepting deontological principles and having a sensitivity to consequences. I AGREE with Jason that thought experiments can be helpful philosophic tools to clarify any number of issues. I AGREE with Jason that it would be nice to design a thought experiment that carefully tracked the tension between adherence to, say, the NAP and the possibility that free markets (defined as those interactions that occur when everyone adheres to the NAP) lead to great results for all might not be true. I assume WE ALL AGREE that it is possible to create a poor thought experiment, one that doesn't actually accomplish what its originator had hoped for it to accomplish. I was simply giving a variety of reasons why Jason's thought experiment doesn't reasonably, to quote him, "[clarify] how your moral commitments interact with your empirical beliefs about how economies actually work.” So he should consider either modifying his thought experiment or rephrasing his goal.

Lee Waaks writes:

Ross,

On the same website that hosts your essay is a short essay by Jan Lester, which criticizes some of the same errors you touch upon:

http://www.libertarianism.org/blog/three-great-errors-most-libertarians

Also on the same website is another essay by Lester that criticizes Matt Zwolinski in detail that you also may find interesting. Zwolinki's and Brennan's errors often overlap.

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