Scott Sumner  

Some thoughts on utilitarianism and individual rights

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Tyler Cowen has an excellent post on progressivism and individual rights. At one point he discusses the views of Kevin Drum:

Kevin Drum had an interesting point in response (and do read his full post, there is more to it than this quick excerpt):
Early 20th century progressives supported eugenics out of a belief that it would improve society. Contemporary liberals support abortion rights and right-to-die laws out of a belief in individual rights that flowered in the 60s.
Most of all Drum is saying that the earlier history is not very illustrative of anything for today.

I view it this way. Go back to Millian liberalism of the mid-19th century. Had American or for that matter British Progressivism been infused with more of this philosophy, the eugenics debacle never would have happened. For instance if you look at the British Parliamentary debates of 1912 over the Mental Deficiency Bill, the anti-eugenics forces drew heavily upon Mill for their inspiration. This was standard stuff, but the Progressives of the time didn't see much of a pro-liberty reason for being pushed into a Millian position, quite the contrary.

The claim is not that current Progressives are evil or racist, but rather they still don't have nearly enough Mill in their thought, and not nearly enough emphasis on individual liberty. Their continuing choice of label seems to indicate they are not much bothered by that, or maybe not even fully aware of that.

I'm a bit skeptical of Drum's claim that modern progressive thought is based on the concept of individual rights, although I don't deny that this concept plays some role. However I believe utilitarian thinking plays a much bigger role. Consider the progressive views on marriage. If they were based on individual rights then you'd expect progressives would favor unlimited marriage liberty for adults. If they were based on utilitarianism then progressives might favor some marriage rights, but not others. Since many progressives favor marriage rights for gays, but not polygamy and incest, it seems to me that their beliefs are more motivated by utilitarian considerations. Drum himself hinted that he was rethinking their views on drug legalization, based on the recent Oxy epidemic. That's not an "individual rights" approach to the issue.

My thinking doesn't fit neatly into either camp. On most political issues my thinking is much more libertarian than progressive, and yet the philosophical justification I rely on is utilitarian. In my view most progressives lean left because they underestimate the costs of government policies that restrict liberty---especially in the field of economics.

Here's where things start to get complicated. Progressives are split on free speech. Do the pro-free speech progressives rely on individual rights or utilitarian reasoning? The most common justification I hear is "rules utilitarianism", which suggests that while society might be better off if certain types of speech were banned (say Nazi propaganda), society would be worse off if the government were given the authority to determine which type of speech should be banned, as it would inevitably bleed over to unpopular minority views that ought to be heard. So we should adopt the set of broad policy rules that best maximizes aggregate utility, such as the 1st amendment. I agree and indeed would have it cover most commercial speech as well.

This raises the difficult issue of how far to stretch "rules utilitarianism." One could argue that while society would be better off if wearing seat belts were mandatory, society is worse off if government has the right to make mandatory any action that they see fit to mandate. So perhaps the government should be prevented from interfering in a very broad class of individual behavior, not just speech. And I have some sympathy for this view.

But in the end I'm not willing to go all the way to a constitutional provision locking in extreme libertarian governance. That's partly because it's not clear to me where you would draw the line. Are taxes coercion? What about carbon taxes aimed at preventing externalities? I worry that the economy is too complex for any simple form of rules utilitarianism to stretch over all human interaction. In the end, we must do the best we can in each area of governance. My goal is to convince progressives that the best interests of society involve a much bigger role for free markets and individual choice than common sense might suggest. (This is not my area of expertise, readers may want to look at books such as Richard Epstein's "Simple Rules for a Complex World".)

This is one reason the eugenics story is so useful. To progressives of the early 20th century, these seemed like reasonable regulations, which would improve society. That should be a warning to modern progressives that rules that may seem very beneficial today (say a law requiring everyone be paid at least $15/hour), may be viewed as being very sinister by future generations (as a law banning millions of low productivity workers from seeking gainful employment in the legal economy, forcing them into a life of crime). This would be an ironic reversion to early views on the minimum wage, which often did have sinister overtones, perhaps even racist.

Even if people are voluntarily choosing to do X, society may want to ban X. But the hurdle should be extremely high, far higher than most progressives realize. My dad smoked his whole adult life, knowing that it was dangerous. He was very intelligent and felt it was worth the risk. He died from smoking at age 69. My stepfather smoked for decades, and then decided to stop at age 75. He's 91 and still plays handball (a very strenuous game.) For selfish reasons I wish my dad had not smoked, but we should respect both their choices.

PS. My suggestion that free speech should apply to most commercial speech may seem rather lame---why not all? I haven't thought much about this issue, but perhaps collusive speech should be excluded from protection? I'd appreciate any thoughts on this issue.

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COMMENTS (26 to date)
Justin Ross writes:
Are taxes coercion? What about carbon taxes aimed at preventing externalities?

Whether something is coercion or not is a distinct issue from whether or not an act of coercion is justifiable. In stopping a serial killer, police are coercing that serial killer. Most of us regard it as justified because we recognize it prevents the serial killer from committing coercion of his own against others.

Taxes are coercion. But when is it justified coercion? A polluter is coerced, but since that pollution harms others it can be considered defensible.

Thomas B writes:

Libertarianism is not anarchism. Libertarianism is a philosophy of government, in which there is a strong, rebuttable presumption favoring liberty.

This raises a question: what would be the basis for a rebuttal to the strong presumption? One might be democratic in nature: not, perhaps, a 50% vote, but a 90% vote might be deemed to establish enough popular support to overcome a strong presumption of liberty. Another might be utilitarian: if the utilitarian argument is strong and well supported by fact, it might justify a government restriction on liberty.

Your utilitarianism is not irreconcileable with libertarianism. What reconciles them is humility: the realization that utilitarian assessments will often be wrong, so that humility demands that liberty be preferred where the utilitarian calculation remains open to reasonable debate.

Thomas Sewell writes:

Sadly, my experience has been that most every-day progressives (i.e. they aren't specialized in knowledge of a particular area) aren't using any principled framework at all.

It seems to be mostly mood affiliation and tribal agreement, so it doesn't matter if you can make a case based on correct/not-correct. Thus we end up in a situation where a significant segment of the population judges policies based on their stated intent, rather than on their likely or even on their known actual impact and results.

Not to leave the right-wing out of that, it's a matter of degree, as principled-based and results-based thinking seems to have a much bigger following (although perhaps not a majority) in libertarians and to a lesser extent conservatives. Perhaps it's really more of a rational vs. feeling thinker divide.

So rule-based seems like a big win over mob-rule-based to me, but the experiment on that is still in process, albeit we have a lot of results already.

Greg G writes:

Sadly, I think this discussion gives too much credit to all sides of the political labelling process.

The American political left didn't rebrand from "liberal" to "progressive" out of some deep understanding of the intellectual history involved.

Nor did the American political right start using "liberal" as a nasty epithet due to some deep understanding of the intellectual history involved.

The right started rejecting the term liberal for two reasons. The first is that the right is comprised mostly of conservatives who never did like liberalism in the old sense of the term. The second is simply that, when self described liberal incumbents became unpopular, using the term to identify them in political attacks seemed to work for Republicans so they did more of it.

Those on the political left, now conventionally understood to be "liberals" by both right and left, decided that a rebranding would be a good response to their popularity problems. They knew just enough history to know that the term "progressive" referred back to a time when reform from the left was far more popular than it is today. And the term seemed to suggest, well, progress.

I don't believe that deep thinking about coercion, utilitarianism or history was much of a factor on either side.

JK Brown writes:
say Nazi propaganda

But Nazi propaganda was successful mostly because a)people gave more trust to government speech, and b)from what I know, pro-Jewish and anti-Nazi speech was not permitted, nor was vigorous debate.

To ban any speech is to reveal that those who support the suppression do not believe they have intellectual arguments that can overcome the ideas in that speech.

Every time a speaker is prevented from speaking, it is a indictment upon the ideas of those suppressing the speech. At universities, especially when done with active support of faculty, speech suppression is a neon sign as to the intellectual deficiencies of the field of study and the instruction.

Kevin Erdmann writes:

I think it is an understandable error to equate progressivism with liberalism. Progressivism is a reactionary, or conservative, or sectarian framework, quite the opposite of liberalism. The reason we identify it with liberalism is because progressivism, at least in my lifetime, as been associated with identifying with groups seen as marginalized or out of favor. This makes it look like liberalism, because many of the demands marginalized groups make involve the removal of public oppression. So, the Civil Rights progress of the mid-20th century looks both liberal and progressive.

It's like fighting against a fundamentalist sect in some oppressed country, only to find that when the formerly oppressed sect gets control, they are just as oppressive. Sectarianism without power looks a lot like liberalism, but it's a mirage.

An example of this is gay rights. I know a lot of progressives that get really exorcised about businesses refusing to hire or serve gay employees or customers. But, they don't give much thought at all to political rules that would force families to treat gay children fairly, or that would force customers or workers to buy from or work for gay business owners. I can't see much utilitarianism at work there. There is simply a somewhat arbitrary order of identity groups. Everything trumps commercial interests in the current progressive identity line-up, so even if you are a gay business owner, your place on the pecking order is low. But, from a utilitarian perspective, in a town full of homophobic people, a gay baker trying to sell wedding cakes is much more in need of support than a gay couple trying to find a reasonable baker.

Scott Sumner writes:

Justin and Thomas B, I agree.

Thomas Sewell, I don't see any evidence that people on the right are more "rational" than progressives.

JK, I agree.

Kevin, Yes, progressives have a blind spot regarding commercial liberty.

Ben Kennedy writes:

"Since many progressives favor marriage rights for gays, but not polygamy and incest, it seems to me that their beliefs are more motivated by utilitarian considerations."

Three axis model to the rescue! Progressives operate under the "oppressor / oppressed" framework. So, marriage rights only need to extend so far as to de-oppress gay people. Since polygamy is still considered generally icky, there is no real push for treating polygamists an oppressed class, and hence no need to equalize them legally

Drum also goes out of his way to note that drug addiction is presumably worse among the (oppressed) poor. It is true that he is looking at utilitarian consequences of legalization, but still ultimately sees the through an oppressor/oppressed lens

E. Harding writes:

"To progressives of the early 20th century, these seemed like reasonable regulations, which would improve society."

-And there was nothing wrong with these reasonable regulations, which did improve society. Scott, this is clearly progress in its best sense. Don't diss it.

"Thomas Sewell, I don't see any evidence that people on the right are more "rational" than progressives."

-Well, progressives are a sect, and people on the right are a side of the political spectrum. The latter is probably, on average, more rational than the former.

Aaron J writes:

Great post, and I think you are write that utilitarianism is more important than individual liberties for most progressives.

I think commercial free speech is dangerous. People have a constitutional right to lie (see U.S. v. Alvarez among other cases), but if this applied to companies than false advertising would be rampant and cause serious inefficiencies (a real problem in many developing countries).

Kevin Erdmann writes:

Well, I guess what I'm saying is that it isn't a blind spot. It's a foundational ideal. It's like saying the Saudis have a blind spot on women's rights. It's the point of the thing. Progressivism is built around rectifying power imbalances. In spite of what Bastiat might say, capital will always appear to be powerful and removing liberties to rectify that will be central.

This is why reams of paper can be filled about the housing problem without even mentioning new development. At best, incentives for "affordable" development will be suggested. You can't just happen to not notice the obvious solution. Free application of capital cannot be a solution, on principle. People don't miss such obvious things by accident.

James writes:

It is hard to take seriously any distinction between regular "act" utilitarianism and "rule" utilitarianism. My understanding is that a rule utilitarian is supposed to always adhere to those rules that maximize utility. Any such person, if confronted with a proposed rule such as "Behave like an act utilitarian whenever doing so would lead to greater aggregate happiness than to do otherwise," would have to adopt the rule (and then act like a regular utilitarian in all of the classic hard cases).

Actually, it's hard to take any kind of utilitarianism seriously. If people claim that they want to and know how to maximize something, I expect they should be able to show their work: What was the objective function? What was the choice set? What algorithm was used? Where is the proof that their recommendation is a global maximum of that function rather than a local maximum?

All of the self identified utilitarians I've met don't even take their own philosophy seriously enough to find these kinds of questions embarassing. Even professional philosophers who claim to be utilitarians don't even feel "caught" when you ask them if they, after embracing utilitarianism, felt an urgent need to pick up some operations research textbooks.

Peter writes:

I like to call rules utilitarianism at the constitutional level 'institute utilitarianism'. What type of government would maximize total utility? A two party state like USA, a multi party state like Sweden, something like Switzerland with more votes on issues, or perhaps anarcho-capitalism? In a way it's a more interesting question. But it's more difficult to change the constitution than normal laws.

Brian writes:

" I don't see any evidence that people on the right are more "rational" than progressives."


On the individual level, you are likely correct--there's no strong evidence either way. People on both sides appear to be pretty irrational.

On the group level, however, there are clear indications that liberals show systematically irrational behavior while conservatives show none. See this blog post on the tendencies of liberal versus conservative political donors. Without going into detail about the analysis, it can be shown that the extreme leftward skew in liberal political giving is strong evidence of irrationality, while the conservative distribution is consistent with perfect rationality.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Scott: by "utilitarian" you seem to mean something like "what folk want for themselves gets strongly weighted". And I think you are correct that modern progressives over-estimate the likely effectiveness of government action. But, to the extent their thinking is utilitarian, it seems to be selectively utilitarian, rating concerns of some groups much more strongly than others.

Often, indeed, alleged concerns rather than reliably known concerns. Of course, that could be an over-estimate of their own knowledge which then feeds into the over-confidence in government action.

But that selectivity looks more like the progressivism Leonard examines, just with a switch in the selective attention (white families, and white family men in particular, are not currently a favoured group, as they were back in the day).

To take an extreme, but revealing, example, Dylann Roof kills 9 African-Americans in a church in Charleston and the progressive concern is all about the shooter, and anyone who might look in any way like the shooter, or might think in any way like the shooter, or might be attached to a flag that the shooter might or might also be attached to.

14 people get gunned down in San Bernardino, and another 23 are seriously injured, and, amongst progressives, it is all about not talking about the shooters, absolutely not about anyone who might look like the shooters, absolutely not anyone who might think in any way like the shooters, or might be attached to any doctrines espoused by the shooters. In fact, any number of folk can kill any number of people while shouting "Allah akbar!" and it is never about the shooters. Except, possibly, in a "root causes" way, but the "root causes" of white racism are never considered in any way similar to the alleged "root causes" of jihadism.

The chances of an American being killed by a terrorist are, as progressives love reminding folk, pretty remote. Probably about as remote as of an African-American being killed by a white racist. But that simple "utilitarian" calculation is not kosher.

Like I said, an extreme example but revealing in its extremity. Progressives are very big on picking moral favourites, and always have been. That is not really utilitarian in any sense. But it might be very morally tribal while pretending to moral grandeur.

But I like your moral perspective because I like keeping morality grounded in actual people. Aspiring to moral grandeur is much, much more dangerous.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Brian: Or liberals are far more conformist/involved in a stronger "more virtuous than you" bidding war.

Kevin Erdmann writes:

Great comment Lorenzo. "Black Lives Matter" seems like the rhetorical apotheosis of the movement. A slogan that enforces the tribal division while shaming any rhetorical opposition.

Brian writes:

"Or liberals are far more conformist/involved in a stronger "more virtuous than you" bidding war.


Well, the data indicate that liberals ARE more conformist, even those who are acting rationally. But that still doesn't explain the high percentage of liberal donors who give only to the most liberal politicians. Given that the majority of liberals see that defection from the most extreme choice is personally advantageous, the modest percentage that refuse to defect even a little are clearly acting irrationally. This is equivalent to the prisoner who refuses to rat out his compatriot (defect) in the prisoner's dilemma. This is practically the archetype of irrationality, and liberals engage in it systematically.

Aaron J writes:

LOL to those who really believe "there are clear indications that liberals show systematically irrational behavior while conservatives show none." Seriously?

Brian writes:


Did you look at the blog post? Again, the key word is "systematically." Individually, liberals and conservatives both show plenty of irrational behavior. But there's no evidence of large-scale, systematic irrational behavior by conservatives (i.e., as a group), at least not among conservative donors. Liberal donors, though, do show evidence of large-scale, systematic irrationality. Scoff if you want, but the data is what the data is.

MikeP writes:


I looked at the blog post. I think it relies too heavily on the presumption that the survey or other mechanism that rates how liberal or conservative individuals are is not biased.

In particular, I would hypothesize that people who make such surveys and rankings are themselves biased liberal. Hence they are likely to make the extreme liberal position in their spectrum more moderate than the extreme conservative position. So both moderate liberals and strong liberals would rate as strong liberals in these instruments, while only strong conservatives would rate as strong conservatives.

I tried to find surveys or other information at that site to see how they determined L versus C. I failed to find any. But I can easily imagine a question such as "Freedom of religion applies to Muslims: True or False" does appear, because some people the survey developer has seen on TV actually believe that, but "Bread lines are better than markets to distribute food more equitably: True or False" does not appear, because no one the survey developer knows actually believes that.

Nathan W writes:

To what extent should corporate and political entities be allowed to lie in the name of free speech?

Brian writes:


I think it is reasonable to question the methodology behind the rating system. It is not based on simple surveys, however, but on a complex analysis of how donors and politicians interact. The main assumption is that donors tend to support those who they perceive as being ideologically similar. This allows both politicians and donors to be ranked ideologically without ever identifying a particular position on an ideological scale. The methodology is based on this paper by Adam Bonica. Having glanced it over, I don't see any obvious reason to suspect bias. Furthermore, the people who run CrowdPAC, for whom Bonica is the academic expert and co-founder, seem to come from both sides. There are former advisors to Romney, McCain, and David Cameron, as well as advisors to the Obama campaign. Finally, I might expect to see the opposite of what you claim if the organization skews left. Wouldn't leftward bias in surveys cause liberals to look moderate and more nuanced in their positions, while putting conservatives on the far right end?

MikeP writes:

Wouldn't leftward bias in surveys cause liberals to look moderate and more nuanced in their positions, while putting conservatives on the far right end?

I think liberals -- especially self-aware ones who are constructing Liberal versus Conservative classification instruments -- don't think they are merely moderate and nuanced: they think above all that they are right.

Hence they are much less likely to leave any exposure on their left flank that might look like crazy socialism or communism, while having less compunction about lumping conservatives with crazy reactionaries or nationalists.

The bottom line is that, unless we see that the distribution of the general population is symmetric around 0L/0C, we cannot trust that the L and C spectra are well designed, and we can draw no conclusions from presented distributions of subsets of the population.

Brian writes:

"The bottom line is that, unless we see that the distribution of the general population is symmetric around 0L/0C, we cannot trust that the L and C spectra are well designed, and we can draw no conclusions from presented distributions of subsets of the population."


No, this cannot be a correct criterion for evaluating bias. We have no way of knowing ahead of time whether liberals and conservatives are, in fact, distributed the same way on each side. That's something to be tested empirically. That's in fact what CrowdPAC has done.

Look, you really need to look at the paper I linked and look at the methodology. It does not depend on eh makeup of the people who work for CrowdPAC, nor even depend on anyone assigning what's liberal or conservative. It simply looks at patterns of giving. The results basically indicate that liberal groups/donors give over a narrower range of ideology than conservative donors do. Liberal donors are very unlikely to give to moderate or conservative politicians, and less likely to stray from their own side than conservatives. That by itself doesn't prove anything about rationality, but it does show that the two sides are not symmetric. The conclusion of irrationality comes from a model that predicts the shape of the curve. Conservatives fit expectations; liberals do not. Hence, some a reacting irrationally.

Anand writes:

Perhaps it might be useful to point out that Mill considered his notions of rights to be restricted to people possessing "maturity of the faculties". In On Liberty he wrote, "Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end."

Mill wrote on he earliest justifications of "humanitarian intervention", justifying the colonialism in India.

By the way, On Liberty, ranks close to my favourite all-time book. It is chock full of insights. Mill was himself one of the most honourable people of his time.

The relevant distinction, in this, as in most other things, is the power dynamic. Principles and rules are very malleable, depending on how much they serve power.

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