Bryan Caplan  

Yudkowsky on My Simplistic Theory of Left and Right

Nancy MacLean's Distortion of ... Reply to Yudkowsky...
Noted rationalist Eliezer Yudkowsky has written a response to my Simplistic Theory of Left and Right.  With his kind permission, Eliezer speaks:

Bryan Caplan's Simplistic Theory of Left and Right says "The Left is anti-market and the Right is anti-Left". This theory is half wrong, and will for this reason confuse the Left in particular. It ought to be a clue that if you ask the Left whether they're anti-market, most of the Left will answer, "Of course not," whereas if you ask the Right whether they're anti-Left, they'll answer "Hell yes we are." People may understand themselves poorly a lot of the time, but they often know what they hate.

My "Human Theory of the Left" is as follows: The Left holds markets to the same standards as human beings.

Consider a small group of 50 people disconnected from the outside world, as in the world where humans evolved. When you offer somebody fifty carrots for an antelope haunch, that price carries with it a great array of judgments and considerations, like whether that person has done you any favors in the past, and how much effort it took them to hunt the antelope, and how much effort it took you to gather the carrots. If you offer them an unusually generous price, you'd expect them to give good prices in return in the future. A low price is either a status-lowering insult, or carries with it a judgment that the other person already has lower status than you.

And that's what the Left sees when they look at somebody being paid $8/hour. They don't see a supply curve, or a demand curve; or a tautology that for every loaf of bread bought there must be a loaf of bread sold, and therefore supply is always and everywhere equal to demand; they don't see a price as the input to the supply function and demand function which makes their output be equal. They see a judgment about how hard an employee works, and how much they need and deserve.

So of course they hate whatever looks at a poor starving mother and says "$8/hour". Who wouldn't?

Ask them and they'll *tell you*: They don't *hate* markets. They just think that the prices and outcomes aren't fair, and that tribal action is required for everyone to get together and decide that the prices and outcomes should be fairer.

If this post gets shared outside my own feed, some people will be reading this and wondering why I *wouldn't* want prices to be fair.

And they'll suspect that I must worship the Holy Market and believe *its* prices to be wise and fair; and that if I object to any regulation it's because I want the holy, wise and fair Market Price to be undisturbed.

This incidentally is what your non-economist friends hear you saying whenever you use the phrase "efficient markets". They think you are talking about market prices being, maybe not fair, but the most efficient thing for society; and they're wondering what you mean by "efficiency", and who benefits from that, and whether it's worth it, and whether the goods being produced by all this efficiency are actually flowing to the people making $8/hour.

You reply, "What the hell that is not even remotely anything the efficient markets hypothesis is talking about at all, you're not even in the right genre of thoughts, the weak form of the EMH says that the supply/demand-intersecting price for a highly-liquid well-traded financial asset is a rational subjective estimate of the expectation of its supply/demand-intersecting price two years later taking into account all public information, because otherwise it would be possible to pump money out of the predictable price changes. The EMH is a descriptive statement about price changes over time, not a normative statement about the relation of asset prices to anything else in the outside world."

This is not a short paragraph in the standard human ontology.

"So you think that $8/hour wages are efficient?" they say.

"No," you reply, "that's just not remotely what the word efficient *means at all*. The EMH is about price changes, not prices, and it has nothing to do with this. But I do think that $8/hour is balancing the supply function and the demand function for that kind of labor."

"And you think it's good for society for these functions to be balanced?" they inquire.

The one is willing to consider the force of the argument they think they're hearing--that the market is a weird and foreign god which will nonetheless bring us the right benefits if we make it the right sacrifices. But, they respond, *is* the market god really bringing us these benefits? Aren't some people getting shafted? Aren't some people being sacrificed to save others, maybe a lot of people being sacrificed to save a few others, and isn't that worth the tribe getting together and deciding to change things?

And you clutch your hair and say, "No, you don't get it, you know the market is doing something important but you don't understand what that thing *is*, you think the markets are like arteries carrying goods around and they can get blocked and starve some tissues, and you want to perform surgery on the arteries to unblock them, but actually THE MARKETS ARE RIBOSOMES AND YOU'RE TRYING TO EDIT THE DNA CODE AND EVERYTHING WILL BREAK SIMULTANEOUSLY LIKE IT DID IN VENEZUELA."

And what they hear you saying is "The markets are wise, and their prices carry wisdom you knoweth not; do you have an arm like the Lord, and can your voice thunder like His?"

Because, they know in their bones, when a corporation pays an employee $8/hour, it means something. It means something about the employer and it says something about what the employer believes about the employee. And if you say "WAIT DON'T MESS WITH THAT" there's a lot of things you might mean that have short sentences in their ontology: you could mean that you believe $8/hour is the fair price; you could mean you believe the price is unfair but that it's worth throwing the employees under the bus so that society keeps functioning; you could believe that maybe the market knows something you don't.

And all of those things, one way or another, are saying that you believe there's some virtue in that $8/hour price, some virtue transmitted to it by the virtue you think is present within the market that assigns it. And that's a cruel thing to say to someone getting $8/hour, isn't it?

Just look at what the market does. How can you believe that it's wise, or right, or fair?

And they can't believe that you *don't* think that--even though you'll very loudly tell them you don't think that--when you are being like "IF YOU WANT THEM TO HAVE MORE MONEY THEN JUST GIVE THEM MONEY BUT FOR GOD'S SAKE DON'T MESS WITH THE NUMBER THAT SAYS 8."

This by the way is another example of why it's an important meta-conversational principle to pay a lot of attention to what people say they believe and want, and what they tell you they *don't* believe and want. And that if nothing else should give you pause in saying that the Left is anti-market when so many moderate leftists would immediately say "But that's not what I believe!"

Maybe we'd have an easier time explaining economics if we deleted every appearance of the words "price" and "wage" and substituted "supply-demand equilibrator". A national $15/hour minimum supply-demand equilibrator sounds a bit more dangerous, doesn't it? Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit, or better yet use hourly wage subsidies. Establish a land value tax and give the money to poor people, while being careful not to establish new paperwork requirements that exclude busy or struggling people and being careful about phaseout thresholds. Or if you really insist on looking at things in the simplest possible way, then take money away from rich people and give it to poor people. It'll do less damage than messing with the supply-demand equilibrators.

I feel like I'm at a banquet watching people trying to eat the plates and they're like "No, no, I understand what food does, you're just not familiar with the studies showing that eating small amounts of ceramic doesn't hurt much" and I'm like "If you knew what food does and what the plates do then you would not be TRYING to eat the plates."

I honestly wonder if we'd have better luck explaining economics if we used the metaphor of a terrifying and incomprehensible alien deity that is kept barely contained by a complicated and humanly meaningless ritual, and that if somebody upsets the ritual prices then It will break loose and all the electrical plants will simultaneously catch fire. Because that probably *is* the closest translation of the math we believe into a native human ontology.

Want to help the bottom 30%? Don't scribble over the mad inscriptions that are closest to them, trying to prettify the blood-drawn curves. Mess with any other numbers than those, move money around in any other way than that, because It is standing very near to them already.

People like Bryan Caplan see people in 6000BC wearing animal skins as the native state of affairs without the Market. People like Bryan keep trying to explain how the Market got us away from that, hoping to foster some good feelings about the Market that will lead people to maybe have some respect for its $8/hour figure.

If my Human Theory of the Left is true, then this is exactly the wrong thing to say, and eternally doomed to failure. To praise that which would offer $8/hour to a struggling family, is directly an insult to that family, by the humanly standard codes of honor. If you want people to leave the $8/hour price alone, and you want to make the point about 6000BC, you could maybe try saying, "And that's what Tekram does if you have no price rituals at all."

But don't try to tell them that the Market is good, or wise, or kind. They can see with their own eyes that's false.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (52 to date)
seerak writes:

"But don't try to tell them that the Market is good, or wise, or kind. They can see with their own eyes that's false."

And that's why the Left hates markets.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

The Left thinks it can do much better than markets and the Right thinks it can do much better than Leftists, perhaps.

And since when were markets not human action?

Lewis writes:

I actually agree with Bryan here. The left, especially the coastal urban left, is anti-market.

To give an example, one problem in American cities is the prevalence and inflexibility of minimum parking requirements. These are rules requiring developers of new housing to include a certain amount of off-street parking. While there is an economic case to be made for some level of minimum parking requirement, no local rules are actually founded on cost-benefit analysis or on any rational process really. In every case, they come from junk science rules prescribed by the Institute of Transportation Engineers, which have been shown to be junk science over and over, or from copying nearby cities that based their own rules on the ITE book. The rules barely change from neighborhood to neighborhood or have anything to do with local costs of construction.

Sometimes reason prevails, and cities do away with their minimum parking requirements. But in many cases, when they do so, they replace them with MAXIMUM parking requirements. "Everything not forbidden is compulsory." The idea of just letting developers do what they want is anathema.

Likewise with density requirements. There are countless regulations that were enacted a long time ago to keep low-income housing out of cities. To deal with the housing crisis, instead of just allowing tons of cheap, small apartment to be built, what cities are doing is requiring developers to include very small numbers of rent-controlled units in new buildings as a condition on entitlements.

Rojellio writes:

It seems like we are going around in circles. Eliezer seems to be saying they do not grok markets and that market signals violate their tribal instincts. Bryan that they hate markets. Don that they don't grok spontaneous order.


The left does not grok spontaneous order in markets and how our current living standards depend upon the decentralized complex adaptive problem solving system. Markets do violate some of our tribal psychologies, markets do invalidate much of the meddling leftists want to concoct, and markets are something that the left do need to demonizes if they are to claim the reigns of power.

The free market is probably the most complex adaptive problem solving system in the history of the known universe. It is beyond our comprehension. No problem solving system is perfect, but it is unimaginably better than any alternatives.

David Manheim writes:

From my Twitter comments, edited and expanded;

The theory also works in reverse to describe the ~80s, when it was: right loves markets, left hates right. But when the center embraced markets, it flipped.

It seems the death of communism meant the success of markets - which killed the right's ability to identify a coherent philosophy along with an enemy. And to motivate their base, they need an enemy more than they need coherence.

The far left now has an (anti-) philosophy, of hating markets and an enemy, the center and right, which embrace markets, while the far right only has an enemy - the left.

The right can't really claim anti-anti-markets is a philosophy, and so they try being anti-government *as a governing philosophy,* which I think ends up just casting government itself as the enemy - and incidentally helps outsiders destroy their party, since it is just another part of the government, as we see now.

Tim writes:

The usual "interpretation via my priors" responses.

It is a good explanation of the anti-market views held by people who don't see themselves as anti-market. (Perhaps we can next see a piece on the racist views of people who don't see themselves as racist.)

This advice within should inform the way Democrats sandblast the sharp edges of the markets. However, naked redistribution has the same kind of effect on the right (both have and have-not rightists) - it violates "their humanly standard codes of honor". That's why the way we "take money away from rich people and give it to poor people" is so stupid and inefficient. It's got to include the cost of making it seem less like taking it away from rich people and giving it to poor people. Make it hard. Call it something else. Attach strings. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Kevin Dick writes:


I don't think you need to think that Bryan is right and Eliezer is wrong.

I view it as Bryan observing an effect and Eliezer explains the cause.

Bryan observes that the Left has a problem with markets.

Eliezer explains that is because the Left anthropomorphizes markets. So they see market prices as value judgements made by a person. As a value judgement, $8/hour is wrong. As is, not being able to live in a decent house near where you work. And being able to have a doctor help you.

This seems pretty convincing to me given Kling's three-axis model (the market is victimizing poor people) and the arguments from my well-meaning progressive friends.

Now, I don't buy the effectiveness of his prescription, but I'm happy to run an experiment to see if it works.

Alex writes:

I think Eliezer is making a mistake in assuming that the pro-market argument most commonly heard by leftists is a rational, economic argument, when in fact it(in my experience) tends to be more along the lines of...

"If you make $8/hour, that's what you deserve, and if you make millions/year, that's what you deserve. The market wage you receive is what you morally deserve, and any action we could take which would alter this balance, be it an increase in the statutory minimum wage, a negative income tax, and especially redistribution, would result in the $8/hour people getting more than they morally deserve while giving the millions/year people less than they morally deserve, which would be inherently immoral."

Most people on the Right do not frequent Econlog.econlib, and do not understand markets or spontaneous order any better than the leftists they criticize. They're just accidentally right for tribal reasons.

eric writes:

The Left distrusts decentralized, emergent results, thinks individuals use power to exploit and generate bad social outcomes. They trust using our best and most thoughtful, maximizing social welfare (not just their own), generates better outcomes for society.

The Right distrusts modern government, the current centralized management. This comes from seeing gov't as inefficient (pub. choice), or excessively moralizing (Progs the new Puritans). They trust individuals as better at creating optimal outcomes via competition and the moral primacy of the individual over the collective.

For both sides, democracy is useful, but not essential, as sometimes people are too stupid to know what they should want.

At one level many of these issues are moral questions because they hinge on what is best for society, a question that is not the result of deductive reasoning. However, unlike 100 years ago, we have more data on this, so it's not merely a matter of preferences or feelings.

Lewis writes:

I don't see really how anthropomorphizing markets explains the preponderance of local land-use regulations which are often explicitly at cross-purposes with each other.

I see the simultaneous existence of parking minimums and parking maximums, as well as density maximums and minimums, as explained by a tendency to want to get things "under control." The idea of letting a land market unfold without supervision of any kind is simply gross to progressives. Any control is good, whatever its nature.

To give another example, in the Bay Area where I live, there is a constant stress on the idea of education spending as a way to improve outcomes for underprivileged students. This is a progressive talking point and it motivates los of taxes. But those same progressives, when there is any discussion of new housing, complain about the stress new housing places on the local school system, and demand lots of development fees on new housing. So school needs to be free so that everyone can afford it, but if you want to build a new house then you have to pay a lot of money for the school system, and we need to not allow many people in in order keep too many people from being able to access this free service. Consequently, the black population here is declining quickly, and growing quickly in the small-government South, even as programs and rights for minorities here proliferate.

Likewise with marijuana. It used to be that marijuana was prohibited. Now that it is not prohibited, Berkeley actually has a program that forces marijuana distributors to set aside a portion of their product for low-income people who consume very large amounts of marijuana.

jc writes:

@Kevin Dick said:

I don't think you need to think that Bryan is right and Eliezer is wrong...I view it as Bryan observing an effect and Eliezer explains the cause.
This is what I kept thinking.

I also thought that times and norms and coalitions may be changing by the time we agree that we've reconciled their views, or more cleanly delineated them, this reconciliation/delineation may be obsolete. :)

As the American right embraces rhetoric and policies associated with nationalism and the working man (ironic that the left, in a sense, has abandoned the proletariat), it may move away from markets.

As the American left decides to start winning elections again by embracing Bill Clinton's advice ("It's the Economy, Stupid!"), it may, again, become home to a "New Kind" of Democrat who does more than merely pay lip service to the power of markets to raise our standard and quality of life...maybe by even someday adopting a super-weak form of bleeding-heart-libertarianism that wants the Golden Egg Laying Goose to be as fat as she can be (or at least reasonably fat, w/ "fat" being an important word), thus giving us more eggs to redistribute.

Will this happen? Is it happening? To any degree at all? Perhaps The Left will Accept Markets...maybe w/ some re-branding that makes it more tolerable. And the Right will Hate the Left.

Or perhaps we're simply headed towards (or have already arrived at) a simpler, purely tribal, symmetry: The Left Hates the Right....and The Right Hates the Left. All this nonsense about consistent principles is noise. :)

What's interesting to me is when the times have this or that party favoring or disfavoring unnatural things. Consider Haidt's framework, where a party favors "loyalty" or "fairness" or some other moral foundation...but this party finds itself in a strange period where the other side's rhetoric seems more consistent w/ these values. For example, someone concerned w/ "fairness" who views the world through a lens of elites and the working class...some of them may be a bit confused today (if they aren't already devout members of the Churches of the Left or the Right that reflexively conform to today's creeds).

MikeW writes:

Yudkowsky's position just seems like a really long-winded way of saying that the Left is anti-market because markets are not fair. (This is similar to what Kevin Dick said above.)

Bill Roberts writes:

All this talk about the Market being rational and the best means of
allocating resources is well and good and may even be correct. It still
doesn't answer the moral and ethical issues of how the poor bastard
making $8.00/hr in the good old USA is supposed to survive on that
princely sum. What I want to hear from the great pundits musing over
this theme is how do we make it work for the poor bastard. That's what
liberals, which you so quaintly refer to as "the left" want to know. The
wealthy don't own those resources, they just control them through their
vast powers of coercion and violence. That's been the course of human
society since "civilization" began. We need a new course.

Steve S writes:

I think despite 1000+ words, Bryan's view is still pretty accurate. Anti-market could potentially have a wide range of meanings, but basically saying "I could do better than a market" means you are anti-market.

And Elizer seems to be saying that people on the Left think they could do better than a market. Or they pick and choose specific markets (healthcare, low-skilled labor) and think they can do better than those outcomes.

His entire argument is basically "I'm not a racist, BUT..."

DJ writes:

I don't understand his argument at all and how it's supposed to be showing the Left isn't anti-market. From his description it seems like the Left is anti-market but that they just don't really understand what the market is so if you ask them they will say they are not anti-market.

RPLong writes:

This problem is an old one. Before the days of Bernie Sanders, the left wanted to push socialist policies, but they didn't want to call themselves socialists.

Fast-forward a few years and we've just replaced some words with others: The left wants to push anti-market policies, but they don't want to be called anti-market.

I've been in this argument for long enough to know that the left cares very much about perceived fairness, even more than they care about actual fairness. That's really all we're observing here.

One final note: Yudkowsky mentions various "other means" of "moving money around," as though those means are less anti-market than the other kind. Somehow he sees minimum wages as being anti-market, but various forms of excise and subsidy as not-anti-market. He's wrong. All of those things will disrupt the market. I concede that some are less disruptive than others, but the fact remains: Not disrupting the market at all is still a possibility, and one that I happen to favor.

Kevin Dick writes:


I understand your perspective (also a Bay Area resident--even worse, a Palo Alto resident where people argue against two story homes and for affordable housing in the same conversation--agghh!).

But I think that anthropomorphizing fairness is what's going on. A typical middle class progressive thinks that they've got a "fair" deal. Decent house, decent schools, etc. It's unfair that poor people have less. It's unfair that rich people have more. (A typical Palo Alto resident, doesn't think he or she is rich!??!)

The numbers that the market spits out are the obvious cause. They see poor people unable to afford housing prices. They see rich people who can afford to buy multi-million dollar homes, tear them down, and and build even more expensive ones. So the market is "being unfair".

But when the market produces prices they like at Costco, at Amazon, at Faceboook (free!), they're fine with the market.

Hazel Meade writes:

What's the difference between saying the market price isn't fair, and being anti-market?

And they can't believe that you *don't* think that--even though you'll very loudly tell them you don't think that--when you are being like "IF YOU WANT THEM TO HAVE MORE MONEY THEN JUST GIVE THEM MONEY BUT FOR GOD'S SAKE DON'T MESS WITH THE NUMBER THAT SAYS 8."

You know, another way of looking at this is that they think those people should have more money but that it should come out of someone else's pocket.

The other thing is, I constantly see leftists have knee-jerk anti-market reactions to issues. They have an innate suspicion of markets. Whenever someone proposes a market based solution to a problem they almost instinctively react negatively to it - as if you had publicly contemplated torturing puppies. I think many liberals have a disgust reaction to markets, trade, and commerce, that is every bit as powerful and driving as conservatives reactions to gay sex and flag burning.

Aser writes:

Some informations from a leftist :
-I do see and understand that 8$/hour wages isn't a judgment about how hard an employee works, but a product of a process.
-I do hate the market, precisely because of the first affirmation. If i thought that 8$/hour wages was a judment from someone i would hate that person instead (well no, but it will be this person the focus of my accusation).
-From my leftist experience in a leftist community, this two statements are widely shared within the (French) Left.

This observation contradicts directly the bases of the text and so what it draws from it.

General thought :

- When a physicist says "wave-particle duality" or "LASER" the various informations, memories, thoughts and knowledge in general that appears in the head of a fellow physicist is very different from those who appears in the head of a "non-technical physicist person" from the public. The ability of the public to understand without plain errors technical and specialized knowledge is a function of the quality and range of education in the domain, quality and range of the vulgarization, media coverage of the domain, media attention on the experts etc. So it seems that you take a lot of lines to say that people don't know economics but hey, who's really in fault there ? People can't just obtain technical knowledge if that knowledge is not pass to them in a way or in an other. In France, if you don't study eco after bac, you'll have one course or two one year or two in highschool, compare to physics, chemistry and biology that begin at 12. you can't for now blame people to have a relative knowledge in economy of a 14 years old in physics.

-And now, a thought experiment : Our exact world we live in except that in all companies, you sum all the wages and you divide by the numbers of employee, this number is now the wage of each employee. Note that like in our world, that way of distributing the wages has his roots in the history of the economy, in that thought experiment, it just happens that averaging the cost of employment to calculate wages is the way things are. Some agents agree, some disagree. Like in our. Note also that the cost of employment in each companie is perfectly equal with his twin in our world and so this new redistribution is totally coherent with the state of the macroeconomie. The question is : "EVERYTHING WILL BREAK SIMULTANEOUSLY LIKE IT DID IN VENEZUELA." in this world ? Just to be clear : this world i describe is not the perfect utopia that i want to live in, i don't try here to convince you that averaging the wages is THE incredible idea that will repair capitalism. I'm just asking is this world will automatically break in all the possible way like you said it will if we dare change the value of wages. My prediction : After a period of weird microeconomic,the state will gradually converge towards what we see in our world in a range of 5 to 20 years. I mean : no Apocalypse. So yeah i think you exaggerate a little when you say that thinking of altering the wages will definitevely crack the world. I think we can do things to improve. We are allow to think about the problem because it's a problem to have poor starving mothers be paid 8$/hour. That's what Left is about for me, it's clear there's a problem about the way we distribute money and production, something is wrong and need to be improved, and so need to be changed. More i talk with mere people who don't know much about eco and just struggle to survive, more i realize that this people have better understood this clear fact than a certain number of "expert"(it's not about economist, it's about all who don't know what being very poor is, including me for a part). They don't know why the system is good in theory, they just know its bad in practice.

The question of what to change is a much harder a problem of course, but of what i understand of economy and history for now, it don't seems that a bad idea to level wages or to implement an universal retribution for exemple. All ways to do "universal retribution" are not good but surely there exist ways to do it !

An analogy that may be useful:

Prices are an alarm. The fact that someone unskilled has a low salary is as unfair as the fact that a family whose house is burning have to run into the street in their underwear. That is not a reason to stick your fingers in your ears when the alarm goes off.

Effem writes:

A large part of the Left-Right disconnect is driven by opinions on utility.

Economists simply assume that we should solve for aggregate wealth (roughly speaking). And markets will roughly solve for the same. I believe many on the Left see that as an inferior goal. So, while markets may be efficient at solving that's the wrong goal.

Trade may be a great example. If there is a tradeoff between aggregate wealth and the distribution of wealth as a result of a trade policy, a person's utility function will influence their conclusion.

And yes, economists might say "maximize wealth and use such wealth to fix the problems" but we know in practice that may not apply (it may even be reverse - as wealth grows it becomes more influential/powerful).

Jason Braswell writes:

That seemed like a very roundabout way of saying that the Left is anti-market.

Hello Halo writes:

When the left sees $8.00/hr, they see the market has failed people. The left puts a value judgement on market signals, and they see themselves as problem solvers. They believe the market has morally erred.

OTOH, the right sees that the market has solved another supply-demand equilibrium problem, and it's given us a signal in the price, so people may take that information, learn, and attempt to adjust accordingly.

EY is correct in that if you're sincere in trying to persuade someone on the left that the market knows better than people, then you have to convey that they will ruin people's lives, while emphasizing the emotional terror to convince them they're usher in something much more evil than the market. Get them to internalize their Fatal Conceit.

BC is correct that the right is predominantly anti-left, since most on the right are reliant and sympathetic to Fox and conservative radio and not particularly well read or educated on capitalism. They just "know" it's good, mainly due to tribal luck. And while the left hates the market (read /r/latestagecapitalism), let's not ignore how much the left also hates the right. It may be less than vice versa, but many on the left sees the right as sociopaths who don't care if everyone dies, besides the rich. The market has no feelings, so they view the right as monsters in some way, to not care enough about people to embrace the market rather than joining their leftism.

According to Haidt, they're probably correct to an extent. The typical conservative is tribally loyal (but less tribally loyal than most minority liberals), while not caring for outsiders as much as liberals do. Libertarians are less emotionally swayed than either liberals or conservatives. So both conservatives and libertarians eventually arrive to join in defending the market to do it's work, while the left's high ratio of egalitarianism-to-economic knowledge has lead them to their misguided anti-market views.

AMT writes:

"But don't try to tell them that the Market is good, or wise, or kind. They can see with their own eyes that's false."

So he confirms...they ARE anti-market.
Because: they cannot understand why it is good.

Zero points for being concise. What is this, trying to reach the high school essay word count?

But, I loved the ribosomes/DNA analogy and also the eating plates one.

Ion writes:

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Thaomas writes:

@ Rojelliot

"The free market is probably the most complex adaptive problem solving system in the history of the known universe. It is beyond our comprehension. No problem solving system is perfect, but it is unimaginably better than any alternatives."

Now it you mean better than what they have in North Korea or Cuba most "Leftists" will agree. But they do not agree that unfettered markets are better than "any" alternative, better than their current tweak.

Miguel Madeira writes:

Lewis: "I actually agree with Bryan here. The left, especially the coastal urban left, is anti-market."

If anything, I imagine that the blue-collar populist left should be even more anti-market than the "coastal urban left"; in the "coastal urban left" there are probably many people who consider themselves left-wing because of "social issues", while it is in the blue-collar left that the "anti-market" (or, if you wish, "wealth redistribution") is the main point.

Miguel Madeira writes:


"The Right distrusts modern government, the current centralized management. This comes from seeing gov't as inefficient (pub. choice), or excessively moralizing (Progs the new Puritans). They trust individuals as better at creating optimal outcomes via competition and the moral primacy of the individual over the collective."

I think you are confusing "Right" with "classical liberalism" - traditionalist conservatives surely don't defend the primacy of the individual over the collective; they defend the small collectives (family, church, town, professional guild, "state's rights", etc., etc., with many variations from country to country) over booth the individual ("atomistic individualism", like they usually say) and the big collective, the centralized state

Miguel Madeira writes:

My theory about left vs. right (perhaps not much different from Caplan's theory):

"Left-wing" - collective action with the proclaimed purpose of reducing/suppressing inequalities of wealth and/or power; I say "colective action" because some left-wing currents are anti- or non-statists, but even these leftists are in favor of some kind of collective action (via trade unions, mutual banks, campaigns of civil disobedience, boycotts, sit-ins, etc.); the motto of the Left can be "Egalité, Fraternité" - acting together to achieve equality)

"Right-wing" - everything that is against the left-wing.

"Right-wing" could encompass several different (and even opposite things):

- Liberals who are against the collectivism of the Left

- Conservatives who, even if they don't reject some types of collectivism, are against the idea of trying to achieve social goals (in these case, equality) instead of having the humility of accepting the results of centuries of historic evolution.

- Fascists and National-socialists who, even if they are statists and also in favor a some kind of "New Order", are against the egalitarianism of the Left, considering it the triumph of the mediocrity and of the "law of the number" over the Great Men

- etc.

Chris writes:

As a liberal, I do not hate the market but I do realize that most often it's outcomes result in 'losers' and that a loss can be devestating and deadly and affect future outcomes in the same market as well as others. You see an efficient market when someone makes $8 per hour and I see someone who will, for a variety of reasons, likely never be able to make more than that, who will live on the edge of financial disaster until the day they die, and whose children will likely never rise above that condition. Over time the population may shift to higher paying jobs but it won't be the people that can't afford to make the shift that requires expensive training, and likely a change in location.

In addition, and similarly, the market is terrible at taking into account external costs. For instance, coal mining killed thousands before unions and regulations pushed for safer (less efficient) working conditions. The market was most efficient when workers died of black lung only to be replaced by their sons, because the external cost of a workers' life wasn't taken into account, because it didn't matter to the coal market's supply/demand curve. The modern liberal mindset really came out of the impacts of this industrialization.

The right likes to pretend we would have perfect markets if it weren't for the left, but the left has always been reactionary. We see negative externalities of market interactions and try to fix those. You can argue with the methods, but it's hard to argue that the problems we're trying to resolve aren't real. Where the right likes to think that those issues are just the reality of the situation or that the market has spoken, the left isn't willing to let the market decide who lives and who dies because it would be unethical.

Also, shame on the economists who are willing to just say 'don't mess with the economy, it's too delicate and complicated to understand'. It may be complicated, but it's not magic.

Hazel Meade writes:

The right DOES try to solve problems with externalities all the time. It just doesn't do it by saying "The market is wrong, let's force the market to price things the correct way."

Instead, the right, or at least libertarians, ask "Why is the market doing this?" And looks at the financial incentives, rights, and liability framework around the issue in question. For instance, when someone says "The market has this externality", that's another way of saying "someone has been harmed by some other market actor". So we start asking if that person has a right to not be harmed, and if so, we hold the actors responsible for the harm liable. This is how we get to the libertarian framework in which property rights are assigned which can then be used to sue for damages, wherein ultimately, the costs associated with externalities are priced back into the market and the externalities go away.

John Alcorn writes:

Many interesting comments!

If we shoehorn political psychology into only two categories—Left and Right—we lose way too much realism for the sake of maximal simplicity (parsimony).

Arnold Kling's theory of The Three Languages of Politics strikes a more insightful balance of realism and simplicity. Dr. Kling's three categories (and their respective discourses) are Progressives (victims vs. oppressors), Conservatives (civilization vs. barbarism), and Libertarians (freedom vs. coercion). Here is an EconTalk podcast about Dr. Kling's theory. And here is a short essay by Russ Roberts about blind spots in each of these political psychologies.

My intuition is that political psychology is so complex and various that a theory would need even more than three categories to strike an optimal balance of realism and parsimony.

Thaomas writes:


I have not seen your theory about how Libertarians approach externalities applied to the harm caused by the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Miguel Madeira writes:

@Hazel Meade,

This could be true for libertarians, but I have the idea (note that I am a Portuguese - my knowledge of US political controversies is probably distorted) that the conservatives are usually in the forefronts of efforts to, for example, put caps in the liability for medical errors, and usually talk about the "tort lawyers" as an enemy group (look to Grover G Norquist and his article "The New Majority: The ‘Leave Us Alone’ Coalition", where he says that «A recent addition has been the new paymasters of the “Takings” coalition: trial lawyers» and «In state after state, citizens are pushing trial lawyers’ litigious hands out of their pockets.», what seems a convert way of saying that state regulation is been used to limit the value of indemnities).

Hazel Meade writes:

Ron Bailey of the Reason foundation has advocated a carbon tax.
A more traditional libertarian approach would be to determine if particular harms could be linked to carbon emissions, and then establish a fund for the compensation of people affected by carbon-linked climate change, the fund to be financed by carbon taxes. People receiving compensation from the fund would have to prove, based on preponderance of the evidence, that whatever harm they incurred was a consequence of carbon emissions and not some natural event. This would increase the cost of carbon emitting activities, thereby pricing those harms into the market price of those things. But it would also be non-arbitrary- because the tax rate would be linked to the actual harms and not just set by political fiat.

John Alcorn writes:

@ Thaomas,

See David Friedman, "Global warming, population, and the problem of externality arguments" (video of public lecture at the Libertarian Alliance, London, 14 January 2013), here.

Rojelio writes:

@ Thaomas,

Agreed they prefer managed markets. But the conceit that markets can be effectively micro-managed just shows that they do not understand the nature of complex adaptive systems, spontaneous order, unseen and unintended consequences and unpredictable feedback loops.

I repeat, Don, Bryan and Eliezer are all just describing different parts of the same elephant. The very logic of decentralized order is getting in progressives' way. Thus it becomes the enemy, and those on the left attack it, and undermine it, and disparage it until it is thoroughly vilified. When something is extremely counterintuitive it is easy to peddle false narratives against it.

Thaomas writes:

As a matter of vocabulary, when I hear "anti-market" I understand that to be an all pervasive attitude about every possible market intervention so it sounds like a bad description of the attitude of someone who dislikes the outcome of the low incomes earned by, does not see much hope for a higher EITC or wage subsidy low wage workers and thinks that the elasticity of demand for labor is low enough that a modest increase in the minimum wage can raise the incomes of almost all of the workers affected. Rather, the charge of "anti-market sounds as if the person making the charge thinks that no intervention in the market can improve outcomes and any intervention is Socialism.

DMXRoid writes:

Interesting that Yudkowsky argues that the Left holds the institutions of markets to the same standards that they do individuals, given that the left doesn't hold the institutions of government to those standards. Seems to say a lot about priorities when they're applying greater priority to policing the ethics of (for the most part) voluntary interaction than they are coercion.

Ben Kennedy writes:

It is hard to reconcile the left's position of desiring single-payer universal healthcare as not explicitly anti-market. Many of the arguments are based around eliminating the bureaucracy involved in treating healthcare as a set of competing for-profit businesses, e.g. with advertising and executive compensation. It's probably fairer to characterize the left as "market skeptics", as we would characterize the less dogmatic Libertarians as "government skeptics"

Jake writes:

Interesting debate, but I think if you are defining "left" and "right" in terms of Democrats and Republicans then you are giving them way too much credit.

Most politicians, pundits, and voters don't have views that can be correctly stated in a succinct ideology. Their opinions are a dissonant collection of bias, ignorance, and misapplied personal values -- it's wrong to assume that they flow from a central defining point in the way an academic's view would.

Any "simplistic theory" will be simplistic to the point of not being useful. Forming a logically sound stance is hard and continuous work -- most people won't challenge themselves enough to actually do it.

Silas Barta writes:

I didn't see anywhere here, so you might want to link Yudkowksy's post where he put this response.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"the Left holds the institutions of markets to the same standards that they do individuals, given that the left doesn't hold the institutions of government to those standards."


- The left thinks that the state should "take from the the rich and give to the poor" and also have a tedency to romanticize "social bandits" who allegedly do the same

- The left is against individuals shooting guns in self-defense, evend against criminals, and is also against the police shooting, even against criminals

[I imagine that we can find much more examples of the Left applying to State standards similar that those who apply to individuals]

Dylan writes:

@Hazel Meade,

Rather than climate change, let's take an example like an asteroid detection and mitigation system for trying to avoid a large asteroid hitting the earth. Key points in this thought experiment are that there is a relatively small chance of an asteroid hitting the earth, but if it does the damage would be catastrophic. Some people will be hurt more than others, but it is impossible to know who those people will be until it is too late. And an asteroid detection and defense system will be very expensive. What's the proper libertarian response to a problem like that?

Hazel Meade writes:

This is a hypothetical that has no analogy to any real world situation regarding the market. When we're talking about the market, we're talking about interactions between people, not an alien external threat. The discussion is about whether markets (i.e. people's non-coercive relationships with one another) are in need of government intervention. Responding to an external threat by a non-human force (a dumb rock in space) is a completely different issue.

Jonathan Gress-Wright writes:

RPLong is right that Yudkowsky's solution of subsidizing wages does not solve the problem of interfering with markets. If you set a minimum wage, you are essentially forcing an employer to subsidize his own wages. In order to stay in business, the employer then has to recoup the costs of the subsidy in some way, such as firing people, hiring fewer people, raising prices, spending less on buying or maintaining equipment etc. All of these actions end up cutting into his margins and making bankruptcy more likely, which in turns harms all other current employees as well as customers. It does more harm than the small amount of good it does to those few employees who manage to keep their jobs at the higher rate.

Subsidizing wages from some common tax pool only pushes the problem outwards. Instead of the company having to subsidize its own wages, some other company or individual is being forced to subsidize them through the taxes required to fund the subsidy, with the same consequences for its own margins and viability as for the company being held to a minimum wage. It shouldn't be hard to see that from the point of view of society as a whole, nothing has been gained by this action.

Dylan writes:

@Hazel Meade,

I respectfully disagree, and think that climate change is actually pretty similar to a dumb rock in space. It is a threat, but we won't know exactly who the victims are until it is too late. We do know that the people getting the bulk of the benefit for the cost will not be the ones who will suffer the most from it's effects, because they are dead or will be dead before the effects become known. And of course, your preponderance of evidence standard seems like an impossible bar to pass given our current understanding of things. We can say that storm activity will increase in a warming world, but we can't say that any specific storm was caused by said warming.

John C writes:

Perhaps the left holds markets to a human standard, and the right holds *the state* to a human standard. Much of what the right sees as wrong with government (taxation as theft, regulation as obstruction, hawkishness as courage) flow from a conception of the state being a gangland enforcer or protective father.

Andy L writes:

(Yudkowsky lists safer alternatives to increased federal minimum wage : )

"Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit, or better yet use hourly wage subsidies. Establish a land value tax and give the money to poor people, while being careful not to establish new paperwork requirements that exclude busy or struggling people and being careful about phaseout thresholds. Or if you really insist on looking at things in the simplest possible way, then take money away from rich people and give it to poor people."

I think you'd find that most average citizens on "The Left" would be in favor of any of those solutions, and would agree with Yudkowsky that they were much less likely to cause negative side-effects to the economy.

The difference is that your average person on "The Left" has more of a sense of urgency and belief in how broken our current situation is, and the desperation to grasp at any potential solution that seems like it might actually be possible to implement.

If people who are not the subject of this article's scorn want to stop "The Left" from agitating for a much higher minimum wage, then implementing one of those other solutions Yudkowsky mentions would do so very quickly.

Jack writes:

Reminds me of this talk from Benjamin Powell on Sweatshops:

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