Scott Sumner  

Reply to Bryan on utilitarianism

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Cold James Buchanan... America's middle class: 50 ye...

Bryan Caplan has responded to my recent post on liberalism and utilitarianism. I agree with his first criticism:

First, if "Liberalism is what happens when you are optimizing for a safe environment, and illiberalism is what happens when you optimize for thriving in an unsafe environment," are we talking about selfish optimization or social optimization? If the former, then how does being rich make caring about outsiders "selfishly optimal"? If the latter, then it sounds like utilitarianism requires illiberalism in unsafe environments.

Mea culpa. I unthinkingly adopted the term "optimizing", which was used by Scott Alexander. I should have used something like "operating". Thus militarism is what you get when you are a tribe operating in a world of lots of other aggressive militaristic tribes. Norway and Switzerland is what you get when you are operating in a region with lots of peaceful, free-trading EU nations. Non-utilitarian illiberalism occurs when countries keep acting like they are in the dangerous world of the Stone Age, (or Middle Ages), even though they live in the 21st century. (See North Korea.)

I don't agree with the other criticisms:

Second, classical liberalism, social democratic liberalism, and neoliberalism have all been widely accused of ignoring the interests of wide swaths of the population. Classical liberals and neoliberals allegedly ignore the interests of the poor; social democrats allegedly ignore the interests of taxpayers and entrepreneurs.
There will always be differences in opinion as to how to best implement utilitarian values. Indeed that's why liberalism has evolved over time. In 1780, people really did think laissez-faire was in the interests of the poor. In the 1930s, people really did believe that socialism was in the interests of the poor. Even at a point in time, opinions can vary. But I believe that all of those forms of liberalism were basically aiming at maximizing aggregate utility, regardless of what the critics said.
Third, most - perhaps all - of what Scott calls "illiberal" views have been defended on utilitarian grounds. See e.g. James Fitzjames Stephen, noted 19th-century conservative utilitarian. You could say, "I'm classifying views based on whether they really maximize total happiness," but then why include three disparate flavors of "liberalism"? They can't all be right.
It's certainly true that some past liberals held beliefs that are now viewed as illiberal. Readers of Richard Rorty know that there is no such thing as being "actually correct", as opposed to what is believed to be correct. All three types of liberals were perceived as holding correct (utilitarian) views at the time, by a consensus of fashionable intellectuals. Thus all three were forms of liberalism. As an analogy, the beliefs of 20th century Christians are radically different from the beliefs of 10th century Christians. But both groups are Christians.
Concern for the welfare of others is part of the utilitarian ethos. But so is sober cost-benefit analysis and, as a corollary, hostility to Social Desirability Bias. 1966 may have been a period of relatively high sympathy for blacks (though probably little for Indochinese), but it was also an era of rampant wishful thinking.
American sympathy for the Indochinese was higher than normal for wartime. During WWII, Americans were not much troubled by atrocities committed against our foes. During the 1960s and 1970s, Americans were very concerned about atrocities committed against the Vietnamese. The bombing of Vietnam was far more controversial than the bombing of Japan, despite the fact that in the Vietnam War the military tried much harder to avoid civilian casualties--as compared to WWII. (That's not to say they tried as hard as they should have---they did not.)

As far as "wishful thinking", that's always a problem. Certainly the "Great Society" featured a great deal of wishful thinking, but that doesn't mean that it was not a fundamentally utilitarian program. The motives were pretty clearly utilitarian. Voters crossed party lines in 1964 and again in 1972, because they shared a pretty similar set of goals. Today voters are far more tribal. And in fairness to the 1960s, while there was wishful thinking, there was also far more rationality about the war on terror, or political correctness, than we see today. So we've become more rational in some areas and less so in others.

Unless I greatly misunderstand Scott, I think he agrees with me that the middle class is doing much better today than in the mid-60s. So how does this example illustrate the positive effect of prosperity on concern for others?
In those days the economy grew rapidly, and income was more equal. It was expected that rapid growth would continue. Today people are more worried about the prospects for their children. I suppose this is partly because people look at how they are doing relative to those around them. So today there is more anxiety about getting kids into top universities, because it seems like more is at stake. Autoworkers no longer earn as much as college professors.

I do think that people are better off in the sense that millennials prefer our modern lifestyle to the lifestyle of the 1960s.

I don't think people are happier than in the 1960s, or perceive themselves as being better off.

In contrast, I think the people of the 1960s really did believe they were much better off than their grandparents, who may have lacked cars, indoor plumbing, antibiotics, and home appliances.

To summarize, I don't have a lot of confidence in my hypothesis, which is based on a few observations:

1. The Great Depression led to some illiberal policies, especially in Germany.

2. We do things in wartime (like putting Japanese Americans into camps) that we are unlikely to do in peacetime.

3. 9/11 seems to have made people more nationalistic and militaristic. Indeed even I became too militaristic after 9/11.

On the other hand, I don't see a lot of evidence that the Great Recession pushed the world strongly away from utilitarianism. Yes, there is Brexit and Trump, but how much will actually change? Although Brexit will occur in 2019 (de jure), today there is a report that actual implementation of Brexit (de facto) is being pushed back into the 2020s, if it occurs at all (which I increasingly doubt.) I'd file this under "too soon to know", as it will in part depend on how situations like North Korea play out.

So I certainly agree with Bryan that there are good arguments against my position.

PS. In 1970, terrorists exploded a huge truck bomb just 2 miles from my house. This did not lead to a surge in the sort of silly "war on terror" security measures that we see today. Unlike today, people on the left and the right were not obsessed with "safe spaces".


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Market Fiscalist writes:

Question on 'Thus militarism is what you get when you are a tribe operating in a world of lots of other aggressive militaristic tribes.'.

If that is what you get then I suppose it could be that such conditions just happen to allow militarists to assert themselves more, but couldn't it also be the case that militarization really is the optimizing strategy in that kind of world (if for example the alternative is being invaded and enslaved) ?

Scott Sumner writes:

Market, Yes, it may be optimal at the individual level. Perhaps not at the aggregate level.

Nicholas Brock Weininger writes:

One problem with citing Switzerland in support of liberalism-as-adaptation-to-environment is that it's stayed liberal and neutral and the other things we think of as "Switzerlandish" while the European nations around it have cycled through periods of peace and war, free trade and protectionism.

Mike W writes:

I don't think people are happier than in the 1960s, or perceive themselves as being better off.

Based on what...and why should they be "happier"? I keep reading this but, my children and grandchildren...and the children and grandchildren of those I interact with...do not appear to be less "happy" than I was at their age during the 1960s. And their standards of living are certainly much better than that of the working class neighborhood I lived in throughout the 1960s, so what is the basis for all this supposed discontent? If it's merely perceptions, then so what?

Tiago writes:

Utilitarianism is one of the few things I find myself in constant disagreement with Bryan Caplan. I'm not sure he would pass his Turing test on it. I wonder if he has read "Moral Tribes", by Joshua Greene, the best case for it I know of.

Andrew_FL writes:

You insult classical liberals greatly by insinuating they as a group believed in "aggregate utility."

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