Category Archives: Philosophy

Identity is the Mind-Killer

There’s a joke among anarchists: “What’s the difference between a minarchist and an anarchist? Six months!”

For context, a minarchist is someone who believes in a minimal state. The joke is commenting on the large number of people who discover libertarian philosophy and end up gradually becoming more extreme in their views until they conclude that the state should not exist.

This is part if a broader pattern that affects other ideologies as well. Have you noticed that self-professed socialists tend to be left-wing activists? And that left-wing activists are much more likely to identify as socialists than, say, politically inactive non-voters?

In fact, the connection between extreme views and political engagement is so strong, we often don’t bother to distinguish between the two. The word “extremist” is used interchangeably to describe people with extreme viewpoints and people who take extreme action for their views. But there’s no reason why someone with moderate political views can’t be marching in the streets, circulating petitions, joining activist circles, burning down buildings, and the like, all in the name of moderation. There’s also no reason someone can’t have extreme views while not engaging much with political or social activism. And yet, extreme views tend to go hand in hand with activism. To borrow Jason Brennan’s terms, you have the Hobbits, who have low political engagement and moderate views, and the Hooligans, who have high political engagement and relatively extreme views.

Why is this so? And how come the difference between a minarchist and an anarchist is six months? Continue reading Identity is the Mind-Killer

The Trolley Car Approach to Public Policy

Scott Alexander has an article at Slate Star Codex discussing the use of edge cases in moral philosophy:

There’s a tradition at least as old as Kant of investigating philosophical dilemmas by appealing to our intuitions about extreme cases. Kant, remember, proposed that it was always wrong to lie. A contemporary of his, Benjamin Constant, made the following objection: suppose a murderer is at the door and wants to know where your friend is so he can murder her. If you say nothing, the murderer will get angry and kill you; if you tell the truth he will find and kill your friend; if you lie, he will go on a wild goose chase and give you time to call the police. Lying doesn’t sound so immoral now, does it?

This is a great way of doing philosophy, but reading it, I realized I had heard it before. I’ve heard this sort of argument in the context of policy debates.

Here’s a particularly striking example (h/t to Jason Brennan):


Unlike the case of the door-to-door murderer, which is a deliberately fanciful way of examining a broader moral truth, this is a policy proposal made on the basis of a fanciful scenario. The argumentation goes like this:

  1. In an unlikely scenario, economic system A would allow bad outcome X
  2. Therefore, abolish A (and substitute it with another system, such as B)

There are a lot of errors packed into this line of thinking. What if bad outcome X happens under both systems? What if changing systems just substitutes bad outcome Y for X? What this fails to do is compare the relevant alternatives. Is the implicit claim that under socialism, nobody would ever starve? Millions of Soviet citizens beg to differ. Continue reading The Trolley Car Approach to Public Policy

Is a Small Amount of Money More Valuable to a Low Income Person than to a High Income Person?

I answered this question over at Quora. Just about all the other answers were wrong, so I thought I’d set things straight.

No. Value is not a quantity. It cannot be compared across individuals, so we cannot say that $50 is more valuable to person A than to person B.

To understand value, you must understand action. To act is to select one thing and set aside another. Thus, an ability to evaluate one thing over another is a necessary prerequisite to action, one that all mentally functioning humans possess. Valuation is always a comparison between two alternatives. It is a comparison made in the mind of an acting human.

Because the high income person and the low income person are different individuals, their valuations cannot be compared. We could say something like, “the low income person values an hour of his time less than $50, while the high income person values an hour of his time more than $50.” But this does not mean the low income person values $50 more than the high income person does in any absolute sense, because an hour of time is not the same to different individuals.

Some people have said that the answer is yes because marginal utility decreases with quantity. This is a misinterpretation. It is true that people tend to value additional units of a stock of interchangeable consumer goods less with each additional unit. This is because a person will use the first unit of the good to satisfy his highest unmet need, the second unit to satisfy his second highest unmet need, the third unit to satisfy his third highest unmet need, and so on. Thus, marginal utility does decrease with quantity. But it only meaningfully decreases with respect to other goods! If I have five dumplings, I might value an additional dumpling more than a battery, but if I have six or more dumplings I might value the battery more than an additional dumpling.

While I value things less with each additional unit, we can’t take this to mean my valuation of my total wealth must decrease as I grow wealthier. Total wealth comprises everything, leaving nothing to compare it against, so valuation is meaningless.

Continue reading Is a Small Amount of Money More Valuable to a Low Income Person than to a High Income Person?

Economics is a Philosophy of Tolerance

My latest Mises Canada article deals with the economist’s response to snobbery:

The world is full of snobs. There are music snobs who complain that most people prefer Lady Gaga to Stravinsky, film snobs who complain that most people prefer action movies to art films, and food snobs who complain that most people prefer pizza to fine sashimi. Whatever one’s area of interest, it is tempting to pass judgement on others’ preferences.

In learning economics, and in absorbing its lessons, one learns to be less of a snob. Economic analysis always begins by taking people’s preferences as given. The economist sees someone choosing pizza over sashimi and sees only a person acting towards the highest attainment of his ends. The economist trains himself to leave his personal biases and any inclination towards snobbery behind so that he can keep his analysis value free.

Even common terms like “responsible” and “irresponsible” are value-laden. Activities we recognize as responsible, such as saving for retirement, avoiding risks to life and limb, and living a healthy lifestyle are consistent with a specific set of preferences. Someone who values future experience highly against present experience (i.e. someone with a low rate of time preference) will favour all of these behaviours. Activities we recognize as irresponsible, such as profligate spending, risk-taking, and indulging in junk food, alcohol, or illicit drugs are consistent with a different set of preferences. Valuing present experience highly over future experience (i.e. having a high rate of time preference) makes all these activities more appealing. Economics permits us to understand these different preferences but it never permits us to judge one set of preferences to be superior to another.

Read the whole article at Mises Canada.

Assigning the Burden of Proof

Have you ever experienced learning a new word and then hearing it everywhere in the days after you learn it? I’ve had a similar experience since making my argument that the burden of proof that the minimum wage is beneficial falls on the law’s supporters. Now I’m seeing people making burden-of-proof arguments everywhere. Bryan Caplan, in a post on EconLog, quotes Mike Huemer making the argument explicitly:

[T]here is a kind of moral presumption against coercive interventions. Laws are commands backed up by threats of coercive imposition of harm on those who disobey them. Harmful coercion against an individual generally requires some clear justification. One is not justified in coercively harming a person on the grounds that the person has violated a command that one merely guesses has some social benefit. If it is not reasonably clear that the expected benefits of a policy significantly outweigh the expected costs, then one cannot justly use force to impose that policy on the rest of society.

Ryan P. Long, over at Open Borders: The Case, makes what is essentially a burden-of-proof argument for open borders:

[W]hile it’s easy to merely allege that “the immigrants” caused crime to increase in your neighborhood or property values to decrease, it is substantially more difficult to prove it. I leave the burden of proof for [the idea that the differences between people really do translate into a reduced quality of life] on immigration’s critics.

Migrants from poor countries often see a 20-fold increase in their earnings just by setting foot in a wealthy country, so you had better have a good reason for barring them from doing so. The people at Open Borders: The Case do a great job arguing for the positive benefits of increased migration, but if we assigned the burden of proof correctly, it would be open borders’ opponents who would have to do the hard arguing. Continue reading Assigning the Burden of Proof

Opaque Facts

Welcome to Night Vale

“Some mysteries aren’t questions to be answered, but just a kind of opaque fact—a thing which exists to be not known.” – Welcome to Night Vale: A Story About You

The above quote was in an episode of the excellent podcast Welcome to Night Vale. I love the term “opaque fact,” and it strikes me that economics is full of opaque facts, and that our distinctions between opaque facts and mysteries largely determine our views of markets.

People’s preferences are opaque facts. We can’t know other people’s preferences; the best we can do is observe their past actions to infer something about their past preferences. Continue reading Opaque Facts