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sandel’s ‘moral’ tribalism

I greatly enjoyed the first two-thirds of Michael Sandel’s new book, Justice: A Reader, which only made the final third more disappointing. Sandel begins his book with a long and fruitful discussion of philosophical thought, ranging from Rousseau to Nozick to Rawls, with compelling thought experiments and concise explanations of the different schools of thought. In the end, Sandel argues that each school falls short, in part due to neglecting the moral legitimacy of communal bonds, such as family, ethnicity, and nation, which, he argues, are not contractual, voluntary decisions made by the individual, but inescapable moral obligations that do not depend on individual consent. Read the rest of this entry »


Filed under: Philosophy

the illiberal global labor market

Lant Pritchett concludes “Let Their People Come: Breaking the Gridlock on Global Labor Mobility” not by talking about amnesty, but bilateral temporary work agreements. In just 151 pages (available for free), Pritchett not only presents a convincing argument for the reduction of labor movement restrictions, but also thoughtfully and respectfully engages the anti-immigration ideas that keep labor mobility reform off the agenda. While unafraid to voice disagreement with these ideas, Pritchett is careful to acknowledge their political import, and -in a welcomed bow to pragmatism- produces his final recommendations in the context of these realities. This post will be the first in a series to explore Pritchett’s arguments, beginning with an introduction to the matter at hand and the morality of the foreign labor debate.
Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: General Welfare, Philosophy,

jane jacobs: a model for conciliation

Jane Jacobs ushered in a revolution in city planning with her classic Death and the Life of Great American Cities in 1961, inspiring a generation of urbanites to fight off the technocratic meddling of big government. She fostered an appreciation for the natural ecology of the city, the emergence of an exciting and productive spontaneous order. She rallied against central planning, mounting a Hayekian stand to defeat Robert Moses, the Great Man of NYC development. Jacobs’ New Urbanism represents a unique conciliation of Austrian economics and the political left. In Death and the Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs spins a tale of well-intentioned but brutally wrongheaded urban planners -some of the the smartest folks of the time- whose hubris leads to nothing but destruction and blight. Austrian economists, such as Hayek, have been telling this story for years, in all areas of government, but never managed the success of Jacobs. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Economic Policy, Philosophy

on thoreau’s civil disobedience

I had meant to read up on Thoreau for quite some time now, and took the opportunity yesterday to read the Project Gutenberg text of Civil Disobedience on my Kindle. I found the essay well-conceived, enjoyable, and dripping with an arrogance that only comes with a supreme confidence in one’s intellect, moral standing, and social status. That said, while I was impressed by Thoreau’s well-articulated respect for the individual, his moral outrage at the crimes of slavery and the Mexican War, and his criticism of those who recognized the injustice and paid but lip service, I found his Rousseau-like worldview naive and his writing self-indulgent. Below I have written up some of my initial thoughts; they should not be read as conclusive opinions, but hopefully will spark some discussion. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Philosophy

a freedom framework for development

After explaining why he prefers negative to positive liberty, and defining “freedom,” Jean-Pierre Chauffour shares his conceptual framework for advancing human rights and development through the promotion of freedom:

If one agrees  with the idea that human nature is such as to allow most people,  regardless of capabilities and circumstances, to organize and promote   their lives, act creatively and productively, and advance themselves   through ingenuity and entrepreneurial savvy, one can then  draw important lessons in the field of political economy to understanding   and remedying poverty (Machan 2006a). Development  policies that promote and secure the (negative) individual right  to liberty and freedom would then provide the most appropriate  environment to unleash the potential of each human being to be  master of his or her own life and destiny. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: General Welfare, Philosophy,

is the smoker free?

In The Power of Freedom: Uniting Human Rights and Development, Jean-Pierre Chauffour deftly explores the meaning of “freedom,” weighing competing viewpoints and explaining his chosen interpretation:

At what point does one become ultimately  responsible for a choice, taking into account all endogenous and  exogenous factors influencing the decision? Are the poor and the  unemployed free? Is the smoker free? What about the prostitute  or the member of a sect? Or individuals suffering from dementia,  schizophrenia, or clinical depression? While it is true that free will  can simply be defined as the ability to do, or not do, something,  freedom of will is supposedly subject to various determinants,  including environmental, social, physical, psychological, biological,  and theological.” Philosophers have debated this question for over  two millennia, and just about every major thinker has had something  to say about it. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Philosophy

Negative rights, positive oughts

Jean-Pierre Chauffour’s The Power of Freedom: Uniting Human Rights and Development is a Bill Easterly favorite that both critiques the current human rights and economic development frameworks currently used by the international community and explains how they can be brought together into a singular, coherent vision. There’s a lot to talk about, but I’ll start with some excerpts on negative vs. positive rights. This is a lively topic (recently, Easterly and Amnesty International traded arguments on whether poverty is a rights violation, with Will Wilkinson, among others, chiming in as well). Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: General Welfare, Philosophy

conservatives, liberals, and libertarians

I’ve been slow on the posting recently as I’ve been ensconced with the Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt (see goodreads link to the right, open an account, and add me). I’m also plotting a new task for myself which I’ll document here in the future — a running list of insights that I’ve come across in my readings which I think are crucial to improving decision-making. This post, meanwhile, is considerably less ambitious, but it’s been something I’ve meant to sort through for a while now.

I often find myself hop-scotching from from liberal to conservative to libertarian perspectives on the merits of policies and the role of government in general. Conservative P.J. O’Rourke once said, “The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.” On the other hand, Democrats are the party that says the market doesn’t work and then they intervene in the market and prove it.

After my recent post on conservative efforts to reform the Republican party, Will Wilkinson has a series of blog posts that details how libertarians have now become ‘free agents’ in the political battle:

“20th century libertarian-conservative alliance was based on anti-communism/socialism. The reasonable, sophisticated consequentialist pragmatism of the great 20th century market liberals seemed an insufficient bulwark against the slippery slope from the liberal, capitalist welfare state to full-on illiberal, totalitarian socialism.

I identify completely with Wilkinson when he describes himself as “an old-fashioned market liberal who thinks Hayek, Friedman, and Buchanan get it right, and who thinks Rawlsian welfare liberals should be able to recognize themselves in these thinkers.

Wilkinson sees some middle ground, “now that the welfare-liberal elite has become rather more economically literate and is no longer sighing over five year plans.” Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James M. Buchanan supported a societal safety net, so that’s not an incontrovertible divide between liberalism and libertarianism.

Just as the young Republicans see potential to reignite a Grand New Party, Wilkinson sees potential for a liberal/libertarian joint effort to solve the major problems of the day:

“The question these days is whether the U.S. will have the good sense to adopt more rational market-based old-age pension policies, like Sweden or Australia, or lower corporate tax rates to a level more in line with the rest of the wealthy world. Slightly higher personal tax rates and slightly more redistribution is a possibility, but a slide into socialism just isn’t on the table.”

Arnold Kling, for his part, douses the liberal/libertarian loveparty with a healthy dose of skepticism:

I just don’t think that the contemporary American left cares for that sort of thing. Instead, I see an obsession with market failure and the need to centralize power. The basic approach is:

1. X is a crisis.
2. Collective action through government is necessary to solve X.
3. Collective action through government is sufficient to solve X.
4. Government needs more power in order to solve X.

You can let X be anything from the sub-prime mortgage problem to the uninsured to obesity. My view tends to be:

1. X is being over-dramatized.
2. Private initiatives are probably sufficient for dealing with X.
3. Collective action through government to solve X will turn out much worse in practice than in theory.
4. Government already has more than enough power to solve X. The problem is not lack of power–the problem is, well, see point 3.

I’ll let Wilkinson get the final word:

Left-liberal welfare statists, insofar as they are actually liberals and not just progressive-style paternalist technocrats or closeted socialists, would better achieve their distinctively liberal aims by accepting something like the Friedmanite or Hayekian version of welfare statism.”

I certainly agree with Wilkinson, but I share Kling’s skepticism. Your thoughts?

Filed under: Philosophy

what makes a just nation-state

This post follows the utility of the nation-state in exploring the importance of properly defining fairness, a concept that weighs heavily in most discussions while rarely being explored on its own merits.

At some point, a nation ingrains a conception of fairness in the national fabric, most often in the constitution itself. I think many would refer to this as the “social compact.” Europe emphasizes distributive justice among citizens, both increasing the possibilities for the worst off among their citizens and decreasing the opportunities for those branded outsiders.

Some of those outsiders headed to the New World looking for a type of fairness very different from that found in Europe at the time, or, for that matter, in modern Europe.

The Statue of Liberty stands a testament to that uniquely American ideal: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

The American Dream was characterized not by distributive, but procedural justice. Each person would be given the same opportunity regardless of their ethnicity, religion, creed, etc. Talent and hard work would determine how far you’d go in life, not whether you were Catholic or Protestant or born from “proper stock” or any other determination of what was a “proper citizen.”

What’s happened since then?

Well, the frontier’s been settled. The moment the Italian no longer considered himself an immigrant he spat upon on the ‘Irish dogs, who, in turn, cast a wary eye and a perjorative slur at the Mexican.

Yet despite the natural human inclination to protect one’s kin and consequent belief in the “defective moral quality of being a stranger,” the American notion of procedural fairness has remained remarkably resilient.

Despite nativist attacks at nearly every stage in American development — from the Know Nothing Party to Lou Dobbs — immigrants continue to flock to the United States and power American development and innovation, from the atom bomb to Google.

The United States has ridden the creative powers and hard work of the “poor and huddled masses” to a level prosperity unmatched in the history of the world. The American social compact is to be credited.

Yet societies have remarkably short memories, and apparently a 305-foot high statue warmly welcoming the world’s “wretched refuse” in the nation’s richest city is not enough to remind Americans of how the US developed into an economic titan.

The trouble is that energetic, hard-working immigrants eventually have kids. Some of their kids will keep their parent’s spirit, most will not. While the immigrants who venture to the US leave behind their lazier and less talented brothers and sisters, there is no self-selection mechanism for those born in the US.

While that may sound in bad taste, it’s no different than the way we talk about being born into a rich family. While the original entrepreneur was likely hard-working, there’s no reason to suspect the same of their children.

The American paradox is that we all want to be treated fairly as we grow up (procedural justice), and then we all want our children to receive the best treatment available even if they don’t deserve it (distributive justice).

Who loses?

Well, who would have lost if the Know-Nothings successfully closed the door on Irish immigration, or if the racists in California had succesfully shut the door on Japanese immigration?

Clearly, the immigrants themselves would have lost dearly, as well as their children, and their children’s children. In addition, the children and great grandchildren of the earlier Americans benefitted as well, as dynamic labor markets spurred on the creation of new industries and created new jobs and opportunities for all Americans. Yet in both cases loyal Americans tried to slam the door in the face of these immigrants in defense of what they perceived as the American interest.

The trouble is that it’s only easy to see the benefit of immigration 100 years later, removed from the emotional tug that drags down most political discourse. It’s hard to put much weight in the positive externalities of productive new immigrants if you think things could be better in your life at that moment (“My son lost his job + I see a lot more Mexicans around + They have jobs = they took his job.”)

The changing economic dynamics of the 21st century once again raise the question, what kind of country should America be? Should it be a nation-state in the static European sense? An exclusive club that sets up barricades and pampers its few members? Is distributive justice the next step?

Clearly, I don’t think so. I don’t think it would be healthy for America in the long run to choke off her access to fresh ideas and hard work, and I don’t think it’s just.

The United States is not, and should not be static, like a France or Germany. It should be dynamic and everchanging, a whole composed of parts bound not by blood but belief in a fair shake. That’s not to say we need be as superficial in our understanding of procedural justice as our ancestors. We can still admit we have a lot to learn from Scandinavia while staying loyal to procedural justice. How we can do so is a subject for another post. But our core strength lies in equal opportunity, and we’d be wise to focus discussions of justice within that paradigm, rather than the distributive justice of our country-club cousins in Europe. It’s both in our interest and more helpful to the disparate.

Filed under: Philosophy

poor and huddled masses

Kevin Mawae is sick and tired of being confined to the lower class. He’s worked for 15 years in a gritty industry and is tired of watching flashy prodigies get huge salaries that he could only dream of, despite being among the best at his job. Like most people in that situation, he wants to do something about it. He wants to limit the salaries and bonuses of that higher strata of workers. As it is, the current system of financial reward simply isn’t fair in the mind of Mr. Mawae.

The catch?

Mawae is an offensive lineman for the New York Jets, and in 2002 made more than $9 million as the highest paid offensive lineman in the league. Yet the aforementioned sentiments are very real — Mawae is upset with the contracts first-round picks are getting nowadays, specifically BC alum Matt Ryan’s six-year, $72 million deal.

“I know there is sentiment around the league amongst the players like, ‘Let’s do something to control these salaries and control these signing bonuses’ and things like that,” said Mawae.

I’m reminded of a quote from P.J. O’Rourke that Greg Mankiw recently cited:

“I have a 10 year old at home, and she is always saying, “That’s not fair.” When she says that, I say, “Honey, you’re cute; that’s not fair. Your family is pretty well off; that’s not fair. You were born in America; that’s not fair. Honey, you had better pray to God that things don’t start getting fair for you.

I think there is something telling in Mawae’s reaction to the Ryan contract. He wants fairness, but his conception of fairness extends only so far as he would benefit. You don’t see Mawae admitting that his salary should be controlled to better serve fairness.

The consultant who’s watching the Jets in the stands feels the same way about rookie contracts as Mawae, but not simply about rookie contracts, but Mawae’s contract as well.

The low-skilled worker feels the same way as the consultant, but not simply about football contracts, but about the prosperity enjoyed by college graduates as well.

Of course, like Mawae, the low-skilled worker may be treated “unfairly” relative to some, but if he were to be treated fairly along with low-skilled people all over the world, he would not like the result.

I think this story is helpful for the greater discussion of poverty. Liberals still stick to their guns with “relative poverty” indicators, so that a person in the US with a car and a microwave is labeled “poor,” the same as if he had malnutrition and a life expectancy of 40 years in a developing country living on less than a dollar a day.

The Mawae story is relevant because it demonstrates that there is no magic dollar figure when an individual ceases to believe he is not being rewarded fairly; pursuing the end of relative poverty is chasing a ghost. If we could somehow snap our fingers and the world’s citizens were paid like NFL players, people would still think there were significant “relative poverty” wrongs that must be righted.

In this worldview, lowering the well-being of others, the redistribution of poverty, is a victory. When Mawae goes to the bargaining table with the owners, he has stated he will look to stop these high rookie salaries. Will he benefit at all? Likely not, it will simply mean more money for the owners.

When it comes to millionaire football players, who cares if they screw the pooch. The problem is when this same attitude leads individuals to throw away large pieces of the general economic pie because of petty jealousy and envy. The socially just shouldn’t be trying to turn princes into paupers in the name of relative-poverty justice. Justice isn’t relative.

Update: How does this relative poverty argument play out in the real world? Consider this article, Has Ireland’s Rising Tide Benefited Its Poor? Within, Lane Kenworthy explains how poverty is “on the rise” in Ireland according to standard indicators, despite the fact that the poorest Irish are better off now than they have ever been. Kenworthy offers a worthy substitute for the current relative poverty indicators — income at the tenth percentile of income distribution; in other words, how much better or worse off are the lowest 10% of income-earners in a given area. Given this indicator, Mawae, the low-skilled worker, and the Irish would all see that their well-being has improved greatly over the past 10-20 years, even as “relative poverty” has grown, allowing us to focus our attention on the genuinely poor and huddled masses.

Filed under: Philosophy