Governing Least: What’s Really Wrong with Utilitarianism

One argument against utilitarianism is that no one actually follows it.  I call this the Argument from Hypocrisy.  A better objection, though, is that even highly scrupulous utilitarians don’t comply with their stated principles; I call this the Argument from Conscience.   In Governing Least, Moller powerfully develops a parallel objection: While utilitarians often urge self-sacrifice, they rarely preach other-sacrifice.  But given their principles, they totally should!  Moller’s explanation is so well-phrased that I decided to reproduce a complete section.

Challenges to living with utilitarianism tend to focus on what I called options— the option we think we normally have to flout the overall good when we rather sleep in, or buy a subwoofer instead of donating to charity. But what really cuts ice are constraints on our actions. Singer and others emphasize that they can accept that they do not, as utilitarians, have the option to loaf about when they could help others, however much they fall short. But what is really hard about living with utilitarianism isn’t self-sacrifice but other-sacrifice, paradoxically enough. This wouldn’t be so if we were purely self- interested, but we aren’t, and the prospect of exploiting others for the greater good thus terrifies us. Of course, it’s rare that harming innocents will produce much good, but it’s easy enough to come up with cases:

Grandma: Grandma is a kindly soul who has saved up tens of thousands of dollars in cash over the years. One fine day you see her stashing it away under her mattress, and come to think that with just a little nudge you could cause her to fall and most probably die. You could then take her money, which others don’t know about, and redistribute it to those more worthy, saving many lives in the process. No one will ever know. Left to her own devices, Grandma would probably live a few more years, and her money would be discovered by her unworthy heirs who would blow it on fancy cars and vacations. Liberated from primitive deontic impulses by a recent college philosophy course, you silently say your goodbyes and prepare to send Grandma into the beyond.

If this seems too outré to take seriously, we can try this instead:

Child: Your son earns a good living as a doctor but is careless with some of his finances. You sometimes help him out by organizing his receipts and invoices. One day you have the opportunity to divert $1,000 from his funds to a charity where the money will do more good; neither he nor anyone else will ever notice the difference, besides the beneficiaries. You decide to steal your child’s money and promote the overall good.

Recall that we’ve already set aside ecumenical views that side with deontic morality in practice. So it’s no use to protest that the true utilitarian theory has some esoteric feature that lets us ignore the case, say because we should only follow rules with good consequences, and killing those around us to reduce hunger would have terrible consequences overall. The only views left on the table at this point are precisely those that are willing to contemplate that, at least in some circumstances, rubbing out Grandma and stealing from our children is the right thing to do. The problem, then, is that most people don’t seem able to accept even that they ought to aspire to such behavior, let alone engage in it. Exploiting those we love isn’t an ideal we fail to attain, it’s the very antipode of the ideals themselves. Just consider contexts in which we are specifically seeking to articulate them, as when we instruct our children. Do revisionist utilitarians sit down their sons and daughters and implore them to steal from their friends when it is possible to do so undetected and to divert the money to famine relief? There are many books by revisionist utilitarians telling us that we ought to do more to live up to the demands of morality through self- sacrifice; the fact that there are so few urging us to engage in more other-sacrifice would be surprising if revisionists really could take their philosophy seriously in practice.

Notice, again, that Moller is not invoking the Argument from Hypocrisy.  “The problem, then, is that most people don’t seem able to accept even that they ought to aspire to such behavior, let alone engage in it. ”  In other words, utilitarians don’t preach other-sacrifice, but fail to practice what they preach.  They barely even preach it!  Suspicious, to say the least.

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Dan Moller’s Governing Least

Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority is definitely my favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  Dan Moller’s new Governing Least, however, is definitely now my second-favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  The two books have much in common: Both use common-sense ethics to argue for libertarian politics.  Both are calm, logical, and ever-mindful of potential criticisms.  Both strive to persuade reasonable people who don’t already agree with them.  Both are packed with broader insights.  And despite these parallels, both are deeply original.

So what’s most original about Moller’s position?  Instead of focusing on the rights of the victims of coercion, Moller emphasizes the effrontery of the advocates of coercion:

[I]n my account libertarianism emerges from everyday moral beliefs we have about when we are permitted to shift our burdens onto others. In fact, my account intentionally downplays the role of rights, and is motivated by doubts about what we may demand of others, rather than outrage about what others demand of us.

The effrontery is most blatant when you speak in the first person:

Imagine calling a town hall meeting and delivering the following speech:

My dear assembled citizens: I know most of us are strangers, but of late I have fallen on hard times through no fault of my own, by sheer bad luck. My savings are low, and I don’t have friends or family to help. Now as you know, I’ve previously asked for help from you as private citizens, as a matter of charity. But unfortunately that hasn’t been sufficient. Thus, I’m here now to insist that you (yes you, Emma, and you, John) owe me assistance as a matter of justice. It is a deep violation if you don’t work additional hours, take fewer vacations if need be, live in a smaller house, or send your kids to a worse school, in order to help me. Failing to do so is no less an injustice than failing to pay your debts.

Moreover, calling this an injustice means that it’s not enough that you comply with your obligations by working on my behalf. No, I insist that you help me to force your fellow citizens to assist me. It doesn’t matter if these others say to you that they need the money for their own purposes, that they prefer worthier causes, or if they’re just hard-hearted and don’t care. To the extent you care about justice, you must help me to force these others to assist me whether they wish to or not, since that is what is owed me in light of my recent bad luck.

Could you bring yourself to make this speech?

The fundamental objection to Moller’s position, he thinks, is to claim that governments have “emergent moral powers.”  But Moller firmly denies this.  Governments are just groups of people, so they are morally obliged to follow the same moral principles as everyone else.  While this may seem like libertarian question-begging, there’s nothing uniquely libertarian about it:

It is notable that many who wish to block rights-based objections to state action are nevertheless eager to enter their own moral objections to what the state does. Many of those unsympathetic to attacks on taxation rooted in individual rights also portray the absence of welfare provisions or various immigration policies as “unconscionable.” There is nothing inconsistent about this; the one set of moral claims may be right and the other confused. But the objection then cannot be based on the emergent moral powers of the state. We cannot both reject appeals to individuals rights on the general grounds that morality has nothing to tell us about what may emerge from government institutions, and then do just that, substituting our own preferred brand of interpersonal morality. Once we notice this, support for emergence should shrink drastically, since it will only come from those who think there are no policies of the state that can be rejected on fundamental
moral grounds. The non- emergence assumption per se has no particular ideological leanings.

But doesn’t common-sense morality admit that rights to person and property are not absolute?  Of course; exceptions abound.  Moller sternly emphasizes, however, that these exceptions come with supplemental moral burdens attached.  In his “Emergency” hypothetical, for example, you steal $1000 under duress.  What then?

I propose the following non-exhaustive list of residual obligations for cases like Emergency:

Restitution: although I didn’t do wrong, I must repay the $1,000 if possible, perhaps in reasonable installments.

Compensation: to the extent you are otherwise harmed by my actions, I should attempt to compensate you. For instance, if I smashed your windows getting in or forced you to incur some loss because you had to come home at short notice, I must compensate you at some reasonable rate.

Sympathy: it is incumbent on me to convey, if not an apology for my (permissible) actions, at least sympathy for the harm I have caused you. (“I’m very sorry I had to do that” would be the natural if slightly misleading phrase.) I cannot offer a Gallic shrug at your distress and announce, “I did nothing wrong— it’s your problem” as you survey the wreckage of your home. To do so would exhibit a serious character flaw.

Responsibility: my obligations are not just backward looking, but forward looking. If I can reasonably foresee that some action of mine will put me in the position of facing an emergency that will then render it permissible to harm you, I must take responsibility to avoid such actions if possible. I should not think that I have less reason to take responsibility because I can avoid harms by transferring them to you instead. And failing to take responsibility weakens my claim to impose costs on others when the time comes.

A related principle is worth mentioning as well:

Need: my warrant for harming you depends on how bad my situation is. I cannot harm you if I am doing fine already merely in order to improve my position still further. I may be permitted to take your $1,000 to avert a physical threat, but not in order to make a lucrative investment in order to get even richer.

The political implications are expansive, starting with:

A welfare state justified in virtue of overriding reasons to promote the good of the beneficiaries incurs these residual obligations. Flouting them amounts to unfair burden- shifting. What would it look like actually to satisfy them? For starters, if I were the beneficiary of some emergency medical procedure that a third party compelled others to contribute to— say a state agency— I would be obligated to
repay those charged for my benefit, possibly with some compensatory surcharge. If unable to pay, I would be required to pay in installments, with the agency keeping track of my income and tax records to ensure that my repayment were in line with my means…

Moreover, in repaying, my attitude toward my fellow citizens ought to be one of gratitude for coming to my assistance, as opposed to viewing these services as entitlements due to me as a matter of citizenship. This may seem curious: by hypothesis, the services I received made it past the threshold, meaning that the wealth transfers involved were permissible, and since I am repaying, they won’t
even be net transfers in the long run, barring misfortune. Depending on how badly I needed aid, aiding may even have been obligatory on a third party. Why should I express gratitude for others fulfilling their duties? Consider the Gallic shrug— that supreme expression of indifference at someone else’s misfortunes, while disclaiming all responsibility for rectifying them, frequently encountered
in Parisian cafés. Why shouldn’t I shrug my Gallic shrug at the rich complaining about their tax bill, and point out I merely got what I was entitled to, as would they in a similar situation?

This complaint would be apt if appropriate moral responses were a function solely of whether our acts are required or permissible. But there are all kinds of inappropriate moral responses even when what we have done is permissible or when what the other has done was required. If we are to meet for lunch and an urgent business affair obtrudes itself, I may be permitted to skip our lunch, but
I shouldn’t treat putting you out lightly. What makes a Gallic shrug a vice here is that beneath the outer layer of permissibility there remains an inner structure whereby you have been harmed for my sake, which ought to be a source of concern, leading to some appropriate expression of regret if I am a decent person.  And the same is true in the case of welfare services. This is easy to ignore because
of the opaque veils of state bureaucracy. But behind the faceless agency lie people who are harmed for the sake of benefiting me.

Governing Least manages to be at once readable and dense.  And though you can’t tell from the passages I just quoted, Moller also repeatedly appeals to and grapples with cutting-edge social science.  What, for example, should philosophers think about Greg Clark’s work on the long-run heritability of social status?  Moller’s take will surprise many of you.

Last question: Why do I still prefer Huemer to Moller?  Intellectually, because Huemer’s appeal to individual rights is just more clear-cut than Moller’s objection to “burden-shifting.”  Furthermore, Huemer focuses on the broader case for libertarianism, while Moller self-consciously focuses on opposition to the welfare state.*  And while Moller’s book is beautifully written and well-organized, Huemer’s is stellar on both counts.

Thus, if you’re only going to read one book of libertarian political philosophy, I still say you should read The Problem of Political Authority.  If you’re willing to read two such books, however, read Governing Least.  I loved it.

* Moller: “I also ignore the many noneconomic causes that libertarians have sometimes taken up, like free speech, gay marriage, and drug legalization. This is the fun part of libertarianism and requires little heroism to defend. Many disagree with such policies, but few think their sponsors cruel or ungenerous, while resistance to the welfare state and programs intended to foster economic equality evoke precisely that response.”

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Hypocrisy and Hyperbole

I teach at a public university.  Am I a hypocrite?  Bernie Sanders’ net worth is about $2M.  Is he a hypocrite?  How about vegetarians who regularly eat meat?

The right answer: It depends on the details of the speakers’ moral position!  Consider the following cases.

1. You say, “It is always morally wrong to eat meat,” but you still eat meat.  Are you a hypocrite?  Of course, because you break your own absolute rule.

2. You say, “We have a duty not to eat meat, except in extreme circumstances,” but you still eat meat.  Are you a hypocrite?  Almost certainly, because we’re rarely in extreme circumstances.

3. You say, “Eating meat is very bad,” but you still eat meat.  Are you a hypocrite?  Probably.  Yes, you could believe there are important offsetting moral factors that justify your meat consumption despite its badness.  But if you thought these offsetting factors were important, you probably would have discussed them.  And if you think these offsetting factors are unimportant, what are the odds that they just-so-happen to excuse your meat consumption?

4. You say, “We should eat less meat,” but you still eat meat.  Are you a hypocrite?  Perhaps.  If your meat consumption is low or at least falling, your behavior is plausibly consistent with your principle.  Otherwise, not.

5. You say, “Government should discourage meat consumption,” but still eat meat.  You don’t say anything resembling #1-#4.  Are you a hypocrite?  Probably not – unless you’re a powerful politician who ignores the issue.

So how hypocritical are people, really?  Exceedingly so.  Why?  Because humans love hyperbole.  When they moralize, they gravitate toward strong versions of their moral positions.  They don’t like to say, “Well, government should raise taxes on the rich; but until that day, the rich are doing nothing morally wrong.”  Neither do they like to say, “The rich should give 13% more money to charity.”  These positions aren’t fun.

Instead, people like to say things like, “It’s a crime for billionaires to exist in a world with hunger” or “The rich are nothing but a bunch of bloodsucking parasites.”  And when you make such extreme statements, you routinely end up condemning yourself as well – at least by extension.  After all, if it’s a crime for billionaires to exist in a world with hunger, why isn’t it also a crime for millionaires?  For single adults who make $30k a year?  Moralizing with hyperbole is like a detonating a massive moral bomb; unless you’re careful, you end up in your own blast radius.

Which brings us back to my initial questions.

1. Am I a hypocrite?  No, because I avoid hyperbole.  I don’t claim that anyone who teaches at a public university is a wrongdoer, evil, etc.  What I do claim is that (a) taxpayer support for education is extremely wasteful, and (b) politicians and their subordinates who forcibly extract that support have a moral duty to stop.

2. Is Sanders a hypocrite?  Of course.  Virtually every politician is a hypocrite, because hyperbole is their livelihood.  This is no surprise, because politicians are an evil bunch.  And that’s no hyperbole.

3. Are vegetarians who eat meat hypocrites?  Usually.  The modest vegetarians who eat meat once a month and say, “I’m just trying to help reduce animal suffering a little bit” are in the clear.  But any vegetarian who eats meat after claiming that “Meat is murder” – or even “Animal pain is just as morally important as human pain” is indeed a hypocrite.

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School System, Corporate Power, Boundaries, Charity, & Sweatshops (18m) – Episode 292

Episode 292 has Skyler giving his commentary on the following topics: abolishing the school system; the limitations of corporate power; the importance of agitating against political and cultural boundaries; why he doesn’t engage in charitable giving; the goodness of sweatshops; and more.

Listen to Episode 292 (18m, mp3, 64kbps)

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The Philosophy of Poverty?: My Opening Statement

Here’s my opening statement for yesterday’s poverty debate with David Balan.  Enjoy!

The world is rich, but billions of people are still poor.  What’s the morally right response?

The default view is that the government should dramatically expand redistribution programs, forcing the well-endowed – especially business and the rich – to provide a decent standard of living for everyone.  I strongly reject this default view.

Why?  Most glaringly, because the default view overlooks the fact that governments willfully cause an enormous amount of poverty.  The most effective way for human beings to escape extreme poverty is to move from the Third World to the First World and get a job.  Yet the governments of every First World country on Earth make it almost impossible for the global poor to come.  Economically, immigration is a fantastic deal for both sides, because labor – especially low-skilled labor – is many times more productive in rich countries than it is in poor countries.  A standard estimate says that if anyone could legally work anywhere, this would ultimately double the production of the world.

But First World governments don’t merely prevent the global poor from moving to opportunity.  They covertly do the same to the domestic poor by strictly regulating construction in high-wage parts of the country.  Right now, workers in places like New York and the Bay Area earn far more than identical workers in other parts of the U.S.  However, governments in these areas also keep their housing prices astronomically high by blocking construction.  As a result, most workers – especially low-income workers – can’t profitably move to high-paid areas because housing costs eat up all the gains.  Standard estimates, again, say the harm is enormous; one influential paper estimates that housing regulation has cut total U.S. growth by at least half for decades.

Economists often fret about markets’ “equity-efficiency tradeoff,” but what the evidence really shows is that free markets are ready, willing, and able to give us far more equity and far more efficiency.  Unfortunately, it’s against the law.

Given the situation, governments’ primary moral responsibility is to stop impoverishing people.  If a man habitually attacks strangers, is the sensible response, “That guy should give his victims more money”?  No; the sensible response is, “That guy should keep his hands to himself.”  When people look at poverty and call for redistribution, I say they’re making the same mistake.  If, in the absence of government interference, people are able to solve their own poverty problem, the best government policy is no government policy.  Serious thinkers should loudly proclaim this fact before they breathe another word about poverty.

Since my opponent is a serious thinker, I know that he actually agrees with much of what I’ve just told you.  So where does he go wrong?  Emphasis.  Yes, David favors allowing a lot more immigration and a lot more construction.  He grants that these policies will enrich society in general, and the poor in particular.  But none of this excites him.  Why not?  I’m no mind-reader, but my best guess is that David idolizes Big Government, and resents free markets.  So when he thinks about a grave social problem like poverty, he doesn’t want government to get out of the way and let the free market work its magic.  He wants government to heroically solve it with redistribution.  Even when he knows that government viciously victimizes the poor, he wants to hastily concede the point, then talk about redistribution at length.

Aside: I will happily withdraw this criticism if David spends at least half of his allotted time on the evils of government.

Now David could reply: Sure, government does a lot of bad stuff to the poor.  However, government also greatly helps the poor with massive redistribution programs – and these programs could easily be expanded.  He could even flip my psychoanalysis around: “I’m no mind-reader, but my best guess is that Bryan idolizes free markets, and resents Big Government.  So when he thinks about a grave social problem like poverty, he doesn’t want government to step in and ask the free market to pay its fair share.  He wants free markets to heroically solve it with economic opportunity.”

How would I respond to this?  I’d begin by pointing out that most government redistribution doesn’t even go to the poor.  Most obviously, almost all extreme poverty exists outside the First World, but almost all redistribution happens within the First World.  Less obviously, when you examine the budget, the welfare state focuses on helping the old – and most old people are not poor.  The upshot: Governments could do vastly more for the truly poor without raising taxes by a penny.  Just take the money they fritter away on elderly Americans, and give it to desperately poor foreigners.

To my mind, this would be a big improvement, but still a bad idea.  I don’t just oppose the expansion of government poverty programs.  I oppose the programs themselves.

Why?  In my view, there’s a strong moral presumption against taking people’s stuff without their consent.  This doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to steal a penny to save the Earth.  But it does mean that no one should take people’s stuff without their consent unless they have a really good reason.  And taking people’s stuff without their consent is the foundation of all government redistribution.  Wishful thinking notwithstanding, there is no “social contract.”  Real contracts require unanimous consent – and no government has that.  What about “Love it or leave it”?  It’s silly.  Refusing to move to another country does not remotely indicate consent to anything.

So what counts as a “really good reason” to use redistribution to help fight poverty?  Here are the main moral hurdles to clear.

Hurdle #1. Do we have strong evidence that the social benefits of redistribution far exceed the costs?  It’s OK to steal a car to save your life, but not to steal a car because you’d enjoy it more than the current owner.  The same moral principle holds for government – and due to the complex effects of economic policy, it is especially hard for government to comply.  Redistribution plausibly has big effects on incentives and economic growth, so government has no business doing redistribution until it can credibly rule out major negative side effects.

Hurdle #2. Is government trying to solve absolute poverty – hunger, homelessness, and the like?  Or merely relative poverty – lack of a smart phone or cable t.v?  Using coercion to alleviate absolute poverty is morally plausible, but using coercion to alleviate relative poverty is not.  If you’ve seen Les Miserables, you may remember the part where Jean Valjean sings, “He stole some bread to save his sister’s son.”  It would laughable, though, if he sang, “He stole an iPad to play Halo.”  Since there is little absolute poverty in First World countries, there is simply little moral room for domestic redistribution.  International redistribution is another matter, of course.

Hurdle #3. Can voluntary charity take care of the problem?  If you can handle morally objectionable poverty by asking for donations, there is no good reason to force anyone to help.  And to repeat, you shouldn’t take people’s stuff without their consent unless you have a really good reason.

Hurdle #4. The last, and most controversial hurdle: Are the potential recipients of government help poor through no fault of their own?  Or were they negligent?  Yes, I know this is a touchy subject; morally, however, we must address it.  If a friend asks to sleep on your couch for a few weeks, you normally want to know why he needs your helps – and his answer matters.  “I’m fleeing a war zone” is more morally compelling than, “My wife kicked me out because I drink away all our money.”

Why raise this touchy subject?  Because there is an enormous body of evidence showing that a major cause of severe poverty is irresponsible behavior of the poor themselves: unprotected impulsive sex, poor work ethic, substance abuse, violent crime, and much more.  Just ask yourself: If you engaged in such behavior, how long would it take before you, too, lived in poverty?

When I make this point, people have two radically different objections.

The first is to deny the facts.  I can’t do much to answer this objection during a debate; all I can do is give you a reading list later on.

The second objection, though, is to excuse irresponsible behavior – or even morally condemn anyone who calls behavior “irresponsible.”  I say this second objection is absurd.  If you had a spouse who cheated on you, or was drunk half the time, or kept losing jobs, you would run out of patience for his excuses.  Why should you be more forgiving of total strangers?  While irresponsible people often say, “I can’t help it,” this is just a misleading figure of speech.  Think of all the times you said, “I can’t come to your party,” when what you really meant was, “I don’t feel like it.”  That’s the real story of irresponsibility.

I am well-aware that blameless people do occasionally end up poor.  My point is that the advocates of merit-blind redistribution are morally blind to the possibility that they are mistreating people who have compelling reasons not to help others.  Suppose you have an alcoholic brother.  He’s repeatedly made your life miserable for the sake of his favorite beverages.  Your brother has lied to you and stolen from you.  One night he shows up at your house, begging for help.  You turn him away.  Question: What would you think if a neighbor called you up and berated you for your “selfish attitude”?  I say you should hang up on him, because your neighbor is way out of line.

To recap: I’ve offered no absolute objection to redistribution.  Instead, I’ve pointed to four moral hurdles to clear before we even consider it.  If we take these hurdles seriously, maybe you could salvage a tiny welfare state for indigent kids, the severely handicapped, refugees, and so on.  Before you make even this small exception, though, consider this: When someone has made awful decisions in the past, ironclad rules are often best even though a judicious decision-maker would make minor exceptions.  Given how badly all existing welfare states deviate from defensible moral principles, there’s a strong argument for keeping government out of poverty alleviation altogether.

Last point: If you summarize my position as, “We should do nothing about poverty,” you have totally misunderstand me.  I earnestly favor a radical new War on Poverty.  This War on Poverty, however, will target governments’ horrific policies that deprive the poor of vital opportunities.  Instead of scapegoating people who understandably don’t like paying taxes to support strangers, this War on Poverty will deregulate labor and housing markets so the poor can solve their own problems with dignity.  I am sadly aware that my War on Poverty lacks popular support.  Few progressives want to solve poverty with deregulation – and most conservatives want to regulate immigration even more strictly than we already do.  My War on Poverty, however, is the War on Poverty we ought to be fighting.

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Use Charity To Become More Practical

If you look closely, you’ll find that even in (especially in) your kind acts to others, you are probably doing an important kindness to yourself.

When I think back to the (occasional) times I’ve helped a stranger jump-start a dead car battery, or the time I stopped to assist a stranger with a flat tire, or the times I’ve tried to help homeless folks, I can see that I’ve learned a tremendous amount that helps me.

These kinds of human interaction (especially for someone who has some shyness) certainly build character and courage. But for me they’ve also been great ways to build a base of practicality in know-how, equipment, and preparedness habits.

Now I don’t go anywhere in my car without my jumper cables or a jerry can for gasoline. I’ve picked up a bit of knowledge  about the homeless shelters in Atlanta: their requirements, specialties, and drawbacks. I even learned some of the basics of the tire-change for the first time from stopping to work with a stranger, so I’m much better prepared for the next time.

I’m not as consistent as I should be in helping others. And when I do I sometimes grumble to myself about it. But I am grateful that I can be valuable in situations where people need help.

Charity can make you more practical – and it’s very friendly to people who want to learn on the job.

Originally published at

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