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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More Bang for Your Buck; or, Better Ways to Buy Your Happiness

Money has little effect on happiness.  Ancient Greeks like Epicurus said it, and modern empirical psychology confirms it.  Why do we have so much trouble accepting this?  In part, because our immediate reaction to money is highly favorable – and that sticks in our minds.  Before long, however, hedonic adaptation kicks in.  We start to take our good fortune for granted… and then we largely forget that our fortune is good.

But there’s probably another important reason why we have so much trouble accepting the weak effect of money on happiness.  Namely: There are so many ways to buy happiness with money!  The fact that “Money doesn’t buy happiness” clashes with the equally obvious fact that “Money can buy happiness.”  The simplest reconciliation, of course, is that most people spend their money poorly.  And in my experience, this reconciliation is entirely correct.  Most people stubbornly spend lots of money on hedonic dead-ends, while ignoring omnipresent opportunities to turn cash into smiles.

So what are these alleged “omnipresent opportunities”?  Here are my top picks.

1. Buy your way out of unpleasant chores by hiring other people to do them for you.  Start with cleaning, laundry, yardwork, auto repair, childcare, and tax preparation.

2. Buy your way out of unpleasant chores by buying different products.  Most obviously, switch to disposable plates, cups, and utensils.  It’s very cheap, and saves lots of time.  If this gives you environmental guilt, compensate with some Effective Altruism.

3. The leading source of happiness is pleasant social interaction.  Use money to get more of it – and make your interaction more pleasant.  If you have to spend hours preparing for and cleaning up for any gathering, you probably won’t enjoy it much.  So cut down on both preparation and clean-up using #1 and #2.

4. Don’t buy products to impress strangers or casual acquaintances.  They’re barely paying any attention to you anyway.  Indeed, even your close friends probably don’t pay that much attention to the details of your possessions.  So if you and your immediate family won’t durably enjoy an expensive product (such as… granite countertops), save your money.

5. Entertainment spending is one of the best ways to convert money into happiness.  That’s why they call it “entertainment.”

6. If you live with other people, soundproof your house – especially if you have kids.  Other people’s music, t.v., and phone conversations (not to mention children’s crying) don’t just get on your nerves; they create needless conflict.  But you don’t have to choose between isolation and serenity.  Solid wood doors aren’t exactly cheap, but they’re affordable.

7. Put less effort into finding a job that pays better than your current job.  Put more effort into finding a job that is more enjoyable than your current job.  First and foremost: Look for jobs with lots of pleasant social interaction.

Overarching doubt: Won’t these attitudes alienate more conventional people?  My answer: Only mildly, as long as you’re friendly.  So be friendly!  And don’t forget that these attitudes also attract people who are eager to actually enjoy life.

Finally: You can and should use your money to build and maintain your Beautiful Bubble!

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If You Want Clear Thinking, Get Money Involved

I talk to so many young people who cannot think clearly about life decisions.

Most of the time, it’s because they have too little money involved.

I don’t really want to go to college, but maybe I have to?

I’m not sure if I should take this job because it might not be my passion?

Do I really want to move to a new city?

Those questions get a lot clearer when mom and dad aren’t paying tuition, paying for your car and cell phone, or providing a rent-free living space.

College is the easiest and most extreme example. Ask a young person who’s tepid on the idea of attending and they’ll torture themselves trying to work through the pros and cons. Then say, “It will cost you $50,000. You’ve got to come up with that on your own.” All of the sudden, it looks like a ridiculously stupid deal. Because it is.

College savings accounts from mom and dad blind young people to the truth of their situation. Something everyone else says is important, and it’s “free”, becomes too hard to turn down, even though you know it’s not going to move you closer to your goals.

The more skin in the game young people have the sooner, the better they’ll get at self-knowledge, analysis, risk-taking, and decision making.

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The Government is Hard at Work Keeping Tax Preparation Complicated and Expensive

“Congressional Democrats and Republicans,” reports ProPublica, “are moving to permanently bar the IRS from creating a free electronic tax filing system.”

Specifically, the  House Ways and Means Committee just advanced a bill perversely called the “Taxpayers First Act.”  If passed by Congress and signed into law, it would become illegal for the IRS to “compete” with private sector tax preparation services like H&R Block and Intuit (the owners of TurboTax) by allowing taxpayers to skip those middlemen.

This is actually the status quo, not by law but by agreement between the IRS and the US tax preparation industry, which knocks down billions every year preparing and filing returns. If you want to file directly with the IRS, you have to do it on paper, by snail mail.  And the industry spends lots of money lobbying to keep it that way. Hence, the effort to write the deal into law.

On one hand, given a choice of filing through a private company whose advertised mission is to save me as much money as possible, or through a government agency whose job is to wring as much money out of me as possible, I’ll pick the private company every time.

On the other hand, the tax preparation industry is a parasite on top of another parasite. The tax system feeds on you. The industry feeds on the tax system.

You’ve probably heard political candidates promise to make your tax return “so simple it will fit on a postcard.” Ever wonder why they never deliver on that promise?  These companies don’t just lobby to be the middlemen in a complex system, they also lobby against legislation that would simplify the system (potentially making their services unnecessary).

Speaking of which, Congress isn’t the only government body at work on this subject. The IRS itself is working on a new version of the W-4 form that employees must complete to have the “right” amount of tax withheld from their paychecks.

USA Today‘s article on the new W-4 project says that filling it out will “be a lot like doing your taxes again. … The new [draft] form referenced up to 12 other IRS publications to fill it out. It was so complex and different from the previous W-4 form that Ernst & Young worried employees would struggle to fill it out correctly and employers may need to offer training beforehand.”

If there’s anything worse than the government stealing a piece of every dollar you earn, it’s the government forcing you to do a bunch of paperwork — or pay someone to do that paperwork — to make sure they get “enough.”

Frankly, I’d rather be mugged. Same scenario, but muggers aren’t quite as smug and rude about it.

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Why I’m an Economic Optimist but Happiness Pessimist

Seven years ago, my mentor Tyler Cowen did an interview with The Atlantic entitled, “Why I’m a Happiness Optimist but Economic Pessimist.”  His point: Though GDP growth has been disappointing low for decades, the internet does give us tons of free, fun stuff.  The more I reflect on the Paasche price index, though, the more I’m convinced that Tyler’s picture is exactly upside-down.  At least in the First World, the sensible position is economic optimism combined with happiness pessimism.

How so?  To repeat, we shouldn’t take the ultra-optimistic Paasche calculations of GDP at face value, but neither should we dismiss them.  The judicious position is that U.S. growth has been excellent, though not astronomical.  Even so, we’re way richer than we were in 1990. Yet sadly, Americans’ measured happiness has barely changed.  We have abundance, but not bliss.

What’s going on?  Well, we already knew that income has a very modest effect on happiness.  But when you upwardly revise your estimate of prosperity, you automatically downwardly revise your estimate of the effect of prosperity on happiness.  Such is life.

When I insist that standard measures sharply underestimate economic growth, it’s easy to accuse me of motivated reasoning.  Before you make this accusation, however, consider the whole picture.  What possible agenda could I advance by simultaneously claiming that GDP has greatly increased, but brought us little joy?

So what’s the real story?  Simple: I look at the world and see great economic growth.  I take a second look at the world and see that money doesn’t buy happiness.  Then I report my observations.  This picture isn’t ideologically convenient for me.  But when I put ideology aside and stare at the world, this picture is what I see.

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