North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

Justice in a vacuum

with 2 comments

Here are two articles I read today; I found both to really interesting. The first is a New Yorker article about an economist who thinks democracy leads to bad policy when it works properly. Why? People are uninformed and irrational. They choose based on prejudice rather than current theory. They tend to choose to tax and spend and regulate.

Fractured Franchise: Books: The New Yorker:

[Bryan] Caplan rejects the assumption that voters pay no attention to politics and have no real views. He thinks that voters do have views, and that they are, basically, prejudices. He calls these views “irrational,” because, once they are translated into policy, they make everyone worse off. People not only hold irrational views, he thinks; they like their irrational views. In the language of economics, they have “demand for irrationality” curves: they will give up y amount of wealth in order to consume x amount of irrationality. Since voting carries no cost, people are free to be as irrational as they like. They can ignore the consequences, just as the herdsman can ignore the consequences of putting one more cow on the public pasture. “Voting is not a slight variation on shopping,” as Caplan puts it. “Shoppers have incentives to be rational. Voters do not.”

Caplan suspects that voters cherish irrational views on many issues, but he discusses only views relevant to economic policy. The average person, he says, has four biases about economics—four main areas in which he or she differs from the economic expert. The typical noneconomist does not understand or appreciate the way markets work (and thus favors regulation and is suspicious of the profit motive), dislikes foreigners (and thus tends to be protectionist), equates prosperity with employment rather than with production (and thus overvalues the preservation of existing jobs), and usually thinks that economic conditions are getting worse (and thus favors government intervention in the economy). Economists know that these positions are irrational, because the average person actually benefits from market competition, which provides the best product at the lowest price; from free trade with other countries, which (for American consumers) usually lowers the cost of labor and thus the price of goods; and from technological change, which redistributes labor from less productive to more productive enterprises.

The economic biases of the non-economist form a secular world view that people cling to dogmatically, the way they once clung to their religious faith, Caplan thinks.

The second article is long but really worth the effort. It gives a rundown of American political history in the New Deal era, arguing that was a positive development rooted in Catholic social thinking. It contrasts sharply with the New Yorker story.

Catholic social teaching had revolutionized the moral landscape of capitalism, not only by reinforcing the progressive critique of laissez-faire constitutionalism but, more importantly, by stealing the thunder of higher-law reasoning and restoring its communal roots. It was a turning point that made the welfare state morally necessary and, because of that, politically possible.

The contrast Tomasky seems to draw between the common good and today’s more familiar discourse of “justice, equality, and rights” only makes sense—and ultimately does make sense—because his “justice, equality, and rights” refer to the liberal social agenda of the 1960s, which, in fact, he believes we must transcend. Crucially, however, he obscures what actually happened to the common good in that era. Sexual freedom, extreme secularism, and other agendas of the new social liberalism did not merely replace the common good as a normative framework. It shifted the whole framework of rights from the worker and his family and community, viewed as something in need of protection, to the detached individual of liberal philosophy, regardless of economic position or need. Essentially, the common good was supplanted by individual liberation, and what remained of it in public discourse was little more than empty rhetoric (think “compassionate conservatism”).

New Deal liberalism’s common-good ideal gave workers and their families a new (yet very old) moral ground for claiming resources and power necessary for their self-preservation. In fact, the primary objective listed in the Democratic platform of 1936 was “The Protection of the Family and the Home,” in defense of which it specified, “We shall continue to use the powers of government to end the activities of the malefactors of great wealth who defraud and exploit the people.”

Give him credit, Lew Daly does a pretty good job describing how New Deal idealism focused on community and family, and was supplanted by a focus on freeing the individual from the community. My own opinion is that Caplan’s suggestion that the average person’s voting is chaotic and fearful is true, and that at least some of that can be said about New Deal economics, and by extention, at least some Catholic social policy suffers from that too. It is perhaps more fearful than chaotic. It does, however, have the virtue of recognizing that individuals are not the proper focus. They are even more selfish and chaotic, and therefore politically weaker, than a people who attempt to focus on the common good.

I’m open to comment on this one; I think there is something right in both camps, despite a general inclination towards free trade and free markets.

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Written by Curt

July 5, 2007 at 9:34 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I am far from convinced that Caplan is right in any meaningful way. Most of his argument seems to be that people are wrong to prefer stability and security to the chance, even the probability of extra wealth. Well, I for one don’t think that’s obvious at all. In addition, given the results of liberalized trade on most wage classes, it’s not clear that even leaving aside security that blue-collar workers are making an incorrect judgement.


    July 6, 2007 at 1:48 am

  2. Caplan may be right. People act irrationally, economically speaking. But where Caplan goes wrong, and the second snippet only alludes to, is the thinking by economists and those of the free market persuasion who seem to think that well-being can be delineated in monetary terminology. The fact is (as you point out in your comments) political strength, regardless of which side of the left/right divide you fall, is determined by the appropriate focus on the common good as opposed to individual liberty. While I would consider myself a proponent of ‘justice, equality and rights’, I think the biggest mistake was using that language to ‘free’ the individual from her community. It is only within a community that the individual can flourish (to take a decidedly Aristotelian slant).

    Peter Thurley

    July 7, 2007 at 6:32 pm

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