Tag Archives: Will Wilkinson

Wilkinson On Limited Government

A very wise post. He makes the distinction between small government and limited government and then argues for the importance of the latter.

I think this takes us to another sense of “limited government” as “limited to what non-government alternatives cannot do better.” An obvious implication of market failure arguments for state provision of certain services is that the state should not be in the business of providing services where markets or other voluntary mechanism are superior. There’s no justification for the coercive tax-financing of state enterprises when those good and servives would be provided (usually with higher quality and a lower price) with no state coercion. Also, state enterprises will tend to crowd out private enterprises both by (a) absorbing capital and using it badly and (b) by virtue of its inherent advantages in securing anti-competitive subsidies and barriers to entry, which is all the more reason to limit government to the things we actually need it for.

Read the whole thing.


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Liberaltarianism: The Turducken Of Politics

Will Wilkinson and Brink Lindsay once proposed that libertarians have more in common with liberals than they do with conservatives.  But now that we collectively wait for the Keynesian surge to fry the system, Jonah Goldberg and John Hood wanted to raise the question to libertarians: siding with the left under Bush was one thing, they say, but now, with that side of the boat taking on water, is it time for the libertarians to come back whence they came?

Many have weighed in–Virginia Postrel, Ross Douthat, Matt Welch, and Reihan Salam.

For his part, Wilkinson seems to be framing the debate for the others, and I’m unhappy with Wilkinson’s framing since it’s based on his style of moral philosophy. Let me explain. The most telling comment I can think of relating to this problem occurs during a BloggingheadsTV interview Wilkinson conducted with Jonathan Haidt. Outlining the differences between conservatives and liberal moral sensitivities, Haidt said something to the effect of, “The difference between liberals and libertarians is that the libertarians are liberals who’ve read some economics.” It was clear Wilkinson agreed.  But, even though this may be true for many of us, the observation is false to the spirit of liberty. It’s based on a gross confusion Wilkinson has been sensitive to in other contexts. The confusion is this: the Haidt comment overlooks the fact that we can believe some act to be morally wrong, and yet, at the same time, believe it to be legally permissible.  That is the heart of liberty. One obvious example of a despicable act that fits this mold is infidelity. Cheating on your loved one is wrong–one of the worst ways to hurt a person–and yet no one few in the West believe it should be a crime. What is morally wrong is not always legally wrong. Wilkinson had that right in a post about emotional coercion. 

But I believe this is one of the greatest political problems of our time: how to cleave apart our moral intuitions from our political philosophy.  There is no grand unifying theory here. And so modern freedom, the freedom of Constant, was born out of war along just this divide. It took a century or more of blood shed during the Reformation to cleave apart people’s religious judgments from their political ideals. One of the more troubling tasks for modern politics is to separate the moral–how we interact with others–from the political–how we interact with hundreds of millions on a scale that boggles the mind.

Wilkinson abhors conservative moral sentiments. But in this he is not a lover of liberty. A libertarian is not defined by what moral intuitions he has regarding sacred spaces, the integrity of the body, or even in group/out group biases. Rather, libertarians are defined by their views on the limits of state power, always harboring the doubt that their particular moral judgments may not translate readily into state action. In Haidt’s terminology, we should expect both conservative and liberal moral settings among libertarians. Conservative moral intuitions need not craft policy.

Of course, in recent history, liberals and Republicans have forsaken many checks and balances on state power.  They are one and all eager to base national policy on moral inclination.  Libertarians, insofar as they stand athwart anything, stand in front of that unified, soul-crafting theory of the state. For liberals and national greatness Republicans, this is a problem. I suggest we keep it that way. Let the Spitzers of the world try to fucking steamroll us.

And another thing. Rawsekianism is a nice rhetorical move, but on deeper reflection, it’s misguided.  I’ll hazard a guess that this formulation of Rawls relies on a Harsanyi interpretation of the difference principle.  Rawls spent the second half of his career trying to move away from that.  User beware.


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Clubbing Immigrants

Will Wilkinson has raised a fair amount of sand with a post on immigration.  Borrowing a page from George Lakoff, he attempts to recast the frame of reference: instead of nation states, now we will speak of clubs and membership.  The rhetorical aim is that such a reframing will put a downward pressure on moral inclinations involving xenophobia, in-group out-group biases, and other forms of patriotic fervor.  But as much I support Wilkinson’s moral views–I would prefer to abolish passports–I think Steven Pinker’s criticisms of Lakoff apply here as well. You see, clubs have membership fees; states have taxes. I can choose not to pay a membership fee. The club may fine me. They may even throw me out. But if I don’t pay my taxes, I am harassed, pilloried, fined, incarcerated. As Pinker said

If you choose not to pay a membership fee, the organization will stop providing you with its services. But if you choose not to pay taxes, men with guns will put you in jail. And even if taxes were like membership fees, aren’t lower membership fees better than higher ones, all else being equal? Why should anyone feel the need to defend the very idea of an income tax? Other than the Ayn-Randian fringe, has anyone recently proposed abolishing it?

Wilkinson makes a much better argument in the comments to the post. Leaving talk of clubs behind, he wisely writes: 

My views on freedom of movement are basically the same as Ludwig von Mises in his classic work Liberalism. It’s not really much of a trick to point out that armed border guards pose coercive limits to freedom of movement and association. There is ample evidence showing that there is no single policy that would increase the welfare of the world’s poor than a small increase in openness to immigration among the world’s wealthy countries. The net effect of this to the wealthy countries is mildly positive — not even a net cost. You can try to argue that it is not immoral to forgo a huge costless gain in human liberty and welfare, but you’ll fail and leave people wondering what kind of person you are. 

My recent trip to Cairo exposed me, for the first time, to an economy that seems to have an abundance of low-skilled, cheap labor.  At every gas station, there were four or five attendants to fill the tank, clean the windows, and collect the payment.  Street level entrepreneurship sprouted up in all kinds of ways.  It was not uncommon to find someone take over a public parking area as a valet. The Egyptian custom is to leave your car in neutral so that these impromptu valets can move the cars around like some kind of sliding puzzle.  But this abundance of cheap labor has a downside, particularly when you learn how meagre their wages are. My Western hosts would express feelings of guilt from time to time. They wondered how they could justify walking in front of these folk while carrying a cup of coffee that cost the equivalent of a week’s salary for these workers. 

So my girlfriend asked me: do you think you could stomach the consequences of your views on immigration? Could I–or the majority of US residents for that matter–stomach the inequality? Could we handle living among those who have so little and make even less? 

I didn’t have a reply right away.  But I’ve settled on this. Whatever the level of their well-being, especially when contrasted with our own, we should assume these workers are better off than they otherwise would be–that if we prevent them from working in Los Angeles, they would live in worse conditions elsewhere. They want to live here.  They want to come. And they want to earn a better wage. It’s not just, it’s not fair to say to would-be immigrants, “Keep out of my view because I can’t handle how poor you are compared to me. Be poorer elsewhere.”


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Does Democracy Corrode Moral Character?

Yes, and I’ll offer a few points as to why. Consider it the flip side to the forum hosted by the Templeton Foundation on a different, though also important, question. They ask whether liberty corrodes moral character; I take it that they wish to know whether free markets bring out the worst in us. A host of intellectuals of diverse persuasions answer yes, no, maybe, including Michael Walzer, Tyler Cowen, and Garry Kasparov, and elsewhere, the likes of Gary Becker, Richard Posner and Will Wilkinson have all said their word.  Most of the answers are disappointing. Respondents spend a lot of time discussing the virtues and vices of business men as compared to politicians, which is an interesting game of moral hotornot, but such answers also evade the question. There are more professions than these. And what I think is more important, the forum overlooks a fundamental problem: just as most people confuse the current American health care industry with a free market in heath care, so too do our respondents confuse our current society with a completely free one.  Yes, commercial society pervades western culture, but it’s also balanced by the prevalence of democracy in politics, by which I mean representative government. Both institutions–the market and Super Tuesday–have their influence on the manners and mores of the West. So it’s patently silly to consider one without the other.

Wilkinson makes a critical point–namely, that we must distinguish moral means from moral ends. He writes: 

The moral ends worth caring about are the various constituents of human welfare–longevity, health, wealth, pleasure, happiness, a sense of purpose and self-efficacy, the realization of potential, creativity, love, friendship, etc. Moral character, or virtue, is a means to achieving moral ends. As the socioeconomic structure shifts, the means of achieving moral ends shifts.

I have no quibbles with these ends. We may allow for some pluralism,  but such an approximation will do. Now consider the influence of democratic institutions on our character as a means to these ends and ask yourself whether the behaviors cultivated by politics lend themselves to the promotion of such worthy goals. Could it be that much in democratic politics brings out the worst in us? Are the Democratic Vistas barren ones? O Templeton! O Whitman!! Let us count the vices democracy cultivates. 

  1. Fear–demagogues flourish in democratic societies and it is their professional science to whip the mob up into a mad crowd of witch-burners. Together, the herd and the herdsman hunt perfectly innocent victims. Elections become wild orgies wherein each side attempts to substitute a new and worse, though largely imaginary fear for the one that previously prevailed.
  2. Envy–the democratic man takes an unhealthy interest in the superiority of his fellow man. Demagogues and academic philosophers thrive on creating the illusion that your neighbor’s success comes at the cost of your own and that the prosperity of the country requires tearing that man down.
  3. Helplessness–once the demagogues have convinced the public to fear a minority and once they have whipped up their envy of the wealthy and superior, the skilled politician next claims that he is the only one who can save the public from these menaces. This is change you can believe in.
  4. Ignorance–largely convinced politicians will solve his problems, the democratic man doesn’t follow the far-reaching and slow-moving consequences of his ballot. Meanwhile, he is bamboozled and exploited by a small but disciplined group of rent-seekers and special interests. 
  5. A lack of integrity–first in politicians, whose overarching aim is to retain their jobs. If a politician can hold onto his office by lying, he will hold on to it by lying. Moreover, he will preach harmful policies to gullible men he knows to be idiots, provided that this will win him the election. No issue is too absurd, no principle untouched, if the votes will come around. And similarly then in the democratic man himself, we see a crack in his purity. He loses his sensitivity to dishonor. Faced with a myriad of government scandals, the democratic man becomes inured to public vice, simply shrugs, murmurs something about how they all do it, and then continues to vote for his man. Of course, if the democratic man were to consider hiring this venal buffoon, he wouldn’t even give the consideration a second of his time. 
  6.  Profligacy–yes, the government is wasteful but that’s not what I mean. I refer to the opportunity cost. Thousands of years of life and I daresay trillions of dollars have been wasted pursuing laudable goals with improper machinery. Political victories are often phyrric. There will always remain a great if…what could have been accomplished if these talents had been used somewhere other than the state house, Congress, or even law school. 
  7. Nosiness–the democratic man lusts for ways of controlling the merriment of his fellow men. He suffers knowing others, somewhere, are having fun. Thankfully, he knows no joyful behavior will go unexamined. Smoking…drinking…sex…carousing…how you drive your car…who you pay for what pleasure…who you hire for a job…it all comes within the purview of the democratic man’s moral legislation. He begins to believe it his divine right to regulate such things. 
  8. Cowardice–the institutions of democracy provide many buffers to protect the mob from confronting those they exploit. If they had to meet their victims face to face, a full nine tenths of their idiotic legislation wouldn’t stand a chance. This holds true on any issue from immigration to taxes. 
  9. A low self-worth–many decent men are converted into criminals for performing acts that are natural but deemed subversive by the demagogues and the witch-burners following them. 
  10. Nationalism and xenophobia–there are no better scapegoats than those who live outside our walls. No successful demagogue can let outsiders have a space at federally financed welfare tough. 
  11. Intolerance–the democratic man increasingly fears and loathes the followers of opposing ideologues, which is natural since every proposition is win-lose.
  12. A lack of charity–why be generous and solve problems through the institutions of civil society when we have guns to point at people to force them to cough up seven tenths of their paycheck? 

Of course, this list is not exhaustive. Nor do I believe the Templeton foundation will continue the discussion any time soon. Tho I wish they would.


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The Status Quo Machine

Will Wilkinson has a carved a nice niche out for empirical moral philosophy on his diavlogs at Bloggingheads. This week he and Joshua Knobe chat about some research concerning Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine. It seems little Bobby Nozick had it wrong, Knobe tells us. Nozick thought our intuitions against plugging into the machine demonstrated that what we value extends beyond what we feel on the inside. What we care about, at least at some fundamental level, is reality. So Nozick thought, anyway.

But Knobe, who could pass for Syler on Heroes, says Nozick has merely rationalized his intuition. Since Nozick is arguing for a mind-independent aspect to value, his left brain inner lawyer interprets his reluctance to step into the machine as a confirmation of his view. But that inner lawyer he and a majority respondents to the thought-experiment have summoned is misreading their gut reaction. Instead of demonstrating any care for how real our experience is, Knobe says our intuition is just another instance of the status quo bias. 

To illustrate this Knobe mentions a “reverse experience machine.” In this version, your current experience is an illusion. But all of a sudden, the walls of that ersatz reality come crashing down and you wake up in a laboratory tank. Alarmed, your monitors tell you there was a malfunction. They give you some options. They say either you can stay awake, here in reality, where you are a weak, beta male, lumpenprole, or you can return to your regularly scheduled program in the experience machine where you are, well, you. So the status quo has been reset in this thought experiment: now instead of stepping into the machine, we’re offered a chance to step out of it. Knobe says the majority of respondents in this case prefer to reboot. Status Quo, QED.   

But Knobe and Wilkinson are clearly not Cohaagen’s bosom buddy:

Quaid: All right, let’s say you’re telling the truth and this is all a dream, I could pull this trigger and it won’t matter?  
Dr. Edgemar: It won’t make the slightest difference to me Doug, but the consequences to you will be devastating. In your mind I’ll be dead, and with no one to guide you out, you’ll be stuck in permanent psychosis. The walls of reality will come crashing down. One minute, you’re the savior of the Rebel cause, next thing you know you’ll be Cohaagen’s bosom buddy. You’ll even have fantasies about alien civilizations as you requested, but in the end, back on Earth you’ll be lobotomized!

Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But my left brain interpreter has to object. Let’s assume the walls of my reality come crashing down and I wake up in the laboratory as Knobe says. Why would I take my monitor’s word that I am a beta? Shouldn’t I be a tad suspicious of anything they say? (Think of it this way, Knobe’s thought experiment would have been the optimal strategy for the malevolent artificial intelligence in the Matrix. Whenever some poor soul like Neo wakes up in his pod, tell him it’s not worth waking up. That’ll keep him there.) Furthermore, doesn’t a willingness to reboot demonstrate a woeful lack of curiosity? It is true, reality may be an ugly sight. Have you been to Los Angeles? But wouldn’t it be worth investigating? What strange civilization produced these machines you find yourself in? And why? These questions lead to another weakness in the Knobe results: the fear of self-knowledge. Contrary to the herd, I would want to know who I was before I entered the machine. Why did I program it the way I did? (Why so average? Why not a Nobel winner?) Or: why did I program my loved ones that way? Am I my parents’ creator? Why did I make them that way? Answers to all these questions would be interesting and they would shed some light on who I really am.

So I propose Knobe tries another experiment to follow this one up, asking respondents questions like, “Would you care to know who you were in this reality before you signed up to Recall?” and “Would you want to investigate this new world?” 

Ask those questions. Some will still want to return to the machines. It cannot be denied. Some need security blankets. But my bet is that most will still want a taste of reality, however small and brief.

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