Judging government by its consequences

Some people think certain government programs are good, while others think those same ones are bad. I think the Drug Enforcement Agency should be eliminated, while some people think its budget should be increased.

Why do people disagree about political issues? Is it because we are exposed to different data on the issue? If that’s the case, then we should just make our data known to the other person (see this paper by Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson in which they argue that most disagreements are dishonest [Editor's note: this sentence was changed for reasons explained in the comment section]).

I think that our disagreements have something to do with our different knowledge sets and something to do with our bias that we reason better than the next person (who doesn’t think their ability to reason is above average?). However, I think that in politics there is another reason we disagree, and that is the way in which we measure a policy’s success.

As a utilitarian, I judge policies by their consequences, specifically their consequences for human well-being. That philosophy is vague enough that it doesn’t sound very radical, but its implications are. I believe that when we judge government by this rubric, we will find that very little of what government does is justified. This extends even to arenas thought to be the exclusive purview of the state such as the provision of law.

Edward López is an economics professor at San Jose State University in California. He is one of a growing number of economists to enter the field of “law and economics.” These economists judge the law by its consequences and not by the intentions of its crafters. In his book The Pursuit of Justice, López reveals that when we strip away the romance surrounding the law and look at its effects, the results do not reflect well on government-provided law:

López: As an economist, I know that wishful thinking will never produce solid answers. Yet in reading the literature, I found that the vast majority of legal scholarship and commentary treats the law with fantasy. It pretends that law is a public good that can only be provided by governments, and since it is governments that supply law it must be the case that law serves the public interest. What I found in the literature was deeply inconsistent with what I found in the world.

Granted, there are many other ways of judging law and government than its consequences. In fact, I suspect there are few people who are pure consequentialists, which is what I am.

So that I can be a more efficient blogger, targeting my posts to areas where I disagree with my readers, I’m curious to know what my readers think of this issue. Specifically, I want to know what standard you use to evaluate law/government.

If most people agree with the consequentialist approach, I will spend more time trying to convince my fellow consequentialists to be skeptical of the government. If, however, my readers disagree with me even at that fundamental level, I will devote more posts to the merits of consequentialism.

About these ads

2 Responses to “Judging government by its consequences”

  1. David Says:

    I don’t think Cowen and Hanson deserve credit for the idea that common prior beliefs and common new knowledge imply common posterior beliefs. That’s a basic idea from Bayesian statistics. (Still interested in reading their paper though.)

    I think the boundary between rubric and beliefs is pretty fuzzy. If people have a different rubric, that also implies different beliefs about right and wrong (or at least about how it’s reasonable to estimate). Beliefs cover a lot.

    Would most utilitarians only include human well-being?

    Absolute (or nearly absolute) rules apparently without utility as end may be compatible with utilitarianism. For example, there may be such extreme value in putting absolute bounds on what individuals may be forced to do that rights or fairness deserve to be elevated. Given human and societal biases, judging something by its consequences may lead to worse ends because it may give a broader avenue for those biases to sneak in. And the future being quite unpredictable, heuristics are necessary. Still, I’ll vote for consequences.

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    I don’t think Cowen and Hanson deserve credit for the idea that common prior beliefs and common new knowledge imply common posterior beliefs. That’s a basic idea from Bayesian statistics.

    That’s correct. What Cowen and Hanson contribute is the idea that typical disagreements are dishonest, so perhaps I should have summarized their paper that way, to distinguish it from all the other Bayesian inspired papers that argue truth-seeking people shouldn’t disagree.

    I think the boundary between rubric and beliefs is pretty fuzzy. If people have a different rubric, that also implies different beliefs about right and wrong (or at least about how it’s reasonable to estimate). Beliefs cover a lot.

    By “rubric” I’m trying to get across the idea of some common theme that runs throughout a person’s belief set. For instance, I remember watching this debate between third party presidential candidates in 2004. The Constitution Party candidate, Michael Peroutka, was asked his position on a number of issues, and on every one he said he opposed the policy because it was unconstitutional. In fact, that was often all he said.

    Would most utilitarians only include human well-being?

    No, I meant to include all sentient beings, but it just gets tiring to write that all the time when usually we’re talking about human beings.

    Absolute (or nearly absolute) rules apparently without utility as end may be compatible with utilitarianism.

    I agree. It may seem paradoxical, but consciously thinking in terms of utility may not in fact promote utility the most. Truthfully, I only consciously think in utilitarian terms in rare instances when my heuristics are in conflict. For instance, I think lying is generally a bad idea. But I’ve lied to avoid hurting other people, and I justify those instances of lying on utilitarian grounds.

    Given human and societal biases, judging something by its consequences may lead to worse ends because it may give a broader avenue for those biases to sneak in.

    I think a concept like “justice” is more open to this problem than a concept like “consequences.” Many people thought justice was served when the Allies leveled German and Japanese cities. Those acts seem much harder to justify on consequentialist grounds.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: