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.