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Matt Zwolinski
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Over at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog, we're running a symposium this week on the topic of "Libertarianism and Land," featuring essays by Eric Mack, Hillel Steiner, Fred Foldvary, Kevin Carson, and David Schmidtz. The first essay went up this... Continue reading
Posted Apr 23, 2012 at PEA Soup
Welcome, Harriet!
Toggle Commented Dec 1, 2007 on Welcome, H. E. Baber at PEA Soup
Mike O. wrote: "It was this huge American market, rather than the demand for gasoline among those who couldn’t afford to flee New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast when Katrina struck, that attracted these foreign shipments." Actually, if you look at gasoline imports broken down by region, you get an even larger effect. Imports of finished gasoline to Louisiana and surrounding areas increased more than 20 times after Katrina compared with one year prior. (See the EIA's Petroleum Navigator at Unfortunately, the statistics aren't readily available in any finer resolution than this, so it's impossible to tell what percentage of this increase was due to victims of Katrina, and what percentage due to more general market disruptions, but the available data certainly seem to cast serious doubt on your earlier claim that there was an insufficient market among Hurricane victims for increased prices to serve as an effective signal for increased supply.
Toggle Commented Aug 29, 2007 on What's Wrong With Price Gouging? at PEA Soup
One last point. Mike Otsuka claimed in response to an earlier comment of mine that: "Those who couldn’t afford to flee when Katrina struck didn’t constitute much of a market, because they had hardly any money to buy things, especially at inflated prices." This is inconsistent not only with what economic theory would lead us to expect, but also with the empirical facts. According to a report from the Federal Trade Commission: "Higher gasoline prices in the United States after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita resulted in the shipment of substantial additional supplies of gasoline to the United States from foreign locations." Source: FTC's "Investigation of Gasoline Price Manipulation and Post-Katrina Gasoline Price Increases,", p. 196.
Toggle Commented Aug 29, 2007 on What's Wrong With Price Gouging? at PEA Soup
Thanks again to everyone for what's been a very helpful discussion so far. I can't hope to weigh in on everything important that's been said, but here's two quick points. * The Golden Rule - Jussi invokes the Golden Rule against price gouging, and as simple as it is, I think this gets at the core of a lot of what we object to in the practice. We feel like we wouldn't want to be treated in that way if we were desparate, and don't like seeing others treated that way either. I think there's something morally significant in this idea, but it's crucial to realize that it doesn't capture everything of moral significance. The problem with the Golden Rule, and it's a problem common to many philosophical thought-experiment methods of thinking about morality, is that it is heavily biased in favor of what Bastiat called the seen over the unseen. We see the victim of price gouging not getting what they want, and this triggers our moral sympathy. What we don't see, as Mark L. pointed out, is the broader economic context, and specifically the useful function that price gouging serves. If I asked myself whether I would want to be fired for doing incompetent work, my answer would probably be no. But I wouldn't conclude from this that firing people who do incompetent work is morally wrong. The reason it's not wrong, though, involves larger issues such a the values that a competitive economy serves, and the way in which firings and creative destruction more generally serve to promote such a competitive economy. But it's precisely these larger issues which the Golden Rule filters out. * Scalping - Simon thinks that price gougers are like ticket scalpers. I think that's right, though I think that both perform useful arbitrage services, though not necessarily for morally admirable motives. I think it's wrong, though, to believe as Simon does that "If a scalper buys all the tickets to an event, a buyer will no longer be able to buy at the face price, but will have to pay whatever the scalper asks for a ticket...This makes buyers in general worse off," or at least to think that this argument carries over to the case of price gouging. If A is selling X, and B buys up all of A's stock of X, then it's true that consumers C now have to buy their Xs from B rather than A, and that they will have to pay whatever B asks (or not buy Xs at all). But how does this make them worse off? How is having to pay whatever B asks worse than having to pay whatever A asks? In the case of ticket scalping, it might be that normal vendors are prohibited from charging the market clearing price, and so any C's who had the time to stand in line for a ticket but not the money to pay the market clearing price would be made worse off by the transfer of X from A to B. But this seems a special oddity in the market for tickets, and not something that carries over very well to the normal case of price gouging.
Toggle Commented Aug 29, 2007 on What's Wrong With Price Gouging? at PEA Soup
Thanks for all the great responses so far. The comments are bringing out some nice distinctions which I glided over in my original post, but which are undoubtedly important. Here are a few thoughts. (1) Acts and Laws: I agree with Jamie that it’s crucially important to distinguish between the morality of an act and the morality of a law prohibiting such acts. My own thinking is that the case against laws against price gouging is close to a slam dunk. That’s something I cover in the longer paper, but for this post I wanted to focus on what I took to be the more philosophically challenging issue of the morality of individual acts of price gouging. (2) Acts and Character: Duncan raises a tough issue here. On the one hand, I’m generally sympathetic to the idea that there can be morally permissible actions which nevertheless demonstrate a deficiency in character, and this line of reasoning has a good solid pedigree going back to at least Kant and Mill. So I’m open in principle to the idea that price gouging, while itself a morally unobjectionable (or at least permissible) act, is the kind of thing that only rotten people do. On the other hand, there’s a bit of a puzzle here. If action A is morally permissible, then why should engaging in A reflect poorly on one’s character? I’m reminded of Nozick’s reflections on Kant’s thoughts about why we shouldn’t hurt animals – not because animals matter, but because it might lead us to hurt things that really matter, i.e. people. Nozick’s response was that this line of argument presupposes a certain ‘coarseness’ to character/dispositions – as though there is a fine distinction between hurting animals and hurting people such that once we start doing one, we’re likely to glide right over the distinction and start doing the other. His question in response to this struck me as exactly right: do butchers commit more violent acts against people than others? (more than others who work with knives?) In the case of gouging, I’m likewise dubious about the premise of this argument. If, as the argument seems to grant, price gouging is itself morally permissible, then what are the closely related but morally impermissible acts into which one fears price gouging will glide, and how likely is it that this will actually occur? (3) Exploitation: Mike Otsuka reframed my puzzle in a way which seems to make it not so puzzling after all. Indifference, he says, bespeaks a less bad character than exploitation. And this seems to me exactly the line that defenders of the wrongness of mutually beneficial exploitation have to take – it’s the line that Ruth Sample takes in her book, for example. But it’s not so clearly right, either as a thesis about badness of character or wrongness of act. I’ve addressed the character issue a bit above, but the act of being indifferent to suffering does not seem clearly less wrong than the act of doing something to alleviate it while making a tidy profit for oneself. It certainly doesn’t seem less wrong on consequentialist grounds, and I don’t see how it’s less wrong on Kantian grounds either. After all, it’s not as though the gouger is using his buyers *merely* as means. He’s not stealing from them, or clubbing over the head. And we shouldn’t assume that he’s refraining from these actions merely on pragmatic grounds. He might genuinely view the buyer’s consent as morally significant, and a necessary condition for permissible exchange. He offers the buyer value for value, and doing so seems like a kind of respect for the value of the buyer herself. (4) Prices as Signals: Mike Otsuka in his second post is right on this one. The key point about prices isn’t just that they convey information, but that they convey information and provide an incentive to act upon that information. I see lots of disasters on CNN, just like Jamie says. But I don’t do anything about most of them. My guess is that the prospect of profit is much more reliable as a spur to action than whatever sympathy television images might evoke. And I also suspect, contra Otsuka, that they’re much more reliable than a reliance on the good will or even basic competence of government agencies. Passing a law that says governments ought to relieve disasters doesn’t entail that governments are going to relieve disasters. The government had a legal obligation to do more than it did in the case of Hurricane Katrina. Given that it didn’t do so, I think the existence of a market for needed goods was probably a very good thing. (5) The Concept of Gouging: Finally, Mark is quite right that aside from the tricky normative questions, there are some difficult conceptual questions to be asked regarding price gouging. The law isn’t the final answer on questions of conceptual analysis, of course, but I’ve done a survey of most of the state statutes on gouging, and I think those statutes do give us a starting point in thinking about what most people mean when they talk about gouging. For starters, most statutes define gouging in such a way as to limit it to actions which occur in the wake of a disaster or emergency of some kind. Second, they limit the class of goods to which they apply to goods that are related to the disaster in some lose way – necessary for survival or ‘comfort’ (that second one sort of gives the game away). I think Mark is right to conclude that our moral evaluation of gouging out to vary depending on the kind of good on which one is being gouged. There’s at least a prima facie case to be made that gouging on life-saving goods is morally wrong. I don’t think there’s even a prima facie case to be made with regard to items that are necessary solely for comfort, though I suppose it might depend on how broadly that latter concept is defined. If an electromagnetic storm comes and wipes out everybody’s HDTVs except mine, I’m entitled to charge whatever I want for them. Or anyway, it seems like one has to draw some kind of distinction like this unless one wants to challenge not just the morality of isolated exchanges in the wake of disaster, but the morality of market exchanges more generally.
Toggle Commented Aug 28, 2007 on What's Wrong With Price Gouging? at PEA Soup
Heath, I'm less than entirely clear on how to draw the distinction. It might have something to do with impartiality, or other-regardingness, but both of these are tendentious. That there is some such distinction, though, strikes me as pretty plausible. Why make it? The biggest gain, as I see it, is that it allows for a kind of external analysis of morality that would otherwise be somewhat difficult. Suppose you think that morality is, from the standpoint of practical reason, a lot like etiquette. You might have good reasons for wanting to know whether morality gives one a reason for doing this or that, in just the same way that you would want to know what etiquette tells you to do. This could be interesting regardless of whether or not you believed morality gave one reasons for actions in the all-things-considered sense. It could help you predict the behavior of others, talk meaningfully with them about the practice etc. Of course, whether morality (understood as a social practice like etiquette) does give you reasons in the all things considered sense is an interesting and important question, and hence it's useful to have a concept of all-things-considered reasons in addition to moral reasons (and reasons of etiquette, reasons of baseball, etc. I don't see any reason to be parsimonious in the subscripting of reasons). I suspect the distinction will be more appealing to those of us with externalist leanings. And, I suspect, it's probably also more appealing to folks who reject a robustly naturalistic metaethics, but I'm less sure on that one.
Toggle Commented Jul 16, 2007 on Doubts about Morality at PEA Soup
Regarding the "give me a dollar or else..." line of argument, it's probably worth keeping clear on the distinction between coercion and exploitation here. As I see it (although this is not entirely untcontroversial) the distinction between A's coercing B and A's exploiting B turns on the source of the harm that B is trying to avoid. In typical cases of coercion, the source of the harm is A. "Give me one dollar or else I'll shoot you." B gives the dollar to A in order to avoid a harm that would have never befallen him had A not been in the picture. In typical cases of exploitation, on the other hand, the source of the harm that B is trying to avoid is independent of A. "Hey, I see you're in some quicksand. Give me a dollar and I'll pull you out." Now, there are clearly borderline cases here, but in general I think this distinction reflects an important moral difference. And the reasons libertarians have to worry about coercion and use state force to prevent it might not be equally good as reasons to worry about and coercively prevent exploitation. [For example, I think it makes good obviously good sense to refuse to legally enforce coercive agreements. I'm not so sure it makes good sense to refuse to legally enforce exploitative ones. If I'm drowning in quicksand, and my only option is to continue to drown or to be exploitatively rescued, I'll take the exploitative rescue]. So, anyway, I'm not sure this line of examples is very helpful in getting at the relationship between libertarianism and coercion.
Toggle Commented Jul 6, 2007 on Libertarians and Universal Health Care at PEA Soup
Regarding Mark’s comments: First, I think the general consensus (and certainly the general consensus among libertarians) is that Nozick’s compensation argument for the minimal state fails. Norman Barry’s book has a good summary of many of the problems with this argument. Many of the anarcho-capitalist criticisms can be found in Vol. 1 No. 1 of The Journal of Libertarian Studies. Second, even if it is successful, I still don’t see how it can be extended to justify government provision of health care in general. Certain public health measures might pass muster, and I think some libertarians have argued as much. So one could make a reasonable argument on libertarian grounds, I think, for quarantining individuals with highly contagious and dangerous diseases. But I suspect a lot of libertarians would want to argue that this particular kind of move would be rights-violating (as they are not truly ‘retaliatory’ force) and unnecessary (as the same effect could be achieved in a regime of full private property by contract (CC&Rs, etc). Leftover damages would be taken care of by tort and liability law. At any rate, this doesn’t seem to get us anywhere near a single-payer system since a) a lot of medical conditions aren’t caused by anyone else’s wrongful actions, and b) even those medical conditions which are so caused do not require such a system to either prevent the conditions from being caused/transmitted in the first place or to provide compensation afterwards. Regarding David’s response to my last post: You write that you don’t see why we shouldn’t “think that redress for past diseases and injuries (not directly due to or foreseen by one's autonomous choices, say) could be due, just as one thinks that redress for force or fraud could be due.” But due from whom? In the case of force and fraud, there is a wrongdoer to whom the state can turn for redress. Not so in the case of many medical conditions. What would be the moral principle here? That the state owes compensation to anyone to whom anything bad happens? If I’m beset by the difficulties of aging, is this something which gives me a legitimate claim against others? Providing compensation through coercive taxation is prima facie a violation of individuals' rights. So if anything is going to justify it, it had better be something of equal moral seriousness – i.e. a violation of rights. Or, to put it in more Nozickian terms, if the prima facie rights violation of taxation is to be justified, you had better show how the non-governmental method of dealing with the problem is actually rights-violating (by, say, imposing unjustified risk), and hence how the prohibition of such activity by the state is permissible, assuming that compensation is provided. Alot depends here on the way in which libertarian rights are grounded. You seemed to assume, in one of your posts above, that the grounding of libertarian rights is teleological in some way - they promote positive freedom, or autonomy, or some other good state of affairs. And some libertarians do ground rights in these ways. But Nozick pretty clearly doesn't. So I don't see an inconsistency in his position. Figuring out whether there is in the other libertarian positions is going to require us to be a bit more careful in identifying which particular kind of libertarianism we're talking about, and what exactly their grounds for libertarian rights are. My own hunch is that libertarians' denial of the legitimacy of universal health care isn't internally inconsistent, even if it is all-things-considered implausible.
Toggle Commented Jul 4, 2007 on Libertarians and Universal Health Care at PEA Soup
Incidentally, it's worth noting that David's challenge could be, and has been, taken to push in the opposite direction. David notes that libertarians favor taking money from A to provide protection to B against thieves and murderers, but not against bacteria, and concludes that the state should expand its redistributive and protective services. Anarcho-capitalists like Rothbard, on the other hand, conclude that even the first sort of redistributive protection is rights-violating, and that the state should get out of the business of even that (and hence, get out of business altogether).
Toggle Commented Jul 4, 2007 on Libertarians and Universal Health Care at PEA Soup
I think it's important to bear in mind that libertarianism is a doctrine focused on processes rather than end-states. [1,2] It's also important to bear in mind that libertarianism is a theory about justice, or as they are often wont to put it, about the proper use of violence [3], and not a theory about value. So take a person who's sick. The goodness or badness of this state of affairs might hold independently of the causal history that produced it, but the justice of it, and hence the legitimacy of state violence in response, does not. Violence, according to libertarians, can be used only for retaliation. Retaliation here means in response to a rights-violation. A person's getting sick through a non-agential process does not involve a rights-violation, and thus does not warrant a state response. Things are different if an agent is involved [e.g. you stick me with a needle; you move your infected self on to my property in violation of my wishes and get me sick, etc]. So there are several ways of understanding Shoemaker's question about the reasonableness of the libertarian approach. One is whether it is reasonable to have a historical or process theory of justice rather than an end-state one. I think the answer here is probably yes. If one is concerned about desert, then history matters. And in a world of imperfect information and efficiency, history even makes sense to as a way of manipulating incentives or as a proxy for other relevant information. Now, whether the *particular* historical elements picked out by the libertarian are relevant is a more difficult question. But I think that the theory is at least a starter, especially if the theory of rights is buttressed by consequentialist considerations about the effectiveness of state vs. market action and the like. [1] Robert Nozick, Anarchy State and Utopia [2] Brian Barry, On Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism [3] See, e.g., various statements of this point by Murray Rothbard, such as The Ethics of Liberty, chapter 5.
Toggle Commented Jul 4, 2007 on Libertarians and Universal Health Care at PEA Soup
Thanks for your response to my comments, Mike. Regarding moving from x to y -- I think I misread your original graphic. I assumed that x contained a fairly large population, not just 2 people. My own intuition is that moving from a large population to a very low one, even if that lower one has higher total/average utility is not necessarily a good thing. I'm not sure what I think when you limit the option set to worlds which all contain a "lot" of people. Moving from world x of population 50,000,000 and 500,000,000 total utility to world y of population 20,000,0000 and 600,000,000 total utility is not as clearly bad (in my mind) as moving from world x of population 50,000,0000 and 500,000,000 total utility to world y of population 10 and 600,000,000 total utility. But it's not clearly good either, even if the distribution is equitable. Like I said, maybe I simply don't have strong confidence in my intuitions about the goodness or badness of states of affairs of this sort. My thoughts on the goodness or badness of population seem to be along the lines of Nozick's thoughts regarding the justice of holdings - it's a matter of pure procedural justice (pure procedural goodness?) such that there is no independent criterion for saying whether a population distribution is good or bad without knowing how we got there. I'm sure I might bend on this principle if presented with extreme enough examples, but on the whole it seems to capture my intuitions, or lack thereof, regarding these sorts of cases.
Toggle Commented Mar 29, 2007 on Is equality good? at PEA Soup
Thanks for the comment, David. My thought was that there was probably some kind of middle ground between the two options you present. LSN(A,B) vs HSN(A,B) might depend on features of an individual that are relatively stable (such that we might reasonably suppose that they would manifest in a certain sort of behavior across a host of nearby possible worlds), but not necessarily common to all persons. So, to take an extreme case, if someone in the civil society in which we live is generally aggressive, unable to empathize with others but instead taking pleasure in their pain, then it seems reaonable to suppose that he would be so in the SoN as well, and that the SoN in which I would exist with this person would probably be a Hobbesian one. Or, instead of aggressiveness and empathy, we could look at other aspects of their character relevant to determining their interests (since after all, what's relevant on the analysis I'm floating here is the degree of conflict or harmony of interests among individuals). Physical ability might be relevant as well. If Infirm can only sustain himself by living of the proceeds of Able's work (and Infirm has nothing to offer Able in exchange), then the SoN of these two individuals might well be characterized as a Hobbesian one as well. As for the stability of mixed SoN/Civil Society relationships that Jussi brings up, I think this might be sort of a side issue for my main argument. The real concern is the normativity of SoN stories. I think they can have normative implications, but they do so simply by serving as heuristics about the kinds of instrumental reasons for action we have vis-a-vis other individuals and governments. If Hobbes is right about what human nature and social interaction is like, then it makes sense (sort of) to conclude that there exists a reason for us to adopt strong governments and to go at each others' throats in the absence of such government. If Locke is right about what human nature and social interaction is like, then a host of different normative implications follow. I think it's got to be right that the content of morality depends on what we are like as human beings (together and individually), and I think that this is all that SoN stories can reasonably be taken to depend on. My thought in this post is that there might not be any one thing that all human beings are like, and so no one set of moral conclusions that follows from such an analysis. Rather, we might have a set of moral rules for Able-Able interactions, another for Able-Infirm interactions, etc.
Toggle Commented Nov 13, 2006 on The States of Nature at PEA Soup
Welcome, Heath! Glad to have you on.
Toggle Commented Oct 30, 2006 on Welcome Heath White at PEA Soup
Thanks for the feedback everyone. I think Laurie's absolutely right that there are good and bad uses for moral theory, and that providing students with a vocabulary with which to discuss moral issues is defeinitely one of the benefits. (I actually think that by providing them with this vocabulary, we can also sharpen their moral perception. It's often easier to 'see' something we have a name for) So I'd never eliminate theory from my courses. But I do think it's important to stress the extent to which they converge, and to make our presentations of the theories as rich as possible. It's easy for students to laugh off the cartoon version of utilitarianism presented in a lot of textbooks. It's much more difficult to laugh off the kind of sophisticated theory Mill actually wrote about. Not to mention that the sophisticated version of Mill has much more in common with the sophisticated version of Kant etc. It's interesting to see the divergence on the question of whether making students morally better is a legitimate pedagogical aim of applied ethics courses. I'm pretty convinced that it is, but I think that reasonable arguments can be made on both sides. The problem with the situation as it is now, though, is that different parties to the exchange have radically different expectations of applied ethics courses. Students and administrators, in my experience, both expect that the course will teach people how to be morally better.(*) When professors teach the course with a different perspective, people's expectations are bound to be upset. That's not always a bad thing, but it does present challenges, and raises the question of whether those student/administrator expectations are legitimate. Shameless Plug - I'm actually working on a business ethics anthology right now which I hope will address both the "why be moral" and "how to recognize/adapt to situational forces that undermine morality" questions in a way that other texts currently don't. My own opinion is that a lot of these questions are best answered by combining philosophical analysis with the findings of other disciplines -- psychology, game theory, and literature, for instance -- so I try to reflect this in the selections for the text. (*) Note: teaching students how to be better is different from making them better. The former is an intellectual task, and perhaps one that even opponents of the view I set out in my original post could endorse. The latter is, I think, pretty clearly out of our control as professors.
Thanks Doug and Dan. It's an honor to be invited, and a pleasure to be here. I look forward to participating.
Toggle Commented Oct 26, 2006 on Welcome Matt Zwolinski at PEA Soup