Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What's Wrong With Mushy?

An issue that I keep coming back to in my exchanges with various of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians is what I see as their unwillingness to offer a clear description of their position. It comes up in details of what they write, such as Jason Brennan’s use of  the phrase “minimally decent lives,” a term I have been describing as dishonest mush. It comes up in the overall pattern of the exchange, which started back on Cato Unbound, was continued on, and revived here when I responded to Jason’s cartoon libertarian post. I have been trying to get the BHL people to tell me what they want to add to libertarianism as other libertarians see it, with a notable lack of success.

This raises the question I have used for my title. Jason wants to argue, in the specific case of “social justice,” that terms do not have to have clear meanings in order to be useful and he claims that lots of terms we routinely use, such as “justice” or “liberalism,” don’t. That is surely true to some extent; the meaning of words is usually at least a little fuzzy at the edges. It is true even for such  obvious classifications as male and female, since there are people whose genetics are neither XX or XY, people who are biologically male but (by their report, which I am inclined to believe) psychologically female, people who are genetically of one gender but morphologically of the other, hermaphrodites, and a variety of other sorts of people (not to mention other organisms) that cannot be neatly classified by gender. But there is still a  difference between a word that has an adequately clear meaning and one that does not. And there is a further difference between both and a word or phrase which appears to have a clear meaning, is designed to appear to have a clear meaning, but dissolves into mist or turns out to have a very different meaning when you look at it closely.

There are two problems with mush, one having to do with arguments, one with implementing them in institutions. The first may be best described in George Orwell’s classic essay “Politics and the English Language.” If you have never read it I suggest that you now do so, since it is more worth reading than this post.

Clear language promotes clear thought, fuzzy language makes possible unclear thought. The less clearly your ideas are defined, the harder it is to see problems with them, the easier to evade problems when other people point them out. That is part of why, at this point, I prefer the category of left-libertarians of whom Georgists, admirers of the 19th century economist Henry George, are the most familiar example to the ones I have been arguing with lately. The Georgist position starts from the observation that since land is not created by human effort there is a problem justifying anyone's claim to own it and exclude others. It goes on to argue for a land tax used to fund government and, possibly, provide payments to poor people. In an old article I discussed problems with one version of this line of argument and offered an alternative solution to the problem of ownership of land, although not one I find entirely satisfactory. But at least the Georgists are willing to offer an explicit argument, which makes it possible for other people to look for holes in its logic or implications that they find unattractive.

So far the BHL people I have been arguing with are not, which is why I at one point described my exchange with them as trying to nail jelly to the wall. The pattern is illustrated by their attitude to Rawls and his Difference Principle. They speak of Rawls with respect, imply that they, or at least some of them, are in favor of something with a vaguely Rawlsian flavor, but are unwilling to actually defend the argument with which he justified his principle. They think libertarianism should include something beyond natural rights but, aside from making it pretty clear that that something is not utilitarianism, are unwilling or unable to give a clear description of what.

So much for why I find mush irritating. Why do I also find it dangerous?

Suppose one concludes that people with characteristic X deserve special treatment, say a payment of a thousand dollars a year funded by other people’s taxes. Assume, first, that X is clearly defined, someone either has X or doesn’t and it is obvious to everyone which is the case. Let X be blindness, and assume for the moment that it is well defined.

There will still be costs, in addition to the direct cost of the transfers, to implementing the policy. Individuals can and will spend resources supporting or opposing the proposal, and that expenditure is a net cost. If the proposal is implemented, there may be additional costs as some people, most obviously the blind and those who provide goods and services to the blind, try to push the amount up, others to push it down. And there might be a cost due to a reduction in the incentive to avoid blindness or to cure it, although that effect is likely to be small as long as the disadvantages of being blind are  much larger than the payment, and disappears if we assume that whether you are blind is entirely outside of your control. That assumption corresponds to the usual assumption in talk about social justice that it involves consequences of characteristics that are not your fault.

Now suppose we alter the assumption just a little by replacing “blind” with “legally blind” and giving a very fuzzy definition to the latter, something like “vision bad enough to significantly reduce life opportunities,” which is not too bad a parody of the sort of definitions moral philosophers like to give for disadvantages that they think deserve some sort of compensating special treatment. All of the problems I have described now expand. Anyone with less than perfect vision has an incentive to lobby Congress to broaden the criteria. Anyone with or without perfect vision has an incentive to try to get classified as legally blind, whether by bribing the inspector, getting a well paid physician to testify that he has an obscure optical problem, or merely faking the symptoms—at the cost of the inconvenience of not driving when he might be caught doing so. Make the criteria fuzzy enough—my example might do it—and what you really have is a subsidy to anyone with enough money and/or political influence to get himself qualified as legally blind, whatever the actual state of his vision.

Which is why mush, used in philosophical arguments that are intended to justify legal rules, is dangerous.

Let me end by returning to the specific example of “minimally decent lives” and a slightly more defensible version that came up in the comment thread on the BHL blog, “basic needs.”  I begin with the latter.

A reasonably objective definition of “basic needs” might be  “enough food and shelter so that their lack would not greatly reduce your life expectancy.” To make it more precise, replace “greatly reduce” with “reduce at least in half relative to those who had such food and shelter.” What would that work out to?

There are parts of the U.S. where housing is pretty cheap, down to about $100/room/month, probably less if I searched further. Assume that people are packed in ten beds to a room, along the lines of housing for tramps in London as described by Orwell in Down and Out in London and Paris. That gets annual housing cost per person down to about a hundred dollars.

On further thought, that’s too high. There are parts of the U.S. where the weather is temperate enough so that living outdoors, perhaps with a roof to shelter you from the rain, is not a serious risk to health. So all you need is some empty land in such an area, enough roofs for everyone to huddle under when it rains, and local authorities willing to put up with the land being used as a refuge for the homeless. Cost per person close to zero. Add a little for porta-potties and a water supply.

I should probably include clothing. There is a place in Boston that my wife, daughter, and some of our friends like to visit that sells second hand clothing at fifty cents a pound. Twenty pounds of clothing should easily last a year in a temperate climate, so call that another ten dollars a year.

What about food? George Stigler, back in 1945, provided an estimate of the lowest cost diet that satisfied what was then the list of nutritional requirements. It cost a little under $40/year. A recent repeat of the calculation, using current prices and current nutritional requirements, produced a figure of about $600/year.

That again is too high, since a sizable fraction of the world’s population survives on considerably less than Stigler’s 3000 calories/day, and probably considerably less than whatever figure the more recent calculation used. Stigler's diet was for someone doing moderately hard labor—again I don’t know the assumptions in the current version. But if all we are asking is what it takes to prevent severe malnutrition for someone who is presumably sitting around unemployed, since if he were employed he would already be making more than the amount we are considering, 2000 calories/day should do it easily. And we can get a better estimate of the cost of a really minimal diet, one designed to keep you from starvation, by simply looking for the foods that have the lowest cost per calorie. The last time I looked at the problem I checked supermarket prices and calorie contents, but now we have the web and someone else has done it. The result was that 200 calories of canola oil or wheat flour cost $.07, of peanut butter $.17.

Those three items, suitably combined, let you choose your mix of carbohydrate, protein, and fat, although I expect you would need a few other things, perhaps some vitamin pills, to avoid serious nutritional deficiencies. Call the total $.10/200 calories, or $1/day. That is not allowing for the cost of food preparation, but that ought to be pretty minimal if we are only trying to provide minimal nutrition, not a tasty meal.

Adding it all up, it looks as though a serious estimate of the cost of “basic needs” in the U.S. at present, taking the term seriously as describing what it takes to stay alive, would come to something around $500/year. Is there any of the BHL authors, any modern American philosopher who uses the term, who would be willing to interpret it that way? Anyone who is not, it seems to me, is pretending to use an objective standard when what he actually intends is something more like “a standard of living I would find tolerable.”

I am not suggesting that people ought to have to live on $400/year, although one risk of making this post is that at some point in the future someone may quote me out of context to claim I am. It is not the life I would choose—although if we assume that the homeless refuge contains some interesting people and not many unpleasant ones and that some generous donor provides a large supply of second hand books I expect I would prefer it by a good deal to not living. I have included no expenditure for medical care in my calculations, which could get unpleasant, but I think the historical evidence suggests that while the lack of medical care reduces life expectancy, it is unlikely to cut it in half.

So much for "basic needs." "Minimally decent life" is harder to give any content to. For most of us, I suspect it gets interpreted as the least attractive life we would feel reasonably happy about living, which in practice probably means life at something like half whatever our annual expenditure presently is. That is not an objective standard and I think it would be hard to come up with any convincing argument, certainly with any argument convincing to a libertarian, to show that everybody is entitled to achieve it, if necessary paid for by other people.

For anyone who has not been following the argument from the beginning here are are the relevant links:

The discussion

My reresponse

Another contribution to the debate on the BHL blog, this time from Kevin Vallier

More argument can be found on the comment threads to some of those posts.

And may I humbly suggest to the people at that they ought to provide a page showing, with links, the structure of such exchanges? And, if they already have done so, tell me how to find it.


DR said...

The heart of progressivism (and BHL is at its core much more progressive than libertarian) is universalism. This traces back to Christian millennialism and the belief that every person has an "inner light" that just needs to be awaken. This for example explains the progressive's rejection of genetic pre-determination of intelligence as not just wrong, but abhorrent. Or their obsession with the criminal justice system being a rehabilitation system.

The progressive's main concern with wealth inequality isn't primarily about poverty. As you explain virtually no person in the developed world lives in anything approaching poverty by the historical or global standards. The problem with wealth inequality is that it cuts certain human beings off from being full and recognized members of the broader community. This of course offends universalist sensibilities.

There are certain material things, without which one cannot be considered a normal integrated member of broader society, even if one still can live a decent life. For example a fixed residence jumps out most obviously. In all but the urban cores a motor vehicle is also a clear example. The socially acceptable minimal education level is also something that's needed. In the past it was 8th grade, today it's high school, but its quickly moving towards at least some university degree.

Anonymous said...

Wait a second...when I took philosophy they specifically said there'd be no math...

William H. Stoddard said...

I don't know—the philosophy in question still looks to me like liberalism. Modern liberalism, not classical liberalism. The reason we have a separate label for our school of thought is to emphasize that we didn't go along with the decay of liberal thought—that we still emphasize liberty. I don't see why these guys even bother calling themselves "libertarians" in any sense.

Eckersley said...

George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” is one of the best essays I've ever read.

Before I read it, I was an Anarchist. After I read it, I concluded that the government should have 1 role, and that is to force everyone to read this essay.

Anonymous said...

As I understand it, the main quarrel is over describing words and using proper usage of terms in order to clarify views and make arguments consistent.

I have had around the same arguments over having to explain my principle of Libertarianism, which I regard as "People should be able to pursue their own Interests, so long as they don't interfere with the Interests of others." And I get told to replace Interests with "Rights", which I find can become beyond contradicting when the question comes along "Where do these rights come from?" And I think this differentiates the line between consequentialists and normal Libertarians.

RP Long said...

Unfortunately, I feel that the BHLs have successfully obfuscated what the original disagreement was all about.

Brennan's original point was that anyone who believes "social justice" has no definite meaning is a "cartoon libertarian." The fact that he could provide no definite meaning for the term makes the "cartoon libertarians" seem more credible than he is. To hand-wave all this away by essentially saying, "We BHLs know what we mean, and that's enough" is highly objectionable, in my opinion.

They were the ones who made the initial claim, and they have been unable to defend it. The reason is that "mushy" language can't be defended. I thought after a few iterations of debate, Brennan would be self-aware enough to acknowledge that his "cartoon libertarian" post was a bit of an overreach. The fact that he is unwilling to do so despite the case Friedman has made - regardless of whether Brennan fully agrees with Friedman - is extremely disappointing.

Anonymous said...


Seeing as how Libertarians often justify their views by saying that nobody should know whats best for others, I would question anyone who said that and whether they could be considered Libertarian at all.

Don said...

Brennan tried to be snarky and left wing, like BHLers always do, and he got called on it by Friedman. BHLers are accustomed to living in their bubble, ignoring (or denigrating) opposing views (i.e., libertarian views) while expecting libertarian sites to freely print their mushy garbage in the spirit of free speech and the exchange of ideas.

Stripped of their pretentious and quasi-religious nonsense, BHLers are about as libertarian as Trotsky.

Anonymous said...

David, if I remember correctly, you once suggested that you accepted the idea that we have moral intuitions about what is right and wrong, but that you could find no convincing philosophical defense of the validity of those intuitions. I suspect that the BHLs are in that boat as well, but they're not as consciously analytical about their predicament. They "feel" (or believe?) that any properly functioning society should make special provisions for the poor, and so they assert it as a moral fact. This makes them tolerant of weak philosophical arguments that attempt to "prove" the validity of that claim, for those who attempt to prove it are in fact sharing the same moral intuition. You, on the other hand, refuse to accept the intuition without sufficient argument to support it.

P.S. I'm with you.

David Friedman said...

"As I understand it, the main quarrel is over describing words"

I can't have a quarrel over the content of their philosophy if they won't tell me what it is.

William Newman said...

I was reminded of by your writing around "that terms do not have to have clear meanings in order to be useful and he claims that lots of terms we routinely use, such as 'justice' or 'liberalism,' don’t. That is surely true to some extent; the meaning of words is usually at least a little fuzzy at the edges. It is true even for such obvious classifications as male and female..." I don't know whether his term "fallacy of gray" will catch on, but I agree with Yudkowsky that some term for it would be useful; it seems perennial in modern arguments.

Handle said...

On the definition of: "minimally decent lives".

The description you offer is basically the way lower-enlisted Soldiers live today for extended periods of time during either realistic training or the early part of some military expedition, before better, long-term facilities can be built. Things were much closer to "barely comfortable survival" in wars past, and more so the further back you go in time.

And yet, that level of sustenance of life, I'm sure, would be considered "inadequate" today in terms of being seen to give enough to satisfy the "special concern for the poor".

Not only that, it is considered, (not by everyone, but by many, and I'm guessing most of the same sentimental group of which I am speaking) an inadequate way to even treat prisoners these days - who are also said to be "entitled" to a somewhat better standard of living. There is of course the combined case of POW's, an even more meager circumstance. But plenty of POW's who were given enough to survive, and sometimes seriously maltreated for years, seem to have normal life-spans. John McCain comes to mind.

When I mention these cases to similar bleeding-hearts types, I get some hand-waving about the "voluntariness" of servicemembers vs the poor or prisoners, but 1. Soldiers have only recently been purely volunteers (and still can't legally back out of their labor obligations without severe criminal penalties), 2. It evades how "voluntary" are the circumstances of a prisoner or poor individual, and 3. What's voluntariness got to do about it anyway, I thought we were talking about "minimum provision of necessities without undue suffering."

The response I get then is basically sentimental or a kind of sympathetic simulation of what they would want or think "fair" in similar circumstances. The moral instinct of many bleeding hearts is to imagine that they'd fallen on hard times are somehow couldn't escape the circumstances that led them to become poor, or a prisoner (they never imagine themselves as Soldiers, revealingly), and to imagine how nice they'd have to be treated to not feel awfully deprived given the affluent lifestyle to which they've become accustomed.

The extra (unaddressed) paradox for Rawlsian thinking is that the disagreeableness of prison, or poverty, provides the incentive for work and deterrence of crime. The nicer you make it, the more the incentive is undermined. Pure "involuntariness" is required to avoid this problem, and that is highly unrealistic. With any degree of voluntary control over one's circumstances, Maximin delivers a society of corroded incentives. In the short-term transition depleting a large stock-pile of social capital built up over previous eras, one is not likely to notice much change. But over time you'd see the emergence of a vast underclass with endemic and multi-generationally transmitted crime and dependency. That's just crazy speculation though.

At any rate, what is the point of all this? The point is that I (we?) suspect that what Bleeding Hearts really want is something like a social tithe - society pays a reasonable fraction - 10-20% of GDP perhaps (but certainly no less than 10%!), to accomplish various redistributions from the relatively more productive to the relatively less productive. That's what "minimally nice" means - bread and roses and certain fuzzy psychological "ego" and "dignity" effects too.

Dr. Friedman's inquiries are met with evasions precisely for this reason. Because it's embarrassing for someone purporting to be purely rational to admit that, at bottom, they're policy preferences are based in subjective sentiment or opinion or taste or something quasi-religious in character. Worse than that, sentiments with no clear limiting principles or constraints, and which lead, and which actually led historically, to hard left conclusions.

Alrenous said...

You'll find that it is about status. Specifically, about attempting to hoard status by claiming to care about the low-status.

Minimally-decent will turn out to be about flattening the lower end of the status curve by manipulating material status markers.

Does it matter whether their claim is sincere? I leave it as an exercise for the reader.

@Handle, among others,
"What's voluntariness got to do about it anyway"

Deliberately adopting privation is a status-raising move, and has been since at least Siddhartha. Being forced into privation is a status-lowering outcome.

noballgame said...

What is the name of the place in Boston that sells second hand clothes for 50 cents a pound?

David Friedman said...

The place in Boston (I think actually the Cambridge side of the river) is called the Garment District. I think the price is now higher than fifty cents, but still absurdly low.