Friday, December 26, 2014

Why Libertarians Can't Have Nice Things

So, just in time for the holiday, I read another libertarian essay on why the unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge wasn't so bad:
So, why is Scrooge supposed to be so in need of redemption? Well, he refuses to contribute to the comfort of the poor (and even suggests that they should die, to reduce the surplus population!), he begrudges his clerk a paid vacation at Christmas, and he’s a merciless creditor, demanding payment when it’s due from his debtors. And he shuns the company of his fellow man, except to the extent required for him to be in good standing with the business community. 
But these are hardly serious moral failings. 
Well, actually, they are. In Christian terms, Scrooge at the time of the visitations is entirely lacking in charity. Not just in the common sense of giving to the poor when you can bloody well afford it, but in the broader Christian sense of loving others as himself. He has no friends. His clerk's wages, working conditions and benefits are the worst he can get away with. He doesn't tip Christmas Carolers. He repeatedly snubs his nephew, apparently his only living relative. Earlier, his fiancee has released him from their engagement because she believed he loves wealth more than her, and he does not contradict her. Children know better than to ask him the time of day on the street, and seeing-eye dogs drag their blind masters out of his path. If he continues on this track he's going to die alone and unloved.

So, the Gospels, St. Paul, and Dickens are in broad agreement that his pre-visitation afterlife prospects are not good. The lack of charity is pretty much a show-stopper.

But, you may say, that's just Christian dogma, which I reject.

Look, going in, you knew it was A Christmas Carol, not An Objectivist Carol. You were warned.

Second, the Golden Rule is so broadly believed among so many different religious and ethical traditions that it may well be a valid moral intuition. At least, it will do till something better comes along, even if you don't believe in Yahweh, Jesus or Mohammad.

And unredeemed Scrooge is an epic fail at the Golden Rule.

One of his happiest memories is working for a moderately benevolent employer,  Fezziwig.  Fezziwig spends a modest sum on the Christmas party, lets off work early on Christmas eve, and generally treats his employees generously in small ways. It was a golden memory for young Scrooge. When it's his turn to be boss, unredeemed Scrooge does nothing of the sort.

Another happy memory for Scrooge is being rescued from a cheerless boarding school by his younger sister Fan. She died in childbirth, and you might think that he could show some warmth to his nephew, her son, but no.

There's a concept in economics called diminishing marginal utility. If you are $1 away from starving to death, another dollar is immensely valuable. If you are Bill Gates, another dollar isn't worth noticing. Even though the absolute value in money the same.

It then follows that a moderately charitable rich man, like redeemed Scrooge, can improve the net subjective welfare of his society a lot by even a moderate tithe of his wealth to the less fortunate.

But also, if you treat others as you would like to .be treated, they are more likely to respond in kind.

Long story short: don't be unredeemed Scrooge. Be redeemed Scrooge, or Fred, or Bob Cratchit,  or the Fezziwigs.

God bless us, every one.


Anonymous said...

There are good non-religious arguments for the Golden Rule.

It's probably just human nature to think of oneself as exceptional: you're a much larger part of your own experience than anyone else is, so you might extrapolate that you're a much larger part of the world than anyone else is. But once you recognize that that's almost certainly a biased-sampling error, you have to assume that you're probably not much different from most people.

Which means most people can be expected to behave roughly the same way you do. There's selection pressure against behavior patterns which, when broadly adopted, produce undesirable effects. "Tit for Tat" is evolvable not only because it's simple, but because if a large fraction of the population adopts it, they all do well; less-"nice" strategies do very well as long as they're rare, but they lose as soon as they spread to a large fraction of the population.

But that's in a world of dumb organisms and algorithms. What happens when the individuals are capable of reasoning and communication? Well, if you're in a large mostly-nice population and you encounter a not-nice individual, you conclude (a) this individual is probably Not One Of Us, and (b) this individual's presence is deleterious to you and your kin, so (c) not only should you retaliate against this individual, but you could persuade your friends and neighbors to do so too. Presto, we've evolved social shunning for individual behavior that threatens society at large.

How do we communicate that a particular individual is deserving of social shunning? Usually by labeling that individual's behavior as "wrong" or "immoral". Indeed, we could perhaps DEFINE "immoral" as "anything sufficiently threatening to society as to warrant social shunning." In which case Scrooge's behavior is indisputably immoral: it's a behavior pattern which, if lots of people adopted it, would produce an unpleasant world, so society is right to condemn it.

One might speculate that the pressure to evolve "nice" strategies, and to retaliate against non-"nice" ones, is stronger in dense populations, and that this would lead to egalitarianism and "fairness" being widely-held values in cities, while individualism, believing oneself exceptional and acting accordingly, would be more widely-held values in low-density rural areas. Scrooge, as a resident of London, is acting out-of-step with his surrounding culture.

The European Historical Combat Guild said...

Read wired for culture by mark pagel to get an insight in the evolution both pre hominid and human co-operation, altruism etc. Religions just enshrine the aspects that work. In part to make it seem that the faith is what makes us good, when in actual fact it is something we have evolved to do.

Hannah said...

Thank you so much for these thoughts!