Christopher Freiman joins us to talk about his Arguments for Liberty chapter on utilitarianism. What’s the utilitarian argument for libertarianism?
What is utilitarianism? How does utilitarianism interact with rights-based approaches to morality? What are the rhetorical virtues of utilitarianism?
Show Notes and Further Reading
You can read Freiman’s Arguments for Liberty chapter in full here: “A Utilitarian Case for Libertarianism”
Arguments for Liberty is available here as a free .pdf and in Kindle and e-Book formats. It’s also available in paperback on Amazon.
Here are a few other selections from Libertarianism.org on utilitarianism.
Other Free Thoughts episodes on Arguments for Liberty:
Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: Joining us today is Christopher Freiman, he’s Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of William and Mary. Welcome to Free Thoughts Chris.
Christopher Freiman: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Aaron Powell: You wrote the chapter in Arguments for Liberty, a book published by Libertarianism.org on Utilitarianism. That’s what we’re going to talk about today. What is your utilitarianism?
Christopher Freiman: That’s [00:00:30] a good question. It’s a moral theory, which says that the right thing to do is basically the thing that produces the best results. When you put it like that, it sounds pretty common sensical. Pretty uncontroversial. Why wouldn’t you want to do the thing that produces the best results, but once you start getting into the details it’s a little more controversial. The way a utilitarian would think about what counts as the best results would be the thing that produces the most happiness for everyone affected by your action. [00:01:00] In essence if you’re trying to decide what the right thing to do is, you look at all your alternatives. What can I do in this situation? How much happiness is this going to produce for everyone that’s affected by my action? How much suffering is going to be produced for everyone affected by my actions, and then subtract suffering from happiness, get net happiness and then you just pick the thing that produces the most happiness on that.
Aaron Powell: What’s happiness?
Trevor Burrus: Pure raw, unadulterated joy.
Christopher Freiman: It depends on who you ask.
Trevor Burrus: Pleasure?
Christopher Freiman: [00:01:30] I mean a lot of utilitarians think it’s pleasure. I can see the attraction of that view. That view has some pretty famous objections lodged against it. I think the view that I prefer is happiness as desire satisfaction. It doesn’t have to be pleasure in the way that we traditionally think of it. It’s just, happiness is getting what you want. It’s satisfying your preferences. You could imagine people having the preference for a life that involves very [00:02:00] little pleasure. Maybe they’re a religious ascetic or something like that, but we could still say that they lived a happy life if their preferences were satisfied.
Trevor Burrus: We’re not going to challenge preferences as a general rule, I mean say heroin addicts and the contemplative life of Aaron and his fountain pens are equally valid. Aaron likes fountain pens by the way, so we can continually get on him for this problem.
Aaron Powell: That’s an objectively bad.
Trevor Burrus: Exactly so he’s bad on the utilitarian, I mean are the fountain pens of Aaron [00:02:30] and the heroin addict the same thing?
Christopher Freiman: It depends on which utilitarians you ask. Jeremy Bentham famously said it’s all the same. Fountain pens, I don’t know. That’s still probably a lower pleasure I think, fountain pens.
Aaron Powell: He probably used them.
Christopher Freiman: Yeah that’s true.
Trevor Burrus: Because he didn’t have a choice.
Christopher Freiman: On his view, all pleasures, all preferences are equal. Mill famously disagreed. He said there are these higher pleasures and lower pleasures. [00:03:00] Higher pleasures tend to be ones that require cultivation, the use of our higher faculties. Reading Shakespeare is a higher pleasure, even if it’s the same in intensity and duration as the enjoyment you get from, what was your exam, heroin.
Trevor Burrus: Yes.
Christopher Freiman: We would have reason to prefer reading Shakespeare to using heroin, even if quantitatively they were the same. I don’t know. I have a soft spot for Bentham, [00:03:30] for the Bentham view that all pleasures, all preferences are worth satisfying equally intrinsically. We might have instrumental reason, not, so if you have a preference for hurting other people, we would have a reason not to satisfy that because that’s bad for the person that you’re hurting. That’s going to frustrate their preferences, but in and of themselves, yeah I say push, pain and poetry, to use Bentham’s example totally fine.
Aaron Powell: Is this sort of pleasure, these sort of desires, fungible [00:04:00] or just is it simply an add them up, so if you said the person who gets their desire is to hurt people, well we don’t want to have them do that because it’s going to cause suffering, but does it really matter. If they get a lot of it or there’s a whole bunch of people who have gotten together and all of them would get a lot of pleasure out of torturing Trevor, can we say?
Trevor Burrus: That’s an odd zero.
Aaron Powell: An alternative, an alternative the same thing would be is do [00:04:30] we have to treat everyone’s preferences the same so if I’m making a decision, and I’m weighing it up, and this is going to, I can take an action that’s going to bring 10 units of desire satisfaction to a stranger or eight units to my child, can I prefer my child over the stranger?
Christopher Freiman: Right. I would say, morally speaking, no you can’t prefer your child to the stranger. You might have legitimate self interested reasons [00:05:00] for preferring the child to the stranger, so I think you can say a morally righteous person, or a morally perfect person on a utilitarian view wouldn’t give preference to their child simply because it was their child. You might have reason to depart from the morally perfect thing to do, just all things considered. There might be more to life than being morally perfect. That’s a semi evasive answer, so let me soften you up a little bit.
If it turned out that [00:05:30] you could benefit your child in some way, say, I don’t know how old’s your oldest child?
Aaron Powell: Eight.
Christopher Freiman: Eight. This is, we’re talking elementary school I guess. Yeah. Suppose you could get your eight year old into an elite elementary school, but it required falsifying the admissions test of your child’s rival for the final spot or something like that. Even though you [00:06:00] might think you have some sort of special parental duties to benefit your child, it seems like there has to be limits. It seems like you can’t cheat other kids, strangers kids out of benefits to secure benefits for your own kid. At the very minimum, it does seem like we have duties to strangers that can trump our duties to our own children.
Trevor Burrus: Does this deal with rights at all? Does it come into the play at all? Can we say this is not allowed because of a rights claim or does [00:06:30] utilitarianism just avoid that language?
Christopher Freiman: I like rights talk, but I think the reason why we care about rights, the reason why rights are valuable is because they have good consequences. A helpful analogy for understanding a utilitarianism perspective on rights I think are traffic lights. You have the green light that gives you a right of way, you have the red light that imposes a duty to stop so that other people can go through. [00:07:00] The rights generated or tracked, I guess, by traffic lights aren’t natural lights in a way that a lot of libertarians think of natural rights. They’re conventions to be sure, but they’re good conventions and you can make a solid case that it’s not just a matter of opinion that having traffic lights is a good thing from a utilitarian perspective. They actually generate good consequences by coordinating our behavior and so forth.
There’s not, it’s not [00:07:30] like written in the fabric of the universe that a green light gives you a right of way, but just given the kind of beings we are, the way intersections work, this is just a useful convention and its useful to talk about rights. I think that point generalizes to all rights talk. Rights to property, to bodily integrity, et cetera, et cetera, free speech. That’s meaningful within a utilitarian framework, but we would just say the rights aren’t intrinsically important, they’re instrumentally important.
Aaron Powell: Is this to some extent the difference between, because [00:08:00] one problem with that is, yes you can say in general having rights increases happiness or desire satisfaction, which looks like a rule the utilitarian notion, but there may be lots and lots of individual instances where the violation of a particular persons right will be utility maximizing, which then those exceptions and that act utilitarian sense kind of eat the rule.
Christopher Freiman: This is something, that as a, [00:08:30] I don’t know if I would say I’m a full fledged utilitarian, but I definitely lean very heavily that way. This keeps me up at night. I think I’m committed, this is a long standing debate within utilitarian theory. You say you have this rule, you have these rights, in typical cases they lead to good consequences, they maximize utility, but what happens in a particular case where it doesn’t and you’re led to this dilemma. You either follow the rule, or you break the rule for the sake of utility. [00:09:00] This creates, not quite a paradox, but at least a problem, because if everybody’s constantly calculating whether or not they should follow the rules, if I’m constantly calculating whether I should keep my promise to you, you’re not going to trust my promises. The institutional promising starts to break down. Happiness is frustrated et cetera, et cetera.
My view is close to Sidgwick’s view, Henry Sidgwick, that there might be [00:09:30] sort of an esoteric utilitarian morality where the truth is act utilitarianism, which is basically the idea that with each act you take you aught to maximize utility. If breaking the rule maximizes utility, if stealing a loaf of bread maximizes utility, you should do it. That’s the right thing to do, but we might not want to teach everybody to do that. We might want to teach them the rules and tell them to stick to the rules, and not to constantly [00:10:00] calculate the utility of following them. This is maybe a noble lie or something like that that we would tell people. One thing I would say, again, maybe to make it a bit more palatable is, I think, any plausible moral view has to allow us to break rules. Even Nozick, whose kind of the arch rights guy, says you can violate rights to avoid what he calls catastrophic moral horror. He doesn’t really specify what that is or what the structure of that theory would look like, but [00:10:30] I think on any plausible view if you can steal a loaf of bread from the back of a truck to feed your starving family, you got to be allowed to do that, morally speaking.
I think one virtue of utilitarianism is that it provides a very clear, compelling explanation for why you’re allowed to break that rule. Why you’re allowed to break the rule against stealing. Because in this case stealing actually produces significantly more good than harm, so you ought to do it. I think pure rights based theories actually have trouble explaining why I might be able [00:11:00] to steal bread from the back of a truck. Why we might be able to do certain sorts of things that under normal circumstances we would be very opposed to, but in emergency conditions would be okay to avert catastrophe.
Trevor Burrus: It seems like an empirical question about how many rules broken, rights let’s call them for the purpose of this, how many of those when you break them undermine the rule because, as we know, sociopaths [00:11:30] there’s a sort of stable amount, a number of sociopaths in a human society. About 10% can be there who constantly are breaking rules and stealing from people because they can take advantage of everyone else’s trust. If there were too many, then they would kill the very system of trust that they were predating on. This would make the utilitarian calculus very difficult in the sense of saying, “Okay is this time when I break the rule, is it not undercutting the existence of the rule,” and no one would know the answer to that question, [00:12:00] which gets to a really difficult problem with utilitarianism is that you don’t know enough of about what helps people out or what’s hurting them, or whether or not you’re contributing to rule breaking too much. From the moment where you make the decision, you’d be paralyzed by the amount of data that you would need.
Christopher Freiman: That’s right. This is why I would advise people not to constantly calculate the utility of rule breaking and just say something like, “Here are the basic rules. Don’t lie, cheat, steal, et cetera, et cetera. In emergency circumstances [00:12:30] you can break the rules, and don’t bother doing any more calculation than that.” I don’t think that’s too problematic. In fact, I think that’s probably pretty close to common sense morality. You stop at the stop sign, but if there’s no traffic, and your child is severely injured in the back seat and has to get to the emergency room at 2 am, then I think most people would say well okay well maybe you can run through the stop sign and that look both ways, but you can break the rule [00:13:00] in that case. That doesn’t mean that every single time you stop at a stop sign on your drive to work you’re constantly thinking, “Well can I maximize utility by running through it this time?” You just say, “No just follow the rules in normal circumstances. In extraordinary circumstances, in emergency cases, then you can break the rule.”
I don’t think that’s going to threaten the stability of the rules in the way that constant calculation might.
Aaron Powell: How do we articulate these rules? We teach people these rules. We teach them not to break [00:13:30] them. Where do these rules come from and can we assess the rules from within this system itself. Into the noble lie. Who’s in on the noble lie?
Trevor Burrus: I guess we are.
Christopher Freiman: Maybe don’t air this podcast.
Trevor Burrus: Too many people should not listen to this podcast. Don’t send it to all your friends.
Christopher Freiman: Well if my presence was on here, if that was broadcast it would dissuade people from listening in the first place. That’s a really good question. I am sympathetic to a kind of [00:14:00] Hayekian view where it’s hard to totally step outside and isolate particular rules and assess them for their value. I think it is tough to say that we can have this Archimedean standpoint and say this social institute’s good, this one’s bad and let’s just pick it the way someone like Bentham might think. That being said, I’m not quite as skeptical as someone like Hayek is about our ability to rationally assess rules. I mean one really kind of interesting bit of utilitarian [00:14:30] literature is this paper that Bentham wrote that was published posthumously where he talks about the irrationality of anti sodomy laws. You just said, “Look from a utilitarian perspective this doesn’t make any sense at all.” Mutually beneficial, what’s the problem? Is happiness maximizing? That obviously was very counter conventional when he was writing it, but I think he made a really compelling argument at the time, even though in some sense he was standing outside his traditions, outside of his conventions.
[00:15:00] I think that we still have a bit of critical leverage, today even, to assess. We can just look at certain institutions, we have empirical evidence that some work well and some don’t. We’re not totally unable to assess them critically.
Aaron Powell: Utilitarianism has this problem, that I mean, answers have been articulated for a lot of these things, but there’s a lot instances where it clashes with our intuitions about moral principles, rightness and wrongness, and one of the ones that has always been most troubling to [00:15:30] me is if we’re so focused on action, and it’s assessing the consequences of action. It’s all kind of, all the assessment happens post act, not pre act, does it care about motivation? Because we can think of lots of instances where the same act with the same consequences we think is morally laudable, if done for one [00:16:00] motivation but if done for another motivation is morally repugnant.
Christopher Freiman: Right. I think we can separate our evaluation of actions and motivations. We can say this was, in some sense, a bad action because it failed to maximize, it had really disastrous consequences, but I’m not going to blame you for taking that action. I might even praise you for taking that action because based on the information that you had at the time, you had all the reason to think that this would [00:16:30] produce good results and it just didn’t work out that way. I think there’s actually utility in praising good motivation. The idea being we want to encourage people to act with empathy, to look towards the consequences of their actions, so on and so forth. I don’t think there’s any contradiction in saying something like this is not the action you should’ve performed given what happened.
You can make an analogy to like an investment choice. [00:17:00] I could say right now it looks like investing in Google, I don’t know, is a good idea or something like that. But suppose some scandal comes out tomorrow, and Google stock plummets, and you lose a ton of money. There’s a really meaningful sense, which that was the wrong investment to make, but I’m not going to blame you for making that investment because it was the right call at the time. We want to praise people for making sensible investments, as opposed to say playing the lottery. Same thing with moral theory. If you give money to a charity, that all evidence indicates [00:17:30] is really helpful, and it turns out there was some secret scandal and it ended up hurting people, I would say that was the wrong thing to do in an objective sense. You couldn’t have known it at the time, and because you couldn’t have known it you did the best you can and I’ll praise you.
Aaron Powell: What about the flip side of that because you could have, an action where the outcome was good but the motivation behind doing it was so awful that we have a strong intuition that it [00:18:00] was the wrong thing to do in the first place. Lying to someone, flattering someone, in order to get something out of them.
Trevor Burrus: Let’s say you believe that giving to charity, will help through some weird mechanism, kill a million kids. So you give to charity, but you honestly believe a million kids will die if you give to charity.
Aaron Powell: I don’t think you need to get to absurd things like that.
Christopher Freiman: Utilitarian will love talking about the absurd things as that.
Aaron Powell: [00:18:30] Just instances where someone is, you’re being manipulative, intentionally misleading, self serving. We would say you shouldn’t have, even with the consequence of [inaudible 00:18:44] it was wrong for you to have taken that action.
Christopher Freiman: Yeah maybe this is splitting philosophical hairs, although that’s what I do.
Trevor Burrus: That’s what you do for a living, that’s right.
Christopher Freiman: Depending on the particulars of the case, I would be inclined to say you did the right thing, [00:19:00] but for the wrong reason. Just in this cartoon case where you give to the charity thinking it’s going to kill a million people but it saves a million people, I would say, “Yeah you did something great,” if we focus on the giving to the really good charity. In that sense you did something great, but you did it for the wrong reason. I can condemn you for your motivation. There’s good utilitarian reason to condemn you for your motivation. Because just as a general rule, people who are motivated to spend money in ways that they think will [00:19:30] maximize human death are not going to be utility maximizing. There’s utility in discouraging people from having these kinds of malevolent motivations.
Trevor Burrus: How do we get to libertarianism? Having good understanding of utilitarianism and what is the utilitarian argument for libertarianism?
Christopher Freiman: Yeah so the argument that I give in the chapter is just if we look at our menu of institutional alternatives. Free market capitalism, welfare state capitalism, [00:20:00] socialism, et cetera, et cetera, looking at all these alternatives, realizing that none of them are perfect. They all have their flaws in terms of maximizing social happiness. Free market capitalism does better than the alternatives. I think that the great virtue of the market from a utilitarian perspective is one the Hayekian point about it gives us information via the prize system about how to efficiently allocate our resources. It solves this knowledge [00:20:30] problem. If you ask me right now, how should I arrange my consumption choices to use my resources most efficiently. I don’t know. I do know that if the price of, to use Hayek’s example, tin rises, that sends a signal that tin is scarce, and it should be conserved. That’s gonna raise the price of stuff made from tin, so I’m going to buy less of it.
Which is going to be good for the economy as a whole et cetera, et cetera. The price [00:21:00] is giving information about how to efficiently use goods, so that’s one virtue of the market. The other virtue is the one that people since Smith have been harping one, which is it gives us an incentive to serve other people, even if that’s not our ultimate motivation. We engage in trade to benefit ourselves, but in doing so we give other people what they want. Most people aren’t hyper altruistic who [00:21:30] are willing to devote their lives to the maximization of social welfare. They’re just not motivated to do that. They care primarily about their own happiness, the happiness of their friends and family. Maybe they give to charity. I think the average donation is something like 4% of income to charity, which is not nothing.
Capitalism gives us an incentive to supply other people with what they want, even if we don’t ultimately care all that much about their well being.
Aaron Powell: That’s an argument for allowing there to be free markets because they [00:22:00] wealth maximize. That’s not necessarily the same thing as libertarianism, because libertarianism has a much more radical view of the role of the state than that. Because what you just describe could be the Nordic model. We have markets, but we also redistribute an enormous amount of money. It could also be the Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders style, let people start companies, but we’re going to regulate the hell out of them to protect the workers, and we’re going to impose all [00:22:30] sorts of restrictions on what you can buy and sell. We’re going to, the soda ban of New York. We are going to stop these, all of that would seem to be still okay even with accepting the wealth maximization of allowing people to exchange goods, and services in markets.
Trevor Burrus: Except for maybe the big soda thing, because that makes people happy. Pure prohibition on people buying things that make them happy …
Aaron Powell: It only makes them happy in the moment, but we, the enlightened, know that in the long run. [00:23:00] Because presumably they have and have desires later on, at some point in their life they’re going to be like, “Well I have a strong desire that if I could go back I wouldn’t have drank those sodas because now I have diabetes or all sorts of other health issues.”
Christopher Freiman: Just on that, there’s a, I think it might’ve actually been James Mill, who said something like, “Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches.” I think it is, it’s by no means impossible, but I think it’s improbable to think that as a general [00:23:30] rule third parties have a clear picture of my preferences than I do and how to satisfy them. Mill, John Stuart Mill, I think actually makes a pretty nice utilitarian argument against the paternalism and on liberty where he says A) you have more knowledge about your interests than third parties, and B) you generally have a stronger incentive to pursue them than third parties. Again, you can imagine exceptions to these rules, but in general, that strikes me as pretty plausible.
[00:24:00] I think the other big consideration to think about when we’re thinking about the Nordic model, redistribution regulation and so forth, is all of the public choice worries that a lot of libertarians are familiar with. I mean, I discuss this a little bit in the chapter. I don’t have a problem, in principle with some sort of redistribution from rich to poor. I think a lot of utilitarian philosophers who weren’t libertarians, which as far I can tell is most of them, [00:24:30] is that’s one of their stumbling blocks. They say $1 bring so little satisfaction to Bill Gates, and it would bring so much more satisfaction to somebody who’s living on $5,000 a year. The happiness maximizing thing to do is take the dollar from Bill Gates and give it to the person who’s significantly poor. I think that’s right, as far as it goes, and I think you could say if we had this kind of frictionless system of redistribution where it was just you take the dollar from the rich person, you give it to the poor person [00:25:00] and that was that.
That’s fine. I’d totally be on board with it. I think there are compelling reasons, even in practice to support something like a universal basic income and we could argue about how exactly that would be implemented, but I think we’ve learned enough from public choice economists to know that there’s the ideal model of how we’d want the state to work, and then there’s how it actually works in practice. When you look at regulations, when you look at redistribution, they’re just massive [00:25:30] inefficiencies. It becomes an open question whether or not it’s going to do more harm than good.
Aaron Powell: What does this say about, I guess, secretive programs. Take the surveillance state. I read a couple years back, Glenn Greenwald’s book on the Snowden revelations. One of the really interesting things about it was he’s published this book laying out what the NSA was up to and he’s [00:26:00] saying this was really harmful, but all of the harms that he lists are harms to us from knowing about the program. We’re now going to change our behavior because we know we’re being watched. We’re going to feel like our privacy’s invaded, which this was not his intent, but would be basically mean that all of the harms are come from him publishing it and not from the program.
[00:26:30] Does utilitarianism say that the government can do all sorts of things like privacy invasion or restrictions as long as we don’t know about it, therefore we don’t know that our preferences aren’t being satisfied or being curtailed it’s okay?
Christopher Freiman: Right. One thing that I find that I end up repeating myself ad nauseam is this distinction between what a utilitarian would want to endorse in principle versus what they would want to endorse in practice. I mean the principal, I think this is the problem [00:27:00] that many, many people have with utilitarianism, in principle you could justify anything. A surveillance state, that’s the least of your problems in principle. You’re harvesting the organs of innocent people, blah, blah, blah. All this stuff is on the table, no pun intended, if you’re a utilitarian.
I would say, in that sense, in terms of in principle, if we could get a secret surveillance state [00:27:30] that genuinely promoted the public good, then as a utilitarian you’d have to be okay with that. That being said, I would say in practice given what we know about human psychology and the incentives that we face, it’s probably a bad idea. It gives people a lot of power where the cost of abuse is pretty low given that it’s not done with a lot of public oversight. I would say just given those sorts of considerations, [00:28:00] putting a lot of power in the hands of people who have fewer incentives not to abuse it than they otherwise would, that’s a reason to be extremely cautious about it.
Trevor Burrus: Is it clear that on the surveillance tapes side, the civil liberties side of this equation, because you discussed in your chapter how the market helps people be better utilitarians in the marketplace, but as Aaron asked before there are other concerns of libertarianism. Including civil liberties concerns that are not market forces and trying to figure [00:28:30] out what maximizes utility there. We’re all sitting around here talking about we don’t like surveillance tape very much, but a lot of people don’t mind it. Their preference function is …
Aaron Powell: Or find it comforting.
Trevor Burrus: That’s what I’m saying, not only don’t mind it, but they feel better at night because the patriot act is out there and some guy is watching them with a drone or through their tele, whatever. They feel better about it because we’ve always been at war with Eurasia kind of situation. Does that mean that on a pure utilitarian calculus, if that [00:29:00] is the case that people actually prefer, we’re different than they are. There’s no market transaction or they prefer security over liberty, then that’s the way it should be.
Aaron Powell: I’ll take this a step further. The recent violence in Charlottesville, was a group of people who have a very different set of preferences than those of us in this room. You saw it to an extent with Trump’s election. Nationalism is utility maximizing for [00:29:30] a lot of people that they’re his voters. You can say restriction trade is going to be make you less wealthy and they will say I don’t care. What matters is preserving our tradition. Keeping the factories open, is man being employed in the kind of work that men are supposed to do or is keeping my culture in a certain way so keeping out brown people from across various borders. [00:30:00] These aren’t hypotheticals. These are a significant part of the population. How do we address those kinds of preferences.
Christopher Freiman: Yeah that’s a great question. I think one thing you could say is you have utilitarian reason to try to reform certain sorts of preferences. I think the immigration cases is super clear cut in that respect. People, I think that’s right, they do have these nativist preferences and they say I want to preserve American culture, American identity, [00:30:30] whatever that means. Let’s restrict immigration, but we know that the economic benefits of immigration are just super high. Also, counterbalancing the nativist preferences or the preferences of cosmopolitans like me who think, I have a super strong preference to have really open borders so that’s a counterbalance. I think we were going to say, in terms of the long run happiness and prosperity of not just the country, but the world, it’s better for people to not have these preferences.
[00:31:00] We can criticize them from that perspective. Preferences that facilitate positive sum cooperation are good preferences from the utilitarian point of view.
Aaron Powell: Can we then, we’re forced to some extent when we’re policy making, especially even in our own individual actions to trade off current against future preferences. Do we discount one versus the other? Do we say to people, how do we measure yes it’s going to, we’re going to not satisfy your nativist preferences [00:31:30] now in order to maximize the preferences of non existing people. Currently non existing people who will exist sometime in the future.
Christopher Freiman: Yeah well, that opens up a huge philosophical can of worms. What do we say about the preference of future people? I haven’t thought too much about that, surprisingly, although utilitarians generally have thought a lot about it. I’m inclined to think that the preferences of future people have to matter. [00:32:00] Just because it would be very difficult to make sense of a lot of our policy decisions if we didn’t think that they mattered. Just take something like climate change. That’s really going to hurt people who don’t yet exist. If we said you don’t care about the preferences of non existent people, then it’s not clear why we should be so concerned about mitigating global warming. It is going to negatively impact people who are currently alive, but it seems like some of the greatest harms are going to be to non existent people.
Even though I don’t have a [00:32:30] great technical argument for it, I think that’s a first pass as to why we should care about the future preferences that aren’t yet materialized.
Trevor Burrus: On that point, it reminds me of one of my, one thing that always upsets me in the sense of thinking about market transactions and highest and best uses, the global warming question of future generations is a good one. Let’s try something different. The preservation of historical things.
Aaron Powell: [00:33:00] Confederate statues.
Trevor Burrus: More like what was happening, so when ISIS and Taliban were destroying things like Palmyra and Syria, for me, I have very high value on those and I can’t actualize my preference. I can’t go buy it. I would. I would go buy it to preserve it, but I can’t. Not even using ISIS as an example, if someone wants to bulldoze I don’t know, the armory where [00:33:30] John Brown, in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, like held up, even though that’s not the original one. Nevertheless, the state was wanting to bulldoze that and turn it into a Subway sandwich shop. I would be very upset about that, and my preferences would be super high. I just would actually have the money to fix that problem. It seems like the only think I could appeal to would be preferences of future generations. They’ll want to see this too. They’ll want to have this preserved.
Christopher Freiman: I think that’s a fair point. [00:34:00] I would say I think that’s a totally legitimate way of thinking about those sorts of cases, although I would want to make sure that we had, I don’t know, empirical evidence that future generations will value those things. Because I think one thing that I am committed to saying is monuments are so on and so forth, these things only have value in so far as people value them as they satisfy people’s preferences. That actually strikes me as, any moral theory [00:34:30] has its pros and cons. That to me has actually always seemed like a pro about utilitarianism.
Trevor Burrus: It’s a pretty mundane observation.
Christopher Freiman: If there was this monument, or like a piece of art or something that nobody liked, I don’t know. It seems like it doesn’t have value.
Trevor Burrus: Or if it’s like Mad Max world zombie apocalypse and all you have if a Picasso canvas to start a fire, the Picasso painting doesn’t really matter that much anymore.
Christopher Freiman: Right. Exactly. I would say yes. The lost utility that we might be depriving [00:35:00] future generations of, that’s certainly a relevant consideration, but I would resist the claim, not that you’re making this claim, but I would resist the claim that great art, historical artifacts et cetera, et cetera somehow have intrinsic value that exists apart from the way humans, rational creatures in general, interact with them.
Trevor Burrus: What about market failures, especially public goods? If we’re going to use the market as a utility maximizing [00:35:30] entity, and therefore promote it as a general rule, what about things that the market either can’t provide or doesn’t provide at an efficient level.
Christopher Freiman: I like to use this analogy in various forms. Here’s, let me give you my theory of Steph Curry failure. So Steph Curry, I don’t know what he shot the last season.
Trevor Burrus: Probably like 52% or something like that.
Aaron Powell: Maybe like 47, was it that low.
Christopher Freiman: I think it might’ve been that. So he [00:36:00] misses I think like 53% of his three point shots.
Trevor Burrus: Just the three points?
Christopher Freiman: Just his three pointers. We could spend the rest of the podcast on basketball statistics. Probably know more about that than philosophy. So just in terms of three point percentage, he probably misses about 53%. If you’re judging Steph Curry from the standpoint of perfection, from 100%, you’d say that’s pretty good. Like Babe Ruth. Babe Ruth batted, [00:36:30] I don’t know, like 345.
Trevor Burrus: 340 is likely.
Christopher Freiman: Something like that. In absolute, he didn’t get a hit like two thirds of the time. That’s really bad.
Trevor Burrus: Maybe 342. I’m ashamed that I can’t remember that exactly. But continue.
Christopher Freiman: Anything in the 340’s. Yeah. Judging from if your standard of success, at perfect, perfect success, perfection, these players look pretty bad. You’d say, “Well Steph Curry has failed.” Well okay, I’ll grant you the world, [00:37:00] I’ll say okay he failed, but then the question is practically, what are the implications. Should we tell Steve Kerr, the coach of the Warriors, that he should cut Steph Curry? Well no, that’s absurd, because the standard by which you would judge Steph Curry is not perfection, it’s what’s the next best alternative. If you cut Steph Curry, someone else is going to take his place and that person’s going to miss even more than 55% of his three point shooting. It turns out that Steph Curry’s the best that there is. 45% or whatever it is is [00:37:30] about as good as it gets. That’s kind of my attitude about market failure.
Which is, I think markets fail many times in the sense that they leave welfare games on the table. We can imagine systems that do a better job, of say, providing public goods that’s the standard case. Just because we can imagine an alternative that’s better doesn’t mean that that alternative is actually feasible. Once we start considering all the public choice worries about the actual incentives and information that politicians have, that bureaucrats have, that lobbyists [00:38:00] have, et cetera, et cetera, then I think we become a lot more optimistic about the alternatives to free market capitalism. It’s not perfect, just as Steph Curry is not perfect, but I think we have good reason to believe that it’s better than the available alternatives.
Aaron Powell: Does utilitarianism commit us to ultimately volunteerism. The question of if we’re not anarchists, and so we’re going to have a state, the question of obligations to the state and obligations [00:38:30] to obey the law. On the one hand you could say the law is that set of rules that we teach people to follow. That yes there may be instances where it leads to injustice, or in this case loss of preference satisfaction, but by and large a society will respect the laws. That would seem to, that by and large doesn’t seem to apply in a lot of instances. Almost every law that’s on the books [00:39:00] right now, if you were to go through all of them, is utility minimizing. Does utilitarianism effectively commit us to disobeying, most of the time, if not outright rebelling all of the time?
Christopher Freiman: You would have to calculate the expected social value of inactive rebellion. Certainly, I think a true blue utilitarian will deny that there’s any kind [00:39:30] of independent duty to obey the law. I think all of these duties are going to look like your duty to stop at the stop sign. Generally speaking, there’s instrumental value when stopping at a stop sign. You don’t want to undermine other drivers expectations that they can go through the right of way without you smacking the hat social utility. All that, you know that same song and dance, but you’re in the middle of the desert. You’re rushing somewhere important, and you can see in all directions for a mile that there’s no car.
[00:40:00] There is no moral wrong in just burning through that stop sign, in my view. I think all, sort of legal obligations that you might have are the same. There might be value in acting in predictable sorts of way so on and so forth. Maybe there are some sorts of government programs that do good, but if you say smoking marijuana or something like that. You say, “Oh that’s utility maximizing act. [00:40:30] I’m considering all the negative externalities on third parties, blah, blah, blah. Just for the sake of argument it’s utility maximizing act. It happens to be against the law, so what should I do.” I would say, “Well if you’re genuinely correct in thinking that it’s utility maximizing, yeah do it. Disregard the law.”
I think that generalizes to all legal obligation.
Trevor Burrus: You said, you write in the book that, obviously the utilitarian view would be willing to endorse redistribution. It’s [00:41:00] not off the table, nothing is off the table if it raises utility, but you also write about how we may not want to go that far if we’re thinking about the effects of economic growth.
Christopher Freiman: Right.
Trevor Burrus: In particular, you sign a really interesting argument by David Schmitz about the production factor, if you could discuss that.
Christopher Freiman: Yeah. Yeah. I really like that argument. Dave was my dissertation director actually at the University of Arizona. He has this really nice piece, [00:41:30] which originated as a standalone article, and then became a chapter in his book Elements of Justice. He addresses the argument we discussed a little bit earlier. The diminishing marginal utility argument free distribution, so that’s the argument. $1 means very little to Bill Gates because he already has everything under the sun. What more could he possibly want? What could he spend that $1. If you give that dollar to somebody who’s earning $5,000 a year, there’s a lot of really valuable stuff they can spend it on. It looks very [00:42:00] straightforward. A utilitarian should take from Bill Gates and give to the person in poverty.
One of the arguments that Dave makes against that is, well that is true if you’re only considering consumption, but if you’re also considering production it’s not so obvious. He gives an analogy to units of corn. Suppose you have somebody who’s very corn rich, so they have a lot of corn, they have eaten their share of corn. They don’t want to eat any more corn, and then you have somebody who’s hungry, not [00:42:30] starving to death, but just doesn’t have very good food to eat. They have something that’s worse than corn to eat. He says if you’re just considering consumption, it would make sense to take one unit of corn to the corn rich person and give it to the corn poor person. That’s utility maximizing, but things change when you consider the future and you consider production.
He says precisely because the corn rich person has no reason to consume that unit, production becomes a higher valued use of that corn. They might plant it. The real world analogy might be savings and investment [00:43:00] and so forth. When you consider that very small changes in the growth rate can have huge impacts over time, impacts that tend to be very good for the poor then it’s not so obvious that when we’re looking not at a snap shot, but looking at a 10, 15, 20 year picture, that the utilitarian thing to do is redistribute that corn. I think just a broader point is that economic growth is a very underrated instrument of poverty [00:43:30] alleviation. It’s not, you hear people talk about trickle down economics, it’s not about trickle down economics, it’s just I have a lot of money and I can invest in the manufacturing process that makes bread two cents cheaper.
Okay. I have an incentive to do that, and now bread is two cents cheaper for everybody. People have that much more money to spend on other stuff. I think, really, if you look throughout history, that’s how we alleviate poverty. Is by making better stuff at lower prices, not [00:44:00] redistribution.
Trevor Burrus: When people argue about for libertarianism ideas, broadly speaking, a lot of different arguments are used. A lot of people …
Aaron Powell: Nine in arguments for liberty.
Trevor Burrus: Nine in particular.
Christopher Freiman: Only one correct one though. Only one out of nine is correct.
Trevor Burrus: On that point, a lot of people associate libertarianism with a very strong rights theory, taxation as theft, a don’t tread on me kind of thing. What do you think, not just why is it correct, but [00:44:30] is there a virtue that utilitarianism has rhetorically over these other ones that are often more assigned to libertarians.
Christopher Freiman: Yeah. Yeah. In addition to being true, I do think there’s rhetorical value. Just because, yeah, libertarians, the kind of self ownership libertarian that we’ve come to associate with libertarianism is a kind of esoteric doctrine, and not a whole lot of people accept it for better or for worse. When people [00:45:00] say taxation to provide health care for other people is a rights violation, that gets traction with some people but for others it doesn’t. I think saying, “Look this program is going to have very good consequences, or this program won’t have very good consequences.” That’s a consideration that everybody cares about.
That’s, i hesitate to use the word theory neutral, but it’s something like that theory neutral consideration. Everybody wants other people to be happy. We want the country to be richer. We want people [00:45:30] to be more satisfied. I think it has a wider appeal than maybe some of the more doctrinaire rights views. That’s just an additional reason why. I don’t know, libertarian philosophers are not big fans of utilitarianism, but I think we should have more just come over to my side.
Aaron Powell: Thanks for listening. This episode of free thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more visit us at www.libertarianism.org.