Fleurbaey and Leppanen on expanding social welfare analysis to other species (in Journal of Bioeconomics)

J of bioeconomicsBy Mark D. White

There are ambitious papers and then there are ambitious papers. In the latest issue of the Journal of Bioeconomics (23/3, October 2021) is "Toward a Theory of Ecosystem Well-Being" by Marc Fleurbaey (Paris School of Economics) and Christy Leppanen (University of Tennessee), an open-access article that rejects the current human-centered (or anthropocentric) approach to welfare economics and environmental economics, and proposes, in its place, a more inclusive measure of social welfare that includes all living organisms on Earth, effectively bringing animal ethics into the domain of environmental economics.

Social welfare analysis is therefore in urgent need to shed its century-old anthropocentrism. This paper examines the scope of the reform that this move would require. The key question is whether the concepts of social welfare analysis need a complete overhaul, or can be extended. Indeed, the main task of social welfare analysis is to trade-off the interests of various members of the population under consideration. Comparing how well-off different human beings are is actually not so simple (Fleurbaey & Hammond, 2004), and has led many economists to despair that it was even possible to do on a rational, non-arbitrary basis. Different human beings differ in their abilities, needs, and goals in life, so that comparing their situations in terms of success or advantage is far from obvious. But various methods have been designed to perform that delicate task. (p. 258)

One interesting aspect of their project that stands out to me is their acknowledgment of the difficulty of measuring and comparing welfare within the human species, which they use to argue that incorporating more species into the picture does not add much more complexity.

Comparing individuals from different species is admittedly more difficult because differences in abilities, needs and goals are even larger and more profound. But it remains to be seen within this context whether inter-species comparisons are of a different nature than intra-species comparisons. This is the question we study in this paper. To do so, we review the main approaches to interpersonal comparisons that have been imagined in welfare analysis for human beings, and examine if they can be extended to comparisons across species as well. (pp. 258-59)

Fleurbaey and Leppanen preview the rest of the paper at the end of their introduction:

The next section introduces to the structure of the type of social welfare analysis that is the workhorse of this paper. In particular, it explains why in this paper we focus on the problem of well-being comparisons among individual organisms from different species and largely leave aside the problem of the evaluation of the distribution of well-being as well as questions of population sizes. In Sects. 2–5, we examine four approaches to the measurement of advantage or well-being: command over resources, hedonic well-being, objective list methods, and preference-based methods. These are the prominent methods in current social welfare analysis (Adler, 2019; Adler & Fleurbaey, 2016). In Sect. 6, we scrutinize the important issue of rescaling the measures of functionings for species with different abilities, such as longevity. This problem raises an apparent dilemma which is quite important, and echoes similar difficulties appearing among human beings with unequal capacities or with disabilities. (pp. 260-61)


Another update to "Cost-Benefit Analysis at the Crossroads" symposium (LPE Project)

Lpe projectBy Mark D. White

Talk about the gift that keeps giving: The "Cost-Benefit Analysis at the Crossroads" symposium at the LPE Project has posted several new entries which collectively focus and intensify the critical look at CBA in the earlier contributions. In this post, I'll look at three that highlight the failures of inclusivity at the heart of CBA.

In "Modernizing Regulatory Review Beyond Cost-Benefit Analysis," Melissa Luttrell (University of Tulsa College of Law) and Jorge Roman-Romero (Equal Justice Works) write that:

Cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is inherently classist, racist, and ableist. Since these are foundational problems with CBA, and are not simply issues with its implementation, they can never be fixed by mere methodological improvements. Instead, the ongoing modernization of centralized regulatory analyses must focus on “moving beyond” CBA, and not on fixing it or improving it.

In response, they suggest a more comprehensive and holistic approach to regulatory review that incorporates values outside of CBA, partly by inviting the input of experts other than economists:

A comprehensive and just approach to regulation that properly balances economic considerations with deontological factors is possible in a post-CBA world. In the context of risk regulation, the regulatory review process should prioritize deontological interests, particularly when controlling statutes don’t provide for a welfarist blueprint, and are, instead, more concerned with protecting rights or promoting equity—as most of them are.

Implementing this post CBA-approach to regulation requires OIRA to diversify its portfolio of career staffers beyond economists, thus avoiding falling into methodological labyrinths that threaten to derail regulatory action with no apparent coherence. By incorporating more areas of disciplinary expertise in the review process, important non-quantifiable considerations like climate resilience, environmental justice, and intergenerational equity would be given predominant weight despite the difficulties associated with assigning a monetary value to the benefits that might accrue from centering them. Moreover, a post-CBA regulatory review that appreciates deontological values should be wary of falling into other reductionist utilitarian frameworks that democratically-enacted statutes do not call for. Recall that the Clinton and Obama administrations both made gestures toward retaining CBA while softening its anti-regulatory effects; these half-measures were ineffective then, as they will be again if CBA is merely “reformed” instead of rejected.

Karen Tani (University of Pennsylvania) follows in the same vein in her contribution, "The Limits of the Cost-Benefit Worldview: A Disability-Informed Perspective," which details two specific objections to CBA in this specific context. First, she highlights who has the power to make decisions and who is subject to them:

In a society that remains inaccessible to many disabled people, some have found it useful to be able to say, “this thing I want (need) is not that costly, especially relative to the benefits, so you should just give it to me.” But as disability law scholars and practitioners would be the first to admit, that same framework carries within it a concession. It suggests that at some point, or for some seekers, cost will be an entirely valid reason for the person who controls access or resources to say “no.” The benefits may be entirely real, but they will not justify the costs.

Surely there are situations in which we don’t want to make that decisional framework available—not because we think we can simply wish away costs, but because of the importance of the interest at stake and because we know just how easy it is to craft compelling narratives of austerity and costliness. To be sure, austerity/cost narratives have counter-narratives—of deservingness, of need, and even of right—but historically, some narrators have received more credence from the American public than others. There is a thumb on a scale against anyone who can plausibly be blamed for their own vulnerability (“welfare mothers” are a prominent historical example).

Second, she questions the ways that different issues are framed, either as costs or benefits:

The second point—again, heard often in the disability community—is about deep structures of exclusion and how easily they escape the notice of policymakers. CBA is particularly unhelpful in this regard. As Martha Nussbaum has argued, in the context of her capabilities work, CBA may help us in answering which of the options in front of us “contains the largest net measure of good,” but it is not an apt tool for naming and questioning the immorality that may be embedded in the set of choices made available. As Nussbaum puts it, CBA foregrounds the “obvious question” and leaves unasked and unanswered the “tragic question” that may be present in the same situation. Thus in the disability context, CBA might help us decide whether and how to make existing public transportation accessible (still a serious problem), but it does not ask why transportation systems were built in ways that excluded so many disabled people in the first place. It might help us make a decision about the pace and nature of deinstitutionalization, but it would not interrogate the morality of a society that has long separated people with intellectual and developmental disabilities from the rest of the community and confined them in warehouse-like settings. More generally, CBA is comfortable casting some people’s needs as the “costs,” and implicitly asking those people show their worth, rather than asking how and why they ended up on that side of the ledger to begin with.

Finally, in "A Post-Neoliberal Regulatory Analysis for a Post-Neoliberal World," James Goodwin (Center for Progressive Reform) echoes the comments of the previous two posts, calling out the undemocratic nature of CBA as well as its neglect of deontological values, and adds an anti-social bias (that will certainly resonate with social economists):

[T]he analysis must recognize and properly account for the complex patterns of social relationships that define and give meaning to each of our lives. Welfare economics-based cost-benefit analysis denies these linkages, viewing individuals in strictly atomistic terms and pretending our existence is little more than the single-minded pursuit of self-interested utility. An analysis lacking a richer understanding of our situated, mutual dependencies is not merely incomplete; it is systematically biased against pro-social policies, such as controls on toxic mercury pollution emissions from fossil-fueled power plants or effective COVID protections for workers in the service industry. Worse still, it rewards and reinforces the cultural disconnectedness at the root of so many of our public policy challenges.


New open-access book: Jeremy Bentham on Police (UCL Press)

Bentham on policingBy Mark D. White

UCL Press has released a new book, Jeremy Bentham on Police, edited by Scott Jacques and Philip Schofield, which is available as a free download. Its chapters are written mostly from the viewpoint of criminology, but they would seem very relevant to the law-and-economics approach to policing as well, given Bentham's foundational influence over the field.

From the description at the publisher's website:

Jeremy Bentham’s ideas on punishment are famous. Every criminology student learns about Bentham, and every criminologist contends with him, as advocate or opponent. This discourse concerns his ideas about punishment, namely with respect to legislation and the panopticon. Yet, scholars and students are generally ignorant of Bentham’s ideas on police. Hitherto, these ideas have been largely unknowable. Now, thanks to UCL’s Bentham Project, these ideas are public.

Jeremy Bentham on Police celebrates this achievement by exploring the story of Bentham’s writings on police and considering their relevance to the past, present and future of criminology. After Scott Jacques introduces the book, the Director of the Bentham Project, Philip Schofield, describes and explains how it works. Then Michael Quinn, who brought together Bentham’s writings on police, delves into the personal and socio-historical background in which they were created. An extract follows, representing the most (criminologically-)relevant passages from Bentham’s police writings. Finally, a rich variety of scholars offer their thoughts on what those writings mean for criminology. These contributions come from Anthony A. Braga, Ronald Clarke, David J. Cox, Stephen Douglas, Stephen Engelmann, G. Geltner, Joel F. Harrington, Jonathan Jacobs, Paul Knepper, Gloria Laycock, Gary T. Marx, Daniel S. Nagin, Graeme R. Newman, Pat O’Malley, Eric L. Piza, Kim Rossmo, Lucia Summers and Dean Wilson.


James Christensen on egalitarian trade justice (in Moral Philosophy and Politics)

Mpp coverBy Mark D. White

Forthcoming (and open access) from the journal Moral Philosophy and Politics, "Egalitarian Trade Justice" by James Christensen (University of Essex) surveys several approaches to incorporating explicit conceptions of fairness, justice, and equality into the debates over trade (often dominated, in economics, by efficiency concerns). Judging from the other "online first" papers recently posted, an upcoming issue of the journal will focus on such expansive ethical issues involved with trade, always a welcome discussion.

The first few paragraphs preview the contents of the paper:

In recent decades, notions of fair and just trade have become increasingly widespread. These ideas are invoked by politicians, protesters, workers, consumers, and corporations. The belief that trade is currently unfair or unjust is ubiquitous, though there is considerable disagreement about where, exactly, the unfairness or injustice lies, and, relatedly, about what must be done to rectify the situation. Resolving these disagreements will be crucial if we are to succeed in reconciling ourselves to the globalized world in which we live, and in resisting calls for a return to more parochial modes of production and exchange.

Among political philosophers, it is common to claim that justice in trade requires some kind of equality (Brandi 2014; Christensen 2017; Garcia 2003; James 2012; Moellendorf 2005; Suttle 2017). Often, the claim is that the national income gains that trade makes possible should, at the bar of justice, be distributed in an egalitarian fashion. Trade egalitarianism has been defended in a variety of different ways, but, for present purposes, it will be helpful to distinguish between two broad approaches. The first approach begins with a general commitment to equality and then identifies the implications of that value for trade. Advocates of this approach argue that trade must be arranged in a manner that adequately promotes a value that we have trade-independent reason to endorse (Christensen 2017, pp. 140–142). Because this approach begins from a commitment to equality as a freestanding value, and then applies that value to trade, we can refer to it as the applicative approach.

The second approach, by contrast, does not begin with a general commitment to equality. Rather, it begins with the practice of trade, and with an account that identifies that practice’s nature, aims, and key participants. In light of the account that they provide, advocates of this approach then argue that an egalitarian principle is appropriate for trade practice – regardless of that principle’s appeal, or lack thereof, in other contexts (James 2012). Because this approach begins with an explication of the nature of trade practice – and searches for a principle suited to that nature – we can refer to it as the explicative approach.

This first distinction – between applicative and explicative approaches – has, in practice, coincided with a second, looser, distinction between stronger and weaker forms of trade egalitarianism. The explicative approach has been used to defend conclusions that are less strongly egalitarian than those defended by proponents of the applicative alternative. In this paper, I engage with the primary explicative account of trade egalitarianism – that offered by Aaron James – and argue that its egalitarian conclusions are unduly minimalistic. My aim is not to criticize the explicative approach, but rather to show that the arguments and commitments of its best-known defender – James – either fail to rule out, or in fact positively support, more robustly egalitarian conclusions. I will not claim that James’s explicative approach can yield egalitarian conclusions that are as strong as those produced by the applicative alternative, but I will contend that James’s approach can accommodate egalitarian conclusions stronger than those he in fact endorses. I hope to move the debate about trade justice forward by demonstrating that proponents of the explicative approach can endorse egalitarian conclusions of similar strength to those embraced by proponents of the applicative alternative, despite approaching the subject in a very different – and apparently more parsimonious – manner.


New book: Human Dignity and Political Criticism by Colin Bird

Human dignity and political criticismBy Mark D. White

This was very quick buy (thank you Cambridge University Press author's discount): Human Dignity and Political Criticism by Colin Bird (University of Virginia) promises a fascinating critical look at both the nature of human dignity as well as its potential impact on political institutions. From the publisher's website:

Many, including Marx, Rawls, and the contemporary 'Black Lives Matter' movement, embrace the ambition to secure terms of co-existence in which the worth of people's lives becomes a lived reality rather than an empty boast. This book asks whether, as some believe, the philosophical idea of human dignity can help achieve that ambition. Offering a new fourfold typology of dignity concepts, Colin Bird argues that human dignity can perform this role only if certain traditional ways of conceiving it are abandoned. Accordingly, Bird rejects the idea that human dignity refers to the inherent worth or status of individuals, and instead reinterprets it as a social relation, constituted by affects of respect and the modes of mutual attention which they generate. What emerges is a new vision of human dignity as a vital political value, and an arresting vindication of its role as an agent of critical reflection on politics.

Although I'm concerned about Bird's rejection of the normal (Kantian) understanding of dignity, I am intrigued by his emphasis on the respect it implies.


Updates to symposium on Reviving Rationality (Yale Journal of Regulation)

Reviving-RationalityBy Mark D. White

There have been some new contributions posted to the symposium at the Yale Journal of Regulation I posted about last week on Livermore and  Revesz's book Reviving Rationality: Saving Cost-Benefit Analysis for the Sake of the Environment and Our Health (Oxford, 2021).

"OIRA the Angel; OIRA the Devil," by Bridget C.E. Dooling

"Reviving More Than Rationality," by Stuart Shapiro

"Cost-Benefit Analysis as Policy and as Dialectics," by Shi-Ling Hsu

While Dooling and Shapiro focus in on the nature and politics of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) itself, Hsu's contribution is more abstract, addressing the possibility of alternative values and principles to welfarism in public policy and acknowledging the difficulties with balancing these different conceptions of what is good or right:

Perhaps the most serious objection to a welfarist, cost-benefit state, is that welfarism is just another value. Welfarism should stand alongside, and not above, other values such as equality, nondiscrimination, liberty, or freedom. Welfarism might even be subservient to some of these other values. Even welfarists acknowledge the importance of distributional issues, while they work to incorporate them into welfarist frameworks. President Biden has called for changes to CBA to account for distributional issues. Liberty and freedom are obviously fundamental to Americans, as well as other Western societies, as the Brexit vote may well indicate. So perhaps government isn’t even supposed to maximize welfare. It is supposed to reflect the values of a moral individual.

But this line of thinking then leaves unanswered the difficult and obvious question of what government is supposed to do about conflicts in values. What, indeed, is government to do to balance say, public health and safety against liberty and freedom? Personal responsibility against equality? Fairness against prosperity?

They join the first three entries in the symposium:

"Saving Cost-Benefit Analysis for the Sake of the Environment and Our Health," by Timothy Brennan

"Why this is still an important book after the 2020 elections," by E. Donald Elliott

"Cost as the Ultimate Regulatory Restraint," by Jonathan H. Adler


Updates to "Cost-Benefit Analysis at the Crossroads" symposium (LPE Project)

Lpe projectBy Mark D. White

The Law and Political Economy (LPE) Project's "Cost-Benefit Analysis at the Crossroads" symposium, which I blogged about earlier, continues, adding two new contributions.

First, in "Equity in Regulatory Cost-Benefit Analysis," Zachary Liscow (Yale Law School) considers three ways to include distributional effects into CBA—incorporate mesaures of distributional impact in CBA estimates, "cleanse" cost and benefitm measures to account for distributional impacts, and use differential weights in CBA—and acknowledges that, at the end of the day, this is a political decision:

Which of these distributional strategies to adopt ultimately boils down to a political choice. Imposing distributional weights might be controversial politically, not to mention legally. It might be that the public finds explicit weighting quite problematic. We have no direct evidence on this, but the US tends to have strong legal and social norms of formal equality. And explicitly weighting the benefits conferred to some individuals more than others could violate those norms. On the other hand, it could be that the public would pay almost no attention to such procedures of government bureaucrats—or that they would like it if they did pay attention. Ultimately, this choice brings up deep questions of democratic theory: How, if at all, does it matter normatively what the public thinks? Or, alternatively, is this just a question of political feasibility, which depends on the difficult-to-predict reception of a new policy?

Continuing on this theme is "Let's Politicize Cost-Benefit Analysis" by Elizabeth Popp Berman (University of Michigan), author of the forthcoming book Thinking Like an Economist: How Efficiency Replaced Equality in U.S. Public Policy (a book I'm certain will be a topic of discussion on this blog upon its release in March 2022). Berman reviews the different ways the two major American political parties have used (and abused) CBA for their own ends, but instead of arguing for CBA as an idealized and "objective" evaluative standard, she sees it for what it is,

a convenient fiction that exists to coordinate action and facilitate decision-making. Our methods for estimating, say, the Value of a Statistical Life are arbitrary. They put a patina of rationality on what is essentially a moral choice. We accept them because they give us a consistent way to produce a number that roughly accords with our sense of what is reasonable—but a dozen other numbers could be similarly justified. Our actual estimates of costs and benefits are often lucky to be correct within an order of magnitude. And minor changes in assumptions—for example, about the appropriate discount rate—can lead to dramatically different assessments of the benefits of a project or decision. [Emphasis added.]

She concludes that, in practice, CBA should (continue to) serve the goals of those using it, and technical improvements to it should be made for the same reasons:

The primary goal of CBA reform should not be to produce the best, most morally defensible analysis. It should be to introduce technical changes that tilt the playing field toward outcomes we think are good. And in areas where CBA seems likely to be irredeemably biased against action, our aim should be to push for alternative forms of evaluation.

Of course, this would negate any independent evidentiary value that CBA may have, but that is Berman's point—it shouldn't be regarded in that way at all. (Again, I eagerly await the publication of her book for more thinking along these lines.)


Symposium on Livermore and Revesz's Reviving Rationality at Yale Journal of Regulation

Reviving-RationalityBy Mark D. White

There must be something in the water... a symposium began recently at the Notice & Comment Blog of the Yale Journal of Regulation on Michael Livermore and Richard Revesz's book Reviving Rationality: Saving Cost-Benefit Analysis for the Sake of the Environment and Our Health (Oxford, 2021).

From Christopher Walker's introduction:

Reviving Rationality is the sequel to Livermore and Revesz’s seminal 2008 book Retaking Rationality, which advances a powerful call for progressives to embrace cost-benefit analysis—or at least to take their seat at the table in regulatory policymaking that involves cost-benefit analysis. Retaking Rationality framed much of the debate on regulatory policymaking and centralized White House review of regulations during the Obama Administration.

Reviving Rationality picks up where Retaking Rationality ends, focusing on the process and quality of regulatory policymaking in the Trump Administration. Livermore and Revesz’s bottom line is, unsurprisingly, scathing of the Trump Administration’s approach, with in-depth case studies from a broad range of regulatory actions over the last four years. But Reviving Rationality is also hopeful and optimistic in how it charts the path forward for how the Biden Administration can rebuild the guardrails for economic analysis and revive rationality in regulatory policymaking.

The contributions so far include:

"Saving Cost-Benefit Analysis for the Sake of the Environment and Our Health," by Timothy Brennan

"Why this is still an important book after the 2020 elections," by E. Donald Elliott

"Cost as the Ultimate Regulatory Restraint," by Jonathan H. Adler (previewed here at The Volokh Conspiracy)


Symposium on proportionality in Criminal Law and Philosophy

Crim law and philBy Mark D. White

The October 2021 issue of Criminal Law and Philosophy (15/3) focuses on proportionality, a  principle of just punishment that is often neglected by economic models of criminal punishment that focus instead of cost-effective methods of deterrence, especially in light of costly enforcement measures. As special issue editors Douglas Husak and John Hasnas write in their introduction:

The following papers reveal the diversity of scholarly opinion about the principle of proportionality. Several are skeptical that the principle can be defended at all; others are reluctant to abandon the principle but point out many well-known and not-so-well-known difficulties in punishing according to proportionality; and a few make significant efforts to try to resolve some of these problems. We hope and believe that this set of papers represents major progress in understanding the role, if any, that judgments of proportionality should play in a just system of penal sentencing.

This is a fascinating set of papers by an astounding group of scholars, and will surely reward close reading—proportionate to effort, of course!

Douglas Husak, "Proportionality in Personal Life"

Larry Alexander, "Proportionality’s Function"

Mitchell N. Berman, "Proportionality, Constraint, and Culpability"

James Manwaring, "Proportionality’s Lower Bound" (OPEN ACCESS)

Adam J. Kolber, "The End of Liberty"

Youngjae Lee, "Mala Prohibita and Proportionality"

Jesper Ryberg, "Retributivism and the (Lack of) Justification of Proportionality"

Göran Duus-Otterström, "Do Offenders Deserve Proportionate Punishments?" (OPEN ACCESS)

Kimberly Kessler Ferzan, "Punishment, Proportionality, and Aggregation"

Heidi M. Hurd and Michael S. Moore, "The Ethical Implications of Proportioning Punishment to Deontological Desert"


New book highlights Adam Smith's contributions to political theory

Adam smith reconsideredBy Mark D. White

A new book from Paul Sagar (King's College London), Adam Smith Reconsidered: History, Liberty, and the Foundations of Modern Politics, coming out in March 2022 from Princeton University Press, argues that Adam Smith should be understood as a pioneer in political theory as well as economics and moral philosophy (the PPE trifecta, so to speak). Furthermore, Sagar argues that this new focus significantly alters the way Smith's more widely acknowledged contributions should be understood.

From the publisher's website:

Adam Smith has long been recognized as the father of modern economics. More recently, scholars have emphasized his standing as a moral philosopher—one who was prepared to critique markets as well as to praise them. But Smith’s contributions to political theory are still underappreciated and relatively neglected. In this bold, revisionary book, Paul Sagar argues that not only have the fundamentals of Smith’s political thought been widely misunderstood, but that once we understand them correctly, our estimations of Smith as economist and as moral philosopher must radically change.

Rather than seeing Smith as either the prophet of the free market, or as a moralist who thought the dangers of commerce lay primarily in the corrupting effects of trade, Sagar shows why Smith is more thoroughly a political thinker who made major contributions to the history of political thought. Smith, Sagar argues, saw war, not commerce, as the engine of political change and he was centrally concerned with the political, not moral, dimensions of—and threats to—commercial societies. In this light, the true contours and power of Smith’s foundational contributions to western political thought emerge as never before.

Offering major reinterpretations of Smith’s political, moral, and economic ideas, Adam Smith Reconsidered seeks to revolutionize how he is understood. In doing so, it recovers Smith’s original way of doing political theory, one rooted in the importance of history and the necessity of maintaining a realist sensibility, and from which we still have much to learn.