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April 2010 posts

Libertarian Paternalism (again)

Jonathan B. Wight

A few weeks ago we had a lively debate here about libertarian paternalism.  Cato Unbound has been carrying some articles back-and-forth between Thaler and Whitman on this same subject. 

Whitman concludes his latest post by saying:

Some new paternalists, like Thaler, may support only the mildest of measures. But their analytical approach will, if generally adopted, set in motion slippery-slope processes that are largely independent of their intentions. So I would like to see Prof. Thaler and other new paternalists do more than repudiate specific policies; I would like to see them remedy the objectionable features of their intellectual framework.

Here’s the rub: Thaler’s intellectual framework requires judgment by citizens about how much government framing is a good idea.  Libertarians would say paternalism is de facto always bad.  Thaler and others (including myself) are willing to have some ambiguity and judgment on a case-by-case basis. 

Adam Smith wrote soaring rhetoric about freedom, but his actual policies were nuanced and depended upon a number of contextual factors.  Adam Smith was in favor of mild paternalism in certain circumstances, as discussed in previous posts.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg a Hayekian?

Mark D. White

While searching for readings for my legal philosophy class (now focusing on constitutional interpretation in light of the pending Supreme Court nomination and confirmation process), I lit upon this fantastic symposium on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the Ohio State Law Journal, in particular the article by Tobias Barrington Wolff entitled "Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sensible Pragmatism in Federal Jurisdictional Policy," in which Wolff writes (emphasis mine):

Justice Ginsburg combines this concern over the inherent limitations of statutory language with a particular strain of interpretive conservatism. Her dissent in Surgeons, and her work in the area of procedure more broadly, exhibits a healthy respect for the wisdom of past practice as it develops over time. For Justice Ginsburg, the starting point in applying open-ended congressional language to a question of procedure or jurisdiction is an appreciation for the stable and sensible solutions that lawyers and judges have crafted in responding to analogous problems in past disputes. In this area of law, at least, her approach might be described as Hayekian in its respect for the value of the organic development of complex practices. (p. 858)

Always nice to see Hayek invoked in unexpected contexts.

What is “development”?

Jonathan B. Wight

A student of mine is finishing up her Honors Thesis on substantive measures of development. One measure she examines is cell phone ownership as a proxy for infrastructure.  One can argue that in a rural areas without land lines, access to cell phones enables one to live a life of greater affiliation and connectedness to those you love (e.g., many husbands migrate and may return only once a year). Having the capability of communicating with loved ones can be considered an important aspect of human development.  What do you readers think?

Amartya Sen writes provocatively about substantive measures and his book, Development as Freedom (1999) offers great insights. 

But Paul Krugman’s quote still captures the issue most succinctly:  

     “Feudalism with cell phones is still feudalism.”

Anyone want to share other pithy quotes on this subject?


Markets and Dignity

Mark D. White

I just posted "Markets and Dignity: The Essential Link (with an Application to Health Care)" to SSRN; this is my contribution to the forthcoming volume Accepting the Invisible Hand: Market-Based Solutions to Social-Economic Problems (Palgrave Macmillan), to which Jonathan also contributed (with Benjamin Blevins and Guadalupe Ramirez), as well as Deirdre McCloskey, John Meadowcroft, Jennifer A. Baker, James Gwartney and Joseph Connors, Robert Garnett, and Steve Horwitz.

In the chapter, I argue that while markets may promote efficiency and wealth contingent on particular circumstances, on a more essential level they embody dignity, specifically respect for dignity between relatively anonymous persons engaged in commerce. I illustrate this point with reference to health care, the discussion of which may provide more general background to my comment on specific legislation in an earlier post.

Of course, comments are welcome...

Buying expedited screening at airports

Jonathan B. Wight

Should everything be for sale?  I just printed boarding passes for a flight and the airline asked me if I wanted to pay $19 to go around the line of people waiting to get screened.

I’ve seen this practice before at privately-owned theme parks, where you can buy a premier pass to avoid long lines. But the case of airport security seems quite different.  For one thing, airports are heavily subsidized by governments.  More importantly, national security requires that everyone “chip in” to fight terrorism—one way we chip in is with our time waiting in line.  If elites can by-pass the line, the general public pays more in terms of their own wait times. 

In times of emergency, society may choose to allocate goods in a way that promotes objectives other than efficiency (efficiency=satisfying preferences of consumers with cash).  The key issue might be: who gets the extra $19?  Is it the airline or is it TSA?  Does the answer to this question help understand the ethics of it? 

My gut feeling is that if TSA gets the funds and uses them to upgrade facilities, this would be a good trade-off for me and for most people.  But I don’t like creating a two-tier society of “have’s” and “have’s-not’s” in the public security sphere—because that is a slippery slope.  Why not allow some people to pay for expedited justice (why wait 10 months for a trial when you can buy premier handling!). 

There's a certain point at which a rights-based approach makes more sense for long-run social stability.  Any thoughts?

Epistemology and Economics (Synthese Conference, Columbia U.)

Mark D. White

Sorry for the short notice, but a colleague just told me about the upcoming Synthese Conference at Columbia University, April 15-16, 2010, on the topic of "Epistemology an Economics." Full information--including registration instructions--is available at Logic and Rational Interaction.

The program follows (note that several coffee breaks include cookies):

Thursday, April 15
09:00-09:15: Arrival + coffee (Faculty House)
09:15-09:30: Welcome
09:30-10:30: Origins of epistemic game theory (invited talk) / Adam Brandenburger (New York University)
10:30-10:45: Q&A
10:45-11:00: Coffee break (with cookies)
11:00-11:45: Fast and frugal heuristics: take the best and the priority heuristics in perspective / Horacio Arlo-Costa (Carnegie Mellon) and Paul Pedersen (Carnegie Mellon)
11:45-12:00: Q&A
12:00-13:00: Lunch at Faculty House
13:00-14:00: Title TBA (invited talk) / Cristina Bicchieri (University of Pennsylvania)
14:00-14:15: Q&A
14:15-15:00: Cognitivism and two kinds of desire / David Etlin (University of Leuven)
15:00-15:15: Q&A
15:15-15:30: Coffee break (with cookies)
15:30-16:15: Awareness and equilibrium / Brian Hill (HEC Paris)
16:15-16:30: Q&A
16:30-17:30: Playing with “knowledge”: towards a ‘soft’ interactive epistemology (invited talk) / Alexandru Baltag (Oxford University)
17:30-17:45: Q&A
19:30: Conference dinner (by invitation)

Friday, April 16
09:15-09:30: Arrival + coffee (Faculty House)
09:30-10:30: Title TBA (invited talk) / Christian List (London School of Economics)
10:30-10:45: Q&A
10:45-11:00: Coffee break (with cookies)
11:00-11:45: Of what one cannot speak, must one pass over in silence? / Olivier Roy (University of Groningen) and Eric Pacuit (Tilburg University)
11:45-12:00: Q&A
12:00-13:00: Lunch at Faculty House
13:00-14:00: Subjective probabilities and bets (invited talk) / Wlodek Rabinowicz (Lund University)
14:00-14:15: Q&A
14:15-15:00: Rule-following as coordination: a game-theoretic approach / Giacomo Sillari (University of Pennsylvania)
15:00-15:15: Q&A
15:15-15:30: Coffee break
15:30-15:45: Award ceremony
15:45-16:30: Acceptance speech
16:30-16:45: Conference closing