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April 2015 posts

Free Speech is Not Free

By Jonathan B. Wight

Walter Williams expresses some thoughts that should be aired about the vile Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity video at Oklahoma State.  Oklahoma stateIn that video it was advocated that “n_ggers” be strung up.  Abominable.

Williams notes that:

"To truly support free speech, one has to accept that some people will say and publish things he finds deeply offensive. Similarly, to be for freedom of association, one has to accept that some people will associate in ways that he finds deeply offensive, such as associating or not associating on the basis of race, sex or religion."

"I am all too afraid that too many of my fellow Americans are too hostile to the principle of liberty. Most people want liberty for themselves. I differ. I want liberty for me and liberty for my fellow man."

The bottom line is that free speech is not free: it requires incurring the cost of listening at times to people expound vicious and ignorant views.  

Character and the Greatest Generation

By Jonathan B. Wight

David Brooks, in Friday’s NYTimes, takes a look at when greed raised its head in modern times.  It was not, as one might think, with the hippie generation (“If it feels good, do it.”)

Greatest generationRather, Brooks argues that it started with the “Greatest Generation,” a cohort group that had suffered mightily under the Depression and fought in World War II.  This crowd sacrificed so much there came a reflex rejection of prudence once things settled down.  This was a normal reaction.

But Brooks argues that in every pendulum swing, it can go too far:

"But I would say that we have overshot the mark. We now live in a world in which commencement speakers tell students to trust themselves, listen to themselves, follow their passions, to glorify the Golden Figure inside. We now live in a culture of the Big Me, a culture of meritocracy where we promote ourselves and a social media culture where we broadcast highlight reels of our lives. What’s lost is the more balanced view, that we are splendidly endowed but also broken. And without that view, the whole logic of character-building falls apart. You build your career by building on your strengths, but you improve your character by trying to address your weaknesses." [emphasis added]

"So perhaps the culture needs a rebalance. The romantic culture of self-glorification has to be balanced with an older philosophic tradition, based on the realistic acknowledgment that we are all made of crooked timber and that we need help to cope with our own tendency to screw things up. That great tradition and body of wisdom was accidentally tossed aside in the late 1940s. It’s worth reviving and modernizing it."

Sachs and Pluralism

By Jonathan B. Wight

Tyler Cowen has a great interview with Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs

Sachs can sometimes be irritating because of his seeming naiveté.  In this interview he claims to be an optimist, but fully acknowledging of the failures of governments and the dangers of foreign aid.

Readers may disagree, but what I find most interesting—and most supportive—in this interview is Sach’s insistence that pursuing a single answer to economic development is a mistake.  Sachs’s wife is a doctor, and he says he has learned a lot from listening to her take a patient history.  A baby’s fever can be caused by lots of different things.  It is essential for doctors to practice a “differential diagnosis” depending on the circumstance.

Likewise, when an economist is studying a country’s circumstance, it is necessary to learn the history, culture, geography, institutions, and policies.  Human society is complex, and simple answers may work for one time and one place, but can rarely transfer well.

Hence, Sachs argues that:

“Acemoglu and Robinson’s book Why Nations Fail was one of my least favorite books. I think it is just a bad book, because it takes one thought and tries to drive it as the only explanation of history. That’s not a good approach in my view to history, which is a very interesting, complex tableau.”

This is a point I made a few years ago in this article for the Independent Review, and for which I owe a lot to Dani Rodrik’s One Economics, Many Recipes (2007). Having a pluralist mindset may take more time, but is much more satisfying intellectually than postulating the simple same solution to every problem. 

Collective Action and Individual Choice

 By Jonathan B. Wight  

Jonathan Anomaly is a philosopher at Duke and UNC who is involved in PPE programs.  He recently visited the University of Richmond to think about when individual choice should trump social action—and when it should not.

In the Journal of Medical Ethics (2013), Anomaly examines the question from the perspective of two different chemicals, one used for pleasure (narcotics) and the other used for health (antibiotics). Drug1

The “Collective Action and Individual Choice” article starts from a position of assumed individual freedom, with the onus put on regulators to overcome the presumption of individual freedom.  Using standard economic logic, Anomaly concludes that narcotics should be unregulated and antibiotics regulated.  Paradoxically, most world governments do the opposite.

Anomaly argues that since

“The choice to use recreational drugs fails to harm others in morally significant ways, we should call off the ‘war on drugs’ and consider more humane and less intrusive alternatives for helping drug addicts.” Drug2

“By contrast, the use of antibiotics creates a global, inter-generational collective action problem in which the consumption choices of each person have significant welfare effects on others. This suggests that there is a much stronger justification for governments to regulate the use of antimicrobial drugs than there is for regulating recreational drugs.”

“Yet in many countries around the world, antibiotics are either sold over-the-counter or casually dispensed without much consideration of the social consequences. Instead of a fully free market for antibiotics, I have argued that we should think hard about how to regulate them in a way that carefully balances individual liberty and public health.”

Well-reasoned and pragmatic. 

Death with Dignity

By Jonathan B. Wight

“We have invented more health care than we can afford to deliver….We already ration. The United States denies more health care to more people than any other developed country in the world. We did that by leaving 50 million people out of the system (before the Affordable Care Act).”

“[For example] I don't believe you should give any extensive operations to anybody over 85. You should make sure that they're clean, they're loved, they're comfortable, they're pain-free, but we shouldn't be doing high-technology medicine on people over 85.”

--Richard D. Lamm, former Governor of Colorado

I’m not sure what Dick Lamm means by “give” extensive operations.  Perhaps better to clarify: we should not be spending public health dollars to do heroic medicine, given that we have millions of people still without access to basic care. But individuals should be free to spend their own private money on any frivolous medical interventions they want--including cryogenics, a solid-gold casket, and so on. People should have the right to do so, even if they don't have the right to my respect for such behavior.

There is something virtuous, I think, in being prudent—in showing proper regard for our future selves.  And that means taking care of ourselves, including with medical interventions.  But at what point should we (as people who aspire to live a life of meaning) step back and follow Being mortalAdam Smith’s conception of “superior” prudence. Do we have a duty to others to die gracefully—and not, for example, rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to prolong our own lives by a few weeks or months? 

Along this line, consider this post from John Kay:

“A rising proportion of medical expenditure is now devoted to prolonging the lives of the very old and the terminally ill. The costs of this are potentially unlimited.

“We should pause to ask ourselves the questions raised by the surgeon Atul Gawande in his book, Being Mortal. Perhaps the greatest challenges in modern healthcare are not those of meeting the spiraling cost of advanced medical technologies. They lie in accepting that we are all going to die, and learning to do so with dignity.”

--John Kay, in the Financial Times. 

New book: Law and Social Economics

LawSEMark D. White

Over at the Association for Social Economics Blog, I talk about my latest edited book, Law and Social Economics: Essays in Ethical Values for Theory, Practice, and Policy, drawn from papers presented at the Allied Social Science Associations (ASSA) and Law and Society Association (LSA) meetings. Below is the table of contents:

Part I: Foundations

Chapter 1: "Towards a Contractarian Theory of Law," Claire Finkelstein

Chapter 2: "Environmental Ethics, Economics, and Property Law," Steven McMullen and Daniel Molling

Chapter 3: "Individual Rights, Economic Transactions and Recognition: A Legal Approach to Social Economics," Stefano Solari

Chapter 4: "Institutionalist Method and Forensic Proof," Robert M. LaJeunesse

Chapter 5: "Retributivist Justice and Dignity: Finding a Role for Economics in Criminal Justice," Mark D. White

Part II: Applications

Chapter 6: "Female Genital Mutilation and the Law: A Qualitative Case Study," Regina Gemignani and Quentin Wodon

Chapter 7: "An Unexamined Oxymoron: Trust but Verify," David George

Chapter 8: "On the Question of Court Activism and Economic Interests in 19th Century Married Women’s Property Law," Daniel MacDonald

Chapter 9: "Divergent Outcomes of Land Rights Claims of Indigenous Peoples in the United States," Wayne Edwards

Chapter 10: "Punitive (and) Pain-and-Suffering Damages in Brazil," Osny da Silva Filho