Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Brad DeLong on the apparent chasm between a lot of libertarians and normal human civilization

That title was meant to be read semi-literally and very carefully, not as some kind off the cuff insult. Because you all know I have a soft spot for libertarians. They're our confused, humorous, outrageous, but somehow adorable crazy uncles in the family tree that is the liberal tradition. Some people avoid their crazy uncle. I always get a kick out of talking to him, and often even learn a few things (sometimes not what my crazy uncle intended me to learn).

DeLong writes of Mario Rizzo:

"Ah. I See Mario Rizzo Is Back at It Again...


He says, yet again:

  1. Taxi medallion owners have a good thing in a government-sponsored monopoly that gives them healthy incomes and valuable assets, so
  2. Let's cheat taxi drivers by stiffing them of their tips at the end of the ride.
Note what Rizzo is not saying. Rizzo is not saying:

Before you get into a taxicab, warn the driver that you don't tip so he can decide whether he wants to accept your custom or go on to the next fare.
Rizzo is saying:

Get into the taxi without warning him that you don't tip--and then at the end of the ride, when it comes time for you to honor the contract of meter fare plus tip for reasonable service that you had entered into, stiff him instead.
I never will understand these people. Never. If they ever wind up in your house, strip-search 'em as they leave. Just saying..."

And this is really the point: libertarian thought often seems divorced from the way human social behavior has evolved. It's not coincidence that this is the most strikingly true for libertarians who derive their guiding principles from some allegedly deep deontological principle, like "non-aggression principle" or opposition to "coercion" or the virtue of selfishness. Those who proceed like this usually do a notoriously bad job either (1.) justifying, or (2.) applying these foundational principles. To borrow from Keynes, deontological libertarians offer an "example of how, starting with a mistake, a remorseless logician can end up in Bedlam".

This is not how all libertarians think. Some, like Hayek, have a deep appreciation for spontaneous social orders. "Good Hayek" thinks in terms of spontaneous order, following in a long liberal tradition. "Bad Hayek" begins to think like deontological libertarians and entertains libertarian dictatorships. This is not a new problem to this blog - we've discussed the problems of libertarian social engineering on here before. It's not just a libertarian thing of course. It's a problem with any movement that is associated with a particular formula for organzing society. If there's a bedrock, very carefully laid out, deontological principle and a penchant for deductivism lurking around, it's usually a sign that this can be a problem.

Brad has questioned libertarians before, of course. Recently he was incredulous that I cited Bob Murphy as a libertarian that's easy to get along with (Mario is easy for non-libertarians to get along with too, actually). Bob, after all, saw Mario's minor social friction and raised it an apocalypse by suggesting it would be unethical to use government money to avert a life-destroying asteroid.

Nuts, I know! I agree with Brad on that.

Here's how I see it: as long as Mario isn't working for the New York City tourist bureau, and as long as Bob isn't the director of NASA, I don't see how there is any real problem here - crazy as the assertions are.

35 comments:

  1. You're very generous and open-minded, Daniel. Once it occurred to me that libertarianism is just narcissism pretending to be an ideology, I just stopped listening.

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    1. Narcissism is an ideology. Just not libertarian ideology.

      Narcissism and respect for other people's property rights are incompatible.

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  2. As a European I really don't understand why not tipping a cab driver is outrageous.

    If you don't like "the way human social behavior has evolved" ... try to change it (peacefully - and not tipping a cab driver seems peaceful to me).

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  3. There are two ways not to tip. The first way is to tell the taxi driver before you enter--look, I don't believe in tipping, so if you expect to get the meter fare plus a tip at the end of this ride you will be disappointed. The second is to say nothing and simply not tip. The first is something I have no problem with. Rizzo insists on doing the second. I have a problem with that. You should do--fraud is not really a very peaceful thing.

    Yours,

    Brad DeLong

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  4. Why exactly are you connecting this to libertarianism? Brad's post takes issue with people who don't leave tips. Isn't that who he was referring to when saying "these people"? His comment above seems to confirm that.

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    1. See my discussion after quoting Brad, and click through the links to Mario's original post.

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  5. Two things:

    (1) I think there's an assumption that you're going to tip someone, and so "not tipping" w/o warning is not cool and borderline theft.

    (2) Calling people psychopaths and deleting perfectly reasonable comments on one's blog is hardly the mark of civilized behavior.

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    1. Brad De Long doesn't delete perfectly reasonable comments from his blog. He only deletes comments he disagrees with. That's completely different!

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  6. It was a self-described libertarian (Mario Rizzo) who advocated that people should stiff taxi drivers on principle. In America, unlike Europe, taxi drivers (and waitresses, and some other professions) depend on tips to achieve a living wage (sometimes not even that), and without a tip, they are often working for next to nothing.

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  7. Peter Singer claims that the killing of new-born infants is morally defensible but the eating of animals is not. Cosmopolitan high liberal.

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    1. That is a gross caricature of Singer's position... which derives rather from a belief that we have erected biologically artificial barriers between ourselves and (other) animals, particularly w.r.t. suffering and the capacity to feel pain. In his words: speciesism.

      For those who don't know what I'm talking about, this conversation with Richard Dawkins captures the essence of the issue.

      As to specific charge of "endorsing" infanticide, his arguments are, of course, extremely context sensitive and far more nuanced than knee-jerk critics are willing to acknowledge. For instance, does anyone here really that there isn't a moral case to be made for shielding a toddler from some "horrible, incurable disease that meant he was going to die in agony in later life"?

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  8. Agree with Bob Murphy: given baseline social assumptions, not tipping wo/ warming the cabbie before you get in is borderline theft. But that's what Rizzo does.

    What word would you use to describe such a... chasm between how Rizzo and normal human beings treat cabbies?

    Brad DeLong

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    1. I'm guessing the word used would probably be nowhere near as similar as describing the difference between how statesmen act (steal money call it tax, kill people call it collateral damage, kidnap people call it arrest, etc) and how normal human beings act.

      The state takes billions of dollars from people, based ultimately on throwing them in cages, whereby the money goes to finance wars of all kinds, and you're having a conniption about some guy not tipping a cab? There's missing the forest for the trees, and then there's missing the atoms for the universe.

      Statists are those whose transport trucks should be checked before they leave rich people's houses. After all, the rich person might not have "paid their fair share." That's what you want, isn't it? More guns and more money taking?

      What Rizzo is doing is protesting a coercive monopoly. Cabbies are the recipients of a government monopoly medallion system, and as such their incomes are artificially inflated. Using your logic, what the cabbies are doing can be considered borderline theft against non-medallion potential competitors who are forced out of the market.

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  9. Not "psychopath," that's for sure. "Cheapskate," "cranky," ...?

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  10. It seems to me like Mario reasoned himself to a counterintuitive and likely incorrect practical conclusion. This does not seem too momentous and does not occasion some sort of trumpeting moral supremacy, and certainly does not justify any sort of generalization as suggested by Daniel. It can be easily turned: what are we to make of Cass Sunstein's (supposed) infidelities and the chasm between how Cass and normal human beings treat their significant others? Should I conclude, based on the wacky moral conclusions of Singer and the sometimes morally-suspect actions of Sunstein that most the supporters of modern High Liberalism are wacky and morally-base?

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    1. I have no idea what you're talking about when you refer to "moral supremacy". There was no claim whatsoever to moral supremacy.

      I also was very careful not to generalize! I recognized various strains in the libertarian movement - some that quite consciously avoid this problem. And I was very careful to note the preconditions for this sort of thing to pop up: (1.) some kind of deontological imperative starting point, (2.) a tendency to draw conclusions by deductive extrapolation, and (3.) a few that you have some kind of formula for social organization. And I specifically noted that this is a problem for a lot of non-libertarians too and that it's not a problem for libertarians. Generalizing is the last thing you can accuse me of Hume!

      re: "It can be easily turned: what are we to make of Cass Sunstein's (supposed) infidelities and the chasm between how Cass and normal human beings treat their significant others?"

      Does it emerge from any way Sunstein approaches his personal life intellectually? Because that's really the issue with Mario - he has thought through his response to taxis and applied his ideological perspective to the problem, to govern his social interactions. Has Sunstein done this? If so, then by all means lets talk about that. If he hasn't then it probably makes more sense to just figure that he is participating in a very common, if objectionable, human behavior.

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    2. I think peace is morally superior to violence, such that protesting against recipients of gains made through violence (not tipping), is morally superior than pretending it doesn't exist (and thus tipping)

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  11. Tipping cab drivers is not a basic human instinct. It's a social convention that has evolved among some groups of people and enjoys nothing like the unanimity of some other social conventions such as the moral repugnance of murder. The desire to violate and change some social conventions is a perfectly normal human impulse that has had plenty of great effects in the history of the world.

    But if you want, we can call all violations of normal social conventions psychopathic. There is a general social convention on the Internet that if you have a blog and you have a comment section, you moderate it by removing only comments which are offensive. Simply disagreeing with the OP or being wrong is not a socially-accepted reason to moderate a comment. Are you a psychopath Brad?

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    1. customs and usages regarding compensation are not social conventions; they are part of the implied in fact contract you make, when you left up your arm.

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    2. I was not aware that I was entering into such a contract when I left up my arm which pretty thoroughly jettisons the idea that it is a contract.

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    3. Also, let's not forget that the taxis are breaking their deal with tips. The deal they make is that through the medallion system, they screw us over, but through the price fixing scheme, not as badly as they otherwise might. The tips are just a way to get paid above and beyond their already ill-gotten spoils. There is much poetic justice in scamming the scam artist which even non-libertarians appreciate. Of course, you're not scamming them. Just not letting yourself be scammed quite as much.

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    4. Yes, it's ironic that Daniel lambasts the breaking of social convention when he applauds Hayek's spontaneous order approach.

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    5. Why is that ironic?

      It's important to recognize that this isn't just "breaking of social convention". Breaking social conventions is how spontaneous orders change, after all. What Mario is offering is a rationalized plan for the way to optimally interact with cab drivers that he's trying to orchestrate actual human behavior on the basis of, ignoring the spontaneous order that we have in front of us.

      Now, Mario is right about a lot of things. He is not going to get much objections from economists on taxi medallions! Note that Brad offers a perfectly reasonable way of dealing with this without breaking implicit contracts.

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    6. Spontaneous order can't occur if people are "orchestrating" changes in human behavior through the media? It's no longer spontaneous order if you try to persuade other people of your values?

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    7. You seem to be confused about the argument, Jonathan.

      Nobody is complaining about the fact that Mario is trying to persuade people. The concern is about what he does when he actually gets in a cab.

      That's why I said he's not going to get much objections from economists especially about the argument itself. Where he will get objections is in the cab itself.

      And this is exactly the point of my post - that the troubling thing about how a lot of libertarians act is the close correspondence they seem to think exists between the blackboard and the real world. That Bob Murphy can construct an argument about asteroid protection is a little nutty to some of us, but not all that bad. Thought experiments are thought experiments, and they help us approach problems. That he thinks it actually has something to say about the real world is more disconcerting.

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    8. And this is exactly the point of my post - that the troubling thing about how a lot of libertarians act is the close correspondence they seem to think exists between the blackboard and the real world.

      I get that exact same impression from Keynesians. Ah well.

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    9. PrometheeFeu

      You are exactly as described by the first commenter: your libertarianism is just narcissism pretending to be an ideology,

      Contract law is not subjective, just to take care of selfish people like you.

      It is what you do objectively that matters, as regards the formation of a contract. Since we all know the practice, custom, or usage is that you tip a cab driver, when you raise your arm you make an offer which the driver accepts when he stops and picks you up and there is an implied in fact contract, fully enforceable at law.

      Brad is absolutely right. If you don't intend to tip and you don't first tell the driver, then you have committed a fraud.

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    10. Contract law actually has plenty of subjective elements. But we don't even have to discuss contract law. Taxis are subject to price controls. If the tip is a part of the contract, it's not a tip. And if it's not a tip and it's above the regulated metered fare, it's a violation of the regulations. Are you claiming that taxis in New York are all acting illegally?

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  12. Re: "Good Hayek" and "Bad Hayek" -- I surmise that Daniel is paying tribute to John Stuart Mill's distinction about Comte? Ah, if only there were more people around who knew history of econ.

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    1. Mill was wrong there, by the way: Comte saw from the start that his revolution required his "religion of humanity." The evidence is there from the start: Mill just missed it.

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  13. "it's ironic that Daniel lambasts the breaking of social convention when he applauds Hayek's spontaneous order approach."

    I do not think it's ironic at all. The function of social conventions is typically provide a standard of conduct to guide action and to coordinate the actions of dispersed individuals. They typically involve not just a regularity of behavior, but also the criticism of behavior that deviates from the rule's requirements. Although Hayek would regularly point out that abstract rules can exist and function without anyone recognizing it, this is not necessarily the normal state of affairs. And according to H.L.A. Hart, it is necessary condition for the existence of a social rule that it serves an evaluative function: members of the community justify conduct pursuant to the rule and criticize deviations from it.

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  14. I live in Ireland. The convention here is not to tip taxi drivers. People often tip waitresses and waiters though, bar people rarely get tips. Britain is pretty much the same. I sometimes tip taxi drivers because they are often poor immigrants, though not always.

    I can't see why Mario Rizzo's behaviour comes in for so much criticism here, I think it's mainly connected to his political affiliation rather than his opinion. The contract with the taxi driver is clearly to pay the fare, not to pay the fare plus a tip. What Mario is discussing here is *New York* taxi drivers who are significantly better off than average because of the restrictions Mario mentions. Why should he tip them? They don't need the money. The social convention of tipping them no longer makes sense as a way of helping the poor.

    That said it would certainly be a nice gesture of Mario if he were to tell the Taxi driver beforehand.

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  15. Daniel wrote:

    "I also was very careful not to generalize!"

    Your original post made reference to "libertarian thought" and it is "*most* strikingly true" for deontological libertarians, thus indicating that it is true for many other libertarians as well. In order to qualify your sweeping generalization, you note that not "all" libertarians are guilty, taking note of those like Hayek who ground their social philosophy on his insights into spontaneou orders.

    It's also odd that if you were so concerned with deontological libertarians, you would find your motivation for this post in Mario Rizzo, an economist who as far as I can tell is not deontological in his foundations.

    Look, this whole thing is silly. I think that whatever issue you have is likely related to your discussion partners. You are an economist, not a political/moral philosopher, and as such you usually rub shoulders with other economists. Your usual libertarian sparring partners seem to be other economists, not libertarian political/moral philosophers. As economists, I would guess that these people are typically *political* libertarians and not philosophical libertarians, and they are more concerned with how their libertarianism has practical import in every-day life.

    Moreover, you seem to come into contact, more than is typical, with specifically Austrian-economist libertarians. I am not Austrian nor an economist, so I may be wrong here but dont Austrians tend to focus on the micro? Perhaps when you add this fact into the equation it is not surprising that those libertarians you run into cause you to state that "the troubling thing about how a lot of libertarians act is the close correspondence they seem to think exists between the blackboard and the real world."

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  16. A further point on taxis warrants mention.

    In New York city, that there are taxis at all represents market failure. Even fewer taxis at even higher medallion prices and fare would be better for everyone, if the need for ground transportation was filled with larger vehicles carrying more people. Less pollution, lower noise, and less congestion. Unfortunately, any reduction in cab traffic would be instantly offset by more commuter traffic. One thing is for sure. With no limit on cabs, the city would be total grid lock, 24/7 (and if you think not, try to drive back from the Hamptons in the summer on a Sunday night).

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