Political Philosophy

Three new podcast episodes, starting with most recent:

  1. 2002 Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith talks about his work in experimental economics and how Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments influenced his work.
  2. Dan Hirschman of Brown University discusses “stylized facts” and their role in the process that takes ideas from academia to public policy, specifically inequality.
  3. Nell Compernolle of the University of Michigan tells the migration story of Nepalese men and its impact on marital attitudes.

Lots more episodes coming soon, hopefully. If you know anyone that would be interested in being interviewed, let me know!


I didn’t vote for President last time. A lot of people find this repugnant to some sort of degree. After all, the right to vote is something that people have risked their lives for over thousands of years to secure. Meh, so what.

I believe that a “reckless vote” is a lot worse than a “non-vote.” I think that a lot of people who vote do it based on bad reasons. Studies show that a decent chunk of people vote for candidates based on their personality only. That’s a reckless vote. I think that the large majority of voters are not as informed as they should be. Does anyone think that more than 0.1% of people voting for the Cook County judges to it on anything more than the Chicago Tribune endorsements and/or party affiliation? Am I obligated to vote just because I am a citizen? I believe voting for President is somewhat inefficient and irrational because my vote will not make a difference. I am registered to vote in Illinois, where Barack Obama will surely win. In that case, my vote is only going to be a “moral support” type thing and, frankly, I don’t want to feel in any way responsible for some of the policies he does.

Well, someone has to win Will, so you gotta vote for somebody. So do I have to vote for the lesser of two evils? Maybe I’ll vote for Gary Johnson. Johnson is the Libertarian Party nominee. He also happens to be a successful businessman, a popular ex-Governor of New Mexico, and the highest elected official to ever call for an end to the War on Drugs. Johnson ran for the GOP nomination but never had the chance to pick up steam because he was shut out of the debates. But at the end of the day, if I vote, I can realistically choose between voting for one of the two candidates who have a shot at winning or a candidate in hopes of increasing LP’s federal election funding.

I also think that voting, and democracy in general, have little to do with how “liberal” America is. A ranking of the freest and most democratic countries in the developed world shows a weak correlation. America isn’t too high on the democratic list compared to other developed countries, but also has some of the most permissive speech laws and economic liberties. I’d explain democracy and liberalism as a correlation thing, not a causation thing. America has the laws that it does because of our culture and history, not because we are all huge participants in the great government machine. Proponents of democracy don’t like to talk about ‘illiberal democracies’ like Russia that have formal schemes that resemble democracies but give terrible results.

So, why vote? To get better policy? In my case, Illinois will go easily to Obama. Because I have a moral obligation? Ok, then I’ll vote for a third party candidate that I genuinely am enthusiastic about.

Even Gary Johnson has ideas I disagree with. Hell, if I ran I’d probably disagree with myself. So every candidate is the “lesser of x evils” to the extent that no candidate will ever really be 100% in line with one’s beliefs. So when’s it appropriate to not vote, and when is it appropriate to just vote for one of the major party candidates? We’re not dealing with a Hitler vs. Stalin situation here, but I think most people agree that situation would warrant some sort of non-vote (in addition to a major uprising). So there’s a gray area. My next post, which hopefully will come soon, will deal with whom I would vote for in Barack vs. Mitt.

(Continued from here.)

According to Feinberg, A harms B when “A acts… with the intention of producing the consequences for B that follow, or similarly adverse ones, or with negligence or recklessness in respect to those consequences; A’s acting in that manner is morally indefensible, that is, neither excusable nor justifiable; and A’s action is the cause of a setback to B’s interests, which is also a violation of B’s right” (106). Thus, for A to harm B, A satisfy four conditions in addition to setting back B’s interests (for five total necessary conditions). A must act, A’s act must be done with the intention of setting back B’s interests (or be negligent with respect to B’s interests), A’s act must be morally indefensible, and A’s act must violate B’s right. It is these four conditions that make a setback of interests wrongful, and it is the combination of wrongfulness and a setback of interests that establishes a harm.

An act is morally indefensible when there is no justification or excuse for it. An excuse involves denying responsibility for conduct that is, without considering the context in which it was performed, bad. Though the act was bad, the person who carried it out shouldn’t be blamed for it. A justification for an action involves an argument for why the action was right, or at least permissible, considering the circumstances in which it was performed. Thus, in order to qualify as a harm, an act must be neither excusable nor justifiable (108).

Feinberg defines a right as “a valid claim which an individual can make in either or both of two directions. On the one hand, some of a person’s rights are claims he can make against specific individuals for assistance, repayment of debts, compensation for losses, and so on, or against all other individuals… to noninterference in his private affairs.” Rights can on the other hand be claims an individual makes “against the state, not only for specific services and promised repayments, and noninterference in his private affairs, but also claims to the legal enforcement of the valid claims he has against other private citizens” (109). A rights violation occurs when one of these valid claims is not met.

Of course,  establishing what counts as a right and what does not is a philosophically formidable task. However, thanks to Feinberg, we at least have a framework which can guide us in establishing whether something counts as a harm.


I’m working on a paper for a philosophy of law seminar which has focused on John Stuart Mill. Specifically, a central topic of discussion has been Mill’s harm principle. I’m starting to work on a paper on this (specific topic to be determined), and I figured I’d try writing a little bit here to clarify my thoughts and develop some ideas.


One of the uglier moments during last night’s Republican primary debate came when, in response to Ron Paul’s claim that the government should not be in the business of providing health insurance, Wolf Blitzer asked, “are you saying that society should just let [a sick person without insurance] die?” and some knuckle-dragging spectators enthusiastically whooped, “Yeah!” Ron Paul responded, more reasonably, that private charities should support people who fall through the cracks.

Jacob Weisberg, writing in Slate, responds,

This was indeed an appalling, mob-mentality moment—more medieval, even, than the crowd applauding Gov. Rick Perry for winning the death-penalty derby at the previous debate. What it clarified, however, was less the cruelty of the Tea Party crowd than the absurdity of the health-care positions of all of the Republican candidates. The GOP contenders relentlessly attack “Obamacare” as “socialized medicine.” But they won’t speak up for either of the other two choices available to them: the arguably more socialized system we have hitherto lived with or the Blitzer option of letting the uninsured die in the streets.

What about private charity?

“[W]e no longer have an extensive system of charity hospitals. If emergency rooms treat the uninsured, whether because of a legal requirement or because they are good Samaritans, they will be passing the bulk of the cost along to the rest of us—and we’re back to our current system of socializing the costs of treatments for the uninsured.”

I just can’t help but feel frustrated when “the government shouldn’t provide x” is conflated with “society shouldn’t provide x”. Idiot spectators notwithstanding, saying that society should not provide health care to people who can’t afford it and will die without it is plainly absurd and immoral. Saying that the government shouldn’t provide health care because health care is better provided by institutions other than the government is an empirical claim.

Now, although Weisberg conflates these two positions throughout the article (for example, that our two health care policy options are the  “socialized system we have hitherto lived with or the Blitzer option of letting the uninsured die in the streets”), he clearly understands this, because he spends a couple of sentences arguing that the empirical claim is false. I’m skeptical myself that private charities would necessarily be better health care providers of last resort than the government, and clearly we couldn’t just take the government out of health care overnight without some pretty disastrous humanitarian consequences. But there is some evidence that private mutual aid societies did a decent job of providing basic necessities in the past. At the least, Weisberg and many other progressives are giving short shrift to what is actually a fascinating and difficult empirical question.

Empirical issues aside, I think that it’s usually harmful to the cause of constructive political discourse when empirical disagreements are misconcieved as disagreements over principle. Two people who disagree about whether health care would be better without government involvement at least have a chance of having a productive discussion. Dialogue isn’t really possible, on the other hand, when an entire ideology is understood to be arguing that society should let uninsured sick people rot in their gurneys.

Warren Buffett wrote an op-ed in the New York Times earlier this week arguing that rich people like him aren’t paying their fair share of taxes. This provoked a fairly predictable response from right-leaning pundits and politicians: if Buffett doesn’t think that he is paying enough taxes, then he should write a check to the government and rectify the situation!

Jonathan Chait comes to Buffett’s defense:

Obviously this fails to grasp the fundamental collective action problem that’s the entire basis for taxation. You obviously can’t fund the government on the basis of voluntary donations. Buffett and other wealthy people who favor higher taxes on the rich don’t just believe they should pay more taxes. They believe the government needs more revenue.

Seems reasonable enough. But I think it’s interesting to compare this case to others in which individual action to address a widespread problem is rendered more or less futile by the presence of a collective action problem. Global warming is an obvious example. One person deciding not to own a car or take an airplane doesn’t significantly change the amount of greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere. Yet at least some people seem to think that this fact does not justify everybody just throwing up their hands and saying, “screw it, I’m not going to change my personal habits to reduce my carbon footprint until there’s a mechanism in place that forces everybody to do so.”

Just last week I stopped for a night at Warren Wilson college in North Carolina, where I spent a night in an “EcoDorm” that had solar panels, non-flush urinals, a system that collects rainwater for the toilets, a special exterior shell to reduce air infiltration, and a bunch of other features that minimized environmental impact. The EcoDorm cost fifty percent more than a typical dorm, and it makes an essentially insignificant contribution to environmental collective action problems. But the students I talked to believed quite passionately in the EcoDorm; the presense of a collective action problem did not let them off the hook for doing their part to protect the environment, and I think that most environmentalists would agree. So why is it that a fair number of people hold this position with regard to the environment while it seems ridiculous that a rich guy like Buffett would have a duty to voluntarily give his money to a revenue-strapped government?

Slate recently published a bad article by Stephen Metcalf about Robert Nozick, the libertarian philosopher who wrote that “liberty upsets patterns”, which was the inspiration for the name of this blog. Lots of people have already come to Nozick’s defense, but as a fan of Nozick, I’m going to pile on.

There are a lot of misunderstandings of Nozick in the article, but one of the biggest concerns Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain example (you can see a picture of Wilt on the banner of this blog!). Metcalf starts by quoting Nozick:

“Wilt Chamberlain is greatly in demand by basketball teams, being a great gate attraction. (Also suppose contracts run only for a year, with players being free agents.) He signs the following sort of contract with a team: In each home game twenty-five cents from the price of each ticket of admission goes to him. (We ignore the question of whether he is “gouging” the owners, letting them look out for themselves.) … Let us suppose that in one season one million persons attend his home games, and Wilt Chamberlain ends up with $250,000, a much larger sum than the average income and larger even than anyone else has. Is he entitled to his income? Is this new distribution D2 unjust?”

Here’s Metcalf critique of the argument:

Anarchy not only purports to be a defense of capitalism, but a proud defense of capitalism. And yet if Anarchy would defend capitalism unashamedly, why does its most famous argument include almost none of the defining features of capitalism—i.e., no risk capital, no capital markets, no financier? Why does it feature a basketball player and not, say, a captain of industry, a CEO, a visionary entrepreneur? The example as Nozick sets it out includes a gifted athlete (Wilt Chamberlain), paying customers (those with a dollar to see Wilt play)—and yet, other than a passing reference to the team’s “owners,” no capitalist!


…Nozick is cornering us into answering a ridiculously loaded question: If every person were a capitalist, and every capitalist a human capitalist, and every human capitalist was compensated in exact proportion to the pleasure he or she provided others, would a world without progressive taxation be just? To arrive at this question, Nozick vanishes most of the known features of capitalism (capital, owners, means of production, labor, collective bargaining) while maximizing one feature of capitalism—its ability to funnel money to the uniquely talented. In the example, “liberty” is all but cognate with a system that efficiently compensates the superstar.

This is nothing more than a confused non-sequitur. The Wilt Chamberlain argument is not primarily about defending capitalism. Rather, Nozick uses it to support his conclusion that “liberty upsets patterns”. “Patterns” refers patterned theories of justice: theories of justice that hold a certain distribution D1 as just and deviations from that distribution as unjust. For example, a strict egalitarian might argue that money should be distributed exactly equally between each member of society. But if this hypothetical society starts at D1, what happens when people decide to voluntarily pay Wilt Chamberlain to play basketball? The distribution is no longer just. If the distribution is to remain just, coercive measures (taking money from Wilt and giving it back to his fans) must be undertaken continuously. One doesn’t have to have some quirky libertarian conception of liberty for this sort of continuous interference to seem unacceptable. There are serious issues with patterned theories of justice. It is this, rather than the justice of a system that awards large sums of wealth to the super talented, that the Wilt Chamberlain argument purports to establish

It’s important to emphasize that the upshot of the Wilt Chamberlain argument, if it is successful, is fairly limited. It doesn’t show that progressive taxation itself is unjust, since a political system could include progressive taxation without requiring a specific pattern of distribution. But Metcalf was so intent on setting up Nozick as the bogeyman lurking behind every right-wing argument against welfare and progressive taxation that he never took the time to actually understand what Nozick’s positions.


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