A few months ago, I made a conscious decision to overhaul my Twitter feed. The vast majority of accounts I followed were not only economists, but they were white, male, and in an ideological range from libertarian to Technocratic Left. I eliminated a lot of those accounts, replacing them with accounts representing a diverse range of views/demographics. Even in this simple experiment, the A/B test gives me conscious conclusions about how one’s media bubble affects one’s line of thinking, and suggests there are even more implicit outcomes that I don’t recognize. It also made me realize how reasonable it is that nearly everyone is under-exposed to an optimally diverse set of views in their media diet.

B.O. (Before Overhaul), I was pretty sure there weren’t any smart socialist thinkers out there. And this extends past purist socialism and even into what you might now call the “Bernie Left.” Most arguments I read were caricature defenses of socialism that frankly could easily be refuted. Naomi Klein would make outrageous ad hominem attacks on Milton Friedman and claim it delegitimized the market economy, Jeremy Corbyn would defend the wonderful work Hugo Chavez did in Venezuela for the poor, college-aged kids would spew half-baked defenses of what they thought Marx meant, and a plethora of writers would accuse anyone against rent control as selfish idiots. If the best arguments I came across were entirely unconvincing, it only made sense that I became more confident in my views.

But that’s where the problem is. I assumed the views I was being exposed to were the best ones out there. By default, my media diet as a self-identifying liberal/cosmopolitan/technocratic/educated guy included MainstreamMedia sources like the New York Times, Washington Post, The Economist, The Atlantic, Vox.com, etc. Those sources don’t often include a prominent voice on the socialist left. Just as David Brooks and Thomas Friedman are unconvincing voices for a centrist conservatism, the voices I was being exposed to were making weak arguments for socialist and left-populist economic policy. The reasonable voices were in a narrow range of centrism somewhere between Paul Krugman, Matt Yglesias, and Greg Mankiw. In hindsight, this group of people has way more in common than I or they ever realized. What I mean to highlight is that these sources, the ones I was reading as an Enlightened Educated Gentleman, were not amply exposing me to economic arguments for strong pro-labor, pro-nationalization, massive taxation, or significant adjustment to labor laws aiming to equalize gender/racial disparities. The people I was reading were all pretty in favor of markets as a basis for economic policy, where technocratic solutions through NBER papers and incremental adjustments were the road to ideal policy. The debates, in retrospect, were over the magnitude of redistribution and balancing economic liberty with regulation. Joseph Stiglitz would enter into the picture every now and then, but not enough to really shake my worldview.

It turns out there are a lot of smart people that have very far left economic views. Matt Bruenig, Elizabeth Bruenig, Marshall Steinbaum, to name a few, consistently are writing things that not only give a drastically different point of view – they are writing things that I find very difficult to argue against given my current toolkit of existing knowledge. This is when you know you’re actually exposing yourself to new ideas. Before, it was as if I was unconsciously exposing myself only to straw men arguments and red herrings in order to simultaneously reenforce my priors and give me a false sense of being open-minded. These people were always out there, but they don’t have a prominent (enough) voice in where I assumed a good media diet was found. [Elizabeth writes for the Washington Post now, and many of these people have some exposure, but you get my point]

The same can be said for the level of female economists out there. I used to rationalize not reading many female economists by saying that the field just didn’t have many women. While the discipline does seem to be hostile to women and it’s not at total parity, I was dead wrong. Some of the best work in academia is being done by people like Alice Evans, Claudia Goldin, Dina Pomeranz, and many many more. But except for Janet Yellen, Joan Robinson, Anna Schwartz, and a handful of others, female economists don’t have too much exposure in the mass media. Only one woman has ever won the Nobel Prize in economics (and she could be considered more of a political scientist). Paul Krugman, Greg Mankiw, Mark Thoma, Brad Delong all seem to get much more exposure than their female counterparts. Without making a conscious effort to include more female voices in my media diet, I was left reading a much more homogenized set of views.

The same can be said for non-economists. I have made more of an effort to include historians, sociologists, and anthropologists in my twitter feed and blog roll. Robert Solow once quipped, “Everything reminds Milton of the money supply. Well, everything reminds me of sex, but I keep it out of the paper.” Economists are prone to see everything as an economic problem; it’s all about incentives. All other disciplines fall prey to their own unique narrow-mindedness. But forcing yourself to look through that lens can be quite revealing. Looking through a lens of “everything is gendered” or “everything is explained by our irrational cognitive biases” at least exposes you to the possibility of these ideas.

So far in my experiment, I’m happy to report I’m much less sure of any of my beliefs. When Matt Bruenig gives an analysis with thorough empirics and theory showing the greatness of socialism, I can scoff all I want but if I can’t convincingly refute his points, how sure am I of the greatness of markets? I think I have a good idea of how economic history shows that markets and liberalism set the stage for the industrial revolution, but when Pseudoerasmus talks about the oh-so-ridiculous conventional wisdom that I of course had wrong, how sure am I about any of those beliefs?

Twitter is pretty much the worst, but also can be used for good. The freewheeling platform made it pretty easy to find these new alternative voices once I made the conscious effort. My worry is not that people don’t have access to a diverse set of views, it’s that their habits and circumstances will inevitably lead to equilibria that perpetuates echo chambers.

There’s still one thing everyone in my twitter feed agrees on: Trump is the worst. I’m not yet ready to start following alt-right accounts, Holocaust deniers, or MAGA fanboys. Yet it does beg the question: if I did, what would the mere exposure to these accounts do to my confidence in my own beliefs?

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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.

 

Sasha Volokh goes off the deep end:

I think there’s a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid, while within Congress’s powers, is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective. I think it’s O.K. to violate people’s rights (e.g. through taxation) if the result is that you protect people’s rights to some greater extent (e.g. through police, courts, the military). But it’s not obvious to me that the Earth being hit by an asteroid (or, say, someone being hit by lightning or a falling tree) violates anyone’s rights; if that’s so, then I’m not sure I can justify preventing it through taxation.

Bryan Caplan once suggested the asteroid hypo to me as a reductio ad absurdum against my view. But a reductio ad absurdum doesn’t work against someone who’s willing to be absurd, and I may be willing to bite the bullet on this one.

If a conclusion to a sound argument is this absurd, it means there’s a problem with the premises, and the fact that Volokh is “willing to be absurd” doesn’t get him off the hook. There’s no reason to think that the reasoning that leads us to accept a certain theoretical moral principle is any more reliable than our intuitions about specific moral cases. Therefore, if an argument leads to a conclusion that is this unintuitive, it means that the principles that led to the conclusion should be revised.

The idea behind Volok’s right theory seems to be that having a right places a negative duty upon another person not to violate that right. It doesn’t, however, place people under duties to protect the right holder from any specific outcome. So if I cut down a tree and kill you, that violates your right to life, whereas if a tree falls on its own and kills you, morality has nothing to say.

Consider the implications of this sort of view for disease control, an area in which government intervention is widely viewed as legitimate. Polio is a debilitating infectious disease, and governments can play an important role in giving out vaccines to prevent epidemics. In normal cases of transmission, no person engages in the kind of deliberate harmful action necessary for Volokh to consider something a rights violation, and therefore morality actually prevents the government from doing anything. Now, Volokh himself has said that he’s immune to reductio ad absurdum on this matter, so this wouldn’t be convincing to him, but hopefully other people will have an easier time recognizing the sheer nuttiness of Volokh’s position.

(This is based on a couple of conversations I had with Julian Sanchez, and they’re more his thoughts than mine.  I’m just trying to clarify my own thinking by writing about it).

Many libertarians base their political philosophy on the principle of self-ownership.  The principle of self ownership, according to most libertarians, leads to a Nozickian minimal state in which the government’s role is constrained to the protection of rights to liberty and property, the enforcement of contracts, and judicial dispute resolution.

The ultimate goal for these libertarians is to transform our society into a Nozickian “libertopia”.  This sort of view is easily applied to particular public policy questions.  Would policy x move us closer to libertopia?  Would the overall effect of policy x be to reduce or increase state coercion?  The answer to these questions, rather than the complex economic analysis often involved in weighing public policy options, determines which policy libertarianism recommends.

But libertarians don’t (or shouldn’t) just care about the abstract goal of inching toward libertopia.  They also (should) care about what overall effect a policy has on real world human freedom.  The problem is that focusing exclusively on reaching libertopia can sometimes lead one to support policies that are actually harmful to the cause of promoting freedom.  A good example of this is libertarian opposition to the section of the civil rights act that prohibits some privately owned businesses (such as restaurants) from racially segregating their patrons (see Julian Sanchez’s Newsweek piece on this in the wake of the Rand Paul controversy).

A challenge for libertarians is to come up with some basis for favoring one policy over another when applying libertopia doesn’t work (also, for what kinds of public policy issues is libertopian analysis not a good option?).  More on this soon.

Part I here.

Consider the following hypothetical that takes place under a libertarian (Nozickian/Randian/Rothbardian) state.  A rich person has a pile of money in her house.  A poor person, wanting some money, goes into the house and starts taking it.  When the rich person tells the poor person to stop, the poor person refuses.  The rich person may now call in the force of the state to stop the poor person from taking the money.  The state may, using physical force if necessary, imprison the poor person and take back whatever money the poor person took from the rich person.

Non-aggresion principle endorsing libertarians would say that the state’s forcible protection of the rich person’s money is legitimate.  But for something that is allowed under the non-aggression principle, it sure seems pretty aggressive to me!  What’s going on here?

The two cases (the one from part I and the one above) aren’t the same, the defensive libertarian might claim.  In the first case, the state is coercively seizing property that belongs to the rich person, whereas in the second case, the state is simply protecting the rich person’s property from a would-be thief.

However, this response doesn’t hold up, because it presupposes the institution of property rights, which are a social institution with certain rules about what it means to own something.  Among them are rules about when it is permissible to use physical force against another person.  It’s an assumption about the existence of property rights, not the non-aggression principle, that’s doing the work here.

State-backed redistribution and state-backed property rights are both, in a sense, coercive.  The question obviously becomes, which sort of coercion is justified?  The non-aggression principle, as I have shown, is unable to provide the answer, and it therefore does not necessarily entail libertarianism.