Sunday, March 30, 2008

I'm Famous!!

[EDIT: This post responded to a rather unflattering review I received in a podcast by Freedomain Radio's Stefan Molyneux titled The FOO Infection, which I felt was unfair and impolite. Because I honestly don't want to look at it anymore, and because I think its purpose has been fulfilled, I'm removing it from my blog. This shell of a post will remain to acknowledge what happened, but I'd just as soon forget about it and move on.]

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Balancing Benefits and Costs to Tort Victims

[It has come to my attention that I'm an idiot and apparently can't tell the difference between the word "defendant" and "plaintiff." I apologize to anyone who may have been confused by this post.]

In an earlier post, I wrote:
In his essay, "Science, Public Policy, and Global Warming: Rethinking the Market Liberal Position," Edwin Dolan writes, "Certain defenses are allowed against a charge of assault or trespass. Consent of the victim is one. Also, if no causal relationship can be shown between the action of the defendant and the offense to the victim, the tort is not proved. However, certain attempted defenses are not recognized as legally valid..." Of these, one is "A showing that the defendant gained benefits from the tort, the value of which exceeds the costs to the victim."

This means that an individual can perform an action which is beneficial to everyone, and still be required to compensate people for any individual negative effects resulting from the action. It is important to note that the issue is not whether it could be proven that the action produced beneficial consequences for the victim that were more significant than the costs imposed. Rather, even if this were proven, the boundary-crosser would still be required to pay the victim.

I said I needed to think about this idea, and after having given it a while to digest in my head, I've come to a cautious and tentative conclusion: This is still the craziest damn thing I've ever heard. I'll try to sketch some reasons why we should reject it, but I still haven't found anyone who has wanted to defend the idea, so I'm not quite ready to declare any sort of victory.

The main reason I don't like this idea is that the whole point of taking someone to court is that damage done to you is made right. Usually, what this means is making me give you some benefit (i.e. money) which supposedly makes everything okay. It doesn't seem to me that it needs to be money. Perhaps it would be difficult to say whether another kind of benefit was appropriately valuable, but we're assuming away that epistemological problem when we say that the benefits do outweigh the costs. Accordingly, it seems like what's going on is that I can legitimately harm you and then give you a compensating benefit later, but for whatever reason, it's not okay if I give you the compensating benefit at the same time as the harm you endure. How this makes sense is beyond me.

Perhaps someone could take exception to the idea of a compensating benefit "balancing out" a cost. Let's say I smash your window with a bag of money which would easily pay for a new window, with enough left over to compensate you for the inconvenience. I could see why someone might say that simply being compensated couldn't erase the harm done; the aggregating view of harms and benefits might be inadequate. But that's now what's at issue here. If you wanted to make such an objection, then it would be contentious whether or not the benefit outweighed the costs you incurred. In the example, we agree that the costs have been outweighed. Accordingly, it seems like this objection falls short.

To be honest, if I smashed your window with a big bag of money, and you agreed that the money was sufficient to compensate you for the damage I caused, then I have no idea why you would be justified in taking me to court. Perhaps you could demand an injunction so that I would be prohibited from breaking your window again. But how would it make sense to force me to compensate you again? I simply can't wrap my head around it.

In any case, I might simply be misunderstanding what's going on here. I'm no legal scholar, after all. I'll keep asking around.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Climate Change, Vanishing Lifestyles, and Children

So in a previous post, I discussed a case in which rising sea levels, resulting from a warming of the Earth, caused the salinization of a Bangladeshi farmer's land, so that he could no longer grow rice on it in the way to which he was accustomed. I concluded that as the owner of the land, with full property rights, he should be entitled to compensation for any damage done to him by those contributing to climate change. And it seems like this could be extended to any member of the contributors' generation who were harmed by climate change.

But costs associated with climate change will not only be incurred by individuals who are alive now, they will be realized by future people as well. The nature of the cost to future people, however, is less clear than the nature of the costs to existing people. This post will explore a sort of impact which seems to be central to people's concern about climate change, but which is difficult to deal with in the framework of human rights. Namely, many communities will be impacted in a way that makes it difficult for them to continue their cultural existence, making it necessary for the children of those cultures to find fundamentally different ways of living.

For example, indigenous communities in Africa will see progressively more significant alterations to their natural setting as the climate continues to change. Plants and animals which were once prevalent in the region will no longer be fit for survival there, and new species will move in. Knowledge developed over centuries will no longer be effective. Being ill adapted for life in a fundamentally different climate, it is conceivable that these communities will be unable to survive in the manner in which they have for countless generations. They would have to find a new way to live.

What do we say about this? It is clear that a great number of people are concerned about precisely this sort of problem, and cite it as a reason to be worried about climate change. But does it tell a story of injustice? Many people's intuitions say yes.

However, we might point out that the above case sounds a lot like a story where an agrarian community is "destroyed" by industrialization and mass production. Small scale family farms can't keep up with the low prices generated by the advanced practices of a local agribusiness concern, and can no longer support their old way of life. It's a sad story, but we wouldn't want to claim that any injustice has occurred. Perhaps as a society, we would want to help these farmers get back on their feet and find a new place in the market. But we wouldn't want to blame the agribusiness for doing something wrong.

If there is no wrongdoing in the industrialization case, where communities might be unable to sustain their old lifestyles as the result of the actions of others, then can we consistently hold that there is injustice being done to indigenous people by climate change? Or are we simply setting indigenous communities on a pedestal because they're different and mysterious, and we somehow think that by being so unusual, these individuals come to have different rights than the rest of us?

It seems to me that there is a critical difference between the destruction of the indigenous community caused by climate change and the destruction of the agrarian community caused by industrialization. In the industrialization case, it's not as if the agribusiness made it impossible for the family farmers to continue farming. Rather, the problem arises because the family farmers were depending on the support of their customers in order to sustain themselves. Given that their customers had the right to remove their support at any time, it should be clear that the farmers were depending on others making choices which they could permissibly not make, or stop making at any time. The agribusiness, with its greater efficiency, could offer much lower prices than the family farmers, and their customers decided to withdraw their support, as was their right. It should be clear that in our story, the agribusiness never did anything to the family farmers. It simply revealed the fact that the family farmers could only continue to sustain themselves in their traditional manner if their customers continued to voluntarily purchase their products. The family farmers never had any right to that support, and so when it was withdrawn, no right was violated.

On the other hand, it doesn't seem like the indigenous communities in question depend on anyone for their continued survival. They require only that their environments not be modified so as to make them incompatible with their lifestyles. And as far as these indigenous communities have been making use of their environments for centuries, it seems fair to say that they have some legitimate claim to their not being negatively affected by the actions of other people.

I suspect that if we told the agrarian story in a way that matched the indigenous story, our intuitions would tell us that we were dealing with a rights violation. For example, let's say an agrarian community depended on an underground stream to bring water to the region with which to grow crops. Now imagine that someone diverted the flow of water through the area so that the community's land ran dry. Surely we would say that the diversion of the water flow represented a wrong done to the farmers, right?

In the same way, it seems that changing the climate in a way that would negatively impact indigenous peoples' ability to continue living in their traditional manner would be unjust. But this is not new ground. This conclusion is pretty much the same as the one I reached in my post about the Bangladeshi farmer and the rising sea levels. I want to go one step further here.

As I mentioned before, the intuition that people have about this sort of case is not simply that our alteration of the climate is wrong because it harms currently existing indigenous peoples' ability to live in the manner to which they are accustomed. The problem is also that their children will be unable to live in that manner. That is, the issue is not just what happens to the people whose lives are made difficult by climate change, but also what happens to the people who will be unable to live in the traditional manner dictated by their culture, and what consequently happens to the culture itself.

In order to isolate these factors from the harm done to the currently existing indigenous individuals, we might imagine that these individuals have been fully compensated for the damage done to them as individuals. This compensation not only takes into account the damage to their property, but also the damage to their character and psyche; the currently existing indigenous individuals recognize they were wronged, but acknowledge that they have been compensated adequately for all that they personally have endured.

Now we might imagine that one of these indigenous individuals has a child, Akiko. Akiko is raised in the indigenous culture, but sees that she will be unable to support herself in the traditional way. She will need to live a fundamentally different lifestyle from that of her people in order to survive. If we are to sustain that climate change will result in injustice to people like Akiko, then we must say that Akiko is wronged by having to find a way of life which differs from her culture's traditions.

At first glance, this might seem absurd. I grew up in Westport, CT; do I have the right to a house there? I have a friend who comes from a family of doctors; does he have the right to be one too? Surely we don't want to say that people have a right to live like the people who brought them up lived. We must find some other way to explain what is wrong with Akiko's situation if we are to be taken seriously.

A clue can be found in the fact that just like in the example with the agribusiness and the family farmers, my demands about a house in Westport and my friend's demands for a doctor job require things of others. Given that I have no right to anything from these people, it seems ridiculous to suggest that I am wronged if they do not provide me with something. I do have the right to try to buy a house in Westport, and my friend has the right to try to be a doctor. But given that having a house or being a doctor require the voluntary consent of others (in my case, the consent of the house's previous owner; in my friends case, the consent of the hiring institution and of the customers who choose to purchase his services), we cannot have the right to these things.

Akiko's demands would also be rooted in her getting others' consent. That is, she does not own her people's land; the older members of her culture do. But the kind of consent Akiko requires is very different from the kind of consent I would need in order to get a house, in that Akiko has that consent. Akiko's people, we presume, would gladly allow Akiko to use, and even to own, the group's land. In the absence of climate change, Akiko would be able to support herself in the traditional way using nothing but this land. But because of the effects of climate change, the land will not be able to support her in the traditional way. The substance of Akiko's complaint, then, might seem to be that she should have inherited enough resources to sustain herself, but that climate change diminished those resources to make it impossible for her to use them in the way her culture would have suggested.

This leads us to an interesting idea. Remember, we have said that the current owners of the land were fully compensated for all of the damage done to them by the effects of climate change on their land. Akiko's complaint is that there is a gap between what she should have inherited and what she actually did inherit. In order to satisfy Akiko (if we have interpreted her complaint correctly), we would need to take the view that by damaging the indigenous people's land, we not only wronged those people, but also the people who stood to inherit the land later. The "damage done" would be the damage done to the current owners, as well as the "damage" done to the future owners who "should have" inherited the land in its original condition, but instead inherited it in a damaged and less useful state. Accordingly, Akiko too would be entitled to compensation.

Of course, from Akiko's standpoint, this seems like it would be a fair solution. Because climate change destroyed her people's ability to live off the land, every generation of people in her community would be compensated for the damage done to the land. I'm not sure if this would actually be right, though. It seems to go completely against the way we normally think about damage and liability. I'd like to think about this some more, but I think this was a good place to start.

TMP 19: From The Purpose - And the Dangers, to The Seven Categories

[Part of The Molyneux Project; read the main critique here]

My Big Brother Google Analytics thing told me that a whole bunch of people checked out The Molyneux Project yesterday, and I felt really crummy about having set it aside for so long without finishing. Because I really don't have time to be doing this, I'm going to resist every urge in my body to critique every tiny point, and just focus on what I take to be important problems with Stefan's argument. I think this is justified, since the only reason I was doing it before was that I assumed that Stefan would be interested in it, and given the last few conversations I've had with him, I'm no longer sure that this is the case.

Anyway, Stefan concludes his first part by asking why we should even care about morality. He suggestss out that immoral people will not consult moral theories to determine whether they are immoral, and moral people don't need theories in order to continue being good. Further, being moral is no guarantee of safety or wellbeing. Still, Stefan insists that morality is important; he offers that one benefit of being moral is that one will have a lesser chance of being impacted by immoral people.

But remember that Stefan has defined morality in terms of universally preferable behavior. Morals are a set of rules identifying universally preferable behavior--that is, rules telling us what is necessary for the attainment of certain ends. Seen in that light, the purpose of studying morality is obvious. If we want to achieve the ends in question, then we are required to do so morally, because morality is simply a guide for achieving those ends. To put it another way, if we achieve the ends, it must be because we have acted morally, because any action capable of achieving them would fall under the umbrella of preferable actions.

Stefan then goes on to give an explanation of the glory of his task in the context of the darkness and gloom of human history. Hooray.

Starting the next section is a brief heading section entitled "Ethical Categories," in which Stefan tells us that his goal will be to examine how universally preferable behavior "validates or invalidates" common moral propositions. How exactly universally preferable behavior can do this is unclear, since Stefan has redefined most of our normal moral terms in order to fit his positive view of universally preferable behavior.

This can be made clear by an example gives in his next section, "The Seven Categories," where Stefan suggests that refraining from murder is universally preferable and "enforceable through violence." For refraining from murder to be universally preferable, it would need to be the case that murdering would, in every case, be incompatible with achieving certain ends. But I take it that there are at least some situations in which an individual's own ends could be promoted by murder. For example, let's say Clyde stands to inherit a large sum of money from hist dying grandmother. One day, when he went to visit her, she told Clyde that she was considering donating the money to a local group of skinheads, who would use the money to do absolutely horrible things. Being extremely old and weak, Clyde's grandmother is unable to struggle as Clyde smothers her with a pillow. The murder is perfect; no one ever suspects any wrongdoing, and Clyde gets the money. Further, Clyde is not plagued too severely by his conscience. His grandmother was going to die anyway, and a lot of good resulted from those skinheads not getting their hands on that money. If we are to insist that Clyde's behavior was wrong - that it was universally preferable for him to refrain from murdering his grandmother - then we must have in mind some ends which are not Clyde's. Stefan gives no account of these ends.

But more to the point, Stefan gives us no reason for considering Clyde to be evil in the way that our commonsense moral views would command us to. Clyde would simply be acting imprudently; his actions would not be conducive to achieving the ends we have in mind. Stefan would have to explain how these ends, more than having relevance in light of the fact that Clyde doesn't care about them, are actually virtuous and good, so that anyone who does not aim for them is evil.

And even if we grant this, Stefan has not given much of an account of this idea of "enforceability." It's true that he defined ethics and morality as referring to enforceable behaviors on page 48, but he didn't explain why they are enforceable, or what that means. He just said that they could be enforced, and that this enforceability had something to do with the fact that the actions in question were "inflicted" on others. Anyway, that's it for now. I'll try to make time for more later.

Climate Change and Market Definition of Property Rights

A fellow named Gregory responded to my post, "Can the Free Market Solve the Problems Posed by Climate Change?" with an argument which I think deserves to be discussed in some depth. Gregory wrote:
If the market has not arrived at an efficient means regulating itself (compensating those damaged) then a government certainly will not be able to affect such a regulation efficiently. The cost of the regulation must be weighed against the benefit it provides. If economic growth is retarded by inefficient regulations, do we not harm future generations more than by waiting for the market to develop a mechanism to efficiently distribute justice?

Gregory highlights the fact that the market has not yet developed an efficient way to enforce the property rights involved in discussions of climate change. I agree that on some level, to indict the free market for this fact would be problematic. In his essay, "Market-Based Environmentalism and the Free Market: They're Not the Same," Roy Cordato wrote
...environmental problems are not an unavoidable side effect of a free-market economy. Instead, they occur because the institution setting--the property rights structure--required for the operation of a free market is not fully in place. Because, in all modern societies, government has taken nearly complete responsibility for the establishment and maintenance of this institutional setting, environmental problems are more appropriately viewed as manifestations of government failure, not market failure.

Mark Pennington bolsters this view in his essay, "Liberty, Markets, and Environmental Values: A Hayekian Defense of Free-Market Environmentalism," when he writes, "Transaction costs are not the sole preserve of the market system...and we commit the "nirvana fallacy" if we suggest the alternative to an imperfect market is a government immune from the same sort of problems."

I completely agree with these two authors, and Gregory, in saying that ill-defined and unenforced property rights are at the root of most (if not all, depending on your definition of "property rights") of the problems associated with climate change.

Further, I agree that the free market can solve some of the inadequacies in the process of enforcing justice, but often only if allowed to work without interference. Pennington writes:
Although proponents of free-market environmentalism recognize that environmental markets have limits owing to the prevalence of transaction costs, they contend that these problems are more like to be overcome within an institutional framework supportive of private contractual arrangements. In this perspective, all environmental externalities represent potential profit opportunities for entrepreneurs who can devise ways of defining private-property rights and arranging contracts (via technological innovations, for example) so that those currently free riding on collective goods or imposing negative external effects (for example, water pollution) on their neighbors are required to bear the full costs of their actions.

That being said, I do think that we oversimplify if we simply suppose that the market will find a way to handle the problem in an acceptable manner, and leave it at that. In issues of justice, the "There are many ways to skin a cat" approach taken by the free market might not be acceptable. Improper conceptions of property rights are not simply inefficient, they are unjust. In his speech, "Another Take on Free Market Environmentalism: A Friendly Critique," David Roodman highlighted this idea when he said:
Fine, I own my car. And you own your lungs. Property rights are allocated, seemingly. So now can we reach happy agreement about how to resolve the conflict? Fat chance. More likely, thousands of drivers and breathers will end up suing each other and then the problem will end up in the lap of the court, which would have to decide precisely where the right to free enjoyment of one's car stops and the right to free enjoyment of one's lungs starts.

Later, he quipped, "Judges did not free the slaves; in fact, they tightened the bondage."

I don't mean to imply that libertarian judges would be unable to come up with a decent solution. I'm only suggesting that the answer might not be as simple as Rothbard made it sound when he wrote, in chapter 13 of his Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Human Nature: would not be a very difficult task for Libertarian lawyers and jurists to arrive at a rational and objective code of libertarian legal principles and procedures based on the axiom of defense of person and property, and consequently of no coercion to be used against anyone who is not a proven and convicted invader of such person and property. This code would then be followed and applied to specific cases by privately-competitive and free-market courts, all of whom would be pledged to abide by the code, and who would be employed on the market proportionately as the quality of their service satisfies the consumers of their product.

The problem, in addition to the simple fact that this could be difficult to do, is that this group of Libertarian lawyers and jurists would need to arrive at decisions somehow. Either they could do so in accordance with majority opinion or some other procedural way, or (as I suspect Rothbard is aiming at) they could do so in accordance with the true principles of justice. If the former were the case, then I see no reason why we would call the result "rational and objective." And if the latter, then we should be able to replicate the activities of these lawyers and jurists on our own. But as those who have been keeping up with my work have undoubtedly seen, the task is not quite as simple as Rothbard makes it sound.

One approach would be to take a somewhat left-libertarian angle and say that climate change represents injustice due to an over-enclosure of the atmospheric commons. Edwin Dolan took this approach in his essay, "Science, Public Policy, and Global Warming: Rethinking the Market Liberal Perspective." Dolan wrote:
Liberalism in America, in particular, grew up in a Lockean state of nature where it was really true, or at least seemed true, that homesteaders, loggers, grazers, and industrialists could take what they needed while leaving "enough and as good for others." What the environmentalist side of the global warming debate is telling us is that we no longer live in such a world.

Because those responsible for climate change have, according to Dolan, taken more than their fair share, they must be subject to the demands of justice. He insists, "Defending the rights of property that has been unjustly acquired is a conservative position, not a liberal one."

But this approach has its difficulties. One problem is the fact that the atmospheric CO2 sink is not really a limited resource. The problem is not that "...the atmospheric commons - namely, the Earth's carbon absorbing capacity - are finite and depletable," as Tariq Banuri and Erika Spanger-Siegfried characterized it in their essay "Equity and the Clean Development Mechanism: Equity, Additionality, Supplementarity." As far as we're concerned (though technically this isn't true), we can dump as much CO2 into the atmosphere as we want. It's not like one day we'll light a fire and the CO2 won't go into the atmosphere. The thing that's available in limited quantities is the atmosphere's capacity to absorb CO2 without causing any harm.

In light of this fact, the right way to allocate the resource in question is somewhat unclear. In a world in which we do exceed the total CO2 emissions we could release without causing objectionable climate change, what is the real significance of the amount of CO2 which we could have emitted without causing harm? This, I think, is a problem which reflects the fact that climate change is an emergent problem, and is therefore sort of different from other problems we normally face.

Of course, even if we figure out the significance of this "harmless sink capacity," there still remains a boatload of work to do in order to determine exactly who is responsible for what emissions, what rights are violated by climate change, whether non-rights-violating actions can be justly interfered with, what exactly we should hold people accountable for, who should bear what burdens, what accountability entails, what our accountabilities to future people are and how they should be enforced, and how we should administer all of this (I'm sure I'm leaving stuff out). Never mind the scientific uncertainty plaguing every step of the process!

At the end of the day, we can talk all we want about the market figuring out the answers to climate change through incentives for the enforcement of justice, but someone's going to have to figure this stuff out. If it can be done, hopefully I'll be able to figure out how, or at least set the process in motion for other people. I really hope that answers your question somehow!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Climate Change and Getting Out of the Way

Imagine for a moment that you are Abdul, a Bangladeshi rice farmer. You have farmed rice your entire adult life, and you plan to continue into the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, Bangladesh is an extremely low-lying nation; almost all of the country's land lies below 10m above sea level, and your farm is no exception. As global temperatures rise and progressively less ice covers the Earth's surface, the sea level will predictably rise slowly over the next century.

Fortunately, Bangladesh already has a system of dykes, originally built to withstand storm surges in harsh weather, which can be bolstered to hold back the rising ocean. Your land will likely avoid becoming permanently submerged. But as sea water mixes with the water table, your rice crops could end up unable to survive the increase in salinity.

Now let's say that we were able to satisfactorily trace the rising sea levels to global climate change, and were able to trace the changes in salinity directly to the rise in sea level, so that we knew that the impacts on your land were the result of climate change. Would there be any injustice here, and if so, what kind of injustice would it be?

On one hand, it does seem like you could reasonably object to any damage directly caused by the increase in sality. Clearly we would have a problem with a group of people directly dumping a bunch of salt on your land and killing your rice crop. It seems that the problem would persist if, using underground piping, they pumped salty water into the water table under your land, even if they never left their own property. I don't see why the injustice would disappear if, using a giant oceanic turbine, the individuals propelled ocean water towards the Bangladeshi dike system, resulting in the salinization of your land. If this would be a problem, then it seems odd to say that there would be no wrong done if, using a giant furnace, the individuals melted away Arctic ice until the sea level rose, sending ocean water into your water table. Finally, then, it seems odd to think that it would be acceptable if the group of individuals released a gas into the atmosphere which would predictably result in ice melting and sea level rise, which would in turn result in ocean water entering your water table. Accordingly, it seems that if we could establish a causal link between the emitters' actions and the salinization of your land, then you would be entitled to compensation.

An important question, though, is what exactly you should be compensated for. For example, what if there were a salt-resistant variety of rice that you could use instead of the kind you had been using? Or what if you could sell your land to prawn farmers, for whom the saltier conditions were ideal? Would these alternatives lessen the injustice done to you? As Nozick writes in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, "Does the compensation to X for Y's actions take into account X's best response to these actions, or not? If X responded by rearranging his other activities and assets to limit his losses (or if he made prior provision to limit them), should this benefit Y by lessening the compensation he must pay? Alternatively, if X makes no attempt to rearrange his activities to cope with what Y has done, must Y compensate X for the full damage X suffers?" Nozick doesn't provide an answer, but it's clear that this is a question that will need to be dealt with in any conversation like this one.

Do we have an obligation to "get out of the way" of damage? Do boundary crossers have an obligation to compensate us for the inconvenience of getting out of the way, and any residual damage? Or do boundary crossers have an obligation to compensate us for the damage that would have occurred if we didn't get out of the way, regardless of what we do? This is no trivial matter. Let's say that you anticipated the sea level rise, and purchased salt-resistant rice in order to be ready. If the salt-resistant rice worked as advertised, and you could continue to farm your rice, would that be the end of the discussion? Could the emitters simply say that you adapted, and therefore they were freed from responsibility? It seems clear to me that you could still reasonably demand compensation for the inconvenience of having to switch crop varieties. And if the genetically modified rice were more expensive, or more difficult to farm, I think you could fairly demand compensation for those things as well.

But would that be the end of it? I think that on some level, this is reasonable. I could see how someone might take the alternative view, and say that you were entitled to compensation for the damage that would have occurred in the absence of adaptive behavior, and that your adaptation should benefit you, and not the boundary crosser. However, I think that perhaps we might placate the holder of this view by conceding that perhaps you are not obligated to adapt, and if you don't, you might be entitled to compensation for the damage that is done, even if you could have prevented it. This too will be objectionable, but it at least offers a starting point for debate.

There is another reason we might want to say that you should only be entitled to compensation for the inconvenience of adapting and for any residual damage: such a policy would be more efficient. Efficiency is certainly not an overriding concern in matters of justice, but that doesn't mean it is unimportant. By compensating for the inconvenience of adaptation and any residual damage, the boundary crosser would be paying for all of the actual external costs produced by her actions. Making her pay for damages which never actualize would seem to mean that we would be, in a sense, "overcharging." For boundary crossings that we don't think are worthy of prohibition, we would effectively rule out an entire class of actually net beneficial actions which, if adaptive measures were not taken, would not be net beneficial.

In the preceding discussion, however, we have implied that by switching to salt-resistant rice, you avoided more costs than you incurred during the switch. In other words, we have assumed that in the absence of compensation, it was profitable for you to switch. Given the fact that in our story you switched, it seems pretty clear that you believed it would be profitable to do so. But what if you were wrong? What if the salt-resistant rice was not a worthwhile investment? Could you reasonably demand compensation for the additional costs produced by your bad decision? On one hand, it seems like you should be held responsible, since it was your choice to try the salt-resistant rice. But on the other hand, it seems like the only reason you bought the salt-resistant rice in the first place was because you knew your land was going to be, essentially, "invaded" by salt "sent" by the emitters. I'm not completely sure what to say about this.

So where do we stand? It seems like we can legitimately say that you have reason to object to the salinization of your land, and that if you could demonstrate a causal link, you could reasonably demand compensation from those responsible. But from there, things get a little less clear. I think I'm comfortable with the idea that you are entitled to compensation for the costs of adaptation, and for any residual damage. I'm less comfortable with the idea that someone should be responsible for "adaptation" costs that actually increased the total costs of the incident (we might make the case that such behavior isn't even properly considered "adaptive"). So I guess I've arrived somewhat short of a firm conclusion. But I hope this will be a good starting point for future discussion.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Can the Free Market Solve the Problems Posed by Climate Change?

When confronted by the possibility of climate change, many libertarians default to the position that the free market, with its ability to mobilize the ingenuity of the economy for the satisfaction of the desires of the people, will provide the solutions we desire. I want to discuss this view, because I think it is the result of a mistaken understanding of the nature of the free market. For an example of this view, consider George Reisman's comments in his essay, "Environmentalism in the Light of Menger and Mises":
The appropriate answer to the environmentalists is that we will not sacrifice a hair of industrial civilization, and that if global warming and ozone depletion really are among its consequences, we will accept them and deal with them--by such reasonable means as employing more and better air conditioners and sun block, not by giving up our air conditioners, refrigerators, and automobiles.

In his essay, "Global Warming Is Not a Threat But the Environmentalist Response to It Is," Reisman elaborates:
...if global warming is a fact, the free citizens of an industrial civilization will have no great difficulty in coping with - that is, of course, if their ability to use energy and to produce is not crippled by the environmental movement and by government controls otherwise inspired.

He goes on to say that global warming
...would certainly not be too great a problem for tens and hundreds of millions of free, thinking individuals living under capitalism to solve. It would be solved by means of each individual being free to decide how best to cope with the particular aspects of global warming that affected him.

Reisman makes an important point. When it comes to allocating resources efficiently, the free market is unparalleled in its effectiveness. In his essay, "The Use of Knowledge in Society," Hayek explained:
...knowledge of the circumstances...never exists in concentrated or integrated form, but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all...separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate "given" resources--if "given" is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these "data." It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge not given to anyone in its totality.

Hayek points out that
...there is...a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others in that he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.

He concludes:
If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them. We cannot expect that this problem will be solved by first communicating all this knowledge to a central board which, after integrating all knowledge, issues its orders. We must solve it by some form of decentralization.

This decentralization is the free market. Hayek explains that a system where the knowledge of the relevant facts is dispersed among many people, prices can act to coordinate the separate actions of different people in the same way as subjective values help the individual to coordinate the parts of his plan.

And indeed, it's been demonstrated in practically every instance that the free market has the capacity to satisfy the wants of the population better than centrally organized alternatives. So I think Reisman is largely right in saying that when it comes to adapting to new problems, the market does do great work.

But when we talk about the free market, we generally have two things in mind. The first, which Reisman focuses on, is a system in which property titles are traded voluntarily in a mutually beneficial way, resulting in a continuous progression towards a more efficient allocation of resources. But the second, which underpins the first, is a system in which rights are enforced, so that individuals who infringe on the rights of others are punished, and those whose rights are infringed are compensated for the harm they suffer. It is my contention the Reisman's argument breaks down by completely brushing off this second feature of the market.

Imagine if we were trying to discuss the proper social response to a particular theft. It might be true that of all social systems, a victim of theft would be best equipped for dealing with her loss in a capitalistic free market. She would not need to consult a central planning board in order to replace the things that were taken, and her higher purchasing power, enabled by her participation in a thriving market economy, would enable her to afford the replacement with comparative ease.

And yet we would obviously not be satisfied with this "solution." The reason is simple. The thief did something wrong, and therefore, the thief ought to be held responsible for fixing it, never mind that we should perhaps have tried to stop the theft from happening in the first place. Accordingly, by suggesting that we simply allow the free market to operate so that adaptation will be easier, Reisman is smuggling in the claim that we do nothing wrong to the victims of climate change.

This seems obviously contentious. The question should not be, as Reisman seems to want to make it, whether or not the free market is the best system for facilitating adaptation to changing conditions. The question is whether we do something unjust by contributing to climate change. To be fair, Reisman briefly addresses this issue, as I discussed here. But my point is that by glossing quickly over the issue of justice, many libertarians have completely missed the point. If the free market is to be relied on to provide a "solution" to climate change, it must be through a strict adherence to the principles of justice. If we simply ignore injustice, and define fairness in terms of mere participation in the market, then we cannot claim to be advocating libertarianism.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Long-Winded Reply to JEK

An Israeli fellow going by JEK responded to my posts on the subjectivity of value and interpersonal utility comparisons on his/her blog, seemingly entitled The Blog of the Armchair Praxeologist (I can't actually recognize the words "Armchair Praxeologist" in Hebrew, but the URL address gave it away). I figured it would be appropriate to comment on two of JEK's main points which I think are important to the discussion.

The first point JEK makes relies on a quotation I presented in which R.F. Harrod pointed out that if we completely reject the possibility of comparing utility between people, then we must acknowledge that it is impossible to say whether two pence is more valuable to a beggar than a millionaire. Harrod's point is to show that complete rejection of interpersonal utility comparison is unreasonable. Common sense tells us that as long as we assume that this is a typical beggar and a typical millionaire, then obviously we can say that the two pence is more valuable to the beggar.

But JEK disagrees. He/she is willing to bite the bullet, saying, "That is the nature of subjectivity." This point is expanded on later in the post with the argument that our common sense intuition "...comes from our own scale of values." This seems to me an important point. I think that JEK is right in suggesting that the reason we think that the beggar would value the two pence more is that we believe that if we were the beggar, we would value the two pence more than we would if we were the millionaire. If we had no such intuition, then it does not seem unreasonable to say that we might not be able to arrive at any decisive view on the matter.

When we acknowledge this, we are faced with the realization that we are not the beggar, and we are not the millionaire. If we assume that all of the individuals involved are basically the same, then it seems obvious that the beggar would value the two pence more. But in light of the clear probability of important differences existing between the beggar and the millionaire, it becomes somewhat more difficult to know for sure how to compare them.

As Menger wrote in his book, Principles of Economics:
What one person disdains or values lightly is appreciated by another, and what one person abandons is often picked up by another. While one economizing individual esteems equally a given amount of one good and a greater amount of another good, we frequently observe just the opposite evaluations with another economizing individual.

Additionally, Harrod writes:
Consider the Repeal of the Corn Laws. This tended to reduce the value of a specific factor of production--land. It can no doubt be shown that the gain to the community as a whole exceeded the loss to the landlords--but only if individuals are treated in some sense as equal. Otherwise how can the loss to some--and that there was a loss can hardly be denied--be compared with the general gain?

To this point, I am in complete agreement with JEK. However, where we part company is JEK's implication that we therefore cannot compare the utility that could be gained by the beggar to the utility that could be gained by the millionaire. Is it really conceivable that the beggar and millionaire are so different that even this seemingly obvious comparison is invalidated (remember, we're talking about a normal beggar and a normal millionaire)? I don't think that this is a reasonable position.

Perhaps it will help to put it this way. Could you actually imagine a case where the millionaire and the beggar were both normal people, and the millionaire would actually gain more utility? Let's say that first, you (magically imbued with all of the millionaire's values and desires) got to experience the millionaire's experience in getting the two pence, and doing with it whatever he would do with it. Immediately after, you were magically transported back in time to experience the beggar's version of the same experience (now miraculously having the beggar's values). Then, the situation was flipped, and you got to experience the beggar's getting the two pence from both sides. After this magical episode, do you really think there would be any possibility that you would say that the beggar didn't benefit more? It seems like however we define wellbeing and utility, as long as we do so in a way that wouldn't be completely absurd, and as long as the beggar and millionaire are normal people, we would come out of the experiment saying that the in getting the two pence, beggar's utility was augmented by a greater amount.

JEK's second argument restates my proposed claim, "I value X; X is valuable" as "X would help me achieve my ends -> X holds some utility for me -> X is valuable." He/she then explains that this is the same thing as my alternative proposed claim, "X would help me achieve my ends; X is valuable." If the first claim is restated the way that JEK proposes, this seems obviously true. In fact, the only difference is JEK's addition of a middle step.

But the problem is that "I value X; X is valuable" cannot be correctly restated as "X would help me achieve my ends -> X holds some utility for me -> X is valuable." The acceptable restatement, using this form, would be "I believe that X would help me achieve my ends -> I believe that X holds some utility for me -> X is valuable." This reliance on the beliefs of the valuer is the critical difference. JEK writes, "If X holds no utility for me, why do I value it?" The clear answer is that I value it because I am mistaken about its ability to help me in achieving my ends.

JEK attempts to offer a solution to the problem of interpersonal comparisons of utility in the form of an "independent objective standard" with which individuals could "compare their utility." Unfortunately, I'm not exactly sure what JEK is getting at; if individuals could compare their utility with a metric, and that metric were an objective standard, then it would follow that utility could be measured using that metric. Because I don't believe that JEK believes that we could measure utility, I must simply be misunderstanding. But hopefully what I've said here will be useful in some capacity.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility

So as I said earlier, I've been getting involved in a whole bunch of debates involving value theory, and I wanted to sketch out a few of my views in order to have a starting point for discussion, so I don't have to keep explaining myself over and over again. In this post, I want to address the idea that because there is no way to objectively measure utility, it is impossible to coherently make claims which involve comparisons of utility between people.

But before addressing this point, I anticipate that it will be necessary to offer something by way of disclaimer. It occurs to me that by suggesting that something can be more valuable to one person than to another person, I will be accused of being a Utilitarian--of claiming that the person to whom the thing would be most valuable should be the one to have it. An example of a view like this can be found in Peter Singer's famous essay, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," where he wrote:
When we buy new clothes not to keep warm but to look "well-dressed" we are not providing for any important need. We would not be sacrificing anything if we were to continue to wear our old clothes, and give the money to famine relief. By doing so, we would be preventing another person from starving...we ought to give money away, rather than spend it on clothes which we do not need to keep us warm. To do so is not charitable, or generous. Nor is it the kind of act which it would be good to do, but not wrong not to do. On the contrary, we ought to give the money away, and it is wrong not to do so.

I do not wish to comment on exactly to what extent I disagree with Singer, except to say that I think that for very many people, maintaining a good appearance is a very serious interest, and should not be brushed off with such little care. I will also say, in passing, that I find slightly disturbing Singer's view that morality requires us to give to others "...unless in doing so we would be sacrificing something of comparable moral significance..." I simply can not assent to the idea that we have no right to indulge in pleasures of our own (even if we've earned those pleasures!), as long as there are others who are worse off than we are. The source of this objection is obviously Kantian: my life is an end in itself, and I need not justify my pursuit of personal fulfillment by reference to anything else but the notion that I am an individual with a right to live my life according to my own desires. I do, however, find plausible the idea that we have some obligation to help those in need, and that neglect of this duty is immoral (though perhaps, as Nozick pointed out, we would not be justified in enforcing morality in this sense). But all of this is beyond my point.

The purpose of this discussion is not to explain the ethical consequences of interpersonal comparisons of utility. It is simply meant to give some reason for thinking that we are not necessarily incoherent to make claims which rely on comparisons of utility between people. Accordingly, my disclaimer is this: My argument is positive, and not normative. In saying that interpersonal utility comparisons are, in at least some cases, possible, I am not saying anything about what ought to be done in cases where these comparisons show that one person would benefit more than another from some policy, or where one person would gain more than another would lose.

So with that protracted disclaimer out of the way, I'll get on to the issue at hand. Perhaps the most famous reason for thinking that utility can't be compared between individuals is discussed by R.F. Harrod in his essay, "Scope and Method of Economics." He writes:
Whether the nth unit of X has greater or less utility than the mth unit of Y to a given individual may be made the subject of test. He can be given the choice. But there are no scientific means of deciding whether the nth of X has greater or less utility to individual P than the mth of Y has to another individual Q. The choice can never be put.

This point is entirely true. But notice what Harrod says next: "This implies that we cannot in fact decide whether two pense have more utility to a millionaire or a beggar. Yet we may have a shrewd suspicion. But this, we are told, is "unscientific," for lack of a test." He continues, "Can we afford to reject this very clear finding of common sense? Of course great caution must be exercised in not pushing the matter too far. Since the evidence is vague, we must not go farther than a very clear mandate from common sense allows."

This, I think, is the crux of the issue. When I walk home from class, sometimes I feel like grabbing a cup of coffee from Espresso Royale. I can't remember exactly what it costs me for a medium cup of coffee, but however much it is, it wildly eclipses the amount it would cost me to make a cup at home. We have a pretty good coffee maker here, and we grind our own beans. I love coffee, and can definitely tell the difference between good coffee and bad coffee, but I honestly don't think there's a difference in quality between what I can make at home and what I can buy at the coffee shop. The difference is really that I have to wait; I have to walk all the way home and wait for the darn stuff to brew. I also have to grind the beans, put water in the machine, and find my own cup. But to be honest, the difference is pretty negligible; I'm honestly not sure it's even rational for me to ever buy coffee from the shop, and usually I don't.

Then again, sometimes I do. The dollar or two difference buys me a small amount of convenience and instant gratification. But imagine if every time I was going to buy coffee from Espresso Royale, I stopped myself and put the money in an envelope and sent it to help desperately poor people in Africa. For a few dollars, you can buy quite a bit over there, even after those altruistic leeches in the non-profit agencies skim off their "administrative costs." In many countries, people live off of that much money per day. Someone who might have starved would be fed; someone who might have suffered horribly from an easily curable illness would be given the medicine they need.

Quick, tell me which will result in a greater increase in utility: (a) I get my cup of coffee at Espresso Royale instead of making it at home; (b) A child in Sierra Leone doesn't die from tetanus because she is given a vaccine paid for by me. To preempt the inevitable objections: let me reiterate, I am not saying anything about whether or not I should get the coffee. I am only appealing to the notion that it would be pretty ridiculous of me to say that I can't determine whether (a) or (b) results in more utility gained, because there's no scientific way to compare them. As Amartya Sen famously said, "Why must we reject being vaguely right in favor of being precisely wrong?"

That being said, I want to return to something important that I quoted Harrod as saying earlier: "Of course great caution must be exercised in not pushing the matter too far. Since the evidence is vague, we must not go farther than a very clear mandate from common sense allows." It is key to keep in mind that when we make interpersonal comparisons of utility, we are not measuring utility in a cardinal manner for each individual and comparing these measurements to each other. We can not coherently say that vaccinating the child in Sierra Leone produces 50 more utils than me getting my Espresso Royale coffee. We cannot even say that the vaccination produces 10 times more utility than I gain from my coffee. At least not with any hope of accuracy, we can't. Given this inability to precisely compare utility between individuals, it should be clear that while we might justifiably engage in interpersonal comparisons in extreme situations, we must be very careful when we approach the margins.

Hopefully that's enough to establish my point of view. As always, feedback is welcome and appreciated.


Feedback I asked for, and feedback I received!

Please check out Jonatan Krovitsky's response to this post, and my reply as well. Also, Dmitry Chernikov had a few things to say about this post as well.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Subjectivity of Value

For some reason, the past few weeks have found me embroiled in more debates about value theory than I can remember in the past year. Accordingly, I figured I'd post something on the subject as a starting point for those debates, so that I don't have to repeat my entire view in every conversation.

The problems people seem to be wrestling with are twofold. First, people have been arguing that because value is subjective, we can't say anything about how much value something has except by saying how much someone values it. Second, people have been claiming that because there is no acceptable way to objectively measure utility, it is impossible to coherently make claims about utility which compare utility between one individual and another. I want to address both issues, but this post will only discuss the former; I'll deal with the latter another time [Update: here].

To begin, I want to make clear that I don't deny that utility is subjective. But what does it mean to say this? One uncontroversial, but relatively weak, way of interpreting this is to say that without people (or other valuers) to value things, nothing would have value. While this shouldn't offend anyone, it also doesn't tell us very much. It only means that value must be value to someone; the cake is not valuable, it is valuable to people. If there were a cake on a planet with nothing else on it, so that no sentient being would ever come across the cake or even know that it existed, it would seem odd to attribute any value to the cake.

But it's clear that this isn't what people mean when they say that value is subjective. It seems like what people are saying is that something becomes valuable because someone values it. George Reisman might seem to have embodied this sort of view when he said, "...the starting point both of goods-character and of the value of goods is within us--within human beings--and radiates outward from us to external things, establishing...goods-character and value..." It also might seem to have been present in Mises' thought, when he said, "Judgments of value are voluntaristic. They express feelings, tastes, or preferences of the individual who utters them. With regard to them there cannot be any question of truth and falsity. They are ultimate and not subject to any proof or evidence."

Mises continued, "What the theorem of the subjectivity of valuation means is that there is no standard available which would enable us to reject any ultimate judgment of value as wrong, false, or erroneous in the way we can reject an existential proposition as manifestly false. It is vain to argue about ultimate judgments of value as we argue about the truth or falsity of an existential proposition." It is on the back of statements like these that people argue that we are unable to posit value in anything apart from the value placed on it by some individual.

But this immediately leads to some problematic conclusions. For one, it means that if we cannot say that it would be good for the alcoholic to avoid taking another drink, or that the person in an abusive relationship would be better off leaving his partner, unless they believed that to be the case. If it is the nature of value that it does not exist except as it is placed on certain things by people, then it would be impossible to be mistaken about the value of something. Clearly the alcoholic values the drink, and the abused partner values his relationship, but there seems to be a sense in which we want to say that the alcoholic shouldn't value the drink, and the abused partner should leave.

The problem arises from the fact that we can talk about something's being "valuable" in two ways. One is positive: "I value X; X is valuable." The other is normative: "X would help me to achieve my ends; X is valuable." When my opponents talk about the subjectivity of value, they slip into the former kind of thinking. That is, they take the view that what is desired is the same as what is desirable. But it is my contention that what is desirable, in discussing the value of some object, is what ought to be desired, given the ends of the agent in question. So while I agree that ultimate ends can't be disputed (if you want to be a devout Christian, I can't tell you that you're wrong), I can dispute the means you choose for obtaining your ultimate ends.

This is played out in Mises' discussion when he says, "The characteristic mark of ultimate ends is that they depend entirely on each individual's personal and subjective judgment, which cannot be examined, measured, still less corrected by any other person. Each individual is the only and final arbiter in matters concerning his own satisfaction and happiness." He continues, "Means are judged and appreciated according to their ability to produce definite effects. While judgments of value are personal, subjective, and final, judgments about means are essentially inferences drawn from factual propositions concerning the power of the means in question to produce definite effects. About the power of a means to produce a definite effect there can be dissension and dispute between men. For the evaluation of ultimate ends there is no interpersonal standard available." Accepting this view of value, it seems clear that we can indeed make claims about how valuable something is as a means for achieving some end, even though we can't actually say that the end in question is valuable.

In passing, I want to preempt an obvious objection. In practice, I (and I think most people) do tend to assume that individuals have certain ultimate ends, and that under this assumption, I can largely ignore the issue of the subjectivity of ends. For example, I don't tell the alcoholic, "If you desire the sort of life I find that most people do, you shouldn't have that drink." I simply say, "You shouldn't have that drink." If I were to discover that the alcoholic actually thought that his purpose on the Earth was to explore the effects of alcoholism, producing knowledge for himself and the rest of humanity in the process, then I couldn't criticize his choice of drinking in the same way. But recognizing this possibility doesn't preclude me from assuming that they alcoholic is making a poor decision (in the absence of evidence to the contrary). That I could be wrong because of a faulty assumption, doesn't prove that the position outlined here is wrong.

One thing that I should address, but I won't, is the issue of justice as it relates to value. It's fully possible that someone could do something which would actually produce the effect of promoting her ends, but we would still want to say that there's something wrong with it. Mises seemed to think that justice could be completely explained in utilitarian, contractarian terms, saying, "The ultimate yardstick of justice is conduciveness to the preservation of social cooperation. Conduct suited to preserve social cooperation is just, conduct detrimental to the preservation of society is unjust. There cannot be any question of organizing society according to the postulates of an arbitrary preconceived idea of justice. The problem is to organize society for the best possible realization of those ends which men want to attain social cooperation. Social utility is the only standard of justice. It is the sole guide of legislation." I completely disagree with this assertion, and I am supported in this by a considerable tradition in philosophy. But how this relates to the discussion of value is beyond the scope of this post. I think that what I've said so far is good enough for my purposes.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Asymmetry Between Positive and Negative Externalities

I want to discuss an asymmetry between positive and negative externalities which I think might be important when thinking about how to use the enforcement of justice to determine which actions should be permitted. Sometimes, we let individuals impose costs on others, provided compensation is payed, because their actions produce net social benefits. As Nozick writes in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, "The reason one sometimes would wish to allow boundary crossings with presumably the great benefits of the act; it is worthwhile, ought to be done, and can pay its way." In its Climate Change 1995: Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change, the IPCC elaborates on this idea, explaining that if an action "...yields positive net benefits, then those made better off could compensate those made worse off with something extra left over. As long as the compensation is paid, the result is an unambiguous gain in welfare, without the necessity of weighing effects on different individuals."

It's worth pointing out that this is not entirely uncontroversial. Nozick writes, "...a system permitting boundary crossing, provided compensation is paid, embodies the use of persons as means; knowing they are being so used, and that their plans and expectations are liable to being thwarted arbitrarily, is a cost to people..." For this reason, Nozick suggests that "Any border-crossing act which permissibly may be done provided compensation is paid afterwards will be one to which prior consent is impossible or very costly to negotiate...But not vice versa." For our purposes, however, we will ignore this problem, and limit our discussion to only those compensated boundary crossings which are not problematic in this way.

So what's the asymmetry? It should be clear that the preceding discussion was directed only at negative externalities. That is, cases where I do something that results in costs being imposed on other people, where I haven't obtained their consent in advance. An entirely different framework applies to positive externalities: cases where, without being asked or promised anything, I do something which results in positive outcomes for other people.

Where we think of negative externalities as demanding of compensation, we generally don't think that we are entitled to payment for the positive outcomes we have generated for others as a result of positive externalities. So when we impose costs without consent, we owe compensation, but when we "impose" benefits without "consent," we are not entitled to payment. This is the asymmetry.

But on the surface, this doesn't seem to be problematic. If I unilaterally decided to do something which had positive consequences for you, then it doesn't seem like you suddenly take an obligation to compensate me for my trouble; I'm the one who decided to do the thing that I did, and presumably I would have decided to do it, even if you weren't around. On the other hand, if I unilaterally do something that has negative consequences for you, then I do take on an obligation to compensate you; you didn't decide for me to do what I did, and presumably you wouldn't have in the absence of compensation. The asymmetry seems simply to reflect the idea that we are not entitled to make people worse off without their consent in the execution of our plans.

However, there are two implications of this asymmetry which might be worth noting. The first can be shown by the following illustration. Imagine that on Bill's roof, there is a machine which produces laser light shows on the bottoms of clouds at night. Bill lives in a large town, but most of the people don't really care one way or the other about the laser light shows; they're typically asleep when they're going on. A few people do enjoy the shows, but not to a huge degree. If put on the spot, they would probably pay a small sum to allow them to continue, but tracking these people down and collecting money from them would be relatively difficult, and they probably wouldn't respond to mass mailers, newspaper ads, or other public fund raising efforts.

On the other hand, Bill's laser machine generates a certain kind of green smoke which is not a health hazard in any way, but which tends to drift into Terry's yard and stain his house a particularly ugly color. The stain can be cleaned, but doing so is somewhat costly, and as Terry does not typically watch the laser light show, he is rightly irritated by Bill's behavior. Being a reasonable person, Terry takes Bill to court to demand that he either pay for his house to be cleaned periodically, or else stop putting on the show.

Now, perhaps the people who enjoy the show would be collectively willing to pay enough to completely cover the costs of cleaning Terry's house. But without their contributions, Bill would not be willing to pay this amount. What would end up happening is that Bill would put a stop to the show, and though they'd be disappointed, the people who enjoyed the show would likely not be motivated enough to get together and pay the amount necessary to get it going again.

Let's imagine that Bill knew who these people were. Even though he knows that they were benefiting from his show, the burden is on him to convince them to voluntarily contribute to getting the show going again. The effort necessary might be prohibitive. On the other hand, this burden does not seem to be on Terry; Bill has the obligation to compensate Terry for whatever costs are done to him. This illustration shows that if we say that one is obliged to compensate for negative external effects, but one is not entitled to payment for positive external effects, then the costs of organizing people would result in the cessation of an entire class of net beneficial effects.

Confronted with this possibility, we might shrug our shoulders and say, "That's a shame, but we're not particularly concerned." We might point to the fact that our alternatives are somewhat limited. We can try to calculate net benefits and then either fine or tax alleged beneficiaries in order to pay compensation to harmed parties, or else we can simply allow allegedly "net beneficial" acts to be undertaken without any compensation for the victims.

Both of these alternatives seem objectionable. As we said before, my decision to do something which benefits you doesn't seem to generate an obligation in you to pay me. And as Nozick writes, "Using...[someone] for the benefit of others, uses him and benefits the others. Nothing more. What happens is something is done to him for the sake of others. Talk of an overall social good covers this up...To use a person in this way does not sufficiently respect and take account of the fact that he is a separate person, that his is the only life he has. He does not get some overbalancing good for his sacrifice, and no one is entitled to force this upon him..."

We find ourselves in a situation where we are forced to choose the best of a set of evils. Nozick writes, "Because great transaction costs may make the fairest alternative impracticable, one may search for other alternatives...These alternatives will involve constant minor unfairness and classes of major ones." As far as "unfairnesses" go, the ones we face here seem rather minor.

[It has come to my attention that I'm an idiot and apparently can't tell the difference between the word "defendant" and "plaintiff." I apologize to anyone who may have been confused by the rest of this post.]

But this leads to the second implication of the asymmetry between positive and negative externalities, which I find significantly more troubling. This problem arises from an interesting fact about the way that rights are enforced. In his essay, "Science, Public Policy, and Global Warming: Rethinking the Market Liberal Position," Edwin Dolan writes, "Certain defenses are allowed against a charge of assault or trespass. Consent of the victim is one. Also, if no causal relationship can be shown between the action of the defendant and the offense to the victim, the tort is not proved. However, certain attempted defenses are not recognized as legally valid..." Of these, one is "A showing that the defendant gained benefits from the tort, the value of which exceeds the costs to the victim."

This means that an individual can perform an action which is beneficial to everyone, and still be required to compensate people for any individual negative effects resulting from the action. It is important to note that the issue is not whether it could be proven that the action produced beneficial consequences for the victim that were more significant than the costs imposed. Rather, even if this were proven, the boundary-crosser would still be required to pay the victim.

I'm struggling to figure out what I think about this. I need some time to think; any thoughts or opinions would be very welcome.

Monetary Compensation for Future Generations

I've been talking a lot about whether or not we could have obligations to future people, and it occurred to me that I should say something about what it would mean for us to have those obligations, if we did have them. For example, let's say (as I discussed here) that it is wrong to act in such a way that a person comes into existence, upon whom the consequences of your actions will impose costs, but who will not have been provided with proper compensation for those costs. It should be obvious that one way to act permissibly would be to avoid that sort of action. But another way to act permissibly would be to provide compensation to the person your actions bring into existence.

What kind of compensation would this be? The obvious answer seems to be that we should leave them some amount of money which would sufficiently make up for the costs they'll have to endure as a result of our actions. But I wanted to point out an interesting feature of monetary compensation across time periods which might be significant to the way we think about the issue.

Let's say I harm you today, and give you money to compensate you for it. Basically, what I've done is give you power for directing the allocation of social resources which formerly belonged to me. As Hayek wrote in his essay, "The Use of Knowledge in Society," " a system where the knowledge of the relevant facts is dispersed among many people, prices can act to coordinate the separate actions of different people in the same way as subjective values help the individual to coordinate the parts of his plan." Providing someone with compensation has the effect of removing power to direct the market from one person, and giving it to another. It seems fair to say that this is exactly what we want to do when we make someone compensate someone else.

But something very different happens when someone leaves compensation for someone in the distant future. There are two steps in this process which occur at significantly different times. The first step is that someone loses their purchasing power. Influence on the market is lost by the compensating individual, and is essentially given to the rest of the actors in the economy. Basically, money is taken out of the economy, and therefore the rest of the money becomes more valuable: it gains more power for coordinating the market.

The second step is that in the future, an individual comes into existence and is given the money that had previously been taken out of the economy. This has the effect of increasing the money supply. Predictably, the rest of the money in the economy becomes less valuable. In other words, power for market coordination is transferred from the rest of the economy to the individual who is being compensated.

It should be clear that this is fundamentally different from monetary compensation which occurs instantaneously. But the significance of this difference might not be immediately apparent. Purchasing power is released into the economy in the first step, and then essentially recaptured in the second; it might seem like things ultimately balance out. But the problem comes into focus when we recognize that the economy is populated by different people when the purchasing power is released than it is when the purchasing power is recaptured.

Essentially the problem is this. When we compensate someone instantaneously, purchasing power is transferred directly from us to them. But when we compensate someone in the distant future, we transfer purchasing power from ourselves to the other members of our generation, and then in the future, purchasing power is transferred from the other members of the future person's generation to the future person. The purchasing power is not transferred directly from us to the person to whom we are obligated.

What does this mean? I'm not sure. I just thought it might be worth pointing out.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

"Costs" vs. "Harms" and Rights in Light of the Non-Identity Problem

So I've been talking a lot about the implications of the Non-Identity Problem for the way we think about our obligations to future people, and I came up with the idea that perhaps we want to talk about "costs" to future people, as opposed to "harms," because the concept of harm doesn't seem to apply. In my most recent post on the subject, I created a thought experiment which (I hope) demonstrated that costs can be imposed on people in spite of the fact that these costs don't represent harms (I'll be referring to the thought experiment in this post, so you might want to have read it before continuing on here). I concluded that post wondering what ethical significance we could attribute to these costs, since they don't actually represent harms.

In an earlier post, I suggested that Sidney's de-pantsing couldn't possibly be a violation of any rights held by him:
...when we talk about an infringement of rights, we compare a certain outcome to a baseline. In a paradigm case, we might say that if I infringe your right not to be robbed by robbing you, I "move you away" from the baseline of you not being robbed, in the "direction" of you being robbed. And if I infringe your right to inherit an unspoiled Earth, I must be bringing it about that you do not inherit an unspoiled Earth. And indeed I do. But I can't coherently say that I "move you away" from a baseline of inheriting an unspoiled Earth. So instead I have to say that I simply place you in a situation in which you are not on the baseline.

Is this morally the same sort of thing? If the critical element of a rights infringement is that I bring it about that you aren't on the baseline, then my action might qualify as one. But we have to acknowledge that your rights are not to "remaining on the baseline" or "not being moved away from the baseline." They're purely to "being on the baseline," even though you couldn't possibly have been there. We would have to say that the "movement away" from the baseline is not an essential part of the equation. But honestly, I think it is.

In his boldly titled essay, "The Non-Identity Problem," James Woodward disagrees. He discusses the choice of an energy policy which will cause a nuclear catastrophe in the future, and writes, "...the sort of analysis I have been exploring explains the wrongfulness of the choice of the nuclear policy by focusing on the difference between the situation of the nuclear people under the choice of the nuclear policy (when they are killed, injured, etc.) and an (unattainable) baseline situation in which the nuclear people exist and these violations of their rights do not occur. This difference represents a loss which, arguably, one can coherently think of as happening to the nuclear people."

It's almost amusing how similar Woodward's point is to what I've been saying. Really, there is only one major difference between our thinking. Woodward thinks that these events which represent departures from an abstract baseline represent violations of rights, where I do not. Why does Woodward think that this is the case? He writes, "Presumably what the nuclear people will complain about is the fact that many of their number have been killed, injured, poisoned, and so forth. Presumably they will not say, "We recognize that nothing wrong has been done to us. What awakens our indignation is rather that even better off people would have been produced if the alternative energy policy had been chosen."" And I agree. Just as Sidney would complain about having had his pants pulled down, and that the problem with Vlad's actions seems to be tied to the costly event that Sidney will be put through, it does seem that what's wrong with the nuclear policy is that it brings it about that people are killed, injured, poisoned, etc.

But remember that we have assumed as a precondition that all of these people had lives that were worth living. A reasonably strong case could seemingly be made that while these people would complain about these things, and think that they were wronged, their anger would be irrational. By saying that their rights had been violated, they would need to say that their existence violated their rights. And as long as they didn't wish that they had never been born (or as long as it didn't actually "harm" them to be born), we might say that their complaints represent a desire to have their cake and eat it to. Accordingly, I find myself unconvinced by Woodward's point.

It seems to me that a better place to start would be with a statement like, "It is wrong to act in such a way that a person comes into existence, upon whom the consequences of your actions will impose costs, but who will not have been provided with proper compensation for those costs." In my thought experiment, costs were imposed upon Sidney by Vlad's actions, and he was not provided with any form of compensation. In the same way, the nuclear people are not compensated for the damage done to them by the nuclear catastrophe. Accordingly, this principle would say that Vlad acted badly, and the policymakers acted badly, which I think reflects our intuitions about the situations. Further, it would capture an intuition, which Woodward and I share, that if we provided proper compensation to future people for costs our actions impose on them, then our overall actions would be acceptable.

There's another important factor which is dealt with by this principle, which was touched on by Steve Vanderheiden in his essay, "Conservation, Foresight, and the Future Generations Problem." Even if, as I have discussed, we think that Sidney and the nuclear people do not have their rights violated by the actions of the people in the past, we don't think that Sidney or the nuclear people would look back on those actions with approval. We might imagine Sidney saying, "Sure, I wouldn't trade the opportunity to live for not getting my pants pulled down. But still, Vlad was wrong to launch the rocket; he never should have done it. It's true that if he had acted rightly, I wouldn't exist. But I can accept that without wishing that I had never been born."

I think I'm happy with this, so I'll stop here.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Does Intrinsic Value in Nonconscious Objects Create Problems for Property Rights?

So I wrote earlier about the idea of nonconscious objects having intrinsic value, and I was wondering about the implications of what I said for our normal conceptions regarding property rights. Basically, I argued that some objects, like the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, have the inherent capacity to inspire significant reactions in people. Accordingly, it seems fair to say that they have some kind of intrinsic value, and that therefore it is somehow wrong to destroy them wastefully; that is, it doesn't take proper account of this value to "destroy" them without good reason for doing so.

It occurred to me, though, that this account might seem to be at odds with our normal ideas about property rights. I figured it might be worth writing briefly about whether this is the case. I'll bring up two issues here, discussing neither in much depth (it's Friday, dammit). The first is whether the existence of intrinsic value in nonconscious entities could imply that we don't fully own our property. The second is whether intrinsic value creates problems for our ideas about just appropriation.

So why would intrinsic value have any bearing on whether or not we fully own our property? Well, the issue arises from the claim that it's wrong to destroy something with intrinsic value in the absence of a good reason for doing so. Does this mean that we could be entitled to stop someone from destroying something on her own property if she owned it? If so, this would clearly have significant implications for the way we think about our relationship with our property.

I think that we would have to start by pointing out that if someone were going to wastefully destroy an object with significant intrinsic value, she could probably sell it to someone else, or a group of people, who would clearly value it more than her. In his essay, "Liberty, Markets, and Environmental Values: A Hayekian Defense of Free-Market Environmentalism," Mark Pennington wrote, "...a case surely can be made that it is precisely for the ends that people value most highly that they should be required to make a personal sacrifice, including perhaps a material sacrifice." I think this makes some sense.

And if the object's owners were prepared to forgo such payment in order to see the object destroyed, then it seems clear that we would want to say that she had a reasonably strong interest in destroying the object, and that this could very well constitute the kind of "good reason" which would make legitimate the destruction of an intrinsically valuable object.

But what if transactions costs prevented the person from selling the object? Perhaps the object was extremely valuable, but it would simply be unfeasible to coordinate a trade? Would the owner be doing something wrong to destroy it? It seems that in this case, we would need to come up with a relatively good reason for overriding the property rights of the owner; if she rightfully owned the object, then we would generally want to say that the ownership rights included the right to destroy the object. This seems most obvious if we say that the owner created the intrinsic value in an object. Given that the value was "put into" the object by the owner, it seems that she would have every right to destroy that value.

However, I think that this intuition becomes slightly less clear if we suppose that the intrinsic value was a natural feature of the object. I don't think that this unclarity reflects that we don't believe that property rights should be respected. Rather, I think it is a consequence of an inadequate understanding the second issue that I wanted to touch on, which asks what kinds of things we can justly appropriate, and what that appropriation entails.

If you somehow come to own the Grand Canyon, and then you decide that you want to destroy it (for no good reason), I think that other people would be right to object. But this is not because you shouldn't have a right to do what you want with your property. I think it's more because people would object to the idea of you could justly be said to own something like the Grand Canyon. It just seems like something that a person couldn't fairly appropriate for themselves.

And I think that on some level, that sounds right. Objects with significant natural intrinsic value do seem to belong to all of us; it simply wouldn't be right for someone to declare himself the exclusive owner, with the right to destroy the object if he chose. But if we take to its logical end, then we not only restrict the appropriation of the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls, but also the appropriation of a beautiful forest or scenic beach front.

I think that there is some intuitive strength to the idea that individuals should not be able to simply take such natural wonders for themselves, excluding others from accessing them. This idea seems grounded in the notion of Pareto improvement. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick writes, "It will be implausible to view improving an object as giving full ownership to it, oif the stock of unowned objects that might be improved is limited. For an object's coming under one person's ownership changes the situation of all others. Whereas previously they were at use the object, they now no longer are." While this is a problem for all acts of appropriation, it seems especially significant when we are able to say that without any human improvement, an object naturally has the capacity to inspire strong positive reactions in people. Why should one person be allowed to appropriate all the benefits from these natural objects for themselves?

But it's not as if privatization can't be Pareto improving. I don't want to say more about this just now, because I haven't thought it out enough. But I want to appeal to the idea that human stewardship can augment the intrinsic value in natural objects, and make them more accessible and beneficial to the people who would have enjoyed them in their natural state. For example, creating hiking trails and camping areas on a beautiful mountain can enable more people to enjoy their beauty. However, I want to take into account some important objections raised by G. A. Cohen, which I'll get into some other time. For now, I'm just going to leave this as an unfinished project.
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