Thursday, June 26, 2008

On the Use of the Term "Self-Interest" in Economics

I've been repeatedly embroiled in an argument for the last few weeks over the term "self-interest" as it is used in economic discussion, and I wanted to hammer out my position once and for all so that I don't have to keep trying to start from the beginning. Here's the deal. I am told that within the discipline of economics, what it means to say that a person "acted in her own self-interest" is that a person "acted according to her own interests." The idea here is that all action demonstrates preference, and that this necessarily means that the actor preferred the action that was taken to all other actions. So if I jump on a grenade in order to save my friends, what I have demonstrated is that I preferred to jump on the grenade over all other alternatives that I considered, and it's fair to say that I wanted to jump on the grenade; that out of all available alternatives, the one I consider the best is the one where I jump on the grenade so that my friends live. I'm down with that.

When I jump on the grenade because I want to save my friends, I take it to be uncontroversial that I do so according to my own interests. How could it be otherwise? And if what we mean by "self-interest" is simply that I act according to my own interests, then yes, my jumping on the grenade is self-interested.

But when presented with the claim that jumping on the grenade is a self-interested behavior, the average person tends to become perplexed. It's only after a thorough explanation of the "economic" meaning of the term that it becomes clear how this could be the case. Why does this happen? The reason, I contend, is that economists mean something completely different by the term "self-interested" than lay people do. This, I will argue, is a problem, and should be remedied in order to prevent completely unnecessary confusion and error.

Let me explain. In talking about any interest or preferred scenario, there must be a subject and an object. The subject, generally speaking, is the person who has the interest or the preference. So if we're talking about my preference for eating an apple, the subject is me. It is I who prefers the apple, and the preference for the apple is incoherent without the fact that the preference is my preference. The object of the preference, on the other hand, is the end which the subject is seeking to promote. In our example, I prefer the apple, but the object of my preference is not simply the apple: I don't value the apple for itself. I want to eat the apple. The object of my preference, then, is something along the lines of my having eaten the apple (perhaps we might say that I want "the experience" of eating the apple, or "the happiness" produced by my eating the apple; the exact way we phrase this is not critical).

The critical thing to note here is that the economists' definition of "self-interest" simply refers to the idea that interests are subjective: the subject of all interests is the interested individual. It is my understanding, however, that when lay people use the term "self-interest," what they have in mind is, minimally, that the object of the preference has something to do with the interested individual. So if my sister were sick, I might go get her some medicine. To say that my getting the medicine is "self-interested" would mean, to the lay person, that I get the medicine in order to promote some self-directed end. That is, I get the medicine because, perhaps, I am happier when my sister is not sick, or my sister is irritating when she's sick, or there's a cute pharmacist who will think I'm sweet for taking care of my sick sister. The lay-person, then, would call "non-self-interested" or "selfless" an interest with an object which does not directly involve the actor. So I act selflessly if the reason I go get the medicine is that I value my sister's health for its own sake, and am willing to take on the costs necessary to promote her health.

Note that this lay definition of self-interest is not incoherent or contradictory. And note also that the "selfless" act identified by the lay definition is labeled as "self-interested" by the economist definition. Indeed, the notion of "selflessness," as identified by the lay definition, is defined out of existence by the economist definition. Because the economist identifies as "self-interested" all actions where the subject is the actor, and because all actions demonstrate an interest on the part of the actor, it becomes clear that there can be no such thing as a "non-self-interested" or "selfless" action.

A number of problems immediately present themselves. The first problem is that the economist definition completely eliminates what I take to be an extremely useful distinction between "self-interested" and "selfless" actions, which is captured very well in the lay definition, without providing an adequate substitute. One might object that the term "selfish" captures the layman's "self-interested," but to most people, the term "selfish" is emotionally charged with negative connotations. Observe the struggles of the Objectivists to try to divorce this emotional
connotation from the term! By contrast, the layman's "self-interest" is relatively neutral and already conveys the sort of thing that the economist would be trying to bend "selfish" into meaning. Further, the economist would then need a new word for the layperson's "selfish"!

Another reason that the fundamental difference between the lay person's and the economist's definition is undesirable is that the economist's definition of "self-interested" means exactly the same thing as the lay person's "interested." Because all interests are subjective, and the "self" in "self-interested" refers only to this fact, the term becomes redundant. The only thing that could conceivably be added by using the term "self-interest" would be if the addition of the "self" served to remind people that preferences are subjective. But as we have discussed, the term "self-interested" already means something, and it has nothing to do with subjectivity. If anything, the use of the term crowds out more useful terminology like "subjectively-interested."

Yet another problem with the economists' definition is that now we have a situation where the technical definition of the term "self-interested" is fundamentally different from the normally accepted definition of the word. That means that in order to actually communicate their points to lay people, economists will need to first make clear what they mean by self-interested, and ensure that their audience keeps this definition firmly in mind so as to avoid drawing bad conclusions. This also creates a systematic likelihood that people will be misled by economists who fail to properly emphasize their use of the redefined term. Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in the field of Public Choice economics. We might imagine an economist going before a crowd of lay persons and announcing that "The problem with governments is that they are run by self-interested people." We might imagine that what the economist means here is that politicians act according to their own preferences, and do not magically take on "society's" preferences when they are elected to office. They are, after all, human! And this would be a good and important point. But upon hearing the economist say that politicians are self-interested, a number of lay people might interpret the economist as making the argument that politicians are "in it for themselves" and are simply involved in politics in order to accrue benefits for themselves, regardless of whether others are harmed in the process. If it's true that the economists' use of the term "self-interest" does not offer any new or important insight into anything, as I argued above, it's unclear why we wouldn't want to simply avoid this problem altogether.

The final problem with the economists' use of the term "self-interested" is that economists themselves may end up misusing the term and reverting to the normal definition without noticing. Remember, economists are lay persons before they are economists, and have generally grown up with a meaning of the term "self-interested" which is very different from the meaning they've been trained to adopt in their profession. As a result, you end up with phenomena like economists saying things along the lines of "Because all actions are self-interested, it's clear that the reason you jump on the grenade is because you would be miserable if you didn't, and you expect that the misery would be way worse than dying." And I assure you, having heard that point made today, the risk of this sort of thing occurring is very real.

So in conclusion, I say that economists should quit their ridiculousness and give us back "self-interest." Their definition takes away a useful distinction which is captured by the normal meaning of the word, doesn't explain anything new, and doesn't accomplish anything except confusing everyone, including the economists themselves.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Cap and Trade vs. the Carbon Tax

So I've been addressing the issue of anthropogenic climate change for some time now, and I haven't said much in the way of addressing specific policy proposals. But I was just given a delightful present by one of my fellow FEE associates: a copy of the American Institute for Economic Research's latest Economic Education Bulletin, entitled "The Global Warming Debate: Science, Economics, and Policy." I didn't read the whole thing, but my favorite part was definitely when William R. Cotton, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State, closed his completely science-oriented essay, "Summary View of Climate Change," with:

There are strong indications that our global climate is warming. But the question is, is the warming due to anthropogenic greenhouse gases, or is it due to some other forcing mechanisms (or their transient absence) and natural variability. As human population on Earth continues to increase, the chances of human-induced changes in climate due to greenhouse gases, aerosol pollution, or alterations in land use become increasingly likely. Thus, rather than consider climate engineering, we should devise methods of encouraging the reduction of population growth through economic and quality-of-life incentives.

Period, end of conversation. No comment on that gem anywhere else in the entire essay. Who's got two thumbs and loves it? This guy.

But anyway, that's not the point. Later in the publication was an essay by Kenneth P. Green, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where it was argued that a carbon tax is superior to a cap-and-trade system. I bounced between frustration, amusement, and glee as I read it, and felt an immediate need to comment. Not because Green did a bad job--he did just fine--but because he was guilty of something which is very common among people who discuss climate change: he discussed the possible "solutions" to climate change without addressing the reasons that a policy was to be implemented in the first place, and how the different solutions worked to address those reasons. His argument for a tax scheme over a cap-and-trade scheme was simply that a tax scheme could achieve the same goals, but with better economic side-effects and less potential for failure. Fine, I'll even grant it. But taxes and caps are fundamentally different policies, which only make even a little sense when confronted by specific sorts of problems.

I should explain what I mean. I've discussed elsewhere the idea that in order to make any sense from an ethical point of view, pollution taxes need to be based on the idea that an individual is justified in polluting if and only if she pays compensation to her victims for any damage done to them. That idea is controversial, but for our purposes we don't need to address that controversy. The point is only that even if we accept that idea as true, there are still only certain kinds of instances in which the injustice of pollution can legitimately be dealt with through a tax on pollution. The paradigm cases are those instances in which the damage caused by pollution is directly proportional to the amount of pollution that there is, so that the tax becomes the "price" of compensating the victims of one's actions for the costs one imposes upon them.

Cap and trade schemes, on the other hand, are built for an entirely different kind of problem. In a paradigm cap and trade situation, there is a threshold level of pollution with which policymakers are concerned, and at the threshold, a certain amount of damage is anticipated. The cap and trade scheme accordingly sets the cap at the relevant amount of pollution, and then distributes "shares" of the "environmental space" below that threshold in some way (e.g., auction, grandfathering system...). Because the allocations may be economically inefficient for whatever reason, the shares can then be traded in accordance with the wishes of their owners in order to ensure that the right to pollute is distributed to those individuals who are willing to pay the most for it (note that the normal objections to the "willingness to pay" criterion are avoided by passing the buck to the distribution process, which of course must be justified separately).

The point I want to make here is that global climate change is a very different phenomenon than the sorts of phenomena for which either of these policies is built to provide a solution. As noted elsewhere, climate change is an emergent problem. That is, climate change is not the result of any individual's actions, but rather is the consequence of many individuals acting separately, so that no individual can reasonably be said to have been able to prevent climate change from occurring, and no individual could have caused climate change singlehandedly. Accordingly, it does not make sense to talk about the consequences of climate change in terms of marginal contributions. The amount of damage caused by climate change will not likely change recognizeably with an additional increment of CO2 (or any other forcing agent), so it's not reasonable to try to put a price on how much damage "a unit of climate forcing" (expressed, perhaps, in terms of GWP, or Global Warming Potential, as defined by the IPCC?) causes.

A tax on contributions to climate change, therefore, seems like a policy which would require a bit of shoehorning. Individuals paying the tax would not be paying the "social cost" of their particular contribution, taken in isolation, because that would be basically zero. They would need to be charged for their "portion" of the total amount of damage done by climate change. So what policymakers would need to do would be to determine the total amount of damage which would be done at the equilibrium price for pollution permits, and then sell the permits at that price. The problem then becomes one of economic calculation. It could be done to some degree, but it would be inherently imprecise. And remember: the end result needs to be that the victims get compensated, so the government would have to go into its own pockets (that is to say, the pockets of its treasury or, more realistically, the pockets of its Federal Reserve printing press) to take care of the balance if it aimed low. And as my wonderful economist friends would point out, there would be a considerable incentive to aim high, creating a surplus revenue stream for the government which would almost certainly not be returned. So the tax is doable, kind of, but the problem is not the kind of thing that the tax is designed for. It's just that you can use the tax to accomplish the end goal if you want.

The cap and trade system is a little harder to adapt to the task, but there are a number of ways that the idea can be useful. First, there is a level to which we could collectively exert a forcing on the climate system without producing objectionable consequences. This level of climate forcing is a threshold which could be amenable to a soft cap and trade scheme (soft like the baseball salary cap). In this kind of policy, the cap would be set at the level of forcing which would produce no negative consequences, and this "environmental space" would be allocated somehow (or, if people find this to be a bad idea, we would simply say that these shares should be allocated in proportion to one's contribution to climate change, so that the soft cap has no effect). People not receiving these shares, or polluting in excess of their shares, would be filling environmental space which represented something like "harmful social emissions". Because these emissions would not be legitimated by the soft cap, they would be the ones which would be subject to the obligation to compensate the victims (again, if the soft cap isn't being used, as mentioned above, it would just be that everyone would have to participate in compensating the victims).

Here a potential for another cap would become apparent: We might imagine that policymakers would decide on a level of pollution (corresponding to some amount of total damage) which was determined to be "socially desirable" somehow. Perhaps, using the same reasoning involved in the tax scheme discussed above, the policymakers would arrive at the level of pollution which would clear the market if everyone paid some price for it. Or perhaps the policymakers would identify a level of pollution beyond which unacceptable results would occur, and the cap would be set there. In any case, you would then have to set a cap and allocate the shares. So again, the policy could be made to work. But the problems are simply that it's difficult to identify a level of "unacceptable" pollution, it's just as difficult to identify a market clearing price in this scheme as it is with the tax (assuming that the shares are auctioned, of course), and any other way of running the scheme is sure to carry either difficulties of its own, or charges of arbitrariness which would sever the connection between the problem and the solution.

So ultimately, what we're faced with is a situation in which the only two policy suggestions that are on the table are not particularly well suited to the task of "solving" the problems arising from climate change (and I haven't even begun to address the question of how the compensation process would even work, or whether compensation could make climate change legitimate!), and the only way to make either of them work is to basically stretch and contort them until they are made to do the job acceptably. Doing so, it will be noted, requires in both cases that government decision-makers possess knowledge and foresight which they almost certainly do not have, and even then it's unclear that the policies would work properly.

Obviously, there's a lot more to say about this. I just wanted to get some preliminary thoughts down, and I think this was a good start.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Another Double Standard Between Governments and Individuals?

So today was my first day at the Foundation for Economic Education, where I'll be interning over the summer, and I've already had some excellent debates; this is going to be a fantastic experience. Everyone seems really passionate and interesting, and I'm sure I'm going to learn a lot from everyone. I wanted to put one of the more controversial debate topics on my blog as a record, and to get the idea out to a wider audience. I've been toying around with the idea for a few days; I'm really curious to hear what other people think.

The idea is this: If we recognize private entities' claims to property titles as legitimate, even when they have a known history of violence and illegitimacy, then it's difficult to argue that currently existing governments are illegitimate for property rights-based reasons. Governments claim that we live in their territory, and their claims have roots that go back many generations. To claim that a government is not justified in enforcing rules in its territory is, effectively, to claim that the government is not the legitimate owner of that territory. But saying that, it seems to me, makes it very difficult to consistently argue that many (most, if not all) private property titles are legitimately held.

We had a bit of fun with this one at dinner, and I'm not completely sure what I think of it. Of course, everyone else at the table was not too comfortable with the idea, and it made for some lively debate. But nevertheless, I figured I'd post it here. Feel free to leave any comments; I'll be interested to hear what people think about this.
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