January 10, 2004
Notes: Adam Smith on Celebrity

From Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments: When we consider the condition of the great, in those delusive colours in which the imagination is apt to paint it. it seems to be almost the abstract idea of a perfect and happy state. It is the very state which, in all our waking dreams and idle reveries, we had sketched out to ourselves as the final object of all our desires. We feel, therefore, a peculiar sympathy with the satisfaction of those who are in it. We favour all their inclinations, and forward all their wishes. What pity, we think, that any thing should spoil and corrupt so agreeable a situation! We could even wish them immortal; and it seems hard to us, that death should at last put an end to such perfect enjoyment. It is cruel, we think, in Nature to compel them from their exalted stations to that humble, but hospitable home, which she has provided for all her children. Great King, live for ever! is the compliment, which, after the manner of eastern adulation, we should readily make them, if experience did not teach us its absurdity. Every calamity that befals them, every injury that is done...

Posted by DeLong at 10:30 PM

October 09, 2003
The Market's Social Welfare Function

A correspondent asks, of my claim that the market's social welfare function weights everybody by the inverse of their marginal utility of wealth--and hence (if you are willing to grant that your marginal utility of wealth is lot less than that of a Bengali peasant) you receive a much higher weight in the market system's implicit preferences than the guy behind the water buffalo in the Ganges delta: Brad: I assume this is a standard theorem. Do you know of an on-line reference? Actually, I cannot recall seeing it anywhere, although it is a completely trivial result. I remember thinking of it while taking William Thomson's very nicely-taught course... what was it called?... at Harvard in... the spring of 1981, I think it was? So, anyway, here is an online reference: The Market's Social Welfare Function....

Posted by DeLong at 08:33 PM

A Non-Socratic Dialogue on Social Welfare Functions

Glaukon: "Professor!" Agathon: "Professor! Good to see you. Getting coffee?" Glaukon: "Yes. I'm teaching. I find that teaching is always and everywhere a caffeine phenomenon." Agathon: "I tend to find that teaching is usually a bagel phenomenon myself. What are you going to teach them?" Glaukon: "Social welfare. Utilitarianism. Condorcet. Arrow. Aggregation of preferences. Preference-revealing mechanisms." Agathon: "Sounds like a full class." Glaukon: "You have no idea." Agathon: "Be sure to teach them about the market's social welfare function." Glaukon: "The market has a social welfare function?" Agathon: "Under appropriate conditions of perfect competition, non-increasing returns, and the absence of externalities the market's decisions about the production and allocation of goods and services attain a point on the Pareto frontier. Every point on the Pareto frontier maximizes some social welfare function." Glaukon: "Yes, of course." Agathon: "Therefore the market, considered as a collective mechanism for making social decisions, chooses to maximize a particular social welfare function. It is instructive to consider what that social welfare function is." Glaukon: "I resent the tone in which you are talking down to me." Agathon: "You do not. This part of this conversation never took place in even approximate form in the real world....

Posted by DeLong at 03:00 PM

August 12, 2003
Human Progress

Where else but in the "comments" on my weblog would somebody come out eight-octagon in favor of functional indoor plumbing? (August 12, 2003 06:37 PM: "Could I just point out that the philosophy of 'I would be a better, happier person if I only got that new technological gadget' has failed so spectacularly at the personal level" "I dunno, toilets are nice.")...

Posted by DeLong at 06:55 PM

July 30, 2003
The Ugly Chicken Feet of Collectivism

Citizens and others, this month's excursion into political philosophy takes us to the Tug Boat Potemkin, where they are worrying about whether a libertarian can be philosophically consistent and still go out for (Chinese brunch) dim sum. It turns out that all the major problems of political philosophy and practical politics emerge as the members of the dining party grapple with the fried turnip cake, the pork buns, the sweet bean paste buns, and--of course--the chicken feet: Tug Boat Potemkin: we're talking about the real thing: pot-stickers, steamed pork buns and chicken buns, shark's fin dumplings, taro dumplings, sticky rice in lotus leaves; too many to list at once. You don't order from the menu - the usual drill is that the waiters bring carts of bamboo steamer baskets past your table, tell you what they've got on offer and you say "One of everything, except for the chicken feet." For some reason, everything comes three to a basket, even the chicken feet. They must get them off those mutant three-legged chickens that turn up in supermarket freezers from time to time.Each time you order something off the trolley, it gets marked up on the bill for your table. If...

Posted by DeLong at 12:51 PM

July 17, 2003
Utility, Stacking the Deck, and Original Appropriation

I'm annoyed by people who claim that Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia presents a strong rights-based case for a minimal-state capitalist regime as moral, just, or in some sense defensible. Like almost all philosophers, Robert Nozick deals from a stacked deck. Let me briefly note one of several places in Nozick's argument where I noted that something was going on very different from Nozick's claim to present a rights-based argument for a minimal-state capitalist utopia: The place is Nozick's justification for the appropriation and privatization of nature: the dividing-up of natural resources into individuals' private estates. In an original position in which the bounties of nature are unowned and open to all, how can private property possibly arise without violating somebody's rights? Nozick argues that it can, and in so arguing he stacks the deck twice. The first deck-stacking comes with the replacement of one's natural right (i) to freely and fairly use the different kinds of objects that are the bounty of nature by the right (ii) not to have one's situation worsened by the appropriations of others. As Nozick writes (p. 175): ...an object's coming under one person's ownership changes the situation of all others. Whereas previously...

Posted by DeLong at 12:42 PM

Note: Nozick and "Rectification"

Everything Robert Nozick says in Anarchy, State, and Utopia about the principle of "rectification" to repair past injustices. One would think this would be a very important topic, given that there is not a single square inch of earth (outside of Antarctica) where title is not claimed at least partially by right of conquest: through force and violence. One would think that any advocacy of a capitalist libertarian minimal state would have at its core a long exploration of how to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear--how to arrive at a current "just" distribution of resources considering that everything I own, at least, is the fruit of at least three poisoned trees: William the Bastard's conquest of England in 1066, the overthrow of the Stuart dynasty in 1688, and the American attack on Mexico in 1846-8. But not so: Nozick's asides on "rectification" are sparse and scattered: pp. 152-3: "Not all actual situations are generated in accordance with the two principles of justice in holdings: the principle of justice in acquisition and the principle of justice in transfer. Some people steal... defraud... enslave.... The existence of past injustice... raises the third major topic under justice in...

Posted by DeLong at 12:32 PM

July 11, 2003
Daniel Davies Applauds the Cato Institute

Daniel Davies applauds the Cato Institute for including positive as well as negative liberties in its annual report on The Economic Freedom of the World. As readers of Isaiah Berlin will remember, negative liberties are things that protect citizens from their government: due process of law, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of belief, et cetera. Positive liberties are things that give citizens the ability to actually do things with their negative liberty: education, public health, social insurance, stable stores of wealth, courts that will enforce promises and thus allow you to commit yourself to courses of action, et cetera. As Davies writes: Crooked Timber: Cor Baby, That's Really Free!: ... There are five major headings.... (1) Size of Government.... (2) Legal Structure and Security of Property Rights.... (3) Access to Sound Money.... (4) Freedom to Exchange with Foreigners.... (5) Regulation of Credit, Labor and Business.... 2 and 3 are quite clearly positive liberties. A sound and stable medium of exchange (including a stable financial system), and an honest and impartial judiciary and legal system are things that the government provides for you, so that you can make decent use of your economic freedom.... Which opens the door for...

Posted by DeLong at 10:31 AM

July 02, 2003
A Historical Document: "In the Long Run It Is the Majority Who Will Determine What the Constitutional Rights of the Minority Are"

The judicial philosophy of Chief Justice Rehnquist, taken from Rehnquist (1952), "A Random Thought on the Segregation Cases"*. This memo expressing Rehnquist's position** on a number of issues is usually cited for the flat declaration at the end that Plessy v. Ferguson (establishing the legality of the "separate and unequal" principle of segregation in governmental treatment of Blacks and whites) "was right and should be re-affirmed" even though Rehnquist is aware that it is an "unpopular and unhumanitarian position" for which he has been "excoriated by 'liberal' colleagyes." More interesting, from my perspective at least, are Rehnquist's beliefs that: Jimmy Madison was an idiot for including individual rights in the Constitution: "The Constitution, of course, deals with individual rights, particularly in the first Ten and the fourteenth Amendments. But as I read the history of this Court, it has seldom been out of hot water when attempting to interpret these individual rights." No matter what the Constitution says, the Supreme Court cannot protect minority rights of any kind, and it should not try, for "in the long run it is the majority who will determine what the constitutional rights of the minority are." The Warren Court's attempt to use the...

Posted by DeLong at 03:30 PM

June 07, 2003
The Weaknesses and Foibles of Modernity

Department of Procrastination and Sad Waste of Time II: Andrew Sullivan defends Leo Strauss: www.AndrewSullivan.com - Daily Dish: ...I too learned a huge amount from teachers who had imbibed Strauss' respect for classical thought and profound understanding of the weaknesses and foibles of modernity... We all think of our favorite examples of the "foibles of modernity" and nod our heads. But then we think again: this is Leo Strauss whom Sullivan is talking about--the Strauss who firmly and fanatically believed that everything worth reading was written on two levels, with a simple wholesome exoteric message for the "gentlemen", and a different subtle--but dangerous to the philosophically-unprepared--message for the "philosophers." And then you realize that Sullivan is not talking about our understanding of the "foibles of modernity," but of what Strauss understood as the "foibles of modernity." What did Strauss think were the "foibles of modernity"? He wasn't thinking of things like "political correctness" or unemployment insurance or the Americans for Disabilities Act or rock music. Strauss was thinking of things like the belief that political philosophy ought to start from the assumption that individuals had rights to liberty and autonomy (as opposed, say, to the right to live in a...

Posted by DeLong at 08:42 PM

June 05, 2003
Thoughts on Leo Strauss, or, a Product of a Procrastinatory Monday Morning

I spent half of Monday going and reading Leo Strauss's Thoughts on Machiavelli. I read carefully. And now it is crystal clear to me that all previous students of Leo Strauss have completely failed to understand the book, and have failed to grasp the core of Strauss's political philosophy. The conventional Strauss-student interpretation of Thoughts on Machiavelli is that Strauss's book is a complete and thorough refutation of Machiavelli's teaching. Machiavelli wants to overthrow the teaching of classical political philosophy, with its search for how to organize the well-ordered city in which the good for man can be pursued. Machiavelli wants to replace it with... Machiavellianism. Thus Strauss begins his book by writing (pp. 9-10) that he chooses the side of those who profess: ...the old fashioned and simple opinion according to which Machiavelli was a teacher of evil.... the only philosopher who has lent the weight of his name to... [the] way of political thinking and political acting... [which is now designated] by his name. Callicles and Thrasymachus, who set forth the evil doctrine... are Platonic characters... the Athenian ambassadors who state the same doctrine... are Thucydidean actors. Machiavelli proclaims openly and triumphantly a corrupting doctrine... And Strauss ends...

Posted by DeLong at 07:07 AM

May 22, 2003
Right-Wing Political Philosophy

Daniel Davies -- a fat young man without a good word for anyone -- explains right-wing political philosophy to us. I have compressed his argument into Powerpoint format: The single most sensible thing said in political philosophy in the twentieth century was JK Galbraith's aphorism that the quest of conservative thought throughout the ages has been "the search for a higher moral justification for selfishness". Some rightwingers are not hypocrites because they admit that their basic moral principle is "what I have, I keep". Some rightwingers are hypocrites because they pretend that "what I have, I keep" is always and everywhere the best way to express a general unparticularised love for all sentient things. Then there are the tricky cases where the rightwingers happen to be on the right side because we haven't yet discovered a better form of social organisation than private property for solving several important classes of optimisation problem....

Posted by DeLong at 01:02 PM

April 29, 2003
I've Never Understood Sen's Paradox

Robert Waldmann is thinking about Sen's Paradox and the contradictions between utilitarianism and liberalism. I'm confused, because I never understood Sen's Paradox at all. The way Robert states it, Sen's Paradox is as follows: Sen's paradox is well known, even if the example is painfully dated. Once upon a time Lady Chatterley's Lover was considered obscene. (Amazingly, recently, the courts came to their senses.) Sen considered what [Vilfredo] Pareto might say of a world in which lived two agents, Lewd and Prude. Lewd wants to read porn, but finds the thought of Prude being forced to read Lady Chatterley's Lover even more exciting. Prude finds Lady Chatterley's Lover appalling, but is even more disturbed by the thought of Lewd reading it and enjoying it. Freedom [Sen says] is not Pareto optimal in this case. [Freedom leads to Lewd reading Lady Chatterley's Lover and Prude not reading it. But it] is Pareto better[, that is, everyone is happier in a utilitarian sense,] to block Lewd from reading LCL and to force Prude to read it. This is crazy. And, in any case, it shows that Liberalism and the [utilitarian] Pareto principal might hypothetically be in conflict. It's at this point that...

Posted by DeLong at 01:31 PM

April 07, 2003
Anarchy, State, and Rent Control

Serendipity. I'd forgotten about this, and just found it again on the web. But a couple of years after it happened (and I'm assured by people--friends of Eric Segal's--that this is a *fair* retelling of the story) I was teaching a seminar in which we read part of Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia. I also assigned this--and generated a ferocious discussion about whether Nozick's use of state power to break his contracted word and extort $30,000 from Eric Segal was or was not something that should affect one's interpretation of and confidence in ASU. Anarchy, State, and Rent Control (excerpted from _The New Republic_ Dec. 22 1986 pages 20-21) The underscore character indicates _italicized_ text. All emphasis and parenthetical comments are in the original. Postcard Cambridge: ANARCHY, STATE, AND RENT CONTROL Robert Nozick, a philosophy professor at Harvard, is the intellectual hero of libertarians. His book, _Anarchy, State, and Utopia_, winner of the National Book Award in 1974, argues that "free minds and free markets" are the key to a successful society. While endorsing personal choice on social issues like drugs and pornography, Nozick mocked the economic interventionism of contemporary liberals who, he said, are "willing to tolerate every kind...

Posted by DeLong at 11:36 PM

September 12, 2002
No Comment Department

Max Sawicky writes: Weblog Entry - 09/11/2002: "9-11: A RADICAL RANT": I talk to a variety of far left characters quite often. Never once have I heard or read anyone say the victims of 9-11 "had it coming." As we all know, repeat the Big Lie enough and it takes hold. Max has--probably mercifully--either never read or has forgotten the British New Statesman of... was it September 17, 2001?: ...American bond traders, you may say, are as innocent and as undeserving of terror as Vietnamese or Iraqi peasants. Well, yes and no. Yes, because such large-scale carnage is beyond justification, since it can never distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. No, because Americans, unlike Iraqis and many others in poor countries, at least have the privileges of democracy and freedom that allow them to vote and speak in favor of a different order. If the United States often seems a greedy and overweening power, that is partly because its people have willed it. They preferred George Bush to Al Gore and both to Ralph Nader... If I read this correctly, it does say that the voters of the United States (at least all those who did not vote for...

Posted by DeLong at 05:12 PM

June 22, 2002
Dulce et Decorum Pro Patria Mori?

My friend Max Sawicky asks on his MaxSpeak Weblog: What is clearly portrayed in the [New York Times] article [about suicide bomber motivations] is the willingness to die for one's country.... Naturally there are personal factors mixed in.... Why do we celebrate Americans who risk their lives for the common good, but we describe others loyal to other nations or causes as "a psychotic cult" and the like? I think the answer is clear. For the "peoples of the book", it has never been enough to place your life on the line in a just war, you are also supposed to conduct the war honorably. This was not the case in other times and places. It was Temujin who said that the greatest pleasure was to "look at the dead bodies of your enemies, and hear the screams of their wives and daughters as they were carried off into slavery." Other noble Romans regarded Julius Caesar's practice of clementia--mercy--as simply weird (and Caesar's mercy was strictly relative: our guess is that his armies killed 1/10 of the population of Gaul and enslaved another 1/10 during his ten year long campaign to conquer it). But among "peoples of the book"--especially the...

Posted by DeLong at 07:17 AM

May 17, 2002
Moral Philosophy and Israel's Right to Exist

Brad DeLong, who is not certain whether today is his day to be a Utilitarian, a Post-Modernist, a Sewer Diver for Silver Linings, or a Realist...

Posted by DeLong at 02:46 PM

May 09, 2002
The Silence of the Priests

Perhaps the most stunning thing about the current roman catholic clergy child abuse scandal is the silence of the priests...

Posted by DeLong at 03:06 PM