Kevin Drum flags a strange post from the estimable Tyler Cowen:
Kevin Drum: Is it Obnoxious to Support Health Care For the Poor?: "Gary Silverman in the Financial Times...
...What I like about Obamacare is that it shows some respect for “those people”--as Hudson called them in Giant--who are good enough to work the fields and mow the lawns, and build the roads and sew the clothes, and diaper the babies and wash the dishes, but somehow aren’t good enough to see a doctor from time to time to make sure there is nothing wrong inside....
This makes Tyler Cowen unaccountably angry:
I am not in this post seeking to adjudicate... [or] go after these two authors.... I am interested in different game. The deeper point is that virtually all of us argue this way... [with] innocuous-sounding arguments we use all the time come perilously close to committing the same fallacies as do these quite transparent and I would say quite obnoxious mistaken excerpts...
What's obnoxious about this?... We think everyone, even the poor, should have access to decent health care. A great many conservatives prefer to simply turn their heads away from this human suffering, often because they prefer to keep their taxes low. A great many liberals prefer the opposite. This isn't a secret, or a hidden agenda.... Our values are the motivation for a large share of human activity, especially including political activity. What's wrong with that?
Very good question. Let's look at Tyler's entire post:
Tyler Cowen: Why you should not confuse sympathy with policy: " I was disappointed but not surprised by...
...this passage by Gary Silverman:
What I like about Obamacare is that it shows some respect for “those people”--as Hudson called them in Giant--who are good enough to work the fields and mow the lawns, and build the roads and sew the clothes, and diaper the babies and wash the dishes, but somehow aren’t good enough to see a doctor from time to time to make sure there is nothing wrong inside...
That is in fact what most of politics is about, namely debates over which groups should enjoy higher social status and which groups should receive lower social status. Of course critics of Obamacare have their own versions of desired status reallocation, typically involving higher status for the economically productive.
Here is another example of the argument from sympathy, by Norman Podhoretz, applied to a very different field of discourse:
Provoked by the predictable collapse of the farcical negotiations forced by Secretary of State John Kerry on the Palestinians and the Israelis, I wish to make a confession: I have no sympathy--none--for the Palestinians. Furthermore, I do not believe they deserve any.
I am not in this post seeking to adjudicate ACA or U.S. policy in the Middle East. The easy target is to go after these two authors, but I am interested in different game. The deeper point is that virtually all of us argue this way, albeit with more subtlety. A lot of the more innocuous-sounding arguments we use all the time come perilously close to committing the same fallacies as do these quite transparent and I would say quite obnoxious mistaken excerpts. One of the best paths for becoming a good reader of economics and politics blog posts (and other material) is to learn when you are encountering these kinds of arguments in disguised form.
As I see both Gary Silverman and Norman Podhoretz, there are two questions you can ask of each: Is this argument correct? Is this kind of argument a legitimate one to make? Keep those two clear and distinct.
Tyler Cowen seems to think that this kind of argument is not legitimate to make. Arguments of this kind, he says, are "mistaken", "obnoxious", "fallacies", and about "desired status reallocation". Why does he say this? It is not clear to me. And it is not clear to Kevin Drum either.
Gary Silverman is making an argument that:
- situates us behind some veil of ignorance,
- makes assertions about what our social welfare function ought to be,
- judges what the consequences of some policy would be,
- and applies that social welfare function to those consequences to reach a judgment.
That is, I think, a public-policy argument. That is what a public-policy argument has to be. If an argument does not have those four components, it is not a public-policy argument but rather something else.
In Gary Silverman's (2), he asserts that our social welfare function ought to be a broadly egalitarian one--and argues that the uninsured ought to have a relatively high weight because they are our benefactors in a gift-exchange relationship: "good enough to work the fields and mow the lawns, and build the roads and sew the clothes, and diaper the babies and wash the dishes". That seems to me to be a fine kind of argument to make about what our social welfare function ought to be. And it seems to me to be a fine argument that ought to convince people.
In John Podhoretz's (2), he asserts that we should not care at all about what happens to "Palestinians". This is, once again, an argument over the weight people get in our social welfare function, which is a fine kind of argument to make. But on the substance this seems to me to be a not-fine argument, if only because public-policy arguments do need to be cosmopolitan in essence, and to simply say that we are the strong and the strong do what they wish while the weak suffer what they must is not the strongest of public-policy arguments.
Underneath Tyler Cowen's reaction, I think, is his vulnerability to one of the Great flaws of economics: its tendency to succumb to the siren song of pretended value neutrality. It goes roughly like this: economists are supposed to be interested in facts like the total value of production, more production is good, but to judge whether a distribution of that production is good or not is a question of value, and that is not scientific. But just as though everybody who is actually willing to make a complete book on the world is a Bayesian with a prior, so everyone willing to make any policy recommendations at all as a social welfare function in mind. Those who claim indifference about distribution have committed themselves to the belief that a marginal dollar promotes equal welfare everywhere. If you think that utility is roughly logarithmic in income, they have thereby committed themselves to a social welfare function that gives each person a weight proportional to their wealth.
That is where Tyler's belief that we should not make the kind of argument that Gary Silverman makes leads us to. And I do not think we want to go there.