Thoughts and Impressions

Month: June 2010

A Conflict of Visions – Sincerity

I just finished reading Thomas Sowell’s classic work on ideologies, A Conflict of Visions.  I enjoyed it, but much less than his more vivid and prescriptive Knowledge and DecisionsConflict is the most conservative book that I have read in a while, and a couple of its arguments bothered me.

Sowell’s overarching argument is that some people have an “unconstrained” vision that individual rationality can be used to solve and remove societal problems, while others hold a “constrained” view that rejects the mental capacity of any person or group to consciously reshape society.  People with the constrained view argue that we must trust neutral, systemic processes (the market, traditions, the common law, etc.), while those with these unconstrained view want to reshape these unthinking processes and substitute something more intentionally rational and forward looking.

In a short section of the book, Sowell suggests that the different views lead to different conceptions of civic virtue.  People in the unconstrained view value “sincerity”; the constrained view values “fidelity”.

Where the wise and conscientious individual is conceived to be competent to shape socially beneficial outcomes directly, then his sincerity and dedication to the common good are crucial….

What is morally central to the constrained vision is fidelity to duty in one’s role in life.  There, within the sphere of his competence, the individual can make the greatest contribution to the social good by serving the great systemic process which decides the actual outcomes. [P. 56]

Sowell argues that the importance of sincerity to unconstrained idealists makes it difficult for them to acknowledge it in their opponents.  To do so would undermine their belief that rational thought produces definitive solutions to social problems.

It is not uncommon in this tradition to find references to their adversaries’ “real” reasons, which must be “unmasked”….  Within the unconstrained vision, sincerity is a great concession to make, while those with the constrained vision can more readily make that concession, since it means so much less to them. [P. 57]

A few pages later, he scraps the obvious definition of sincerity (truthfulness) for one that seems to mean “good intentions”.

The constrained vision in particular distinguishes sincerity from fidelity to truth:  “The first thing a man will do for his ideals is lie,” according to J. A. Schumpeter….  A modern defense of judicial activism by Alexander Bickel clearly put more weight on sincerity than on fidelity, when it urged that “dissimulation” was “unavoidable” and referred to “statesmanlike deviousness” in the public interest.” [PP. 58-59]

Sowell is, of course, part of the constrained tradition.  And by shifting definitions he seems to be trying to have it both ways.  First, he accuses those in the unconstrained vision, unlike those in the constrained vision, of being unwilling to take constrained arguments at face value.  Then, he suggests that unconstrained arguments cannot necessarily be taken at face value.

Sowell’s claim is interesting, and, the last part aside, it does strike me as more than a little bit true.  The progressives I read – Matthew Yglesias, Brad DeLong, Jonathan Chait, and Andrew Sullivan – all seem more personally condescending and critical of their ideological opponents than the libertarians in my blogroll – Megan McArdle, Arnold Kling, Bryan Caplan, and Tyler Cowen.  Progressives don’t just accuse their opponents of lying, but, more often, of being idiots.  I think this fits into Sowell’s main theme.  If rationality yields definitive answers to social problems, unconstrained idealists will explain away opposition as simple irrationality.

But the contradiction in Sowell’s argument is a good reminder that we tend to see every possible flaw in our opponents.  It is difficult to draw strong conclusions from the anecdote in ones blogroll.  It is hard enough to just interpret that anecdote: confirmation bias looms large.  Is Matthew Yglesias really more condescending than Megan McArdle (Yes!), or do I enjoy Megan’s condescension more (Yes.)?  You don’t have to search Hit & Run too hard to find ridicule poured over progressives.  Ideological sketches like Sowell’s are unlikely to be drawn in anything but heavily interpreted anecdote, so they must be drawn carefully.

Happiness and Antidepressants

A line from an article on antidepressants that I read this morning reminded me of my longstanding objections to happiness utilitarianism.

Yet for those in search of a more holistic treatment to what can be a lifelong obstacle to wellness and quality of life, the idea of exercise as treatment for depression could be encouraging. First, there’s the issue of cost: Americans spend $10 billion on antidepressants each year, and in some cases, side effects like sleep disturbances or changes in libido and body weight can be only slightly more appealing than the depression itself.

Happiness is not the end.  It is only one end among many, ends which must be traded off against each other.  Moreover, happiness may only be our bodies’ means to other ends.  Would separating the means from those ends compromise the latter?

Bad Taxes

David Henderson, in a critique of Bruce Bartlett’s new book, makes a point about taxes more clearly than I have heard it made before.

On p. 177, in discussing the VAT, he writes, “consumption taxes are less burdensome because people can choose to reduce their consumption to avoid the tax.” But it’s choice that makes taxes more burdensome. In other words, the more choices people have to avoid a tax, the greater is the excess burden per dollar of revenue raised. The excess burden (deadweight loss) of a tax is proportional to the elasticity (of demand or supply), and elasticity is a measure of people’s ability to avoid. The least burdensome tax, per dollar of revenue raised, is the one that people have the least ability to avoid because that tax doesn’t distort their decisions as much.

Avoidable taxes have a hidden cost – they push people to take their less preferred options – that creates no benefit for public finances.

The Optimum Amount of Coffee Spilled is Greater Than Zero

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