20 Aug 2014

The Most Ethically Chilling Use of a Steady-State Equilibrium Ever

Scott Sumner, Shameless Self-Promotion 7 Comments

Now when Paul Krugman said “death panels” (and sales taxes) were the answer, he was obviously cracking a joke and didn’t mean the phrase in the sense in which the critics used it. So, you can understand why his fans roll their eyes when Krugman critics then tried to use that one-off line against him.

In complete contrast, Scott Sumner lays out a whole case for why reckless behavior that causes death is arguably praiseworthy. He tries to hedge himself at the end, but he doesn’t really explain what part of his argument might be wrong. I think he just realizes, “I sound like a nutjob in this post. Man I have a crazy worldview.”

Anyway, here is my Mises CA take on it. No point in excerpting, just click if I’ve baited you sufficiently.

7 Responses to “The Most Ethically Chilling Use of a Steady-State Equilibrium Ever”

  1. Z says:

    Bob, have you ever considered moral nihilism? What is your opinion of whether it is true or false and why? I’m asking in part because in most of these discussions, there is no way to really prove to another person that their worldview is crazy or whatnot unless they already actually believe so themselves. This is why most of moral discourse is nothing more than sarcasm, feigning outrage, and intimidation. The whole thing seems like a big joke.

  2. Bob Murphy says:

    Z, I subscribe to Walter’s analysis of nihilism. (Bad words, kids, watch out.)

  3. Z says:

    Alright cool, thanks.

  4. Major.Freedom says:

    Good article Murphy.

    Another assumption Sumner makes the correction of which refutes his whole thesis, which I think ties in with your approach, is the fallacious notion of an inherent conflict of interest between selfish individuals (which from a certain point of view is a redundancy).

    One of the things the Objectivists get right, IMO, is the existence of a harmony among self-interested men. In summary this is the idea that there are ways each of us can seek to benefit ourselves and not put “society”, i.e. all men together, above or below any individual’s (harmonious) self-interest.

    He seems to believe that what is best for everyone is incompatible with what is best for the individual. Maybe he’s thinking of one person thinking he’s better then other such that he commits crimes like counterfeiting money when NGDP falls. I keed I keed. Sure, if every individual just acted without any regard for other people’s well being then society would fall apart. But is society falling apart really in the interests of mankind?

    We can build society, but we don’t have to build it by sacrificing individuals to an absolute collective good morslity play, such that even if everyone suffers, no matter because all individuals must prostrate under the flag of collectivist ideology.

    Sumner regards “personal identity” as a fiction. What, does he believe that “social identity” is non-fiction? Platonist muddleheadedness…

  5. Ruben says:

    “This post is about what’s best for society—not YOU.”

    This sums up the problem I see with utilitarianism (if you consider it a “moral theory”. Utilitarian principles do not categorically have this problem)

  6. Harold says:

    The equilibrium is essential to the argument. If there were no constraints, then why not have 12 billion people living 100 years rather than 10 billion people living 80 years? So the fact that the population has levelled off to 10 billion in the example is not just the point where it happened to get to, it is constrained to that level. Given small family sizes in countries with a high level of education, there is some chance that population will level off before limits are reached. In this case we would end up with living as long as we were able without depriving anyone else of the opportunity.

    But if we take the equilibrium as given, there must be some mechanism to restrict the population to 10 billion. If we imagined a supernatural force that prevented conceptions unless the population were less than 10 billion. That gives us the required outcome without having to kill anyone. A more realistic effect is that there will not be enough food in the right places, so people would die of starvation, disease and war as the limits were reached, but lets remove those negative aspects for the sake of argument.

    In this bizarre world, would his prescription make sense? If we take the extremes – at one extreme everyone wants to take wild risks and they live their lives in a state of great enjoyment, but some of them die young. At the other, everybody is risk averse, and lives their life in a state of slightly bored safety. Is it possible to say which is the better world? Can we say that as long as everyone follows their preference they are the same? Usually we could say that, because everybody can do their own thing. In this world, *more* people get to do their own thing in the first scenario. So if we say the value of a life that is allowed to follow its own choices is the same in the risk taking and risk averse worlds, then since there are more people in the risk taking world it has higher overall value. Remember, in both worlds everyone is allowed to follow their own choices.

  7. Tel says:

    Am I serious or is this all just a big spoof? I’m not quite sure. (Let’s just say I don’t want this post to be quoted.)

    Yeah, well this isn’t about what you want Scott, this about what society wants.

    By the way, can we have a rule from now on that everyone who pontificates on what is “good for society” demonstrates three different ways in which they asked society, and how they took a measure of the answer. I’m not talking about asking a bunch of people in society what they think is good for society, I’m demanding that Scott asks society itself.

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