Able Abel and Post-Scarcity

Bryan Caplan has an extremely thought-provoking post over on his blog:

Suppose there are ten people on a desert island.  One, named Able Abel, is extremely able.  With a hard day’s work, Able can produce enough to feed all ten people on the island.  Eight islanders are marginally able.  With a hard day’s work, each can produce enough to feed one person.  The last person, Hapless Harry, is extremely unable.  Harry can’t produce any food at all.


1. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel’s surplus to support Harry?

2. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day.  Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to support Harry?

3. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel’s surplus to raise everyone‘s standard of living above subsistence?

4. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day.  Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to raise everyone‘s standard of living above subsistence?

Do click the link, there’s more to the post, not to mention some rather interesting comments.Leave aside all the very important questions (which other people have already brought up) over how much of the fruits of Abel’s labour are, in fact, solely the fruits of his labour, the value Abel derives from the very existence of the social fabric, and so on. The question I was wondering about was this: what level or ratio of ability would overturn our intuitions (I say our under the assumption that most of you feel the same way, but I don’t know how justified that is) on forcing Abel into “slavery”?

What if the total level of the economy is far above subsistence level in the aggregate, as I think we can agree most Western countries are? Assume the others’ abilities remain roughly constant: at what level of Abel’s ability to create wealth/resources could we claim to have hit “post-scarcity”? A hundred times subsistence? A thousand? A million? Does it not matter? If the other 8 demand that Abel work an extra second so that Harry doesn’t starve, or even so they can enjoy some chunk of the incredible wealth that this “economy” has accumulated, would we still consider it slavery?An extra minute? An extra hour?

Most people would consider “how big a chunk” and “how much more work” the more important questions here, I think, and insofar as most discussions of taxation seem to revolve around it I think the “status quo” sees things more clearly than Caplan. My intuitions suggest that the size of the chunk should vary with the level of the aggregate economy over subsistence more than the actual distribution of wealth within the economy. Presumably this is where we could use some actual economics to guide us.

Rationality and Libertarianism: Why Nobody Loves Us

Will Wilkinson went through a paper written by Jon Haidt and interpreted it to mean (fairly, I think) that “Libertarians are liberals who like markets”. It had quite interesting results:
Libertarian Moral Psychology

Haidt et al found that the results supported their hypothesis about liberals and conservatives. Liberals care most about the Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity foundations and accordingly largely refused to make trade-offs on the items that reflected these concerns, but were more willing to perform actions that violated the three “binding” foundations — Ingroup, Authority, and Purity. Conservative concern was spread more evenly over the five foundations, and they were less willing than liberals to violate Ingroup, Authority, and Purity for money.

What about libertarians? Here’s what they say:

Because we had a large sample of libertarians, who are usually ignored in political-psychological research, we compared their sacredness reactions to those of liberals and conservatives. Overall, libertarians showed less refusal to violate the five foundations for money that did liberals or conservatives. Each of the five average never scores for libertarians was lower than the corresponding score for conservatives, and each was lower than the corresponding concern for liberals.

Further down they report:

A further novel finding of the present study was that libertarians had the lowest sacredness scores on all five foundations. This finding supports Tetlock’s predictions [see here] that free-market libertarians would be the least outraged and most open to contractualizing moral violations. The differences were particularly stark between libertarians and conservatives on the three binding foundations. Libertarians may support the Republican Party for economic reasons, but in their moral foundations profile we found they more closely resemble liberals than conservatives. [Emphasis added]

Jon Haidt commented on the post to discuss his new paper, which also sounds quite interesting.

Great post, great use of our findings. We actually had a lot more information on libertarians in the original draft, but the editor asked us to cut it, thought it wasn’t important enough, wanted us to focus on liberal conservative differences. So now we’re writing a paper comparing libertarians to liberals and conservatives on dozens of scales, and finding so many interesting things. Here’s a preview: Libertarians are liberals who lack bleeding hearts. Libertarians look much more like liberals than like conservatives on most measures, EXCEPT those that have anything to do with compassion, on which libertarians are lower than liberals AND conservatives. The lower levels of compassion, and higher levels of need for cognition and tendency to “systemize” rather than empathize, are probably related to the love of markets.

Thanks again,
Jon Haidt

This also totally explains why, say, Eliezer Yudkowsky is a “better libertarian” than I am 🙂

Gambling Lives

Came across this from a link on twitter:

Right now, your company could have a life insurance policy on you that you know nothing about. When you die — perhaps years after you leave your employer — the tax-free proceeds from this policy wouldnt go to your family. The money would go to the company.
…Hundreds of companies — including Dow Chemical, Procter & Gamble, Wal-Mart, Walt Disney and Winn-Dixie — have purchased this insurance on more than 6 million rank-and-file workers…. These policies, nicknamed dead janitors or dead peasants insurance, soared in popularity after many states cleared the way for them in the 1980s.

The article takes a rather strong position against the practice. Obviously, the fact that a company is essentially making money off an employee’s death without doing anything to help his/her family(besides whatever is already in its labour contracts/policies, that is) is a little repugnant. The prime motive is not, apparently, “insurance” against losses caused by key personnel leaving but purely profit, since these are basically tax-free returns:

Sales of the policies came to a virtual standstill in September 2003, according to the insurer trade group ACLI, when the Senate Finance Committee approved legislation that would have taxed payouts made to companies if the employee had left more than a year earlier. That indicates that most policies aren’t being sold to protect companies financially against the loss of key current employees.

However, try as I might, I can’t come up with any reason to condemn this from a libertarian perspective. What it amounts to is two entities-the company and the insurer- making a contractual agreement based on some uncertain event. You can call this gambling (which again I find nothing wrong with, so I shouldn’t need to justify that at all), but it works exactly like other perfectly legal, even encouraged contracts (i.e. insurance in pretty much any other situation). As long as the company does not work the employee to death- a factor that is mentioned in the article, but surely there are other laws to take care of that explicitly, not just as it relates to insurance- what’s the harm? I agree that they should probably tax the income earned, though, given that society needs taxes to function and that this behaviour is not something we want to subsidize. The fact that that would apparently wipe out the market is not something I would necessarily lose sleep over, since I don’t see any other justification to not tax it.

OK. Since that is almost the same thing as condemning it anyway, I have no idea why I wrote this post.

I am Conflict-Free

When it comes to libertarianism, that is. Scott Aaronson’s Worldview Manager is now live:

Worldview Manager is a prototype for a framework and website that help users uncover hidden inconsistencies in their personal beliefs (“worldviews”).

The website does not actually understand the belief systems nor consider one to be more correct than the other. Instead, it has a record of which opinions are logically inconsistent; the user selects some “topic” and the website presents him or her with a series of statements in that topic, one by one — the user indicates agreement or disagreement with the statement, and the system detects when some response contradicts previous responses.

As of now, they have a section on libertarianism and several more technical issues. This is me, and apparently none of my positions contradict each other 🙂 . (The motivation for this whole thing was Aaronson finding/hypothesizing that they DO, for most/a lot of people.)

The government should provide some forms of financial assistance to those who need it. 0%0%0% Completely neutral
The Federal Reserve System should be dismantled. -100%-100%-100%-100% 100% Disagreement
There should be laws that whose sole purpose is to protect people (adults of sound mind) from their own harmful decisions. -80%-80%-80%-80% 80% Disagreement
Certain groups of individuals should be denied some rights that others are granted. -100%-100%-100%-100% 100% Disagreement
Governments (that is, entities that have the power to make and enfore laws and policies) should exist. 30%30%30%30% 30% Agreement
The government should outlaw certain acts that are generally considered to be indecent or offensive. -90%-90%-90%-90% 90% Disagreement
The government should never intervene in the economy, even if doing so would result in a more efficient allocation of resources. -40%-40%-40%-40% 40% Disagreement
Free speech in all forms should be allowed, even when it offends someone, incites violence, or places others in immediate danger. 70%70%70%70% 70% Agreement
The government should recognize all contracts in which one forfeits any of their rights to another, including the right to life. 90%90%90%90% 90% Agreement
It is acceptable for the government to force someone to help society. -100%-100%-100%-100% 100% Disagreement
In a national emergency, the government should be able to mandate service, for instance if there is a shortage of volunteers. -70%-70%-70%-70% 70% Disagreement
Governments should be democratic in nature. 20%20%20%20% 20% Agreement
For me to approve of a particular right or restriction, it is sufficient for it to be explicitly stated in the US Constitution, as currently interpreted by the Supreme Court. -100%-100%-100%-100% 100% Disagreement
For me to approve of a particular right or restriction, it is necessary for it to be explicitly stated in the US Constitution, as currently interpreted by the Supreme Court. -30%-30%-30%-30% 30% Disagreement
Children should have the right to vote. 30%30%30%30% 30% Agreement
Everyone should have the right to vote. 20%20%20%20% 20% Agreement

The hostile web

I was just reading through a post on Marginal Revolution when I had something of an epiphany which is, in retrospect, completely obvious.

We talk of the internet as some sort of large global community, but I find it very interesting how there’s so little true interaction or assimiliation of viewpoints on the web. Ideally, when one can easily communicate with those on “the other side” of any given ideological divide, one expects some sort of “softening”-not necessarily a complimentary term, perhaps- of stances, some little move towards a mutual understanding. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be working all that well.

Case in point: this post on MR summing up, from a libertarian point of view, an intelligent and reasoned explanation of progressivism, and this post from Matt Yglesias’s blog doing the reverse i.e. an intelligent, reasoned explanation of libertarianism from a progressive point of view. The posts are quite reasonable, so you’ll have to scroll down a bit and check the comments to see what I’m talking about. To be fair, the commenters on MR are easily the most civilized I’ve seen on any blog, and somewhat less ideologically blinkered. Yglesias’s blog, on the other hand… not so much.

1. Luke Says:
August 8th, 2009 at 8:29 am
On it!
My Libertarian Manifesto:
I got mine!
2. RalphF Says:
August 8th, 2009 at 8:37 am
@Luke – I think that’s more the definition of Conservatism.
Libertarianism is “I want to make all the rules”.
3. fostert Says:
August 8th, 2009 at 8:42 am
“Why not simply join forces with the wealthy and powerful so as to create a political coalition that’s plausibly capable of overwhelming xenophobia and creating borders that are relatively open to the flow of goods and labor?”
Because many of the wealthy and powerful got that way by exploiting xenophobia. It’s the classic divide and conquer strategy. If you get people to fight each other, they do most of the conquering work for you. And what better way to get people fighting each other than xenophobia? Supply weapons to whichever side offers you the best oil contracts, and they’ll be your puppet if they win. The wealthy and powerful didn’t get that way by being fair.
4. David Says:
August 8th, 2009 at 8:45 am
My summation: free-markets, free love, and the underpants gnomes will take care of the poor.
5. Petey Says:
August 8th, 2009 at 8:53 am
“What Is Libertarianism?”
An infantile disorder.
The New Yorker this week has a pretty interesting piece this week on the origins of Libertarianism.
6. Cranky Observer Says:
August 8th, 2009 at 8:58 am
Libertarianism is Republicans who want to date liberal women.
7. Flo Says:
August 8th, 2009 at 9:01 am
Thanks for clearing that up. I thought Libertarians were old conservatives who didn’t want to be associated with Bush anymore.

I mean, yes, very funny. On the other hand, hardly demonstrative of a willingness to just listen to the other side. Bear in mind that this is on a post that is explicitly written to encourage some sort of constructive debate. And this is nothing compared to what you can find on, say Paul Krugman’s blog.

PS: This isn’t an attempt to dump on progressives, whom I have a fair bit in common with anyway. It’s just a good illustration of the broader principle that I wanted to convey… I couldn’t find any really egregious comments on MR from the libertarian side, and I was too lazy to do any more research.

Home;Random Musings

Meanwhile, I skipped 60% of the questions on a quiz I was supposed to do really well for because I never looked at the back side of the paper, and I cracked the bottom right corner of my laptop screen and it might take an obscene amount to repair. Also missed the events treat in Barbeque Nation. Also, it’s so bloody hot!

On the plus side, I knew something about twilight bothered me much more than the quality of the prose, and here it is.

I find that there’s a lot of stuff I want to write here about my personal life, but I’m constantly reminded that more people (who actually know me and who I might want to write about; strangers, I don’t mind quite so much) do read this than I had expected. I’m toying with the idea of keeping this as a more of an “ideas” blog and making my currently dysfunctional and entirely anonymous livejournal into something a little less anonymous and update it a little more frequently. In which case, I’ll change the name of this one, a relic from the old, mostly personal blog, which sounded pretty retarded even then.  Any suggestions? Posts will still revolve around the same topics, most of which are mentioned in the About page.

There was a whole bunch of current events stuff I wanted to write about, including:

  1. Pakistan’s surrender to the Taliban in Swat and the price of peace. Something I actually want to “think aloud” on.
  2. Moral policing in Mangalore. No two sides to the problem here, just need to get the ranting out of my system.

Just mentioning so that I’d be reminded of getting around to it sometime.


Links: Check out a brilliant(if long) interview with Alan Moore, here;

Libertarian Hotties! 😀

Quote of the Week: Statutory Warning:Smoking is…

“This broken wreck of a man’s failure to win any more than a pathetic fourteen Olympic gold medals (so far) is a terrifying warning of the horrific damage that cannabis can do to someone’s health—and a powerful reminder of just how sensible the drug laws really are.”

–Andrew Stuttaford at The Corner

Quote of the Week:Civil Disobedience

“Every alcoholic beverage I consume under the age of twenty-one has been a conscious act of civil disobedience. Dissent, not reckless partying!”

–some random chick on a libertarian group in Facebook.

Yes, it applies right now. Will probably post another one sooner than a week.

Quote of the Week: Patriotism

Sorry for being quite obscenely late, as well as for coming up with something that might not really fit the description here. My quote isn’t so much

“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”
–John F. Kennedy

but rather, Milton Friedman’s response:

It is a striking sign of the temper of our times that the controversy about this passage centered on its origin and not on its content. Neither half of the statement expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society. The paternalistic “what your country can do for you” implies that government is the patron, the citizen the ward, a view that is at odds with the free man’s belief in his own responsibility for his own destiny. The organismic, “what you can do for your country” implies that government is the master or the deity, the citizen, the servant or the votary. To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a granter of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshiped and served. He recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve. He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.

I have never come across a passage that so succinctly summed up everything I have to say on the concept of patriotism. Via Greg Mankiw’s disapproving post on Obama possibly requiring compulsory community service in high schools and colleges.