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Adam has some interesting thoughts on Will Wilkinson’s critique of moral nativism. Will’s core thesis appears to be

The nature of the principles of universal grammar limits what can count as a natural language grammar. There is no language in which a suitably translated version of the sentence “Sock burger insofar loggerheads” counts as grammatical. Yet there have existed moralities in which cannibalism, ritual mutilation, slavery, and rape count as morally permissible. If the putative moral capacity can produce moralities that allow things that strike our judgment as monstrously immoral–if it doesn’t really rule anything out–it can’t account for the normativity of our judgments and the linguistic analogy fails.

My purely amateurish take is that native morality seems to exist and that it takes a form that is far more basic than what Will is describing here.

For example I propose this as an incorrect moral system:

It is morally right to cause great harm to Adam to prevent minor harm to Ben AND it is morally right to cause great harm to Ben to prevent minor harm to Chris AND it is morally right to cause great harm to Chris to prevent minor harm to Adam.

This system is incorrect because there is no way to assign moral weight to the harms on Adam, Ben and Chris such that this moral ordering makes sense.

In the language of mathematics our native moralism forces a partial ordering on the world of moral entities. Further a – perhaps the – relation in our partial ordering is harm.

For example, suppose we replaced “harm” in the scenario with “laughter.” Now the system is no longer morally incorrect.

Admittedly this is not well worked out but my sense is that the “moral entities” are key and that a partial ordering exists over them is important.

Will Wilkinson argues that robots will make manufacturers rich

When I employ labour, production is a matter of the coordinated integration of capital goods with valuable human skill and effort. Productive cooperation naturally raises questions about the fair division of the spoils. Now suppose I replace all my workers with machines. Questions of distributive fairness disappear! I own the machines; I don’t owe the steely suckers anything! Of course, the principal reason I choose to automate is not that machines don’t slack off, become indignant in the face of injustice, or go on strike. I choose to automate because it saves me, and thus makes me, money. Of course, “robots” are expensive. I buy them from robot manufacturers. At some point, a good robot “pays for itself”. Until then, I’m dividing profits with the robot-makers instead of workers. (Imagine I’m paying in installments out of my revenue; it’s a lot like paying wages.) After then, I internalise all the gains from production. All mine!

Will might think that he is going to rake in tons of profits from a purely robotic assembly line but he is going to be disappointed.

It turns out there are other capitalists with exactly this same idea. They too are going to buy robots. They will compete against him and drive the price of his product down, all the way down to the price of the robots.

Indeed, if managing a robot firm requires less skill, and is therefore more open to new competitors, than running a human factory then Will could actually see his profits decline in the robot future.

So who will profit in this world? The superstar engineers who own the patent on robots.

Rents always accrue to the limiting factors of production. Simply put, the people who walk away with all the cash are always the ones who own the thing that is in shortest supply.

When labor is in short supply its workers. In a world without efficient capital markets, its those with access to a pool of private savings. In our modern world it is the creators of new technology and the managers of other people’s money.

It was clear from the beginning that the public sector union battle was going to expose fault lines between Pragmatic Libertarians and Progressives. For a time, a strain of self styled  liberaltarians had managed to convince themselves that the American left was just a bit misguided and if they only understood the economic arguments against their favored policies they would reject them.

True, progressive allegiance to the nanny-state was strong but even here pragmatic libertarians felt the weight of the empirical evidence was on their side. When the progressive assault on salt, soda and even meat failed to achieve its goals progressives would abandon it; just as they abandoned the similarly widespread but similarly misguided notion that the state should own and operate the major industrial concerns.

In the wake of Wisconsin, Kevin Drum called a resounding but by no means solitary, bullshit, on those hopes and dreams

If unions had remained strong and Democrats had continued to vigorously press for more equitable economic policies, middle-class wages over the past three decades likely would have grown at about the same rate as the overall economy—just as they had in the postwar era. But they didn’t, and that meant that every year, the money that would have gone to middle-class wage increases instead went somewhere else.

. . .

If the left ever wants to regain the vigor that powered earlier eras of liberal reform, it needs to rebuild the infrastructure of economic populism that we’ve ignored for too long

This sentiment is resolute among progressive bloggers. The decline of economic populism in general and unionism in particular is the front line of the new war. Wisconsin its cause celebre.

This fault line strains a potential liberal-libertarian fusionism to its core. The health care debate could be dismissed as a battle between monopolistic health insurance companies and a monopolistic state for control of fundamentally dysfunctional industry. That the federal government might choke the health care serpent to death in its future efforts to balance its budget could be seen as consolation for the growth in state control.

However, there is no such consolation to be offered in the unionization battle. Economic populism is precisely what libertarians hope to dissuade liberals of and to the extent public sector unions matter at all, its because they stand in the way of educational reform. Making public unions the heroes of a new populist revolution is not going to make any of this any easier.

What I didn’t expect though was a divide even within the libertarian camp. Libertarians are coming out in favor of private sector unions. Will Wilkinson is a representative

The right of workers to band together to improve their bargaining position relative to employers is a straightforward implication of freedom of association, and the sort of voluntary association that results is the beating heart of the classical liberal vision of civil society. I unreservedly endorse what I’ll call the "unionism of free association".

That free association is to be respected is without question. What is at issue of course, are contracts in restraint of trade – that is, “the right to band together to improve their bargaining position”

Does industry likewise have a right to create and have enforced by the state contracts which restrict supply and raise prices. May the Airlines, invoking their right to associate, form an organization and contract to hike fairs? May the automakers enter into an agreement to sell their cars at higher prices?

In a perhaps more parallel example, may the pharmaceutical companies enter into a collective bargaining agreement with the health insurers that the health insurers will cover only non-generics or they will not be sold any patented drugs at all?

What justification can there be for permitting labor to enter into such contracts but not business? I can’t help but suspect that it is a sympathy for economic populism and the notion that what is bad for the business must be good for the worker.

We must not forget that these restrictions work by driving up the cost of hiring the least advantaged members of our society. A man who could be profitably employed before a collective bargaining agreement may be forced into a lower paying occupation or even out of the labor force entirely after collective bargaining.

Perhaps, Will can clear it up for me but it seems that this line of reasoning goes against the core liberal-libertarian message as articulated by Will himself

It’s best to just maximize growth rates, pre-tax distribution be damned, and then fund wicked-good social insurance with huge revenues from an optimal tax scheme.

Will Wilkinson notes the intuition behind the golden warriors.

"Our currency should provide a reliable store of value—it should be guided by the rule of law, not the rule of men," Mr Ryan informed Mr Bernanke. "There is nothing more insidious that a country can do to its citizens than debase its currency". And who would disagree?

I would disagree.

First, that money is a reliable store of value is not a virtue but a regrettable defect of our economic system. It is extremely difficult to create money that is a workable medium-of-exchange without it having some value-storing properties. This is a fundamental problem that industrious minds work to solve whenever faced with it.

The less fundamental value money has the better. An item that is used as a medium-of-exchange cannot be put to productive use otherwise.

More to Ryan’s point, attempts to store value as money have the potential to collapse our entire economic system.

Money does not create anything. Value stored as money is value lost; lost because it represents resources not directed towards capital. Capital, unlike money, does create things. That people sometimes see it as advantageous to stop investing in capital and start holding money is the source of enormous economic instability.

A sudden hoarding of cash means that businesses at once have fewer customers, fewer investors and fewer creditors. They have no choice but to retrench. They have to lay off good workers and shut down good machines.

Unemployment rises. Capacity utilization falls. We have men that – for lack of a machine – do not work; and machines that – for lack of a man – do not run.

It is economic loss of the highest order. Perhaps attempting to take away the government’s primary tool at alleviating this loss is a more insidious act than two or three percent per year increases in prices?

This problem could be eliminated if the entire economy adjusted as instantaneously as the markets for stocks and bonds. If the prices of everyday things soared and collapsed within seconds. In that world both monetary policy and demand driven recessions would be impossible.

Yet, a world like that would be a world where money as a medium-of-exchange was much harder to use.

Bad news about Russian crop harvests would have you dropping everything to run to the grocery store. The price of bread would be rising the moment the news report hit the AP wire. Stock boys would be sent running at the first mention that Florida frost was to be less severe than expected, lest oranges be for one moment overpriced.

God forbid both things happen at once, for coffee shop patrons should have no idea what to expect when they order orange-wheat scones. People in the back of line might find great deals over those at the front, as orange bears sold-short against wheat bulls.

There would never be a market out of equilibrium, but there would never be a moments peace either. We would all be day traders in our daily lives, worried about what the next moment would bring.

For this reason we tolerate money as a store-of-value. We shouldn’t, however, pretend that it is an unmitigated good.

Writing in the wake of this impressive effort by Will Wilkinson can only serve to highlight my own deficiencies, nonetheless there is a point to be made.

Steven Landsburg is by his own standards wrong or at least incomplete when he makes the following claim.

Some people claim (perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly, perhaps absurdly — I lean toward the latter) that gay people, on average, are less successful as parents. In a video that’s begun to go viral, University of Iowa engineering student Zach Wahls attempts to refute this notion without offering a shred of evidence beyond a single cherry-picked case (his own) to prove that children of gay parents sometimes turn out just fine (except, perhaps, for their ability to reason)

The implicit source of Landsburg’s scorn is that one non-random example should not change people’s estimate of population wide averages. However, this is, of course, false.

If one believes that the “content of one’s character” is a stochastic monotonically increasing function of parenting inputs, then the lower the distribution of parenting inputs the lower the distribution of character contents.

For a very-high-content-character, one far off in the tails of the distribution, a parenting sub-sample that was even slightly below mean could radically reduce the probability of it being produced. A single example of a high-enough content character then should radically lower your estimation of the probability that the parenting sub-sample being tested is below the mean.

Said in slightly plainer terms, a truly exceptional kid would require first exceptional parents and then a heaping of luck on top of that. If gays are actually below average in their parenting abilities then you have to pull a double whammy of drawing first, a pair of exceptional gay parents and then they still have to get a lucky in the parenting business.

Indeed, if homosexuality per se degrades a parent’s ability through the corrosive effects of sin, then it becomes a triple whammy because one has to draw two relatively non-sinful homosexuals – though of course there is presumably significant correlation between mating partners.

Depending on the functions you are dealing with its entirely possible that the appearance of even a single gay couple with a child far enough above the mean would rationally cause one to re-estimate that gays are more likely to be good parents. This, clearly, also depends crucially on priors and assumed distributions.

Now, is this the function we are dealing with? I doubt it because I have seen strong evidence that the parenting to character function is virtually non-existent or more precisely, nearly completely random. But, that’s not the point. Some people believe that the correlation is extremely tight, that the causation runs from parents to child’s character and the distribution of exceptional people is extremely narrow. Landsburg doesn’t offer any evidence that they are wrong.

For Mr Wahl’s monologue to be “intellectual misdirection”, Landsburg would first have to establish that the parenting function or distribution of exceptional character is not of this nature and that further that no one supporting the gay marriage ban believes that it is.

Jonathan Chait has been having a back and forth with Will Wilkinson over the extent and insurmountability of regulatory capture. In his last reply, Chait summed up his position like this:

If [Will] has access to some study showing that regulation usually, as a rule rather than the exception, become s a weapon of the powers it was intended to regulate and winds up serving the opposite of its intended purpose, then I’m willing to listen. But if his only argument is “look at all of Tim Carney’s articles,” then no, I’m not persuaded, and and not many people outside the economic libertarian world are going to be, either.

Given the varieties and scope of regulation this would be a difficult question to answer with a particular study, or even with a handful of studies. Another problem is defining the challenge as showing that regulations end up “serving the opposite of its intended purpose”.  Shouldn’t it be enough to show that regulations don’t serve their intended purpose at all but instead simply raise prices?

To focus on one class of regulations in particular, consider occupational licensing. In his book“Licensing Occupations: Ensuring Quality or Restricting Competition?”, Morris Kleiner surveys the literature on occupational licensing and finds a lot of evidence that it does nothing to improve quality. From teachers to interior designers to medical professionals. Now here, at the mention of medical professionals, is where alarm bells start going off in everybody’s heads except libertarians. I’m not arguing that any regulation of medical professionals represents inefficient capture in-and-of-itself, but that on the margin the restrictions put into place on medical professionals represent attempts to control competition rather than quality.

For instance, there are studies showing that the wide state-by-state variations in these regulations do not affect outcomes. In medicine there are studies showing that malpractice insurance premiums aren’t lower in states with occupational licensing, which you would expect if licensing was increasing service quality. There is evidence that nurses provide providing primary care services as effectively as doctors. There are the studies showing that licensing and certification for teachers do not improve outcomes. This is unsurprising given that in most cases how one qualifies for a license is strongly influenced by or even directly set by some group representing the interests of the industry.

In some cases it can even worsen outcomes by driving people priced out of the market into the black market, where quality is very low due to informational problems caused by regulation pushing these markets into the shadows. It’s difficult to develop a good or bad reputation when having any reputation whatsoever risks attracting law enforcement.

So I don’t know if this quite represents an answer to Chait’s challenge. But the balance of the evidence shows that on the margin occupational licensing does not improve quality. How important is that margin? Well there is a huge variety in the level of occupational licensing in states. Indiana has around 11% of it’s workforce licensed, while California has 30%. If all states moved towards regulatings more like Indiana, based on the evidence it seems unlikely that quality would be impacted despite cutting the number of licensed occupations down to nearly a third of the current level for some states.

There’s obviously a lot of regulation other than occupational licensing, so this doesn’t rebut Chait’s wider point. But it is a very important and widespread class of regulation. At the very least I would hope Chait would agree that regulatory capture is decidedly more than an exception to the rule when it comes to occupational licensing.

Finally, I’d also like to answer the challenge that libertarians aren’t interested in making these laws work better, and are only in abolishing them. Yes, because regulatory capture here has proven fairly intractiable, so just getting rid of many occupational licenses will be a huge improvement. But I am also interested in improving occupational regulations.

One thing that states can do is write these laws with sunset provisions that force legislators to reexamine them at some point. This was a suggestion by the Cato Institute in a paper I can’t find. Another thing that states can do is have mandatory registration for certain occupations, which is what Pennsylvania does for contractors. This help solves informational problems by ensuring that contractors can’t lie about who they are and then rip you off, and allows sites like Angie’s List to work better by ensuring that someone can’t dodge bad reviews by using fake names. States should also look at other states and see what works for them, given the wide variety of licensing there is a lot of improvement states can make by following their neighbors. The last suggestion is to give Matt Yglesias millions of dollars to start a think tank dedicated to identifying and calling attention to bad occupational licenses, and identifying good examples of occupational regulation.

Will Wilkinson has another excellent post on the DREAM Act up at Democracy in America. He takes on David Frum, who is critical of the act. You should really read the whole thing, but to give you a taste here is how it ends:

Were Mr Frum to read the bill, he would see that he has made a serious error. DREAM is a stopgap measure of exceedingly limited scope which would slightly mitigate the injustices wrought by America’s reality-defying immigration and citizenship law. I look forward to his correction.

For more from Will on the DREAM Act see here.

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