Haunted By the Hitler Hypothetical
By Bryan Caplan
Let me begin with a
disclaimer: Despite his moral views, Robin is an incredibly nice, decent
endorses an endless list of bizarre moral claims. For example, he recently told me that “the
main problem” with the Holocaust was that there weren’t enough Nazis! After all, if there had been six trillion
Nazis willing to pay $1 each to make the Holocaust happen, and a mere six
million Jews willing to pay $100,000 each to prevent it, the Holocaust would
have generated $5.4 trillion worth of consumers surplus.
Let’s consider another
example. Suppose the only people in the
world are Hannibal the millionaire, a slave trader, and 10,000 penniless orphan
slaves. The slave trader has no direct
use for his slaves, but likes money; Hannibal, on the other hand, is a ravenous
cannibal. According to Robin, the “optimal
outcome” is for Hannibal to get all 10,000 orphans and eat them.
When the Faith Heuristic responds to this transcript, he seems to take my side: Contrary to a lot of economists, there’s more to right and wrong than efficiency.
Consider slavery. There is an unavoidable tradeoff between letting
slaves keep the fruits of their own labor and having that go to the
slave owners. How does the Law and Economics crowd respond?
always assumed, wrongly it appears, that they would argue that the
slaves could never be the least cost avoider. But I stand corrected. I
learned in the debate that they would bite the bullet and accept
slavery and genocide.
The last paragraph is strange. If you tell a person, “Your view implies that if slaves were the least cost avoider, then slavery would be justified,” the non-bullet-biting response is “My view doesn’t imply that.” Contrary to Faith Heuristic, “Slaves could never be the least cost avoider,” is an example of bullet-biting.
Still, I wouldn’t say that FH is misrepresenting either side in the Caplan-Hanson debate. It is unfortunate, then, that Brad DeLong excerpts and edits the last paragraph to make it sound like Robin and I both accept the very position I attacked Robin for holding! Brad’s version:
I’ve always assumed, wrongly it appears, that [libertarians] would
argue that the slaves could never be the least cost avoider. But I
stand corrected. I learned in the debate that they would bite the
bullet and accept slavery and genocide…
Notice: In Faith Heuristic’s original post, “they” clearly refers to “the Law and Economics crowd,” not libertarians in general. (Earlier in the post, FH notes notes that Law and Economics is a “school of libertarianism,” but that doesn’t change the referent of the passage Brad quotes).
Still, isn’t Brad correct to point out that at least one self-styled libertarian endorses monstrous actions in weird hypotheticals? True, but it’s awfully misleading. It would be better to say that all consequentialists endorse monstrous actions in weird hypotheticals, and some libertarians are consequentialists. The same is true, of course, of every other political philosophy I’m aware of. Libertarians have our Robin Hanson, and social democrats have their Peter Singer. These bullet-biters can sound pretty scary, but I’ve known my share. In practice they’re often thought-provoking and almost always harmless.