Utilitarianism: beyond victims and villains
By Scott Sumner
In a recent post over at TheMoneyIllusion, I criticized the attitude of liberals and conservatives toward the poor. Conservatives often seem to blame the victim, whereas liberals tend to romanticize victims, absolving them of any role in their plight. I find this sort of “mood affiliation” to be unhelpful, and instead prefer to take an unemotional utilitarian perspective. Regardless of who is to “blame”, what is the best way to improve the situation?
In my moneyillusion post, I criticized some conservatives for having a double standard, romanticizing the plight of the white working class in a way that was similar to how liberals would romanticize the plight of minorities:
This new conservatism romanticizes the white working class. These conservatives used to mock bleeding heart liberals who claimed that minorities were “the victims of an unjust society”. They pointed out that poor people often made poor life choices. The new conservatives now claim that the white working class is not composed of people who made poor life choices–i.e., not studying hard in school or choosing to use opioids–but rather they are the “victims of neoliberal economic policies”. (Somehow they overlook the fact that the working class in countries that did not embrace neoliberal policies is doing even worse–logic is not their strong point.) The new bleeding heart conservatives engage in the same sort of romanticization of victims for which they used to mock the progressives.
One commenter misunderstood me, and thought I was calling for “blaming the victims”:
Scott, semi-serious tangent: you mentioned that you never got picked for basketball, have no talent for even catching the ball, and that it’s “unfair” you were born that way. (I know it’s a joke, I’m not that much of a killjoy).
In an earlier post, you criticized the white underclass for making bad decisions like not studying and abusing drugs. But isn’t it possible that they’re just like you: born into circumstances where they lack the required capacity (e.g. facility to manipulate verbal & numerical info) to be anything but ZMP-workers?
Actually I did not criticize the white underclass, although I can see how people might have read it that way. After all, the victims and villains approach to social issues is so deeply embedded in our society that it’s difficult to even imagine a third approach—such as utilitarianism. So it was natural to assume I accepted the “devil’s advocate” statements about the underclass provided in my post. (I was trying to suggest that conservatives would have been expected to scold the victims, based on their view of minorities.)
At a philosophical level, I believe that incentives have a major effect on the decisions that people make, but I also reject the existence of free will. Some people seem to find this confusing, because they cannot get beyond thinking that the plight of the poor is either caused by outside forces, or poor life choices. But why not both?
Let me use myself as an example.
1. I believe that I have made lots of poor life choices. So many poor choices that if I had been born in a deeply impoverished village in Bangladesh, I would have been a failure—perhaps dead by age 30. Fortunately I was born in a rich country, and was able to overcome those poor choices.
2. I also believe that if I had faced a different set of incentives, I might have made many fewer poor life choices.
Each of us is born in a different environment with different innate abilities, including things like intelligence, work ethic, patience, ability to enjoy life, etc. Utilitarianism is about constructing a set of public policies that allow people to make the most of their situation. In my view, that set of public policies is best described as “moderate libertarian.”
To return to the commenter’s point, a given worker might be a ZMP worker if facing one set of incentives, and a positive marginal product worker if facing a different set of incentives. To take an extreme example, if the alternative were starvation (not my recommendation!) then a lot of American ZMP workers would suddenly become more “cooperative”.
PS. Just to be clear, I certainly agree that the world is full of victims and villains (the Holocaust is an obvious example). My point is that this way of thinking is not helpful in addressing the sort of complex social issues we face in modern America, and we are better off thinking in dispassionate utilitarian terms.