Reply to Yudkowsky
By Bryan Caplan
Here’s my reply to Eliezer Yudkowsky, point-by-point. He’s in blockquotes, I’m not.
Bryan Caplan’s Simplistic Theory of Left and Right says “The Left is anti-market and
the Right is anti-Left”. This theory is half wrong, and will for this
reason confuse the Left in particular. It ought to be a clue that if
you ask the Left whether they’re anti-market, most of the Left will
answer, “Of course not,” whereas if you ask the Right whether they’re
anti-Left, they’ll answer “Hell yes we are.”
I suspect there is some difference along these lines. But just as people on the Left will tend to object, “We’re not anti-market, we’re pro-X, Y, and Z,” people on the Right will tend to object, “We’re not anti-Left, we’re pro-X, Y, and Z.” In any case, my theory isn’t intended to predict self-description, but to find enduring commonalities between these two global tribes – commonalities enduring enough to fit both tribes since they emerged about two centuries ago.
People may understand
themselves poorly a lot of the time, but they often know what they hate.
I never said “hate.” “Resentment” is far more apt, though of course prominent subsets of these tribes let their resentment blossom into hate.
My “Human Theory of the Left” is as follows: The Left holds markets to the same standards as human beings.
And that’s what the
Left sees when they look at somebody being paid $8/hour… They see a judgment about how hard an employee works,
and how much they need and deserve.
So of course they hate whatever looks at a poor starving mother and says “$8/hour”. Who wouldn’t?
Ask them and they’ll *tell you*: They don’t *hate* markets. They just
think that the prices and outcomes aren’t fair, and that tribal action
is required for everyone to get together and decide that the prices and
outcomes should be fairer.
Again, I never said “hate.” But this sounds like a clear case of resentment. So Eliezer’s story ends up being a special case of mine.
Is it the correct special case of mine? I’m not convinced. Some leftists’ primary complaint is that “prices and outcomes aren’t fair.” But few non-economists of any ideology talk about prices much (except, of course, to live their daily lives). If you revise Eliezer’s statement to, “Leftists just think that market outcomes are unfair, and that tribal action
is required for everyone to get together and decide that the outcomes should be fairer,” I’d still say you’re oversimplifying. While leftists do routinely object to the market’s unfairness, their complaints about the market are legion. Historically – and even today – plenty of leftists argue their policies are better for economic growth. Others decry materialism, the effects on the environment, or national solidarity. Left-leaning economists add in a laundry list of market inefficiencies: monopoly, externalities, asymmetric information, and so on.
If this post gets shared outside my
own feed, some people will be reading this and wondering why I
*wouldn’t* want prices to be fair.
And they’ll suspect that I
must worship the Holy Market and believe *its* prices to be wise and
fair; and that if I object to any regulation it’s because I want the
holy, wise and fair Market Price to be undisturbed.
While this is a complete misrepresentation of Eliezer’s views, it’s a pretty fair description of mine. I don’t think market prices are “holy.” But they are wise in the sense that they’re signals wrapped up in incentives. And they’re fair because they’re based on mutual consent, and consent is one of most important determinants of fairness.
People like Bryan Caplan see people in 6000BC wearing animal skins as
the native state of affairs without the Market. People like Bryan keep
trying to explain how the Market got us away from that, hoping to foster
some good feelings about the Market that will lead people to maybe have
some respect for its $8/hour figure.
If my Human Theory of the
Left is true, then this is exactly the wrong thing to say, and eternally
doomed to failure.
“Eternally doomed to failure”? Hailing the market’s long-run effect on people’s standard of living is probably the most successful economic argument of the last fifty years. It’s clearly the main argument for pro-market reforms in China, and probably India as well. And it’s also likely the most successful argument for privatization in the Soviet Bloc and deregulation in the West.
Personally, it’s not my favorite argument. Like Mike Huemer , I’d rather argue from the moral presumption that individuals shouldn’t threaten to attack other people for offering deals they don’t like, and the moral truism that calling an organization a “government” doesn’t lighten its moral obligations. If Eliezer called this argument “eternally doomed to failure,” I’d still demur, but I freely admit that it hasn’t been influential in the world of economic policy.
But don’t try to tell them that the Market is good, or wise, or kind. They can see with their own eyes that’s false.
Believing is seeing. There are solid reasons to think the Market is better, wiser, and kinder than alternatives. (What’s “kind” about calling the cops because someone offers you a deal you don’t like?) But if you have strong initial anti-market feelings, it’s hard to give credit where credit is due.
Bottom line: Even if Eliezer’s story is the whole truth, he accepts my Simplistic Theory of Left and Right. He’s just filling in the details. But his story explains no more than a small sub-set of leftists. And they don’t have a good point.