Sunday, March 7, 2010

Is democracy akin to a process of scientific experimentation?

In his book, ‘The Science of Liberty’ (2010), Timothy Ferris argues that liberal democracy and science are similar in important respects:

‘Both start with tentative ideas, go through agonies of experimentation, and arrive at merely probabilistic conclusions that remain vulnerable to disproof. Both are bottom-up systems, constructed more from individual actions ... than from a few allegedly impervious precepts. A liberal democracy in action is an endlessly changing mosaic of experiments, most of which partially or entirely fail’ (p 13).

Ferris acknowledges that these failed experiments make the democratic process frustratingly inefficient but he argues that the great strength of liberal democracy is its capacity to sustain the experimental process.

I think this view of liberal democracy as akin to a scientific process is a desirable ideal rather than a description of how democratic systems actually work. Before elaborating, however, I would like to praise this book for shedding light on the relationship between liberty and science. With the benefit of having read the book, I think it is valid to depict the relationships between liberty, economic progress and the advance of knowledge as shown below.

If I had drawn such a diagram before I read the book I doubt whether I would have thought to draw an arrow running directly from liberty to advance of knowledge. The author’s main achievement, to my mind, is in describing the historical relationship between liberty and the advance of knowledge. The book illustrates that, to use the authors words ‘science demanded liberty and demonstrated its social benefits, creating a symbiotic relationship in which the freer nations were better able to carry on the scientific enterprise, which in turn rewarded them with knowledge wealth and power’ (p 7).

Before reading the book I was aware of some of the relevant history, such as the Vatican’s attempts to suppress Galileo’s ideas and the negative influence of Lysenko and communist ideology on the biological sciences and agricultural production in the Soviet Union. At the same time, however, I tended to think of the advance of knowledge as something that occurs exogenously with the passage of time - as it is often modelled in the economic growth literature – rather than as a product of liberty.

One of the most interesting things I learned from the book is the extent to which scientifically-minded individuals have been at the forefront in promoting liberty. Isaac Newton was not only a scientist but also a strong proponent of liberty and a close friend of John Locke. Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who played large roles in inciting and carrying out the American revolution, were amateur scientists. Thomas Jefferson apparently ranked his service as first head of the U.S. Patent Office as comparable with having written the Declaration of Independence and been twice elected president.

In my view Ferris makes a strong case that the U.S. founding fathers deliberately adopted a structure of government that would sustain an ongoing series of policy experiments, rather than attempt to guide society towards a specific goal (p 102). By contrast, the French revolutionaries assumed that the point of the revolution was to implement a particular philosophy – stemming from Rousseau’s view that the power of the state should be used to impose equality (p 120). The American revolution resulted in an imperfect system of government but the French revolution resulted in a major disaster for the people of France.

As I see it the main problem in viewing liberal democracy as akin to a process of scientific experimentation is the weakness of democratic processes for ending policy experiments that partially fail. Elections seem to be a reasonably effective way for citizens to avoid being governed by despots, to get rid of politicians who are obviously corrupt and to experiment with new policies. However, even policy proposals that are viewed as radical reforms rarely involve more than a tweaking of the failing policy experiments that already exist.

The mosaic of policy experiments being conducted under liberal democracies at any time seems to me to be much more path dependent than scientific research. Unproductive avenues of research are replaced much more readily than government programs that are failing. The best we can hope for from policy reforms is that the tweaking of the existing policy experiment will set in train an evolutionary process that will eventually result in better outcomes.

The increasing involvement of the federal government in funding of hospitals in Australia illustrates the processes involved. The basic problem prior to federal intervention was ensuring appropriate access to hospital services for people who did not qualify for free access under the means tests applied by the hospitals and state governments. Some policy experimentation by the federal government was probably inevitable to attempt to solve the perceived problem – whenever the states experience a funding problem a substantial proportion of the Australian electorate expect the federal government to ‘do something’.

There were basically two kinds of policy experiment that might have been conducted. Under the first approach the federal government would offer to fund hospital care for those who claimed to be unable to pay for insurance, using the federal tax system to recover funds from those who were falsely claiming financial hardship. Under the second approach, the federal government would give funds to the states on condition that the state governments solved the means test and access problems. The second approach was adopted and we ended up with free access to basic hospital care for everyone who is still alive when they reach the top of the waiting list – as well as confusion of responsibility for service delivery, with state governments blaming inadequate federal funding for ongoing problems.

If the democratic process in Australia was akin to a process of scientific experimentation it seems reasonable to suppose that the current hospital funding experiment, that had its origins in the 1940s, would have long been abandoned in favour of a different kind of experiment more in tune with the market realities. Instead, what we have is a federal government proposal to tweak federal funding – to make it more closely related to services actually provided – being put forward as a major reform initiative. I think the most we can hope is that if it is implemented this proposal might possibly push the evolution of hospital funding in a more sensible direction.

Similar problems of path dependency are evident in the policy experiments in many different policy areas in Australia and in many policies adopted in other liberal democracies. The world would be a better place if democratic processes were more like the processes of scientific experimentation.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is a great big new tax such a bad idea?

‘Where have you been? Have you been hiding from me?’ I saw it was Jim speaking when I looked up from reading the paper. I hadn’t exactly been avoiding him, but then I hadn’t really missed not seeing him for a few months.

Jim asked me if I could give him a lift home. He gave me some long and convoluted explanation about why he needed a lift, but I thought he was probably just looking for a captive audience - someone to talk to about something that was on his mind.

He certainly did have something on his mind. As soon as we started off he asked me what I thought of the outcome of the Copenhagen climate change summit. I admitted that I thought it was fairly predictable. Given the way western governments were approaching the issue it would have been hard for China and India to accept that they were serious about achieving concerted action even if the science was settled. I said that if governments thought the stock of greenhouse gas emissions was a serious problem they would be focusing on the incentives needed to develop technologies that would reduce the stock of emissions, rather than just attempting to cap the growth of emissions.

Jim said: ‘I thought that emissions trading schemes, like the one Kevin Rudd is proposing were meant to provide appropriate incentives for firms to develop better technologies.’ I responded that in my view Rudd’s ETS stood for Enormous Transfer Scheme. I suggested that the Australian government was attempting to confuse welfare issues with environmental issues in order to smuggle income redistributions into the scheme. I added that it was crazy for Australia to go it alone without concerted international action and that if we are concerned about incentives for developing new technologies we should be thinking in terms of explicit taxes rather than cap and trade systems.

Jim said: ‘Ah, that’s Warwick McKibbin’s view isn’t it.’ While I was still pondering whether I had under-estimated Jim’s knowledge of the topic, he pointed to a house we were just passing. ‘Look at that abomination’ he said. I assumed that he was referring to the solar panels that covered a substantial part of the roof. I said: ‘I don’t think they look too bad, actually’. ‘It’s not how they look’, he replied. ‘Every time I pass that house it reminds me that the government subsidies that encourage people to put those things on their roofs are an abomination. Solar panels are about the most costly method there is of generating electricity. If governments were really serious about climate change they would be spending taxpayer’s money more wisely so we get bigger bangs for our bucks.’

I observed that Jim’s comment must mean that he was obviously not a fan of Tony Abbott’s winner-picking proposals to reduce CO2 emissions. Jim said: ‘I wouldn’t mind so much if Abbott could actually pick a winner to subsidize. The technologies that he has picked so far are either proven losers or have no track record. If he really wanted to pick a technology that had some hope of competing with fossil fuels without huge subsidies he would advocate the nuclear power option.’

I couldn’t help asking: ‘Does that mean that you would support revival of the proposal to build a nuclear power station at Murray’s beach on Jervis Bay?’ When I glanced across to see how Jim was reacting to the idea of a nuclear power station in his own back yard, he growled: ‘Look where you are going!’

After what seemed like a long silence, Jim asked: ‘What do you think of no regrets policies?’ I replied: ‘What, like the federal government’s home insulation scheme?’ Jim replied: 'I think the government might actually be regretting introducing that scheme with so much haste last year. No, what I meant was a great big new tax on carbon emissions'.

I was dumbfounded. When I asked Jim to explain how this could be a no regrets policy he asked me whether I had supported the introduction of the GST as a broad-based tax to replace less efficient forms of taxation. When I nodded he then asked: ‘Do you think a tax on carbon emissions would be a more efficient way of raising revenue than existing taxes on insurance and stamp duties on property transfers?’ I had to admit that it would probably be more efficient than some other taxes. Jim then said: ‘So wouldn’t it make sense to introduce a great big new tax on carbon emissions to replace other taxes? If we do this we might even be able to have an impact on global emissions by persuading governments in some other countries that this is a good idea’.

While I was pondering how to respond Jim laughed and said: ‘I don’t expect you to see anything about this on your blog. Judging from what you have written there about climate change I expect that the polar ice caps would need to melt before you would support introduction of a tax on carbon emissions as a precautionary measure’.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Does persistence provide a basis for morality?

Before I write anything further I should clarify what I mean by persistence in this context. Survival is probably the most appropriate synonym. The question was prompted by Martin Walker’s book, ‘Life! Why we exist ... and what we must do to survive’ (2006). More information about the author can be found on his blog.

Martin Walker’s book is an extremely well-written attempt to promote a better understanding of the fundamental principles that explain why we exist and to use those principles as a basis for thinking about how we can live meaningful lives. The book begins with a story about a child watching two old men playing chess and wondering who is winning. Most of the book has been written from the standpoint of a person who is observing the game of life in order to infer the most basic rules and then to consider what implications those rules have for the way the game is played.

The main message of the first part of the book is that the evolutionary principles that explain material existence and the emergence of life are ‘the principles of coming into being and persistence’. In later parts of the book the author uses those evolutionary principles to make moral judgements.

I expect that some other readers would share my initial concern that the concept of persistence does not seem to be a particularly appealing basis for a system of ethics. The problem arises in part because persistence is associated with survival of the fittest and concepts like the selfish gene and even ‘might makes right’. However, the author manages to argue that we should have regard to the effects of our actions on the community and species, and on other living things. He suggests: ‘To answer any moral question pertaining to living organisms we must ultimately determine whether the act of choice will tend to make a positive contribution to the persistence of life as a form’ (p. 81).

How does Martin make the transition from the persistence principle, as an explanation of what ‘is’, to the persistence principle, as an ethical principle providing guidance on how we ‘ought’ to behave? It may be worth noting in passing that he rules out the idea that there is merit in acting in accordance with an ultimate purpose that lies behind persistence. He claims that material existence has no purpose (p 31-2). Martin’s transition from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ is based on parallels between moral choices made by humans and the survival instincts of non-conscious organisms that lead them to act in ways that will benefit their own persistence or the persistence of their relatives or communities. He writes: ‘As conscious organisms, we use concepts of good and bad to guide our actions, a process that simply extends the non-conscious process’ (p. 65). The final step in the transition from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ is made with an explicit value judgement:
‘That which contributes to our persistence, or the persistence of our species, or the persistence of life as a form is definitely better than that which does not. Contribution to persistence is good, detriment to persistence is bad’ (p. 65-6).

In my view it would be difficult for anyone to mount a convincing argument against such sentiments - except perhaps on the grounds that they do not go far enough. Persistence is good, but flourishing is better!

This brings me to my only critical point. While reading this book I found myself wondering at various times how the author’s views relate to those of Aristotle, Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick in ‘Invariances’ and Matt Ridley in ‘The Origins of Virtue’. The part of ‘Invariances’ dealing with ethics seems highly relevant (I have written a very brief summary here). I think many of Matt Ridley’s observations in ‘The Origins of Virtue’ are also highly relevant. I would particularly like to see further discussion of Ridley’s view that environmental ethics do not come naturally to humans: ‘Yet the conclusion that seems warranted that there is no instinctive environmental ethic in our species – no innate tendency to develop and teach restrained practice. Environmental ethics are therefore to be taught in spite of human nature, not in concert with it. They do not come naturally’ (p 226). I wonder whether that claim is supported by people who have conducted research on environmental norms, e.g. Elinor Ostrom.

If Martin Walker had spent more time in his book considering the views of other people I would have found that illuminating. It would, however, have made the book longer and more difficult to read. I think the main virtue of this book is in providing a clear and simple exposition of a point of view that deserves serious consideration.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How far can Ayn Rand's ethical egoism be defended?

In a post a few months ago I discussed whether Ayn Rand actually viewed selfishness as a virtue. I suggested that in arguing that selfishness is a virtue she was adopting a peculiar view of selfishness because the heroes of her novels did not seem to me to be particularly selfish.

The point was explained more clearly by Neera Badhwar in the recent discussion of Ayn Rand’s ethical thought on Cato Unbound (What’s living and dead in Ayn Rand’s moral and political thought):
‘Like Aristotle, Rand holds that the virtues, including justice, are not only means to the agent’s happiness, but also an essential, constitutive part of it. Julia Annas calls Aristotle’s ethical egoism a “formal” egoism because it essentially incorporates regard for others. Rand’s eudaimonistic egoism, likewise, is a formal egoism’.

Some other participants in the Cato discussion were not so sure that Rand viewed the virtues as an essential, constitutive part of the agent’s happiness.

Roderick Long noted that Rand appears to waver between treating virtue as a constitutive part of the agent’s own interest and as an instrumental strategy for attaining that interest: ‘The constitutive approach predominates in her novels: the chief reason that Rand’s fictional protagonists ... do not cheat their customers, for example, is pretty clearly that they would regard such parasitism on the productive efforts of others as directly inconsistent with the nobility and independence of spirit that they cherish for themselves, and not because they’re hoping that a policy of honesty will maximize their chances of longevity’. He suggests, however, that in her philosophical writings that ‘her emphasis began to shift, though never unequivocally, to the instrumental reading’.

Other participants suggested that Michael Huemer had an instrumental reading of Rand's views in mind in his initial contribution to the discussion. Huemer suggested that: ‘ethical egoism posits that the only thing that ought to matter intrinsically to me is my own welfare—for me, my own welfare or happiness is the only end in itself. It follows from this that I ought not to regard other individuals as ends in themselves; rather, I should see them only as means to my happiness—just as I see everything else in the world. This is a very simple and straightforward implication of the theory. I cannot hold my own well-being as the only end in itself, and simultaneously say that I recognize other persons as ends in themselves too’.

In defending the constitutive interpretation, Neera Badhwar made the point that ‘Rand shows her philosophy in the worlds she creates in her novels better than in her non-fictional statements’. I think this is a good point. Rand’s ongoing influence stems mainly from her novels rather than her philosophical writings.

Much of the Cato discussion centred on the question of whether what is good and right for one individual can ever conflict with what is objectively good and right for another individual. Douglas Rasmussen expressed his view that ‘if human flourishing is individualized and agent-relative ... then this would mean that human flourishing is different for each person, and thus it is possible for there to be conflict—that is, there is no way that one can in principle rule this out’.

Roderick Long was closest to endorsing Rand’s view that there can be no conflicts between two people’s rational interests: ‘One’s individual nature can make the requirements of human nature more specific, but it cannot contradict them. ...So the fact that the human good is individualized differently for different people doesn’t entail that one person’s good can conflict fundamentally with another’s.’

Neera Badhwar responded by suggesting that such fundamental conflicts, including situations where there are two equally good candidates for one job, occur frequently.

I think it is appropriate to give Douglas Rasmussen the final word in this highly selective summary of a complex discussion:

‘I do think that it is possible for people to cooperate peaceably. This is why basic negative rights are so important, but the issue here between me and Rand seems to be whether the existence of such rights depends on the assumption that what is objectively good for one individual cannot ever conflict with what is objectively good for another. I don’t assume this. She did.’

When I think further about the example of two equally qualified job applicants competing for one position it seems to me that this is a fairly trivial example of conflict of interest because the convention that the employer should choose between the applicants is not in question.

However, not all conflicts between what is good or right for different individuals can be easily resolved by reference to widely accepted conventions about the rights of various parties. For example, individuals can make rational decisions about the kind of music that is good for their families to listen to and yet come into conflict with their neighbours if they play that music loudly enough to interfere with their neighbours’ enjoyment of peace and quiet. Some might try to argue that such conflicts cannot occur among rational people because rational people would not play their music loudly enough to upset their neighbours. I think that stretches the definition of rationality too far because it implies advance knowledge of how neighbours will react. In my view people who find themselves involved in such conflicts are likely to be able to negotiate better solutions if they openly acknowledge their different interests and, most importantly, view mutual respect and peaceful co-existence as of over-riding importance.