Friday, February 25, 2005

Total pleasure is what I'm all about

Jacqueline, the New Libertarian Hotness, likes Democrats a little better than Republicans. But she isn't riding the donkey, because she thinks the Democratic Party is:
overrun with socialists, many of whom aren't that way out of ignorance but out of an unfounded faith in the inherent equality of all people and/or a determination to make everyone equal regardless of the consequences. It seems their ideal society would be the one described in "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut.
Let me introduce you to my way of being a Democrat. I'm not an egalitarian -- I'm a maximizer. I'm a hedonic utilitarian, in particular -- I think that maximizing the aggregate happiness of everyone, measured in terms of pleasure minus displeasure, is the goal of good social policy. (Hence the title of this post). We get off the equality bus long before the Harrison Bergeron station.

So you might be thinking: why won't Libertarian economic policies bring the pleasure? And why do Democrats seem to be pushing so hard for equality? As an answer to both questions, consider the diminishing marginal utility of money. If my currently wealthy father gets $1000 today, he won't buy anything with it that'll make him much happier. But give the same amount of money to a poorly fed Indian village boy (like the boy my father used to be), and you'll increase that boy's happiness tremendously. So if you're going to maximize pleasure, you'll want to massively redistribute wealth down the income scale. Some of the mechanisms of redistribution might be inefficient, but the benefits are so dramatic that substantial inefficiencies can be tolerated. (We'll always be on the lookout for the most efficient way to redistribute, though.) It's very unlikely that enough redistribution will happen if we leave it up to private charity, so the government has to tax rich people if the poor are going to get the boost they need. And we're not doing this to make everybody equal -- we're doing it to maximize the total happiness.

In our messy world, there are lots of other situations where a libertarian 'night watchman' government won't maximize. We live in a world with monopolies, prisoners' dilemmas, bad corporate governance, adverse selection in annuity pricing, and a host of other problems. If you want a pragmatic, consequentialist approach to maximizing total happiness in a messy world -- an approach that isn't bound by dogmas about the appropriate size of government -- let me invite you to join the Democratic Party.


Neil Sinhababu said...

Yes, a situation can be spelled out such that it's good to kill 5% so we can dramatically improve the lives of 95%. Fortunately, such situations are relatively rare. But if I've got the plague, and I'm coming into your walled city, you have my permission to use your crossbow. dadahead's war example is also good.

A further post on why we're justified in accepting hedonic utilitarianism as our theory of value will be forthcoming.

baal, feel free to call me "Neil". I am indeed a Benthamite.

Anonymous said...

I would think that a Benthamite would be better advised to think about ways of directly modifying human neurochemistry instead of all this oblique stuff trying to give someone more money so that they'll buy a bigger house so their neurochemistry will eventually be happier due to a combination of greater physical comfort and a feeling of higher social status.

Some of the cruder means to this end, like heroin, have big drawbacks. I've heard ecstasy/MDMA is a bit dangerous, though perhaps not as devastating as heroin. Either way, I don't see anything to prevent continuous progress in cheaply-manufactured, low-side affect euphoriants. Well, I don't think a Benthamite is going to be in power, either within the Democratic party or within the country as a whole, any time soon, but I'd think happy-pill-oriented pharma could give us more bang/buck than social programs. Of course, we could do both. That's part of the maximization, I guess.

Though I fear Benthamism would lead to government policy being based on a really, really big Lagrangian multiplier system, and I'm feeling kinda sick of them, so fneh.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Hey, that's a cool idea, Julian! Count me as seriously pro-euphoriant.

Blar said...

You don't have to go for all-out Benthamism or Harrison Bergeron-style egalitarianism to be a Democrat (in fact, there are few Democrats in either camp). Most Democrats think that there are lots of poor, ill, suffering, mistreated, and otherwise disadvantaged people out there. They think that the government is capable of bringing about at least an incremental improvement to many of these people's lives. And, they think that this is a legitimate and, indeed, morally good thing for the government to do. Different Democrats have different amounts of philosophical sophistication, and they could ground these beliefs in everything from consequentialism to religion to human rights to simple sympathy, but much of the Democratic program of the 20th century follows from this somewhat vague, big tent philosophy: equal rights for all (including blacks, women, and homosexuals), social security, medicare, medicade, welfare, etc.

Neil Sinhababu said...

No doubt, Blar. I suppose I should've given a shout-out to the other political ideologies that Democrats can hold. As Dadahead says, "abandoning utilitarianism won't necessarily help the right-winger; it is likely that on every other plausible moral theory--Kantianism, contractarianism, Rawlsianism--the economic philosophy of conservatism and libertarianism will fare no better."

Blue said...

Side question: In teenage horror movies with a philosophical twist, does the Ethical Werewolf eat the Ethical Slut?

Neil Sinhababu said...

Of course! But only in the way that maximizes her pleasure.