Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Some Economics of Moral Thought

"Legislation deals with numbers and with whole classes of men; morality deals with individuals." - A. V. Dicey, Lectures on the Relation between Law & Public Opinion in England during the Nineteenth Century
There are many problems one faces in life and one must decide how much of one's scarce time to allocate to each of them. Economics teaches that 'common pool' problems usually receive very few resources, including time, from any given individual, because careful thought, or restraint of rapacity, with regard to the management of said common pool is unfathomably unlikely to matter when there are many individuals. Thus, it easily happens that we get too much pollution and overfishing of seas.
Some of the problems which many of us face are ethical. There are probably too many of them for anyone to be really confident in his response to any given individual problem. In a world of common property, such as legislation, many problems are taken out of the individual's moral horizon. This is very much akin to the economic problem of common pool management. To the individual for whom time is scarce, a moral problem is more important the greater is his voice in proportion to those of others on the issue, and the individual has virtually no voice in collective decision-making. I believe most of the potential lessons which follow from this reasoning are in a classical liberal vein.
Here are some examples: In civil society, few people take others' property. Indeed, doing so is considered theft. But in the political realm, in which the voice of the individual is infinitesimal, taxation is mostly considered OK. If a person screams obscenities about others and shouts about how he will slaughter them, his behaviour is considered to be on the brink of murderous in civil society, but in politics it can be justified if a war is being fought. If somebody decides to take up drugs, the reactions he faces in civil society may be admonitory or opprobrious, but the reactions from the political realm are quite often to imprison him.
Some of the time, the views prevalent in the political realm are sound and perhaps more so than the views in (parts of) civil society. For instance, being of a frowned-upon race will rarely (though not, of course, never) lead to a death sentence from the state, whereas he will be killed, without a sentence, in certain circles. However, while sometimes the state will defend sound moral judgement, it seems quite obvious from history that its usual move is to imperil it.

For instance, the Jim Crow legislation would never have been mimicked by civil society norms, nor would, of course, the Holocaust. Immigration restrictions condemn billions of people to inescapable poverty when the civil society response is for individuals to go wherever someone is willing to offer them gainful employment and accommodation. I submit that what is behind these differences in standards is individuals' rational decisions to economize on moral thought.

It is worrying that the same principles which cause overfishing and excessive pollution are applicable to moral thought, but I can't see any way around it. The sum up this post with another quote, the old one by Benjamin Franklin comes to mind: "No man's life, liberty or fortune is safe while our legislature is in session".

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