Increasing Marginal Utility

A blog so good it violates the law of diminishing marginal utility.

Landsburg as a test case for the difference between Dogmatic Libertarianism and Dogmatic Utilitarianism

Steven Landsburg has come under fire for suggesting unconscious rape victims do not have reason to object to being raped.

Let’s suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar, is raped while unconscious in a way that causes no direct physical harm — no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission. (Note: The Steubenville rape victim, according to all the accounts I’ve read, was not even aware that she’d been sexually assaulted until she learned about it from the Internet some days later.) Despite the lack of physical damage, we are shocked, appalled and horrified at the thought of being treated in this way, and suffer deep trauma as a result. Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?

The criticism is rightly placed.

But I want to use this as a test case for distinguishing between Dogmatic Libertarianism and Dogmatic Utilitarian Economism. Landsburg is the latter.

First, let’s talk about taboo tradeoffs – basically, tradeoffs that we psychologically object to thinking of in terms of market pricing.

Once upon a time, it was a taboo tradeoff to charge interest. It was considered immoral to charge interest, even if the lender was just making up for his opportunity cost. Eventually we got over it. I assume people reading this blog don’t believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with charging interest.

Today, most people still believe there is something intrinsically wrong with selling an organ. The form of argument is identical. Some reading this will object to selling organs, but I think that’s incorrect for the same reason I think objecting to charging interest is incorrect.

But why do I think these arguments are incorrect? Because in many ways I am still a Dogmatic Libertarian. I think if people actually considered the costs and benefits of making either of these things legal, they would be slam dunks. And by costs, I am including the idea that organ-selling gives people the willies (and other such things, “you are degrading humans,” etc.). I am just utterly convinced that they are full of shit when they claim that those margins outweigh the gains to be had from making the market for organs legal. Note that I am using a VERY broad definition of “costs” and “benefits;” it’s just that even if you use that very broad definition, the benefits from a market for organs are huge. The definition I am using is so broad, in fact, that I don’t think it’s accurate to call it utilitarianism, especially in comparison to Landsburg.

Now, what Landsburg is saying is completely different. I am equally utterly convinced that the anguish caused by a rape outweighs the benefits for the rapists. In other words, in the libertarian fantasy land, women would be willing to pay to not be raped, even under the conditions he outlines. The Dogmatic Libertarian position is perfectly consistent in saying that the “costless” rape should be prosecuted and selling organs shouldn’t be.

The uncharitable reason I believe Landsburg is making the argument (and he hasn’t earned our charity) is that it ruins his models. In other words, if we allow psychic distress to matter, it means his Dogmatic Utilitarian Economism has inescapable paradoxes. In the blog post, he alludes to a section of his book where he considered this problem, which is essentially Sen’s Impossibility of the Paretian Liberal, which I have discussed before. His “responses” to the paradox in the book are something of a joke.

One way out is simply to declare that “psychic costs don’t count.”

…[They] shouldn’t count because they’re too easy to exaggerate. Anyone can claim to have suffered $1 million worth of emotion distress, but we have no way of knowing which claims are simply fabricated. Another answer is that once you start counting psychic harm, people start training themselves to feel it.

Neither answer strikes me as fully satisfactory. Still my gut tells me that psychic harm shouldn’t count. On the other hand, this is the same gut that keeps telling me to go ahead and have another brownie, so I’m not sure how much I should trust it.

Landsburg is okay with dismissing the psychic costs of rape victims, so he’ll have another brownie, I guess.

Some people conflate Dogmatic Libertarianism and Dogmatic Utilitarian Economism, but they shouldn’t. One gives us a good starting point for thinking about politics, the other gives ridiculous justifications for saying certain rapes don’t count.

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