Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Politician: Responsibility and the Faux Conservative

Don't stand before me calling yourself a "conservative" or a "capitalist" if you think somebody may destroy the life, health, or property of another with impunity.

Conservatism includes a number of principles governing individual responsibility.

As I drive my car down the street, I have an obligation to look out for others. According to these conservative principles of responsibility, if I should aim my car at a pedestrian and run him over, I am a criminal, and I deserve to go to jail. I have intentionally caused harm.

What if I don't actually aim for a pedestrian, but I drive up into a crowded sidewalk knowing full well that I will run people over, I am guilty of knowingly/i> (though not intentionally) causing harm. After all, I was not trying to hurt anybody. If the sidewalk had been clear, I would have been just as happy. However, it was not clear, I knew it, and I did not care. Conservative principles of responsibility condemn this as well.

I can also be guilty of recklessness or negligence. Recklessness driving means acting in ways that create a risk that others will get hurt and the driver knows it. Negligence means acting in ways that create a risk for others that a person should have known - that a careful and responsible driver would have looked into.

Conservative principles of responsibility condemn all of these - intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, and negligently causing harm or creating risks.

Capitalism also condemns these types of behavior. They create economic inefficiencies.

Free market economics - which real conservatives respect and faux conservatives pay lip service to - calls these harms "negative externalities". They are "negative" in that they constitute harms - damage to the life, health, and property of others. They are "externalities" because these costs are not built into the price of performing the harmful actions. The costs are borne, not by the agents who perform the action, but by those harmed by the agent's action.

Negative externalities create economic inefficiencies because, when people are permitted to engage in economic behavior without covering the overall costs (by passing those costs on to others), they tend to engage in behavior where the overall costs exceed the overall benefits.

It's a lot like taking somebody else's credit card that will take the money out of some random bank account - and will always seek a bank account that has money. The agent can easily spend $100 on something worth only $10 to him because, when he can spend somebody else's money, it is subjectively "free" to him. Getting something subjectively worth $10 for a price that is subjectively free is a bargain - even though the overall social cost us $100.

Think of what our economy would be like if all of us had credit cards that took the money out of a random account.

Free market economics says that we can inhibit these types of behaviors by internalizing those external costs. That is to say, make the agent pay all costs, and the agent will refrain from that behavior where the costs exceed the value (to him) of the product.

In the agent above had to send $100 out if his own pocket for the item only worth $10 to him, he would not do it. If the polluter has to compensate the victims of pollution for harms done to their life, health, and property, he would find ways to avoid polluting. Morality and economic efficiency are both served.

This is an area where conservative principles of responsibility and capitalist principles of internalizing external costs fit together very well. This also happens to be an area where desirism (the moral theory I use in these blogs) support the same conclusion. Promoting an aversion to irresponsible behavior - understood as behavior that produces these types of costs to others or puts them at risk - is something people generally have many and strong reason to do.

However, many faux-conservatives are adamantly opposed to this - and find it intolerable - in certain circumstances.

Faux conservatives assert that wealthy people who indirectly harm the life, health, or property of others - whether intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently, shall be immune from any sort of moral responsibility or economic cost.

The most that we can do, according to faux-conservativism, is politely request that the wealthy refrain from certain behaviors that kill or maim others or destroy their property. Compelling them to do so, and holding them morally responsible for their actions, is out of the question. This cannot be permitted.

One area where we see this faux conservativesm being defended is in the arena of global climate change.

Nowhere among faux conservatives do we hear about the principle of holding those who cause harm (people who engage in activities that release greenhouse gasses) responsible for the harms that they cause. Instead, all we are allowed is to politely ask those who engage in these harmful behaviors to refrain, to whatever degree they are willing to do so. The faux conservatives tell us that limiting behavior of this sort that causes harm to others is anti-freedom. People who argue for restricting this type of behavior - true conservatives and capitalists - are pro-government and pro-regulation.

Their argument, in this case, is no different than that of the graffiti artist saying, "If you do not allow me to spray-paint any surface I wish - house, window, store, car, street sign - you are anti-freedom. Whereas if you want to restrict the surfaces that I may spray paint to those that I own or those where I have the permission of the owner, you must be some sort of pro-regulation, pro-government liberal."

It's a nonsense argument. However, a nonsense argument backed by marketing knowhow and a great deal of money (from those who get their money from actions that cause harm to others) can seem to make sense. It is, indeed, "anti-freedom" in a sense to tell people that they may not cause harm to others. It is, in a sense, "pro-government" to tell people that the government will seek to limit this type of behavior.

We are also told that applying free-market principles and trying to internalize costs is bad for the economy. It increases the costs to the businesses that must now pay for the harms they do to others. That decreases their profitability and may even threaten their economic survival.

However, this is no different than a hypothetical case of a baker claiming, "If you force me to pay for my wheat, rather than allow me to take what I want without paying, then you must be an anti-business socialist. Forcing me to actually PAY for wheat will increase my costs. That will decrease my profitability and may even threaten my economic survival."

In the case of the wheat, as in the case of the negative externalities, these costs are being borne by somebody. It is not as if these costs simply disappear if we allow those who inflict the costs to ignore them. This would be like arguing that the murder victim is not dead if we allow the murder to walk away from the crime scene.

The question is, will these costs be borne by the person who is causing the harm, or by those harmed. Will the wheat be paid for by the baker, or the grower he takes it from? Will the harm to life, health, and property be paid for by the polluter, or by those harmed by the pollution? They WILL be paid. But by whom? The claim that allowing the victim to suffer for harms done to him without compensation, or the farmer to suffer the loss of wheat without compensation, is in no way "good for the economy"?

I have said at the start of this campaign that the political bargain is, "If you give me power, I will make good things happen."

One of the ways to make good things happen is to actually apply the conservative moral principle of responsibility and the capitalist principle of internalizing costs. This gives agents an incentive to avoid those types of behavior that do more harm than good. That is to say, it gives people themselves more of an incentive to make good things happen.


Filippo Salustri said...

You wrote: "According to these conservative principles of responsibility, if I should aim my car at a pedestrian and run him over, I am a criminal, and I deserve to go to jail. I have intentionally caused harm."

What, if any, are the corresponding liberal principles of responsibility?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Obviously, these principles are widely accepted outside of the conservative sphere. That does not affect my argument at all, which only requires that they are accepted within the conservative sphere and conservatives at least claim that these principles of personal responsibility are core to their world view.

They tend to hold these views up in contrast with the idea that responsibility itself is an old-fashioned idea. On this view, anti-social behavior is caused by environment factors. The perpetrator is a victim of the circumstances in which he was raised and the treatment he received as a child. As such, he cannot be held responsible for his action. Instead, his behavior is to be treated like an illness. He is to be given treatment (or rehabilitation). If his illness makes him a threat to others he may be confined for so long as he remains a threat. However, confinement is not punishment. It is merely an instrument to be used to prevent his illness from manifesting itself in ways that harm others. Where treatment is considered successful, the agent can then be released back into society.

I would not call this the "liberal" view (since most liberals accept the standard view of responsibility). However, it is the case that people who hold these views tend to be identified as liberal.