“What is your ‘fair share’ of what someone else has worked for?” – Thomas Sowell
I’ve received a number of comments recently (most not all directly to the blog) arguing against some of my positions based on utility. For instance, some have pushed back against my recent discussion of the minimum wage (“If You Can’t Work Well, You Can’t Work At All“) with the somewhat standard contention from supporters of minimum wage hikes that “there is little evidence to support the idea that the minimum wage actually causes bad things to happen.” Several quick points on this before I get to my main point. First, testing a hypothesis in the realm of economics is less clean than it is in physics or chemistry. It’s very difficult to get a control group, and it’s very difficult to demonstrate a result in the absence of “extenuating circumstances” – which are often enough for true believers in a theory to dismiss the clear evidence that they are wrong. Second, to the extent that evidence does exist (and it does), Thomas Sowell (an economist) does a better job than I of pulling through and unpacking it here: Minimum Wage Escalation. (I certainly suggest reading Sowell’s paper – it’s not that long and very well written. The general result is this: research does demonstrate the negative effects of minimum wage; and arguments that it won’t exist rest on easily disproven assumptions.)
I make these quick points before noting that neither of them is a reason why I oppose the minimum wage. I oppose the minimum wage (and so many other government policies) based on principle, not utility. And what are those principles?
I believe in human equality – equality before God. This means that no one of us can claim to be more valuable (in the eyes of God) than another. Your life is as important as mine and vice versa. When I presume to rule over your life by force, outside the bounds of my legitimate authority, then I am a living affront to the God who created us both. I am injecting myself in between you and God as an intermediate ruler – a position He has not granted me. (Unless, of course, you happen to be my child … but I doubt any of them are reading this.)
I believe in the Golden Rule, which is a great description of equality. (“the best way to make a decision is to assume that you’re the other guy, because he’s just as important as you are.”) In a democracy, human equality and the Golden Rule lead one invariably to freedom, voluntaryism, and perhaps libertarianism (I use the term loosely here, as libertarians tend to get some odd views lumped under one heading). For me to demand, by fiat, by force of majority rule, that you behave in a certain way is for me to presume myself your ruler, your superior. This is an assault against equality and the Golden Rule.
I don’t actually require that these principles be shown to have the most utility, at least not utility in the here and now. I believe in eternal judgement. I believe we will stand before God and answer for the lives we have lived. So, for me, one could argue that living in accordance with the Word of God does have the most utility. But this isn’t what most mean when they discuss government policy choices.
Let me offer an example I’ve used before. In various times and places we’ve seen researchers demonstrate the clear correlation between women’s suffrage and the welfare state (consider here). Now, correlation is not causality, but the causal narrative put forward is a simple one (don’t take this as an endorsement, by the way). Women tend (and “tend” is important here) to be more compassionate and emotive while men tend to be more logical. Thus, women tend to vote to “help” people – the welfare state. Again, I’m not endorsing that narrative or the causal relationship, but the correlation is certainly there. One might expect that since I find the welfare state to be inefficient and wasteful (and immoral) I would oppose women’s suffrage. But I don’t. I hold principle above utility.
The same is true in the case of the minimum wage, or the welfare state, or central banking. I hold the principles of equality and the Golden Rule as higher than the utilitarian arguments for (or against) any of these institutions. I happen to also believe that these institutions provide negative utility to the people.
It’s nice when that works out. It’s nice when principles and utility go together (and they hopefully will in a majority of cases). But principle should drive policy preferences. As soon as utility is the only measure that matters we open ourselves up to all manner of evil for the sake of the greater good. [Reductio ad Hitlerium alert!] Heck, even Hitler made “greater good” arguments for exterminating the Jews (but whose good?).
On a hopefully more even-keeled note, greater good arguments are often subject to the interpretations and belief systems of the progenitors. As Sowell notes in his paper, Department of Labor reports continually show no damage caused by minimum wage increases – and ex Department of Labor employees continually describe the intense pressure to shade analysis in the direction of the bureau’s goals. I suspect the same is true for supporters (or opposers) of the welfare state, or minimum wage, or central banking. Finding a way to make the data sound like they support your conclusions has become an art.
Note here that I don’t oppose research into any and all of these issues. By all means, the more we know the better. But when the outcomes essentially revert to “you’d all be better off if you weren’t free” I think we should take a long pause for reflection before slapping on the shackles for the greater good … and perhaps we should even make a run for it. The truth is often so much simpler.
With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:6-8