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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Utilitarianism (or, a Case for Liberal Conservativism) - Marcus Tullius Tiro

The following is a guest article by Marcus Tullius Tiro:

"O tempora, o mores!" - Cicero

Greetings, all.

When Maxwell asked me to join the conversation here, I was originally going to write a piece about Orson Scott Card's 'Hierarchy of Alienness,' and how it relates to the geopolitical and military crises of the day, but, after reading the previous post, I decided to postpone that for the moment. Instead, I'd like to introduce myself, discuss the concepts of welfare and public goods, and describe a philosophical framework that has always seems obvious and natural to me, but that I have yet to see in practice.

First, myself -- I am a native-born American, in my mid-twenties, and I'm currently working towards a doctorate at a relatively prestigious American university. I certainly don't claim to be an expert on most of the matters that will be discussed here, but I do believe that my education has given me the tools to ask the right questions, at least. Most relevant for the moment, I consider myself to be a sort of 'utilitarian libertarian' -- a philosophy that I shall lay out here.

On a technical note, though, the term 'public good' has a precise meaning in the world of economics: it is a good or service that is both non-rival and non-excludable. Non-rival means that if one person uses some of the good, it does not stop another person from using it (i.e. if I uses the park, there's just as much 'park' left for Maxwell), and non-excludable means that absolutely anyone in the society can use the good (i.e. I don't need a membership card, etc., to get into the park). Under this definition, there are few things which are really public goods; traditionally 'public' goods may be rival - if 5000 people decide to use the same section of public beach on a Saturday afternoon, I may be hard pressed to find a spot for my blanket - or they may be excludable, depending on where you draw boundaries - anyone living in Townsville can use the Townsville pool, but people from New City can't. Naturally, a whole host of terms has grown up for these concepts: 'club goods' may refer to public goods that are excludable, 'collective goods' may refer to things that are actually provided by and owned by the government instead of as actual public goods, etc.

And, on to the philosophy. Permit me, if you will, to construct a thought experiment: we have a group of people. Let us not assume anything about these people other than that they will act like humans do -- some will work hard, some will be lazy; some will act 'good' out of morals or conscience, while some will take advantage of others when they can; some act charitably, some will be greedy, and so on.

While the group (let us call them 'the society') could be left alone, to form (or not form) some type of governing body, let us instead impose a system of government, one that is based on a relatively simple philosophy: there are times when, left to their own devices, people will act in ways that are not beneficial to themselves as individuals; in these cases, government should intervene. John Nash, now of Hollywood fame, thanks to A Beautiful Mind, is probably the best known researcher in the field of game theory, which deals with (among other things) these problems -- one can show, in a host of examples, that these problems occur. If there's interest, I can provide a few examples.

Now, armed with our philosophy, let us build.

Military -- This is almost trivial: if the society in the next valley decides to organize a raid, coordinated efforts will likely be required to repel them. Since everyone stands to lose from not fighting back, any particular individual could choose to avoid fighting, knowing that the other members of the society will take up arms in his place. Thus, left to their own devices, it is possible that people, on the whole, will end up acting in a way that ends up being bad for society, and for themselves, individually. Additionally, there are issues of coordination, training and the need for capital investment, and so on -- on the whole, military force ends up being something that the government should be providing.

Police -- Along very similar lines to military, one can make a relatively strong argument that government should be providing this as well.

Now, let us reflect for a moment. It is comforting to see that the one role of government that is common to practically every system of government -- protection from threats, both foreign and domestic -- derives from our basic assumptions and philosophy, rather than having to be taken as an additional assumption. In a similar vein, we can continue to build a government that takes an active role only when a solid case can be made for involvement, based on the idea that individuals, not just 'the society' as a whole, will be hurt otherwise. Fundamentally, this is a 'conservative' ideology, but it leads one to a number of conclusions that are traditionally seen as more 'liberal.'

To return to a favorite topic of Maxwell's, take education. Education - by which I mean universal, standardized intellectual training that teaches students not only what 2x4 is and who their vice president is, but also why we should care about these things, and gives them to tools to come to their own conclusions - benefits everyone. It benefits students, obviously, but it also benefits parents, it benefits people without children who live in the area, whose home values rise with education, it benefits employers, for whom it is easier to find qualified employees, and it benefits us all by giving us the tools to try and elect better leaders. As Aaron Sorkin said, speaking through the character of Sam Seaborn of The West Wing:

"Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don't need little changes. We need gigantic revolutionary changes. . . . Competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be getting six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge for its citizens, just like national defense."

I'll return to this topic later, if Maxwell will grant me another guest column!


To conclude, the past pages have laid out a philosophy, or, if you wish, an ideology. It is an ideology that clearly makes implications about what is right and wrong in government and society, but I believe that it is fundamentally better than many of the prevailing ideologies today, because it has clarity and simplicity. We can debate endlessly about how best to educate the youth of our country, and we can debate what conditions, if any, make abortion acceptable, and so on, but we mostly agree on the basis of this philosophy. And building a stable basis, and defining our terms, is, in my most humble opinion, the best way of starting a debate of any kind.

-- Marcus Tullius Tiro


Tomorrow: I will expand Tiro's idea of necessary government functions and attempt to compose a prioritized list for a government with limited economic resources.

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