Politics is hard, and one of the most intractable rules that governs the implementation of any policy is: When trying to help people you want to help, you will inevitably hurt people you don’t want to hurt. The political True Believer denies this rule in one of two ways. The traditional way is to insist that, in fact, no one will be hurt by their preferred policies, that their preferred policies are so awesome because they come with lots of benefits and no costs at all. The more recent alternative is to declare that, actually, we really do want to hurt the people who’ll be hurt by the implementation of our preferred policies. They deserve the pain.
Robin Hanson begins this post by quoting a passage in Tyler Cowen’s new book Stubborn Attachments in which Cowen talks about whether economics is about satisfying people’s preferences. Hanson wants to reflect on this, but he also wants to talk about something else:
Tyler seems to use a standard moral framework here, one wherein we are looking at others and trying to agree among ourselves about what moral choices to make on their behalf. (Those others are not included in our conversation.)
It has long been remarkable to me how often social scientists, and philosophers when they concern themselves with public issues, consider their subjects from the position of power. As I say in that post I just linked to,
There is a kind of philosopher — an all too common kind of philosopher — who when considering such topics habitually identifies himself or herself with power. Pronouns matter a good deal here. Note that in Roache’s comments “we” are the ones who have the power to inflict punishment on “someone.” We punish; they are punished. We control; they are controlled. We decide; they are the objects of our decisions. Would Roache’s speculations have taken a different form, I wonder, if she had reversed the pronouns?
I’m therefore glad to see Hanson push back on this habit. He envisions “a more inclusive conversation, one where the people about whom we are making moral choices become part of the moral ‘dealmaking’ process. That is, when it is not we trying to agree among ourselves about what we should do for them, but when instead we all talk together about what to do for us all.“
But consider how rare this perspective is, especially among academics dealing with public policy in any form. Imagine academic treatises on policy written from the perspective of people who have policies imposed on them whether they like those policies or not. Maybe there are such treatises, but I haven’t seen them.