Thursday, May 10, 2007

International Trade and Morality

In today's link to samefacts, I find that I absolutely totally disagree with Mark Kleiman, which is rare, and his logic in this post doesn't make sense to me, which hasn't happened before.

It is neither irrational nor morally wrong for me to be more eager to benefit, and more reluctant to harm, those with whom I cooperate more, because they are my relatives, because they are my neighbors or my co-workers or my fellow-members of other groups that embody collective social capital, or because they are my fellow-citizens.

The sovereign state has the capacity to pay for public goods by compulsory taxation, thus avoiding the free-rider problem. Wages or profits earned by people or firms that pay U.S. taxes are more important to me than wages or profits earned by those who pay taxes elsewhere, because I get a share of those wages or profits in the form of greater expenditure on public goods or reduced taxation.

Kleiman seems to mainly argue that patriotism is not irrational, yet he is addressing the question of whether it is moral. In the quote (from which I have deliberately removed relevant context and I admit it) "and morally" appears to be tacked on as a minor aside.

First I will try to understand what Kleiman is saying. I think his point is that, in fact, given human nature, the choice opinion leaders face is not whether to encourage patriotism or universal brotherhood but rather whether to encourage patriotism or a mix of motives in which selfishness is always alarmingly powerful, hence "We are all members of multiple moral communities. And we can't make ourselves better members of the larger ones by making ourselves worse members of the smaller ones." This clearly described the real world trade-off which Kleiman imagines. I can't help adding that it fit's oddly with his concluding sentence "Think globally, act locally."

I am aware that I may have been unfair when I slipped the phrase "opinion leaders" in. I am insinuating that Kleiman's logic is, pardon my use of a dirty word , borderline Straussian. As I attempt to understand it, the logic is based on the idea that the people are not capable of universal brotherhood, so we should tell them that patriotism is morally fine, because it is the best we can do. Avoiding scare words, my problem is that I can not honestly say that favoring one's fellow citizens is morally acceptable. I have no fear that I have unleashed a wave of pure selfishness as I am definitely not an opinion leader. I have, of course, guaranteed that I will never be an opinion leader (as an aside I am grateful to Kleiman for not even hinting at a silly but common argument based on the need to win elections in which neither he, Tabarrok or DeLong is a candidate).

Another way of putting it is that I believe in absolute moral truth and, thus, see a sharp difference between true statements about right and wrong and useful statements about right and wrong.

I also think that it is relevant that we must decide what sort of community we want to be. I wish the USA were a liberal community in which the expression of minority views is appreciated. Tabarrok and DeLong are challenging a principle which is almost universal. I think this is valuable in itself.

As a practical matter, people like DeLong and Kleiman who have some influence on the debate must assume that they can only move it a tiny bit in this or that direction. Thus the question is not whether it would be good if people thought of the USA like the community of left handed people, but rather if US citizens were a little more concerned about foreigners. If we should, the correct rhetorical strategy is to argue as hard as one can for universal brotherhood without appearing to be a total nut case.

I have a sense that I know where Kleiman is coming from. His point is partly that even open minded economists like DeLong and Tabarrok are slightly allergic to sociology, and tend to ignore norms, community, solidarity and social capital when not talking specifically about those issues. There is a tradition in economics of taking motives as given and figuring out how one would optimize. This is often the assumption that people are selfish, but also has a lot to do with benevolent social planners and possibly perfectly altruistic agents.

Kleiman gives examples of cases in which we should be more concerned about some people than others -- our families and his university department. I agree on the examples, but I think the analogy with patriotism is invalid. I think the important factor is the value of continued direct personal interaction with people we trust and the resulting emotional bonds. Citizens of the USA (like citizens of all countries even Sweden) do not interact in such a way. We are connected by laws and the principle of solidarity with one's countrymen (the point at stake here). This is all abstract. The point is that we could feel about all people the way we feel about our fellow citizens as patriotic feelings do not depend on personal contact and repeated interaction. A sense that we should all be citizens of humanity is perfectly possible, a sense of universal brotherhood must always be an ideal towards which we strive but which we do not approach.

update: Robert Frank agrees with Mark Kleiman. I am actually a bit intellectually indimidated.

Also, as Anne clearly shows in comments, I don't really know anything about Alex Tabarrok.


Anonymous said...

No; Alex Tabarrok is not the least open-minded but is entirely threatening and scary and I could not imagine ever taking a course with such a person; a person who thinks of people without ever caring for people. Suddenly we have a hero who calls freedom, without the slightest concern for those who would supposedly be free with the call.

"Cry Freedom," that I can assure anyone is not what Alex Tabarrok could ever imagine for actual people say for the people of South Africa. Cry freedom, indeed.


Anonymous said...

There is after all a distinct difference in a Brad DeLong or a Mertin Luther King who can argue for a broad principle and never lose sight of the fallen flegling sparrow to be cared for. Icy hearted rationalism does not in the least impress me, even though I understand well that caring for the sparrow can be overly narrowing.

The carelessness of a sparrow, any particular sparrow, of the George Masonites leaves them with a pretend morality. Oh, and I would surely tell just this to Alex Tabarrok; not my sort of friend.


Anonymous said...

Curiously, I remember reading Lawrence Kohlberg when I was young and thinking "I understand." I can understand how to attach a moral and emotional or nurturing sense. I knew for sure whether I would "steal the drug."

Later I remember when Kohlberg died, a philosopher who had studied with Kohlberg telling the New York Times that the philosophy of Kohlberg would have to be re-evaluated because Kohlberg had been a suicide. What a moral idiot, the professor.


Anonymous said...

Steal the darn drug, get it. Steal the drug. There was a reason Martin Luther King's repeated sermon was on the good Samaritan. A Nigerian student of mine gone to be a professor, teaches the good Samaritan as often as King taught it. Was King not a universalist, the ultimate universalist?


Anonymous said...

What is puzzling, though possibly moral leadership is an issue, is the extent to which there seems to be less sensitivity to moral argument among the younger than I would have expected. I expect that moral identity has to be made tangible, brought to the individual level; an individual sympathy at a time, possibly generalization thereafter. But, there seems to be a curious moral distancing among the younger.


Anonymous said...

Now, when I ask after the younger, I am thinking of American moral identifications. Europe strikes me differently, possibly the reverse in terms of more identification by age. But, I have no reasonable explanation.


Mark Kleiman said...

Sorry. I didn't make myself clear. Reciprocity isn't the highest form of cooperation; unselfish altruism is nicer. But reciprocity is an important form of cooperation. If you're part of a group whose norms involved doing good things for other members of that group -- a group that embodies collective social capital -- you ought to obey those norms unless the damage to those outside the group is great. No, I'm not confusing positive and normative propositions. The positive proposition here is that cooperation is useful, and communities that share collective social capital enable it. The normative proposition is that it is right to maintain and build those communities, even at the expense of an absolutely universal altruism.

ironies and absurdities said...

shorter Kleiman:

blood is thicker than water, ....

my family
my country club
my sub-division
my neighborhood
my country
my language
my customs
my race
my religion
my skin color

.... is more acceptable than yours .... well, maybe, not quite, but to believe so is axiomatic, and this belief system is perfectly human and acceptable .... at a minimum, we shouldn't fight it .... if you don't construct your policy prescription on this axiom, it is unsound policy .... doomed to fail ....