Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Ostrich Response to Pragmatarianism?

[Update] Noah Smith responds...Noah Smith's Critique of Pragmatarianism.


People respond to pragmatarianism in different ways.  On occasion people have responded very negatively...which was the topic of my previous entry.  Very rarely do people respond positively.   For the most part people choose not to respond at all.  For example, over at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog I've brought up pragmatarianism multiple times to the various contributors of the blog.  The first, and only, contributor to respond thus far has been Andrew Cohen on his recent post "States Must Do Bad".

Here's a "case study" of one economist that has refused to respond.  It should go without saying that people have the prerogative not to respond...just like it's my prerogative to analyze and consider the different possible explanations for their refusal to respond.

This is my reply to Barry, a reader who "responded" to my comment on noahpinion's economic blog...


Barry, the topic of the thread is American stagnation. My comment addressed that topic.

A while back I brought up pragmatarianism to Noah...Neoclassical-Economics 2.  He didn't respond to my comment... but then a year later I noticed that he posted an entry on the value of government spending.  Clearly he either didn't understand my first comment...or he didn't agree with it. So I posted another comment to try and clarify my first comment.

As an economist he should, in theory, appreciate the value of efficiently allocating resources. He should also appreciate the negative unintended consequences of misallocated resources.

Maybe he knows something that I don't. Maybe he has a rational explanation for the divine disparity. Maybe he already knows the flaws of Hayek's concept of decentralized knowledge and the flaws of Bastiat's concept of opportunity cost.

If he does though...why hasn't he just shared what he knows already?  When a reader of his blog asked if public education was really a public good he had no problem creating a new entry to address the question.

His response to the reader's question again didn't indicate an understanding of pragmatarianism. The pragmatarian response would have been that each and every taxpayer values each and every public good differently. What might be a public good for one person might not be a public good for another person.  It would be absurd if we all had to purchase the exact same private goods just like it's absurd that we each have to purchase the exact same public goods.

Perhaps Noah just doesn't want to consider the possibility that he might be missing something. Personally, as I mentioned in my entry on political tolerance, when I was a libertarian it sure wasn't enjoyable to seriously and genuinely consider the flaws of my ideological foundation.

To quote Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr..."to have doubted one's own first principles is the mark of a civilized man."

If reasonable men like Noah refuse to doubt their first principles...then perhaps we can understand why our civilization might be in trouble. I understand that he has his thesis to work on...but what a misallocation of time and effort if his thesis is based on a flawed understanding of basic economic theory.


  1. Xerographica -

    I guess it's just that I have trouble understanding what you write...

  2. Noah, that's reasonable...writing has never been my forte.

    What I'd like to hear your thoughts on is simply whether or not taxpayers should be allowed to directly allocate their taxes.

    Taxpayers could still choose to give their taxes to congress...but they would also have the option to directly allocate their taxes themselves.

    For example, you would be able to go to the EPA website and pay as much of your taxes as you wanted directly to the EPA. The EPA would then send notice of your payment to the IRS. The IRS would just ensure that you had paid the proper amount of taxes by April 15.

    Each government organization website would have a fundraising progress bar and taxpayers could pay their taxes at anytime throughout the year.

    What are your thoughts on this proposal?

  3. My personal thoughts on this proposal are that for a pragmatarian, you seem to have a poor grasp of the meaning of the word "pragmatic" Xerographica ;-)

  4. Jamie, was it pragmatic when Deng Xiaoping said that he didn't care whether the cat was black or white...what mattered was whether it caught mice?

    Do you think it's pragmatic when we debate public healthcare rather than just allowing taxpayers to allocate as much of their taxes as they want to public healthcare organizations?

    Do you think it's pragmatic when taxpayers do not have to consider the opportunity costs of war?

    Do you think it would be pragmatic if donors to the NRA and donors to PETA were forced to pool their donations and elect representatives to split the pool between the two organizations?

    Do you think it would be pragmatic if you and I had to purchase the exact same set of private goods and services?

  5. Hi Xerographica - sorry about impolitely tongue-in-cheek comment :-)
    Thanks also for your thoughts on my blog - I've put a more detailed explanation of my meaning in response to your comment over there:
    All the best,