Sunday, March 18, 2012

Daniel Kuehn's Critique of Pragmatarianism

Daniel Kuehn just shared his critique of pragmatarianism.... Thoughts on "tax choice": is it just anarcho-capitalism?  His critique is really interesting because Kuehn kinda seems like a libertarian...but all his concerns were of a liberal nature.  So I wonder which label he goes by...not that it really matters though.

What's neat about his entry is that it illustrates all but one of the five most common responses to pragmatarianism.
  1. The ostrich response (~ 85%)
  2. The coordination problem response (~ 9%)
  3. The taxes are theft response (~3%) 
  4. The rich people are evil response (~ 2%)
  5. Other (~1%)

1. The Ostrich Response (aka no response)
At first I thought it was a really dumb idea - then after he clarified some stuff I'm somewhat more positively disposed.   
I wonder what percentage of non-responders fall into this category.  First impressions are pretty darn important so it would be great to figure out how to make the tax choice idea not appear so dumb at first glance.

2. The Coordination Problem Response (Information Problems)

For some reason I was kind of surprised to see this concern.  I guess because I see him occasionally comment over at Peter Boettke's blog...Coordination Problem.  Also, the name of Kuehn's blog is "Facts and Other Stubborn Things".   The first thing that comes to mind when I think about "Facts" is my favorite passage from Hayek....
The problem is thus in no way solved if we can show that all the facts, if they were known to a single mind (as we hypothetically assume them to be given to the observing economist), would uniquely determine the solution; instead we must show how a solution is produced by the interactions of people each of whom possesses only partial knowledge. To assume all the knowledge to be given to a single mind in the same manner in which we assume it to be given to us as the explaining economists is to assume the problem away and to disregard everything that is important and significant in the real world. - Hayek, The Use of Knowledge in Society
Pragmatarianism is the solution to the information problem.  I discuss this in more detail in my post on partial knowledge and opportunity costs.  Kuehn wrote...
But I don't think I have nearly enough information to allocate my taxes properly across all these functions even the ones that I find perfectly legitimate (which to be honest is most of them). Others are going to struggle with this too. And that information problem could come up with some perverse results. You may get a massive EPA budget, far beyond what makes sense, because people can't really grapple with all these trade-offs but they know they want to "protect the environment". What does that really help? You probably stop doing the environment much good pretty quickly, you suck funds away from other uses, and you're probably going to hurt the economy if you beef up the EPA's regulatory capacity.
This passage fit nicely into my collection of coordination problem responses...Unglamorous but Important Things.

3. The Taxes are Theft Response

This was the one argument he didn't make.

4. The Rich People Are Evil Response
Basically, the public goods that will get provided are the public goods that rich people like. In this sense, the system isn't democratic at all - it's hardly "one person one vote".
I should really start a collection dedicated to this type of response.  Here are a few of the places where I've addressed it...

My discussion with the liberal John Holbo - Selling Votes - I challenged him to show me a correlation between wealth and values.  Also, quite a few times I brought up personal responsibility in terms of ethical consumerism......Dude, Where's My Ethical Consumerism.

My discussion with the liberal Linda Beale - Other People's Values - It's a hasty generalization to say that the wealthy are evil.

My discussion with a communist - A "Hard Times" Milestone  "Yes, the more taxes people pay the more power they have...but I can't see how this power to fund public "goods" can possibly be used for evil purposes."

My discussion with the libertarian Matt Zwolinski - Fallibilism vs Fairness - People should be able to put their taxes where their hearts are...aka ethical consumerism.   Also, fairness should never trump the efficient allocation of scarce resources.

Tax Choice - A Strategy for the Occupy Movement - Again with the idea of ethical consumerism...you can't give corporations the middle finger with one hand and your money with the other hand.

To summarize...

1.  There's no correlation between wealth and values
2.  Fairness should never trump the efficient allocation of scarce resources
3.  The 99% has a personal responsibility to put their money where their hearts are

5.  Other (The Free-rider Problem)

As I discussed in my post on Libertarianism and the Free-rider problem...the possibility of the free-rider problem is partly what motivated me to reject libertarianism.

Kuehn's Conclusion
You don't see the government funding indisputably private goods here, and you don't see a complete lack of rhyme or reason to how things are allocated. The things that bug Xerographica are real - but I think we should take it as an opportunity to make further tweaks - namely to push some democratization and devolution. That I could get behind. But "tax choice" seems to me like a dud.
Heh, his first impression was "dumb" and his second impression was "dud".  That's progress...isn't it?

What's funny is that I can imagine back in the day...the people who defended regular human sacrifice would say...we haven't had a drought in years, we've been winning all our battles, the volcano hasn't erupted, the sun hasn't fallen from the sky and the demons haven't stolen our children.

It's a total myth that 538 congresspeople can efficiently allocate the taxes of 150 million taxpayers.  There's just no way that a committee of any sort can determine the optimal level of funding for any organization.

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