Friday, March 9, 2012

Prioritizing Public Goods

It's always interesting to juxtapose how various people respond to the same thing.  Take for example the Sandra Fluke - Rush Limbaugh controversy.
My response, which I posted on Smith's blog, is probably pretty easy to guess.  If you've read my post on the Ostrich Response to Pragmatarianism...then it should also be pretty easy to guess that Smith has not responded to my response.  But...another reader choose to.  Here's our exchange...starting with my response to Smith...


Public goods are wonderful...but it's just so bizarre that you never talk about opportunity costs.

Do you think this stems from receiving your college degree in physics rather than economics? It's been so long since I took Econ 101 but I'm pretty sure it covered the part about how economics is the study of scarcity.

Do you think that just because the government can print as much money as it wants that this somehow means that the government can just buy voters whatever they want? Or do you think that if we taxed the rich at a higher rate then the idea of scarcity would somehow lose its relevance?

Who cares if Rush Limbaugh said something that was politically incorrect. What I care about is understanding your perspective on how scarce resources are efficiently allocated.  Please make an economic argument that explains exactly why I should trust congress with my taxes.  Help me understand why they can spend my taxes better than I can.

You could even just critique my own perspective on the efficient allocation of scarce resources...Partial Knowledge and Opportunity Costs. Where am I going wrong?

The bottom line is...if you can't explain how scarce resources are efficiently allocated then Steve Landsburg and Rush Limbaugh will always have the upper hand.  No matter how politically incorrect they are...I'll stand by their argument that less taxes are ALWAYS better than inefficiently allocated taxes.


JohnR said...
@xeographica: I'm genuinely impressed by your ability to define Limbaugh's (and his enthusiast's) remarks as "politically incorrect". My speculations on your upbringing and socialization success would not serve to advance the discussion so I'll keep them to myself. I do wonder idly what you would regard as "morally repugnant" or "offensive", but of course those are such subjective and indeed loaded terms. At any rate, with regard to your argument, I intend to simply disregard it. Anything that is proposed by someone whose moral structure is so malformed becomes highly suspect to me. It's similar in my opinion to the sort of argument that you hear people propose who find Ayn Rand to be an exciting and important philosopher. In other words, it's like listening to 12-year-olds discuss whether BloedSnaeke or MegaSplatterDethKult was the Greatest Band Of All Time - there's a very strong likelihood that it will be a near-complete waste of time, and God knows I'm already too far behind on things that are important.


JohnR, obviously I was raised to focus on substance rather than style. Why don't I find what Limbaugh said to be "morally repugnant"? Well, in an Afghan village a distraught woman told us that the Taliban had recently beat her husband to death because he refused to give them his family's meager supply of food. In my book that's what qualifies as "morally repugnant" behavior. Limbaugh's behavior, in comparison, only qualifies as politically incorrect.

"there's a very strong likelihood that it will be a near-complete waste of time, and God knows I'm already too far behind on things that are important."

Oh the irony. If you had gotten off your moral high horse you might have understood that your point forms the basis of my argument. God knows your priorities...and you know your priorities...but does congress have any idea what your priorities are?

Does congress listen to your prayers like God listens to your prayers? Do you think that you are the little sparrow that congress has its eyes on?

Help me understand why you have such strong faith that public funds will be efficiently allocated when congress has no idea what any of our priorities are. In case anybody wasn't aware of economic terms the "opportunity cost" concept helps reveal what our priorities are. Whether you decide to have or eat your cake reveals your priorities. Putting your time/money where your mouth is reveals your priorities. Allowing people to reveal their priorities is what helps ensure the efficient allocation of scarce resources.

Given that you value your limited time...and I'm guessing that you also value your limited might be worth it to at least understand my argument regarding partial knowledge and opportunity costs.


That's what makes pragmatarianism pretty darn awesome.  If somebody says..."I have better things to do with my time than debate pragmatarianism"...then they automatically prove your point regarding opportunity costs.

The guy who most frequently comments on my blog, Black Flag, likes to remind me that taxes are theft.  Are taxes theft?  Is that really the debate we need to be having?  Maybe it truly is?  But how long has that debate been around for?  Let's try a new debate!  Let's debate how public funds are efficiently allocated.

Sandra Fluke...for some reason...had the opportunity to tell congress what our priorities should be.
Because this is the message that not requiring coverage of contraception sends: a women's reproductive healthcare isn't a necessity...isn't a priority. - Sandra Fluke, Opening Statement
Is this how public funds are efficiently allocated?  One random lady gets to tell congress what our priorities should be?  That wouldn't be a very efficient allocation of public funds if congress decided to spend all of our taxes on women's reproductive healthcare.  So...let's say that Noah Smith also had the opportunity to tell congress what our priorities should be.  If you subscribe to Smith's blog then you could probably guess that he would tell congress that our priorities should be education, research, infrastructure, transportation, healthcare, the environment, national defense and so on and so on.  Perhaps it would save time for Smith to just tell congress what they should't spend our taxes on.

Do you get the sense that public funds would be more efficiently allocated each time somebody else testified in front of congress?

But before you line up for your turn to give congress a piece of your mind...let's consider how effectively Fluke and Smith communicated their priorities.  We know that Fluke cares enough about women's productive healthcare to take the time to testify in front of congress...but...she also argued that she shouldn't be forced to choose between education and healthcare.

Huh.  I guess Fluke didn't read my post on an economy based on wife swapping.  In that entry I argued that  taxpayers should be forced to decide whether they spend their taxes on public healthcare or public education.  Why force people to decide whether they spend their individual taxes on public healthcare or public education?  In other words...why force taxpayers to consider the opportunity costs of their tax allocation decisions?  Because that's exactly how resources are efficiently allocated.

Does anybody have any arguments against the efficient allocation of public funds?  That's the thing about's really not much of a debate.  What's somebody going to say?  Are they going to say, "In these circumstances it's a good idea to flush your money down the toilet."?

That being said...just because I can't think of any good reasons why we would want to waste scarce resources doesn't mean that they do not exist.  Just because I don't believe in god doesn't mean that he doesn't exist.  The moral of the story is tolerance.  You spend your taxes on your priorities and I'll spend my taxes on my priorities.


  1. "The guy who most frequently comments on my blog, Black Flag, likes to remind me that taxes are theft. Are taxes theft?"

    Yes, and it won't be repaired until we call it what it is.

    "Is that really the debate we need to be having?"

    Probably, since it undermines society morally.
    It justifies an evil -theft and imbeds massive societal manipulation -immoral.

    "Maybe it truly is? But how long has that debate been around for?"

    Day Two of Civilization.

    "Let's debate how public funds are efficiently allocated."

    They cannot be.

    If the goods "purchased" by the stolen loot was so valuable, you wouldn't need to steal loot to pay for them - the people themselves would see that value and pay for them directly.

    So these goods are very sub-par in the value matrix of the People - thus allocating ANY money to them is economically destructive as the People have already dismissed them.

    So you want to implement some choice methodology in allocating a waste of resources?

    But as you admit, you would force such an allocation - the "none of the above" you would never allow.

    But you would allow the creation of an endless plethora of new agencies - instead of, say, one Dept. of Energy, there is nothing to stop the government from making Dept. Energy-Oil, Dept. Energy- Nat.Gas, Dept of Energy-Coal, etc..... doubling, tripling, or up orders of magnitude more agencies all appealing to your allocation methodology.

    Further you haven't addressed the issue of fungiblity - which is already an existing system - where funds taxed on behalf of an agency are redirected into the general funds.

    Once money hits the government - its label says "$1" and not "for US Dept. Energy use only"

    1. Here's what we disagree on...

      1. taxes are theft

      Here's what we agree on...

      2. committees cannot determine the optimal level of funding for any organization

      "Taxes are theft" is a moral argument while "committees cannot determine optimal levels of funding" is an economic argument. I can't go around preaching morality...but I can go around explaining economics.

      The thing is...the economic argument against committees determining funding isn't just an argument for's ALSO an argument for anarcho-capitalism. So, rather than trying to teach me about morality...why don't we just join forces and teach others about economics?

    2. Taxes are theft are not a moral argument.

      It is an argument of the use of violence to seize property of another. This is called theft.

      Because this is done far away and by proxy changes nothing.

      Theft IS an economic argument.

      Any economic good that is gained by theft will undermine society as the people shift society into producing less goods to be stolen.


      Further, your appeal of joining forces is enticing.

      I had further contemplated that -though the end is not achievable, the process of organizing the means could create a substrata that can aid the disgorging of certain government agencies into free market services.

      Highways for example - the Dept. could be expunged out of government into its own services company that builds and maintains highways - receiving its funding from the public directly like any free market service. How it does receive its funds is not important - that can be 'worked out' - it is getting it out of government that is key.

      Ownership of this "company" could be via shares distributed directly to citizens.... so on and so forth.

      However, the intellectual path to such a thing might extend and cross via this idea here....