Can we have property rights without violence?

Apr 23, JDN 2457867

Most likely, you have by now heard of the incident on a United Airlines flight, where a man was beaten and dragged out of a plane because the airline decided that they needed more seats than they had. In case you somehow missed all the news articles and memes, the Wikipedia page on the incident is actually fairly good.

There is a lot of gossip about the passenger’s history, which the flight crew couldn’t possibly have known and is therefore irrelevant. By far the best take I’ve seen on the ethical and legal implications of the incident can be found on Naked Capitalism, so if you do want to know more about it I highly recommend starting there. Probably the worst take I’ve read is on The Pilot Wife Life, but I suppose if you want a counterpoint there you go.

I really have little to add on this particular incident; instead my goal here is to contextualize it in a broader discussion of property rights in general.

Despite the fact that what United’s employees and contractors did was obviously unethical and very likely illegal, there are still a large number of people defending their actions. Aiming for a Woodman if not an Ironman, the most coherent defense I’ve heard offered goes something like this:

Yes, what United did in this particular case was excessive. But it’s a mistake to try to make this illegal, because any regulation that did so would necessarily impose upon fundamental property rights. United owns the airplane; they can set the rules for who is allowed to be on that airplane. And once they set those rules, they need to be able to enforce them. Sometimes, however distasteful it may be, that enforcement will require violence. But property rights are too important to give up. Would you want to live in a society where anyone could just barge into your home and you were not allowed to use force to remove them?

Understood in this context, United contractors calling airport security to get a man dragged off of a plane isn’t an isolated act of violence for no reason; it is part of a broader conflict between the protection of property rights and the reduction of violence. “Stand your ground” laws, IMF “structural adjustment” policies, even Trump’s wall against immigrants can be understood as part of this broader conflict.

One very far-left approach to resolving such a conflict—as taken by the Paste editorial “You’re not mad at United Airlines; you’re mad at America”—is to fall entirely on the side of nonviolence, and say essentially that any system which allows the use of violence to protect property rights is fundamentally corrupt and illegitimate.

I can see why such a view is tempting. It’s simple, for one thing, and that’s always appealing. But if you stop and think carefully about the consequences of this hardline stance, it becomes clear that such a system would be unsustainable. If we could truly never use violence ever to protect any property rights, that would mean that property law in general could no longer be enforced. People could in fact literally break into your home and steal your furniture, and you’d have no recourse, because the only way to stop them would involve either using violence yourself or calling the police, who would end up using violence. Property itself would lose all its meaning—and for those on the far-left who think that sounds like a good thing, I want you to imagine what the world would look like if the only things you could ever use were the ones you could physically hold onto, where you’d leave home never knowing whether your clothes or your food would still be there when you came back. A world without property sounds good if you are imagining that the insane riches of corrupt billionaires would collapse; but if you stop and think about coming home to no food and no furniture, perhaps it doesn’t sound so great. And while it does sound nice to have a world where no one is homeless because they can always find a place to sleep, that may seem less appealing if your home is the one that a dozen homeless people decide to squat in.

The Tragedy of the Commons would completely destroy any such economic system; the only way to sustain it would be either to produce such an enormous abundance of wealth that no amount of greed could ever overtake it, or, more likely, somehow re-engineer human brains so that greed no longer exists. I’m not aware of any fundamental limits on greed; as long as social status increases monotonically with wealth, there will be people who try to amass as much wealth as they possibly can, far beyond what any human being could ever actually consume, much less need. How do I know this? Because they already exist; we call them “billionaires”. A billionaire, essentially by definition, is a hoarder of wealth who owns more than any human being could consume. If someone happens upon a billion dollars and immediately donates most of it to charity (as J.K. Rowling did), they can escape such a categorization; and if they use the wealth to achieve grand visionary ambitions—and I mean real visions, not like Steve Jobs but like Elon Musk—perhaps they can as well. Saving the world from climate change and colonizing Mars are the sort of projects that really do take many billions of dollars to achieve. (Then again, shouldn’t our government be doing these things?) And if they just hold onto the wealth or reinvest it to make even more, a billionaire is nothing less than a hoarder, seeking gratification and status via ownership itself.

Indeed, I think the maximum amount of wealth one could ever really need is probably around $10 million in today’s dollars; with that amount, even a very low-risk investment portfolio could supply enough income to live wherever you want, wear whatever you want, drive whatever you want, eat whatever you want, travel whenever you want. At even a 5% return, that’s $500,000 per year to spend without ever working or depleting your savings. At 10%, you’d get a million dollars a year for sitting there and doing nothing. And yet there are people with one thousand times as much wealth as this.

But not all property is of this form. I was about to say “the vast majority” is not, but actually that’s not true; a large proportion of wealth is in fact in the form of capital hoarded by the rich. Indeed, about 50% of the world’s wealth is owned by the richest 1%. (To be fair, the world’s top 1% is a broader category than one might think; the top 1% in the world is about the top 5% in the US; based on census data, that puts the cutoff at about $250,000 in net wealth.) But the majority of people have wealth in some form, and would stand to suffer if property rights were not enforced at all.

So we might be tempted to the other extreme, as the far-right seems to be, and say that any force is justified in the protection of fundamental property rights—that if vagrants step onto my land, I am well within my rights to get out my shotgun. (You know, hypothetically; not that I own a shotgun, or, for that matter, any land.) This seems to appeal especially to those who nostalgize the life on the frontier, “living off the land” (often losing family members to what now seem like trivial bacterial illnesses), “self-sufficient” (with generous government subsidies), in the “unspoiled wilderness” (from which the Army had forcibly removed Native Americans). Westerns have given us this sense that frontier life offers a kind of freedom and adventure that this urbane civilization lacks. And I suppose I am a fan of at least one Western, since one should probably count Firefly.

Yet of course this is madness; no civilization could survive if it really allowed people to just arbitrarily “defend” whatever property claims they decided to make. Indeed, it’s really just the flip side of the coin; as we’ve seen in Somalia (oh, by the way, we’re deploying troops there again), not protecting property and allowing universal violence to defend any perceived property largely amount to the same thing. If anything, the far-left fantasy seems more appealing; at least then we would not be subject to physical violence, and could call upon the authorities to protect us from that. In the far-right fantasy, we could accidentally step on what someone else claims to be his land and end up shot in the head.

So we need to have rules about who can use violence to defend what property and why. And that, of course, is complicated. We can start by having a government that defines property claims and places limits on their enforcement; but that still leaves the question of which sort of property claims and enforcement mechanisms the government should allow.

I think the principle should essentially be minimum force. We do need to protect property rights, yes; but if there is a way of doing so without committing violence, that’s the way we should do it. And if we do need to use violence, we should use as little as possible.

In theory we already do this: We have “rules of engagement” for the military and “codes of conduct” for police. But in practice, these rules are rarely enforced; they only get applied to really extreme violations, and sometimes not even then. The idea seems to be that enforcing strict rules on our soldiers and police officers constitutes disloyalty, even treason. We should “let them do their jobs”. This is the norm that must change. Those rules are their jobs. If they break those rules, they aren’t doing their jobs—they’re doing something else, something that endangers the safety and security of our society. The disloyalty is not in investigating and enforcing rules against police misconduct—the disloyalty is in police misconduct. If you want to be a cop but you’re not willing to follow the rules, you don’t actually want to be a cop—you want to be a bully with a gun and a badge.

And of course, one need not be a government agency in order to use excessive force. Many private corporations have security forces of their own, which frequently abuse and assault people. Most terrifying of all, there are whole corporations of “private military contractors”—let’s call them what they are: mercenaries—like Academi, formerly known as Blackwater. The whole reason these corporations even exist is to evade regulations on military conduct, and that is why they must be eliminated.

In the United case, there was obviously a nonviolent answer; all they had to do was offer to pay people to give up their seats, and bid up the price until enough people left. Someone would have left eventually; there clearly was a market-clearing price. That would have cost $2,000, maybe $5,000 at the most—a lot better than the $255 million lost in United’s stock value as a result of the bad PR.

If a homeless person decides to squat in your house, yes, perhaps you’d be justified in calling the police to remove them. Clearly you’re under no obligation to provide them room and board indefinitely. But there may be better solutions: Is there a homeless shelter in the area? Could you give them a ride there, or at least bus fare?

When immigrants cross our borders, may we turn them away? Now, here’s one where I’m pretty strongly tempted to go all the way and say we have no right whatsoever to stop them. There are no requirements for being born into citizenship, after all—so on what grounds do we add requirements to acquire citizenship? Is there something in the water of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River that, when you drink it for 18 years (processed by municipal water systems of course; what are we, barbarians?), automatically makes you into a patriotic American? Does one become more law-abiding, or less capable of cruelty or fanaticism, by being brought into the world on one side of an imaginary line in the sand? If there are going to be requirements for citizenship, shouldn’t they be applied to everyone, and not just people who were born in the wrong place?

Yes, when we have no other choice, we must be prepared to use violence to defend property—because otherwise, there’s no such thing as property. But more often than not, we use violence when we didn’t need to, or use much more violence than was actually necessary. The principle that violence can be justified in defense of property does not entail that any violence is always justified in defense of property.

What is the point of democracy?

Apr 9, JDN 2457853

[This topic was chosen by Patreon vote.]

“Democracy” is the sort of word that often becomes just an Applause Light (indeed it was the original example Less Wrong used). Like “freedom” and “liberty” (and for much the same reasons), it’s a good thing, that much we know; but it’s often unclear what is even meant by the word, much less why it should be so important to us.

From another angle, it is strangely common for economists and political scientists to argue that democracy is not all that important; they at least tend to use a precise formal definition of “democracy”, but are oddly quick to dismiss it as pointless or even harmful when it doesn’t line up precisely with their models of an efficient economy or society. I think the best example of this is the so-called “Downs paradox”, where political scientists were so steeped in the tradition of defining all rationality as psychopathic self-interest that they couldn’t even explain why it would occur to anyone to vote. (And indeed, rumor has it that most economists don’t bother to vote, much less campaign politically—which perhaps begins to explain why our economic policy is so terrible.)

Yet especially for Americans in the Trump era, I think it is vital to understand what “democracy” is supposed to mean, and why it is so important.

So, first of all, what is democracy? It is nothing more or less than government by popular vote.

This comes in degrees, of course: The purest direct democracy would have the entire population vote on even the most mundane policies and decisions. You could actually manage something like a monastery or a social club in such a fashion, but this is clearly unworkable on any large scale. Even once you get to hundreds of people, much less thousands or millions, it becomes unviable. The closest example I’ve seen is Switzerland, where there are always numerous popular referenda on ballots that are voted on by entire regions or the entire country—and even then, Switzerland does have representatives that make many of the day-to-day decisions.

So in practice all large-scale democratic systems are some degree of representative democracy, or republic, where some especially decisions may be made by popular vote, but most policies are made by elected representatives, staff appointed by those representatives, or even career civil servants who are appointed in a nominally apolitical process not so different from private-sector hiring. In the most extreme cases such civil servants can become so powerful that you get a deep state, where career bureaucrats exercise more power than elected officials—at that point I think you have actually lost the right to really call yourself a “democracy” and have become something more like a technocracy.
Yet of course a country can get even more undemocratic than that, and many are, governed by an aristocracy or oligarchy that vests power in a small number of wealthy and powerful individuals, or monarchy or autocracy that gives near-absolute power to a single individual.

Thus, there is a continuum of most to least democratic, with popular vote at one end, followed by elected representatives, followed by appointed civil servants, followed by a handful of oligarchs, and ultimately the most undemocratic system is an autocracy controlled by a single individual.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that constitutional monarchies with strong parliamentary systems, like the United Kingdom and Norway, are also “democracies” in the sense I intend. Yes, technically they have these hereditary monarchs—but in practice, the vast majority of the state’s power is vested in the votes of its people. Indeed, if we separate out parliamentary constitutional monarchy from presidential majoritarian democracy and compare them, the former might actually turn out to be better. Certainly, some of the world’s most prosperous nations are governed that way.

As I’ve already acknowledge, the very far extreme of pure direct democracy is unfeasible. But why would we want to get closer to that end? Why be like Switzerland or Denmark rather than like Turkey or Russia—or for that matter why be like California rather than like Mississippi?
Well, if you know anything about the overall welfare of these states, it almost seems obvious—Switzerland and Denmark are richer, happier, safer, healthier, more peaceful, and overall better in almost every way than Turkey and Russia. The gap between California and Mississippi is not as large, but it is larger than most people realize. Median household income in California is $64,500; in Mississippi it is only $40,593. Both are still well within the normal range of a highly-developed country, but that effectively makes California richer than Luxembourg but Mississippi poorer than South Korea. But perhaps the really stark comparison to make is life expectancy: Life expectancy at birth in California is almost 81 years, while in Mississippi it’s only 75.

Of course, there are a lot of other differences between states besides how much of their governance is done by popular referendum. Simply making Mississippi decide more things by popular vote would not turn it into California—much less would making Turkey more democratic turn it into Switzerland. So we shouldn’t attribute these comparisons entirely to differences in democracy. Indeed, a pair of two-way comparisons is only in the barest sense a statistical argument; we should be looking at dozens if not hundreds of comparisons if we really want to see the effects of democracy. And we should of course be trying to control for other factors, adjust for country fixed-effects, and preferably use natural experiments or instrumental variables to tease out causality.

Yet such studies have in fact been done. Stronger degrees of democracy appear to improve long-run economic growth, as well as reduce corruption, increase free trade, protect peace, and even improve air quality.

Subtler analyses have compared majoritarian versus proportional systems (where proportional seems, to me, at least, more democratic), as well as different republican systems with stronger or weaker checks and balances (stronger is clearly better, though whether that is “more democratic” is at least debatable). The effects of democracy on income distribution are more complicated, probably because there have been some highly undemocratic socialist regimes.

So, the common belief that democracy is good seems to be pretty well supported by the data. But why is democracy good? Is it just a practical matter of happening to get better overall results? Could it one day be overturned by some superior system such as technocracy or a benevolent autocratic AI?

Well, I don’t want to rule out the possibility of improving upon existing systems of government. Clearly new systems of government have in fact emerged over the course of history—Greek “democracy” and Roman “republic” were both really aristocracy, and anything close to universal suffrage didn’t really emerge on a large scale until the 20th century. So the 21st (or 22nd) century could well devise a superior form of government we haven’t yet imagined.
However, I do think there is good reason to believe that any new system of government that actually manages to improve upon democracy will still resemble democracy, because there are three key features democracy has that other systems of government simply can’t match. It is these three features that make democracy so important and so worth fighting for.

1. Everyone’s interests are equally represented.

Perhaps no real system actually manages to represent everyone’s interests equally, but the more democratic a system is, the better it will conform to this ideal. A well-designed voting system can aggregate the interests of an entire population and choose the course of action that creates the greatest overall benefit.

Markets can also be a good system for allocating resources, but while markets represent everyone’s interests, they do so highly unequally. Rich people are quite literally weighted more heavily in the sum.

Most systems of government do even worse, by completely silencing the voices of the majority of the population. The notion of a “benevolent autocracy” is really a conceit; what makes you think you could possibly keep the autocrat benevolent?

This is also why any form of disenfranchisement is dangerous and a direct attack upon democracy. Even if people are voting irrationally, against their own interests and yours, by silencing their voice you are undermining the most fundamental tenet of democracy itself. All voices must be heard, no exceptions. That is democracy’s fundamental strength.

2. The system is self-correcting.

This may more accurately describe a constitutional republican system with strong checks and balances, but that is what most well-functioning democracies have and it is what I recommend. If you conceive of “more democracy” as meaning that people can vote their way into fascism by electing a sufficiently charismatic totalitarian, then I do not want us to have “more democracy”. But just as contracts and regulations that protect you can make you in real terms more free because you can now safely do things you otherwise couldn’t risk, I consider strong checks and balances that maintain the stability of a republic against charismatic fascists to be in a deeper sense more democratic. This is ultimately semantic; I think I’ve made it clear enough that I want strong checks and balances.

With such checks and balances in place, democracies may move slower than autocracies; they may spend more time in deliberation or even bitter, polarized conflict. But this also means that their policies do not lurch from one emperor’s whim to another, and they are stable against being overtaken by corruption or fascism. Their policies are stable and predictable; their institutions are strong and resilient.

No other system of government yet devised by humans has this kind of stability, which may be why democracies are gradually taking over the world. Charismatic fascism fails when the charismatic leader dies; hereditary monarchy collapses when the great-grandson of the great king is incompetent; even oligarchy and aristocracy, which have at least some staying power, ultimately fall apart when the downtrodden peasants ultimately revolt. But democracy abides, for where monarchy and aristocracy are made of families and autocracy and fascism are made of a single man, democracy is made of principles and institutions. Democracy is evolutionarily stable, and thus in Darwinian terms we can predict it will eventually prevail.

3. The coercion that government requires is justified.

All government is inherently coercive. Libertarians are not wrong about this. Taxation is coercive. Regulation is coercive. Law is coercive. (The ones who go on to say that all government is “death threats” or “slavery” are bonkers, mind you. But it is in fact coercive.)

The coercion of government is particularly terrible if that coercion is coming from a system like an autocracy, where the will of the people is minimally if at all represented in the decisions of policymakers. Then that is a coercion imposed from outside, a coercion in the fullest sense, one person who imposes their will upon another.

But when government coercion comes from a democracy, it takes on a fundamentally different meaning. Then it is not they who coerce us—it is we who coerce ourselves. Now, why in the world would you coerce yourself? It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Not if you know any game theory. There are in fall all sorts of reasons why one might want to coerce oneself, and two in particular become particularly important for the justification of democratic government.

The first and most important is collective action: There are many situations in which people all working together to accomplish a goal can be beneficial to everyone, but nonetheless any individual person who found a way to shirk their duty and not contribute could benefit even more. Anyone who has done a group project in school with a couple of lazy students in it will know this experience: You end up doing all the work, but they still get a good grade at the end. If everyone had taken the rational, self-interested action of slacking off, everyone in the group would have failed the project.

Now imagine that the group project we’re trying to achieve is, say, defending against an attack by Imperial Japan. We can’t exactly afford to risk that project falling through. So maybe we should actually force people to support it—in the form of taxes, or even perhaps a draft (as ultimately we did in WW2). Then it is no longer rational to try to shirk your duty, so everyone does their duty, the project gets done, and we’re all better off. How do we decide which projects are important enough to justify such coercion? We vote, of course. This is the most fundamental justification of democratic government.

The second that is relevant for government is commitment. There are many circumstances in which we want to accomplish something in the future, and from a long-run perspective it makes sense to achieve that goal—but then when the time comes to take action, we are tempted to procrastinate or change our minds. How can we resolve such a dilemma? Well, one way is to tie our own hands—to coerce ourselves into carrying out the necessary task we are tempted to avoid or delay.

This applies to many types of civil and criminal law, particularly regarding property ownership. Murder is a crime that most people would not commit even if it were completely legal. But shoplifting? I think if most people knew there would be no penalty for petty theft and retail fraud they would be tempted into doing it at least on occasion. I doubt it would be frequent enough to collapse our entire economic system, but it would introduce a lot of inefficiency, and make almost everything more expensive. By having laws in place that punish us for such behavior, we have a way of defusing such temptations, at least for most people most of the time. This is not as important for the basic functioning of government as is collective action, but I think it is still important enough to be worthy of mention.

Of course, there will always be someone who disagrees with any given law, regardless of how sensible and well-founded that law may be. And while in some sense “we all” agreed to pay these taxes, when the IRS actually demands that specific dollar amount from you, it may well be an amount that you would not have chosen if you’d been able to set our entire tax system yourself. But this is a problem of aggregation that I think may be completely intractable; there’s no way to govern by consensus, because human beings just can’t achieve consensus on the scale of millions of people. Governing by popular vote and representation is the best alternative we’ve been able to come up with. If and when someone devises a system of government that solves that problem and represents the public will even better than voting, then we will have a superior alternative to democracy.

Until then, it is as Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Tax plan possibilities

Mar 26, JDN 2457839

Recently President Trump (that phrase may never quite feel right) began presenting his new tax plan. To be honest, it’s not as ridiculous as I had imagined it might be. I mean, it’s still not very good, but it’s probably better than Reagan’s tax plan his last year in office, and it’s not nearly as absurd as the half-baked plan Trump originally proposed during the campaign.

But it got me thinking about the incredible untapped potential of our tax system—the things we could achieve as a nation, if we were willing to really commit to them and raise taxes accordingly.

A few years back I proposed a progressive tax system based upon logarithmic utility. I now have a catchy name for that tax proposal; I call it the logtax. It depends on two parameters—a poverty level, at which the tax rate goes to zero; and what I like to call a metarate—the fundamental rate that sets all the actual tax rates by the formula.

For the poverty level, I suggest we use the highest 2-household poverty level set by the Department of Health and Human Services: Because of Alaska’s high prices, that’s the Alaska poverty level, and the resulting figure is $20,290—let’s round to $20,000.

I would actually prefer to calculate taxes on an individual basis—I see no reason to incentivize particular household arrangements—but as current taxes are calculated on a household basis, I’m going to use that for now.

The metarate can be varied, and in the plans below I will compare different options for the metarate.

I will compare six different tax plans:

  1. Our existing tax plan, set under the Obama administration
  2. Trump’s proposed tax plan
  3. A flat rate of 30% with a basic income of $12,000, replacing welfare programs and Medicaid
  4. A flat rate of 40% with a basic income of $15,000, replacing welfare programs and Medicaid
  5. A logtax with a metarate of 20%, all spending intact
  6. A logtax with a metarate of 25% and a basic income of $12,000, replacing welfare programs and Medicaid
  7. A logtax with a metarate of 35% and a basic income of $15,000, cutting military spending by 50% and expanding Medicare to the entire population while eliminating Medicare payroll taxes

To do a proper comparison, I need estimates of the income distribution in the United States, in order to properly estimate the revenue from each type of tax. For that I used US Census data for most of the income data, supplementing with the World Top Incomes database for the very highest income brackets. The household data is broken up into brackets of $5,000 and only goes up to $250,000, so it’s a rough approximation to use the average household income for each bracket, but it’s all I’ve got.

The current brackets are 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, 35%, and 39.6%. These are actually marginal rates, not average rates, which makes the calculation a lot more complicated. I did it properly though; for example, when you start paying the marginal rate of 28%, your average rate is really only 20.4%.

Worst of all, I used static scoring—that is, I ignored the Laffer Effect by which increasing taxes changes incentives and can change pre-tax incomes. To really do this analysis properly, one should use dynamic scoring, taking these effects into account—but proper dynamic scoring is an enormous undertaking, and this is a blog post, not my dissertation.

Still, I was able to get pretty close to the true figures. The actual federal budget shows total revenue net of payroll taxes to be $2.397 trillion, whereas I estimated $2.326 trillion; the true deficit is $608 billion and I estimated $682 billion.

Under Trump’s tax plan, almost all rates are cut. He also plans to remove some deductions, but all reports I could find on the plan were vague as to which ones, and with data this coarse it’s very hard to get any good figures on deduction amounts anyway. I also want to give him credit where it’s due: It was a lot easier to calculate the tax rates under Trump’s plan (but still harder than under mine…). But in general what I found was the following:

Almost everyone pays less income tax under Trump’s plan, by generally about 4-5% of their income. The poor benefit less or are slightly harmed; the rich benefit a bit more.

For example, a household in poverty making $12,300 would pay $1,384 currently, but $1,478 under Trump’s plan, losing $94 or 0.8% of their income. An average household making $52,000 would pay $8,768 currently but only $6,238 under Trump’s plan, saving $2,530 or about 4.8% of their income. A household making $152,000 would pay $35,580 currently but only $28,235 under Trump’s plan, saving $7,345 or again about 4.8%. A top 1% household making $781,000 would pay $265,625 currently, but only $230,158 under Trump’s plan, saving $35,467 or about 4.5%. A top 0.1% household making $2,037,000 would pay $762,656 currently, but only $644,350 under Trump’s plan, saving $118,306 or 5.8% of their income. A top 0.01% household making $9,936,000 would pay $3,890,736 currently, but only $3,251,083 under Trump’s plan, saving $639,653 or 6.4% of their income.

Because taxes are cut across the board, Trump’s plan would raise less revenue. My static scoring will exaggerate this effect, but only moderately; my estimate says we would lose over $470 billion in annual revenue, while the true figure might be $300 billion. In any case, Trump will definitely increase the deficit substantially unless he finds a way to cut an awful lot of spending elsewhere—and his pet $54 billion increase to the military isn’t helping in that regard. My estimate of the new deficit under Trump’s plan is $1.155 trillion—definitely not the sort of deficit you should be running during a peacetime economic expansion.

Let’s see what we might have done instead.

If we value simplicity and ease of calculation, it’s hard to beat a flat tax plus basic income. With a flat tax of 30% and a basic income of $12,000 per household, the poor do much better off because of the basic income, while the rich do a little better because of the flat tax, and the middle class feels about the same because the two effects largely cancel. Calculating your tax liability now couldn’t be easier; multiply your income by 3, remove a zero—that’s what you owe in taxes. And how much do you get in basic income? The same as everyone else, $12,000.

Using the same comparison households: The poor household making $12,300 would now receive $8,305—increasing their income by $9,689 or 78.8% relative to the current system. The middle-class household making $52,000 would pay $3,596, saving $5,172 or 10% of their income. The upper-middle-class household making $152,000 would now pay $33,582, saving only $1998 or 1.3% of their income. The top 1% household making $782,000 would pay $234,461, saving $31,164 or 4.0%. The top 0.1% household making $2,037,000 would pay $611,000, saving $151,656 or 7.4%. Finally, the top 0.01% household making $9,936,000 would pay $2,980,757, saving $910,000 or 9.1%.

Thus, like Trump’s plan, the tax cut almost across the board results in less revenue. However, because of the basic income, we can now justify cutting a lot of spending on social welfare programs. I estimated we could reasonably save about $630 billion by cutting Medicaid and other social welfare programs, while still not making poor people worse off because of the basic income. The resulting estimated deficit comes in at $1.085 trillion, which is still too large—but less than what Trump is proposing.

If I raise the flat rate to 40%—just as easy to calculate—I can bring that deficit down, even if I raise the basic income to $15,000 to compensate. The poverty household now receives $10,073, and the other representative households pay $5,974; $45,776; $297,615; $799,666; and $3,959,343 respectively. This means that the poor are again much better off, the middle class are about the same, and the rich are now substantially worse off. But what’s our deficit now? $180 billion—that’s about 1% of GDP, the sort of thing you can maintain indefinitely with a strong currency.

Can we do better than this? I think we can, with my logtax.

I confess that the logtax is not quite as easy to calculate as the flat tax. It does require taking exponents, and you can’t do it in your head. But it’s actually still easier than the current system, because there are no brackets to keep track of, no discontinuous shifts in the marginal rate. It is continuously progressive for all incomes, and the same formula can be used for all incomes from zero to infinity.
The simplest plan just replaces the income tax with a logtax of 20%. The poor household now receives $1,254, just from the automatic calculation of the tax—no basic income was added. The middle-class household pays $9,041, slightly more than what they are currently paying. Above that, people start paying more for sure: $50,655; $406,076; $1,228,795; and $7,065,274 respectively.

This system is obviously more progressive, but does it raise sufficient revenue? Why, as a matter of fact it removes the deficit entirely. The model estimates that the budget would now be at surplus of $110 billion. This is probably too optimistic; under dynamic scoring the distortions are probably going to cut the revenue a little. But it would almost certainly reduce the deficit, and very likely eliminate it altogether—without any changes in spending.

The next logtax plan adds a basic income of $12,000. To cover this, I raised the metarate to 25%. Now the poor household is receiving $11,413, the middle-class household is paying a mere $1,115, and the other households are paying $50,144; $458,140; $1,384,475; and $7,819,932 respectively. That top 0.01% household isn’t going to be happy, as they are now paying 78% of their income where in our current system they would pay only 39%. But their after-tax income is still over $2 million.

How does the budget look now? As with the flat tax plan, we can save about $630 billion by cutting redundant social welfare programs. So we are once again looking at a surplus, this time of about $63 billion. Again, the dynamic scoring might show some deficit, but definitely not a large one.

Finally, what if I raise the basic income to $15,000 and raise the metarate to 35%? The poor household now receives $14,186, while the median household pays $2,383. The richer households of course foot the bill, paying $64,180; $551,031; $1,618,703; and $8,790,124 respectively. Oh no, the top 0.01% household will have to make do with only $1.2 million; how will they survive!?

This raises enough revenue that it allows me to do some even more exciting things. With a $15,000 basic income, I can eliminate social welfare programs for sure. But then I can also cut military spending, say in half—still leaving us the largest military in the world. I can move funds around to give Medicare to every single American, an additional cost of about twice what we currently pay for Medicare. Then Medicaid doesn’t just get cut; it can be eliminated entirely, folded into Medicare. Assuming that the net effect on total spending is zero, the resulting deficit is estimated at only $168 billion, well within the range of what can be sustained indefinitely.

And really, that’s only the start. Once you consider all the savings on healthcare spending—an average of $4000 per person per year, if switching to single-payer brings us down to the average of other highly-developed countries. This is more than what the majority of the population would be paying in taxes under this plan—meaning that once you include the healthcare benefits, the majority of Americans would net receive money from the government. Compared to our current system, everyone making under about $80,000 would be better off. That is what we could be doing right now—free healthcare for everyone, a balanced budget (or close enough), and the majority of Americans receiving more from the government than they pay in taxes.

These results are summarized in the table below. (I also added several more rows of representative households—though still not all the brackets I used!) I’ve color-coded who would be paying less in tax in green and who would be more in tax in red under each plan, compared to our current system. This color-coding is overly generous to Trump’s plan and the 30% flat tax plan, because it doesn’t account for the increased government deficit (though I did color-code those as well, again relative to the current system). And yet, over 50% of households make less than $51,986, putting the poorest half of Americans in the green zone for every plan except Trump’s. For the last plan, I also color-coded those between $52,000 and $82,000 who would pay additional taxes, but less than they save on healthcare, thus net saving money in blue. Including those folks, we’re benefiting over 69% of Americans.


pre-tax income

Current tax system Trump’s tax plan Flat 30% tax with $12k basic income Flat 40% tax with $15k basic income Logtax 20% Logtax 25% with $12k basic income Logtax 35% with $15k basic income, single-payer healthcare
$1,080 $108 $130 -$11,676 -$14,568 -$856 -$12,121 -$15,173
$12,317 $1,384 $1,478 -$8,305 -$10,073 -$1,254 -$11,413 -$14,186
$22,162 $2,861 $2,659 -$5,351 -$6,135 $450 -$9,224 -$11,213
$32,058 $4,345 $3,847 -$2,383 -$2,177 $2,887 -$6,256 -$7,258
$51,986 $8,768 $6,238 $3,596 $5,794 $9,041 $1,115 $2,383
$77,023 $15,027 $9,506 $11,107 $15,809 $18,206 $11,995 $16,350
$81,966 $16,263 $10,742 $12,590 $17,786 $20,148 $14,292 $17,786
$97,161 $20,242 $14,540 $17,148 $23,864 $26,334 $21,594 $28,516
$101,921 $21,575 $15,730 $18,576 $27,875 $30,571 $23,947 $31,482
$151,940 $35,580 $28,235 $33,582 $45,776 $50,655 $50,144 $64,180
$781,538 $265,625 $230,158 $222,461 $297,615 $406,076 $458,140 $551,031
$2,036,666 $762,656 $644,350 $599,000 $799,666 $1,228,795 $1,384,475 $1,618,703
$9,935,858 $3,890,736 $3,251,083 $2,968,757 $3,959,343 $7,065,274 $7,819,932 $8,790,124
Change in federal spending $0 $0 -$630 billion -$630 billion $0 -$630 billion $0
Estimated federal surplus -$682 billion -$1,155 billion -$822 billion -$180 billion $110 billion $63 billion -$168 billion

Intellectual Property, revisited

Mar 12, JDN 2457825

A few weeks ago I wrote a post laying out the burden of proof for intellectual property, but didn’t have time to get into the empirical question of whether our existing intellectual property system can meet this burden of proof.

First of all, I want to make a very sharp distinction between three types of regulations that are all called “intellectual property”.

First there are trademarks, which I have absolutely no quarrel with. Avoiding fraud and ensuring transparency are fundamental functions without which markets would unravel, and without trademarks these things would be much harder to accomplish. Trademarks allow a company to establish a brand identity that others cannot usurp; they ensure that when you buy Coca-Cola (R) it is really in fact the beverage you expect and not some counterfeit knockoff. (And if counterfeit Coke sounds silly, note that counterfeit honey and maple syrup are actually a major problem.) Yes, there should be limits on how much you can trademark—no one wants to live in a world where you feel Love ™ and open Screen Doors ™—but in fact our courts are already fairly good about only allowing corporations to trademark newly-coined words and proper names for their products.

Next there are copyrights, which I believe are currently too strong and often abused, but I do think should exist in some form (or perhaps copylefts instead). Authors should have at least certain basic rights over how their work can be used and published. If nothing else, proper attribution should always be required, as without that plagiarism becomes intolerably easy. And steps should be taken to ensure that if any people profit from its sale, the author is among them. I publish this blog under a by-sa copyleft, which essentially means that you can share it with whomever you like and even adapt its content into your own work, so long as you properly attribute it to me and you do not attempt to claim ownership over it. For scientific content, I think only a copyleft of this sort makes sense—the era of for-profit journals with paywalls must end, as it is holding back our civilization. But for artistic content (and I mean art in the broadest sense, including books, music, movies, plays, and video games), stronger regulations might well make sense. The question is whether our current system is actually too strong, or is protecting the wrong people—often it seems to protect the corporations that sell the content rather than the artists who created it.

Finally there are patents. Unlike copyright which applies to a specific work of art, patent is meant to apply to the underlying concept of a technology. Copyright (or rather the by-sa copyleft) protects the text of this article; you can’t post it on your own blog and claim you wrote it. But if I were to patent it somehow (generally, verbal arguments cannot be patented, fortunately), you wouldn’t even be able to paraphrase it. The trademark on a Samsung ™ TV just means that if I make a TV I can’t say I am Samsung, because I’m not. You wouldn’t copyright a TV, but the analogous process would be if I were to copy every single detail of the television and try to sell that precise duplicate. But the patents on that TV mean that if I take it apart, study each component, find a way to build them all from my own raw materials, even make them better, and build a new TV out of them that looks different and performs better—I would still be infringing on intellectual property. Patents grant an extremely strong notion of property rights, one which actually undermines a lot of other, more basic concepts of property. It’s my TV, why can’t I take it apart and copy the components? Well, as long as the patent holds, it’s not entirely my TV. Property rights this strong—that allow a corporation to have its cake of selling the TV but eat it too by owning the rights to all its components—require a much stronger justification.

Trademark protects a name, which is unproblematic. Copyright protects a work, which carries risks but is still probably necessary in many cases. But patent protects an idea—and we should ask ourselves whether that is really something it makes sense to do.

In previous posts I’ve laid out some of the basic philosophical arguments for why patents do not seem to support innovation and may actually undermine it. But in this post I want to do something more direct and quantitative: Empirically, what is the actual effect of copyrights and patents on innovation? Can we find a way to quantify the costs and benefits to our society of different modes of intellectual property?

Economists quantify things all the time, so I briefly combed the literature to see what sort of empirical studies had been done on the economic impact of copyrights and patents.

Patents definitely create barriers to scientific collaboration: Scientific articles with ideas that don’t get patented are about 10-20% more likely to be cited than scientific articles with ideas that are patented. (I would have expected a larger effect, but that’s still not trivial.)

A 1995 study found that creased patent protections do seem to be positively associated with more trade.

A 2009 study of Great Britain published in AER found it “puzzling” that stronger patents actually seem to reduce the rate of innovation domestically, while having no effect on foreign innovation—yet this is exactly what I would have predicted. Foreign innovations should be largely unaffected by UK patents, but stricter patent laws in the UK make it harder for most actual innovators, only benefiting a handful of corporations that aren’t even particularly innovative.

This 1996 study did find a positive effect of stronger patent laws on economic growth, but it was quite small and only statistically significant when using instrumental variables that they couldn’t be bothered to define except in an appendix. When your result hinges on the use of instrumental variables that you haven’t even clearly defined in the paper, something is very fishy. My guess is that they p-hacked the instruments until they got the result they wanted.

This other 1996 study is a great example of why economists need to listen to psychologists. It found a negative correlation between foreign direct investment and—wait for it—the number of companies that answered “yes” to a survey question, “Does country X have intellectual property protection too weak to allow you to transfer your newest or most effective technology to a wholly-owned subsidiarythere?” Oh, wow, you found a correlation between foreign direct investment and a question directly asking about foreign direct investment.

his 2004 study found a nonlinear relationship whereby increased economic development affects intellectual property rights, rather than the other way around. But I find their theoretical model quite odd, and the scatter plot that lies at the core of their empirical argument reminds me of Rexthor, the Dog-Bearer. “This relationship appears to be non-linear,” they say when pointing at a scatter plot that looks mostly like nothing and maybe like a monotonic increase.

This 1997 study found a positive correlation between intellectual property strength, R&D spending, and economic growth. The effect is weak, but the study looks basically sound. (Though I must say I’d never heard anyone use the words “significant at the 24% level” before. Normally one would say “nonsignificant” for that variable methinks. It’s okay for it not to be significant in some of your regressions, you know.)

This 1992 paper found that intellectual property harms poor countries and may or may not benefit rich countries, but it uses a really weird idiosyncratic theoretical model to get there. Frankly if I see the word “theorem” anywhere in your empirical paper, I get suspicious. No, it is not a theorem that “For economies in steady state the South loses from tighter intellectual property rights.” It may be true, but it does not follow from the fundamental axioms of mathematics.

This law paper is excellent; it focuses on the fact that intellectual property is a unique arrangement and a significant deviation from conventional property rights. It tracks the rise of legal arguments that erroneously equate intellectual property with real property, and makes the vital point that fully internalizing the positive externalities of technology was never the goal, and would in fact be horrible should it come to pass. We would all have to pay most of our income in royalties to the Newton and Faraday estates. So, I highly recommend reading it. But it doesn’t contain any empirical results on the economic effects of intellectual property.

This is the best paper I was able to find showing empirical effects of different intellectual property regimes; I really have no complaints about its econometrics. But it was limited to post-Soviet economies shortly after the fall of the USSR, which were rather unique circumstances. (Indeed, by studying only those countries, you’d probably conclude that free markets are harmful, because the shock of transition was so great.)

This 1999 paper is also quite good; using a natural experiment from a sudden shift in Japanese patent policy, they found almost no difference in actual R&D. The natural experiment design makes this particularly credible, but it’s difficult to generalize since it only covered Japan specifically.

This study focused in particular on copyrights and the film industry, and found a nonlinear effect: While having no copyright protection at all was harmful to the film industry, making the copyright protections too strong had a strangling effect on new filmmakers entering the industry. This would suggest that the optimal amount of copyright is moderate, which sounds reasonable to me.

This 2009 study did a much more detailed comparison of different copyright regimes, and was unable to find a meaningful pattern amidst the noise. Indeed, they found that the only variable that consistently predicted the number of new works of art was population—more people means more art, and nothing else seemed to matter. If this is correct, it’s quite damning to copyright; it would suggest that people make art for reasons fundamentally orthogonal to copyright, and copyright does almost nothing useful. (And I must say, if you talk to most artists, that tends to be their opinion on the matter!)

This 1996 paper found that stronger patents had no benefits for poor countries, but benefited rich countries quite a large amount: Increased patent protection was estimated to add as much as 0.7% annual GDP growth over the whole period. That’s a lot; if this is really true, stronger patents are almost certainly worth it. But then it becomes difficult to explain why more precise studies haven’t found effects anywhere near that large.

This paper was pretty interesting; they found a fat-tailed distribution of patents, where most firms have none, many have one or a few, and a handful of firms have a huge number of patents. This is also consistent with the distribution of firm revenue and profit—and I’d be surprised if I didn’t find a strong correlation between all three. But this really doesn’t tell us whether patents are contributing to innovation.
This paper found that the harmonization of global patents in the Uruguay Round did lead to gains from trade for most countries, but also transferred about $4.5 billion to the US from the rest of the world. Of course, that’s really not that large an amount when we’re talking about global policy over several years.

What does all that mean? I don’t know. It’s a mess. There just don’t seem to be any really compelling empirical studies on the economic impact of copyrights and patents. The preponderance of the evidence, such as it is, would seem to suggest that copyrights provide a benefit as long as they aren’t too strong, while patents provide a benefit but it is quite small and likely offset by the rent-seeking of the corporations that own them. The few studies that found really large effects (like 0.7% annual GDP growth) don’t seem very credible to me; if the effect were really that large, it shouldn’t be so ambiguous. 0.7% per year over 25 years is a GDP 20% larger. Over 50 years, GDP would be 42% larger. We would be able to see that.

Does this ambiguity mean we should do nothing, and wait until the data is better? I don’t think so. Remember, the burden of proof for intellectual property should be high. It’s a fundamentally bizarre notion of property, one which runs against most of our standard concepts of real property; it restricts our rights in very basic ways, making literally the majority of our population into criminals. Such a draconian policy requires a very strong justification, but such a justification does not appear to be forthcoming. If it could be supported, that 0.7% GDP growth might be enough; but it doesn’t seem to be replicable. A free society does not criminalize activities just in case it might be beneficial to do so—it only criminalizes activities that have demonstrable harm. And the harm of copyright and patent infringement simply isn’t demonstrable enough to justify its criminalization.

We don’t have to remove them outright, but we should substantially weaken copyright and patent laws. They should be short-term, they should provide very basic protection, and they should never be owned by corporations, always by individuals (corporations should be able to license them—but not own them). If we then observe a substantial reduction in innovation and economic output, then we can put them back. But I think that what defenders of intellectual property fear most is that if we tried this, it wouldn’t be so bad—and then the “doom and gloom” justification they’ve been relying on all this time would fall apart.

Markets value rich people more

Feb 26, JDN 2457811

Competitive markets are optimal at maximizing utility, as long as you value rich people more.

That is literally a theorem in neoclassical economics. I had previously thought that this was something most economists didn’t realize; I had delusions of grandeur that maybe I could finally convince them that this is the case. But no, it turns out this is actually a well-known finding; it’s just that somehow nobody seems to care. Or if they do care, they never talk about it. For all the thousands of papers and articles about the distortions created by minimum wage and capital gains tax, you’d think someone could spare the time to talk about the vastly larger fundamental distortions created by the structure of the market itself.

It’s not as if this is something completely hopeless we could never deal with. A basic income would go a long way toward correcting this distortion, especially if coupled with highly progressive taxes. By creating a hard floor and a soft ceiling on income, you can reduce the inequality that makes these distortions so large.

The basics of the theorem are quite straightforward, so I think it’s worth explaining them here. It’s extremely general; it applies anywhere that goods are allocated by market prices and different individuals have wildly different amounts of wealth.

Suppose that each person has a certain amount of wealth W to spend. Person 1 has W1, person 2 has W2, and so on. They all have some amount of happiness, defined by a utility function, which I’ll assume is only dependent on wealth; this is a massive oversimplification of course, but it wouldn’t substantially change my conclusions to include other factors—it would just make everything more complicated. (In fact, including altruistic motives would make the whole argument stronger, not weaker.) Thus I can write each person’s utility as a function U(W). The rate of change of this utility as wealth increases, the marginal utility of wealth, is denoted U'(W).

By the law of diminishing marginal utility, the marginal utility of wealth U'(W) is decreasing. That is, the more wealth you have, the less each new dollar is worth to you.

Now suppose people are buying goods. Each good C provides some amount of marginal utility U'(C) to the person who buys it. This can vary across individuals; some people like Pepsi, others Coke. This marginal utility is also decreasing; a house is worth a lot more to you if you are living in the street than if you already have a mansion. Ideally we would want the goods to go to the people who want them the most—but as you’ll see in a moment, markets systematically fail to do this.

If people are making their purchases rationally, each person’s willingness-to-pay P for a given good C will be equal to their marginal utility of that good, divided by their marginal utility of wealth:

P = U'(C)/U'(W)

Now consider this from the perspective of society as a whole. If you wanted to maximize utility, you’d equalize marginal utility across individuals (by the Extreme Value Theorem). The idea is that if marginal utility is higher for one person, you should give that person more, because the benefit of what you give them will be larger that way; and if marginal utility is lower for another person, you should give that person less, because the benefit of what you give them will be smaller. When everyone is equal, you are at the maximum.

But market prices don’t actually do this. Instead they equalize over willingness-to-pay. So if you’ve got two individuals 1 and 2, instead of having this:

U'(C1) = U'(C2)

you have this:

P1 = P2

which translates to:

U'(C1)/U'(W1) = U'(C2)/U'(W2)

If the marginal utilities were the same, U'(W1) = U'(W2), we’d be fine; these would give the same results. But that would only happen if W1 = W2, that is, if the two individuals had the same amount of wealth.

Now suppose we were instead maximizing weighted utility, where each person gets a weighting factor A based on how “important” they are or something. If your A is higher, your utility matters more. If we maximized this new weighted utility, we would end up like this:

A1*U'(C1) = A2*U'(C2)

Because person 1’s utility counts for more, their marginal utility also counts for more. This seems very strange; why are we valuing some people more than others? On what grounds?

Yet this is effectively what we’ve already done by using market prices.
Just set:
A = 1/U'(W)

Since marginal utility of wealth is decreasing, 1/U'(W) is higher precisely when W is higher.

How much higher? Well, that depends on the utility function. The two utility functions I find most plausible are logarithmic and harmonic. (Actually I think both apply, one to other-directed spending and the other to self-directed spending.)

If utility is logarithmic:

U = ln(W)

Then marginal utility is inversely proportional:

U'(W) = 1/W

In that case, your value as a human being, as spoken by the One True Market, is precisely equal to your wealth:

A = 1/U'(W) = W

If utility is harmonic, matters are even more severe.

U(W) = 1-1/W

Marginal utility goes as the inverse square of wealth:

U'(W) = 1/W^2

And thus your value, according to the market, is equal to the square of your wealth:

A = 1/U'(W) = W^2

What are we really saying here? Hopefully no one actually believes that Bill Gates is really morally worth 400 trillion times as much as a starving child in Malawi, as the calculation from harmonic utility would imply. (Bill Gates himself certainly doesn’t!) Even the logarithmic utility estimate saying that he’s worth 20 million times as much is pretty hard to believe.

But implicitly, the market “believes” that, because when it decides how to allocate resources, something that is worth 1 microQALY to Bill Gates (about the value a nickel dropped on the floor to you or I) but worth 20 QALY (twenty years of life!) to the Malawian child, will in either case be priced at $8,000, and since the child doesn’t have $8,000, it will probably go to Mr. Gates. Perhaps a middle-class American could purchase it, provided it was worth some 0.3 QALY to them.

Now consider that this is happening in every transaction, for every good, in every market. Goods are not being sold to the people who get the most value out of them; they are being sold to the people who have the most money.

And suddenly, the entire edifice of “market efficiency” comes crashing down like a house of cards. A global market that quite efficiently maximizes willingness-to-pay is so thoroughly out of whack when it comes to actually maximizing utility that massive redistribution of wealth could enormously increase human welfare, even if it turned out to cut our total output in half—if utility is harmonic, even if it cut our total output to one-tenth its current value.

The only way to escape this is to argue that marginal utility of wealth is not decreasing, or at least decreasing very, very slowly. Suppose for instance that utility goes as the 0.9 power of wealth:

U(W) = W^0.9

Then marginal utility goes as the -0.1 power of wealth:

U'(W) = 0.9 W^(-0.1)

On this scale, Bill Gates is only worth about 5 times as much as the Malawian child, which in his particular case might actually be too small—if a trolley is about to kill either Bill Gates or 5 Malawian children, I think I save Bill Gates, because he’ll go on to save many more than 5 Malawian children. (Of course, substitute Donald Trump or Charles Koch and I’d let the trolley run over him without a second thought if even a single child is at stake, so it’s not actually a function of wealth.) In any case, a 5 to 1 range across the whole range of human wealth is really not that big a deal. It would introduce some distortions, but not enough to justify any redistribution that would meaningfully reduce overall output.

Of course, that commits you to saying that $1 to a Malawian child is only worth about $1.50 to you or I and $5 to Bill Gates. If you can truly believe this, then perhaps you can sleep at night accepting the outcomes of neoclassical economics. But can you, really, believe that? If you had the choice between an intervention that would give $100 to each of 10,000 children in Malawi, and another that would give $50,000 to each of 100 billionaires, would you really choose the billionaires? Do you really think that the world would be better off if you did?

We don’t have precise measurements of marginal utility of wealth, unfortunately. At the moment, I think logarithmic utility is the safest assumption; it’s about the slowest decrease that is consistent with the data we have and it is very intuitive and mathematically tractable. Perhaps I’m wrong and the decrease is even slower than that, say W^(-0.5) (then the market only values billionaires as worth thousands of times as much as starving children). But there’s no way you can go as far as it would take to justify our current distribution of wealth. W^(-0.1) is simply not a plausible value.

And this means that free markets, left to their own devices, will systematically fail to maximize human welfare. We need redistribution—a lot of redistribution. Don’t take my word for it; the math says so.

There is no problem of free will, just a lot of really confused people

Jan 15, JDN 2457769

I was hoping for some sort of news item to use as a segue, but none in particular emerged, so I decided to go on with it anyway. I haven’t done any cognitive science posts in awhile, and this is one I’ve been meaning to write for a long time—actually it’s the sort of thing that even a remarkable number of cognitive scientists frequently get wrong, perhaps because the structure of human personality makes cognitive science inherently difficult.

Do we have free will?

The question has been asked so many times by so many people it is now a whole topic in philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an entire article on free will. The Information Philosopher has a gateway page “The Problem of Free Will” linking to a variety of subpages. There are even YouTube videos about “the problem of free will”.

The constant arguing back and forth about this would be problematic enough, but what really grates me are the many, many people who write “bold” articles and books about how “free will does not exist”. Examples include Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne, and have been published in everything from Psychology Today to the Chronicle of Higher Education. There’s even a TED talk.

The worst ones are those that follow with “but you should believe in it anyway”. In The Atlantic we have “Free will does not exist. But we’re better off believing in it anyway.” Scientific American offers a similar view, “Scientists say free will probably doesn’t exist, but urge: “Don’t stop believing!””

This is a mind-bogglingly stupid approach. First of all, if you want someone to believe in something, you don’t tell them it doesn’t exist. Second, if something doesn’t exist, that is generally considered a pretty compelling reason not to believe in it. You’d need a really compelling counter-argument, and frankly I’m not even sure the whole idea is logically coherent. How can I believe in something if I know it doesn’t exist? Am I supposed to delude myself somehow?

But the really sad part is that it’s totally unnecessary. There is no problem of free will. There are just an awful lot of really, really confused people. (Fortunately not everyone is confused; there are those, such as Daniel Dennett, who actually understand what’s going on.)

The most important confusion is over what you mean by the phrase “free will”. There are really two core meanings here, and the conflation of them is about 90% of the problem.

1. Moral responsibility: We have “free will” if and only if we are morally responsible for our actions.

2. Noncausality: We have “free will” if and only if our actions are not caused by the laws of nature.

Basically, every debate over “free will” boils down to someone pointing out that noncausality doesn’t exist, and then arguing that this means that moral responsibility doesn’t exist. Then someone comes back and says that moral responsibility does exist, and then infers that this means noncausality must exist. Or someone points out that noncausality doesn’t exist, and then they realize how horrible it would be if moral responsibility didn’t exist, and then tells people they should go on believing in noncausality so that they don’t have to give up moral responsibility.

Let me be absolutely clear here: Noncausality could not possibly exist.

Noncausality isn’t even a coherent concept. Actions, insofar as they are actions, must, necessarily, by definition, be caused by the laws of nature.

I can sort of imagine an event not being caused; perhaps virtual electron-positron pairs can really pop into existence without ever being caused. (Even then I’m not entirely convinced; I think quantum mechanics might actually be deterministic at the most fundamental level.)

But an action isn’t just a particle popping into existence. It requires the coordinated behavior of some 10^26 or more particles, all in a precisely organized, unified way, structured so as to move some other similarly large quantity of particles through space in a precise way so as to change the universe from one state to another state according to some system of objectives. Typically, it involves human muscles intervening on human beings or inanimate objects. (Recently it has come to mean specifically human fingers on computer keyboards a rather large segment of the time!) If what you do is an action—not a muscle spasm, not a seizure, not a slip or a trip, but something you did on purpose—then it must be caused. And if something is caused, it must be caused according to the laws of nature, because the laws of nature are the laws underlying all causality in the universe!

And once you realize that, the “problem of free will” should strike you as one of the stupidest “problems” ever proposed. Of course our actions are caused by the laws of nature! Why in the world would you think otherwise?

If you think that noncausality is necessary—or even useful—for free will, what kind of universe do you think you live in? What kind of universe could someone live in, that would fit your idea of what free will is supposed to be?

It’s like I said in that much earlier post about The Basic Fact of Cognitive Science (we are our brains): If you don’t think a mind can be made of matter, what do you think minds are made of? What sort of magical invisible fairy dust would satisfy you? If you can’t even imagine something that would satisfy the constraints you’ve imposed, did it maybe occur to you that your constraints are too strong?

Noncausality isn’t worth fretting over for the same reason that you shouldn’t fret over the fact that pi is irrational and you can’t make a square circle. There is no possible universe in which that isn’t true. So if it bothers you, it’s not that there’s something wrong with the universe—it’s clearly that there’s something wrong with you. Your thinking on the matter must be too confused, too dependent on unquestioned intuitions, if you think that murder can’t be wrong unless 2+2=5.

In philosophical jargon I am called a “compatibilist” because I maintain that free will and determinism are “compatible”. But this is much too weak a term. I much prefer Eleizer Yudkowsky’s “requiredism”, which he explains in one of the greatest blog posts of all time (seriously, read it immediately if you haven’t before—I’m okay with you cutting off my blog post here and reading his instead, because it truly is that brilliant), entitled simply “Thou Art Physics”. This quote sums it up briefly:

My position might perhaps be called “Requiredism.” When agency, choice, control, and moral responsibility are cashed out in a sensible way, they require determinism—at least some patches of determinism within the universe. If you choose, and plan, and act, and bring some future into being, in accordance with your desire, then all this requires a lawful sort of reality; you cannot do it amid utter chaos. There must be order over at least over those parts of reality that are being controlled by you. You are within physics, and so you/physics have determined the future. If it were not determined by physics, it could not be determined by you.

Free will requires a certain minimum level of determinism in the universe, because the universe must be orderly enough that actions make sense and there isn’t simply an endless succession of random events. Call me a “requiredist” if you need to call me something. I’d prefer you just realize the whole debate is silly because moral responsibility exists and noncausality couldn’t possibly.

We could of course use different terms besides “free will”. “Moral responsibility” is certainly a good one, but it is missing one key piece, which is the issue of why we can assign moral responsibility to human beings and a few other entities (animals, perhaps robots) and not to the vast majority of entities (trees, rocks, planets, tables), and why we are sometimes willing to say that even a human being does not have moral responsibility (infancy, duress, impairment).

This is why my favored term is actually “rational volition”. The characteristic that human beings have (at least most of us, most of the time), which also many animals and possibly some robots share (if not now, then soon enough), which justifies our moral responsibility is precisely our capacity to reason. Things don’t just happen to us the way they do to some 99.999,999,999% of the universe; we do things. We experience the world through our senses, have goals we want to achieve, and act in ways that are planned to make the world move closer to achieving those goals. We have causes, sure enough; but not just any causes. We have a specific class of causes, which are related to our desires and intentions—we call these causes reasons.

So if you want to say that we don’t have “free will” because that implies some mysterious nonsensical noncausality, sure; that’s fine. But then don’t go telling us that this means we don’t have moral responsibility, or that we should somehow try to delude ourselves into believing otherwise in order to preserve moral responsibility. Just recognize that we do have rational volition.

How do I know we have rational volition? That’s the best part, really: Experiments. While you’re off in la-la land imagining fanciful universes where somehow causes aren’t really causes even though they are, I can point to not only centuries of human experience but decades of direct, controlled experiments in operant conditioning. Human beings and most other animals behave quite differently in behavioral experiments than, say, plants or coffee tables. Indeed, it is precisely because of this radical difference that it seems foolish to even speak of a “behavioral experiment” about coffee tables—because coffee tables don’t behave, they just are. Coffee tables don’t learn. They don’t decide. They don’t plan or consider or hope or seek.

Japanese, as it turns out, may be a uniquely good language for cognitive science, because it has two fundamentally different verbs for “to be” depending on whether an entity is sentient. Humans and animals imasu, while inanimate objects merely arimasu. We have free will because and insofar as we imasu.

Once you get past that most basic confusion of moral responsibility with noncausality, there are a few other confusions you might run into as well. Another one is two senses of “reductionism”, which Dennett refers to as “ordinary” and “greedy”:

1. Ordinary reductionism: All systems in the universe are ultimately made up of components that always and everywhere obey the laws of nature.

2. Greedy reductionism: All systems in the universe just are their components, and have no existence, structure, or meaning aside from those components.

I actually had trouble formulating greedy reductionism as a coherent statement, because it’s such a nonsensical notion. Does anyone really think that a pile of two-by-fours is the same thing as a house? But people do speak as though they think this about human brains, when they say that “love is just dopamine” or “happiness is just serotonin”. But dopamine in a petri dish isn’t love, any more than a pile of two-by-fours is a house; and what I really can’t quite grok is why anyone would think otherwise.

Maybe they’re simply too baffled by the fact that love is made of dopamine (among other things)? They can’t quite visualize how that would work (nor can I, nor, I think, can anyone in the world at this level of scientific knowledge). You can see how the two-by-fours get nailed together and assembled into the house, but you can’t see how dopamine and action potentials would somehow combine into love.

But isn’t that a reason to say that love isn’t the same thing as dopamine, rather than that it is? I can understand why some people are still dualists who think that consciousness is somehow separate from the functioning of the brain. That’s wrong—totally, utterly, ridiculously wrong—but I can at least appreciate the intuition that underlies it. What I can’t quite grasp is why someone would go so far the other way and say that the consciousness they are currently experiencing does not exist.

Another thing that might confuse people is the fact that minds, as far as we know, are platform independentthat is, your mind could most likely be created out of a variety of different materials, from the gelatinous brain it currently is to some sort of silicon supercomputer, to perhaps something even more exotic. This independence follows from the widely-believed Church-Turing thesis, which essentially says that all computation is computation, regardless of how it is done. This may not actually be right, but I see many reasons to think that it is, and if so, this means that minds aren’t really what they are made of at all—they could be made of lots of things. What makes a mind a mind is how it is structured and above all what it does.

If this is baffling to you, let me show you how platform-independence works on a much simpler concept: Tables. Tables are also in fact platform-independent. You can make a table out of wood, or steel, or plastic, or ice, or bone. You could take out literally every single atom of a table and replace it will a completely different atom of a completely different element—carbon for iron, for example—and still end up with a table. You could conceivably even do so without changing the table’s weight, strength, size, etc., though that would be considerably more difficult.
Does this mean that tables somehow exist “beyond” their constituent matter? In some very basic sense, I suppose so—they are, again, platform-independent. But not in any deep, mysterious sense. Start with a wooden table, take away all the wood, and you no longer have a table. Take apart the table and you have a bunch of wood, which you could use to build something else. There is no “essence” comprising the table. There is no “table soul” that would persist when the table is deconstructed.

And—now for the hard part—so it is with minds. Your mind is your brain. The constituent atoms of your brain are gradually being replaced, day by day, but your mind is the same, because it exists in the arrangement and behavior, not the atoms themselves. Yet there is nothing “extra” or “beyond” that makes up your mind. You have no “soul” that lies beyond your brain. If your brain is destroyed, your mind will also be destroyed. If your brain could be copied, your mind would also be copied. And one day it may even be possible to construct your mind in some other medium—some complex computer made of silicon and tantalum, most likely—and it would still be a mind, and in all its thoughts, feelings and behaviors your mind, if not numerically identical to you.

Thus, when we engage in rational volition—when we use our “free will” if you like that term—there is no special “extra” process beyond what’s going on in our brains, but there doesn’t have to be. Those particular configurations of action potentials and neurotransmitters are our thoughts, desires, plans, intentions, hopes, fears, goals, beliefs. These mental concepts are not in addition to the physical material; they are made of that physical material. Your soul is made of gelatin.

Again, this is not some deep mystery. There is no “paradox” here. We don’t actually know the details of how it works, but that makes this no different from a Homo erectus who doesn’t know how fire works. Maybe he thinks there needs to be some extra “fire soul” that makes it burn, but we know better; and in far fewer centuries than separate that Homo erectus from us, our descendants will know precisely how the brain creates the mind.

Until then, simply remember that any mystery here lies in us—in our ignorance—and not in the universe. And take heart that the kind of “free will” that matters—moral responsibility—has absolutely no need for the kind of “free will” that doesn’t exist—noncausality. They’re totally different things.

The game theory of holidays

Dec 25, JDN 2457748

When this post goes live, it will be Christmas; so I felt I should make the topic somehow involve the subject of Christmas, or holidays in general.

I decided I would pull back for as much perspective as possible, and ask this question: Why do we have holidays in the first place?

All human cultures have holidays, but not the same ones. Cultures with a lot of mutual contact will tend to synchronize their holidays temporally, but still often preserve wildly different rituals on those same holidays. Yes, we celebrate “Christmas” in both the US and in Austria; but I think they are baffled by the Elf on the Shelf and I know that I find the Krampus bizarre and terrifying.

Most cultures from temperate climates have some sort of celebration around the winter solstice, probably because this is an ecologically important time for us. Our food production is about to get much, much lower, so we’d better make sure we have sufficient quantities stored. (In an era of globalization and processed food that lasts for months, this is less important, of course.) But they aren’t the same celebration, and they generally aren’t exactly on the solstice.

What is a holiday, anyway? We all get off work, we visit our families, and we go through a series of ritualized actions with some sort of symbolic cultural meaning. Why do we do this?

First, why not work all year round? Wouldn’t that be more efficient? Well, no, because human beings are subject to exhaustion. We need to rest at least sometimes.

Well, why not simply have each person rest whenever they need to? Well, how do we know they need to? Do we just take their word for it? People might exaggerate their need for rest in order to shirk their duties and free-ride on the work of others.

It would help if we could have pre-scheduled rest times, to remove individual discretion.

Should we have these at the same time for everyone, or at different times for each person?

Well, from the perspective of efficiency, different times for each person would probably make the most sense. We could trade off work in shifts that way, and ensure production keeps moving. So why don’t we do that?
Well, now we get to the game theory part. Do you want to be the only one who gets today off? Or do you want other people to get today off as well?

You probably want other people to be off work today as well, at least your family and friends so that you can spend time with them. In fact, this is probably more important to you than having any particular day off.

We can write this as a normal-form game. Suppose we have four days to choose from, 1 through 4, and two people, who can each decide which day to take off, or they can not take a day off at all. They each get a payoff of 1 if they take the same day off, 0 if they take different days off, and -1 if they don’t take a day off at all. This is our resulting payoff matrix:

1 2 3 4 None
1 1/1 0/0 0/0 0/0 0/-1
2 0/0 1/1 0/0 0/0 0/-1
3 0/0 0/0 1/1 0/0 0/-1
4 0/0 0/0 0/0 1/1 0/-1
None -1/0 -1/0 -1/0 -1/0 -1/-1


It’s pretty obvious that each person will take some day off. But which day? How do they decide that?
This is what we call a coordination game; there are many possible equilibria to choose from, and the payoffs are highest if people can somehow coordinate their behavior.

If they can actually coordinate directly, it’s simple; one person should just suggest a day, and since the other one is indifferent, they have no reason not to agree to that day. From that point forward, they have coordinated on a equilibrium (a Nash equilibrium, in point of fact).

But suppose they can’t talk to each other, or suppose there aren’t two people to coordinate but dozens, or hundreds—or even thousands, once you include all the interlocking social networks. How could they find a way to coordinate on the same day?

They need something more intuitive, some “obvious” choice that they can call upon that they hope everyone else will as well. Even if they can’t communicate, as long as they can observe whether their coordination has succeeded or failed they can try to set these “obvious” choices by successive trial and error.

The result is what we call a Schelling point; players converge on this equilibrium not because there’s actually anything better about it, but because it seems obvious and they expect everyone else to think it will also seem obvious.

This is what I think is happening with holidays. Yes, we make up stories to justify them, or sometimes even have genuine reasons for them (Independence Day actually makes sense being on July 4, for instance), but the ultimate reason why we have a holiday on one day rather than other is that we had to have it some time, and this was a way of breaking the deadlock and finally setting a date.

In fact, weekends are probably a more optimal solution to this coordination problem than holidays, because human beings need rest on a fairly regular basis, not just every few months. Holiday seasons now serve more as an opportunity to have long vacations that allow travel, rather than as a rest between work days. But even those we had to originally justify as a matter of religion: Jews would not work on Saturday, Christians would not work on Sunday, so together we will not work on Saturday or Sunday. The logic here is hardly impeccable (why not make it religion-specific, for example?), but it was enough to give us a Schelling point.

This makes me wonder about what it would take to create a new holiday. How could we actually get people to celebrate Darwin Day or Sagan Day on a large scale, for example? Darwin and Sagan are both a lot more worth celebrating than most of the people who get holidays—Columbus especially leaps to mind. But even among those of us who really love Darwin and Sagan, these are sort of half-hearted celebrations that never attain the same status as Easter, much less Thanksgiving or Christmas.

I’d also like to secularize—or at least ecumenicalize—the winter solstice celebration. Christianity shouldn’t have a monopoly on what is really something like a human universal, or at least a “humans who live in temperate climates” universal. It really isn’t Christmas anyway; most of what we do is celebrating Yule, compounded by a modern expression in mass consumption that is thoroughly borne of modern capitalism. We have no reason to think Jesus was actually born in December, much less on the 25th. But that’s around the time when lots of other celebrations were going on anyway, and it’s much easier to convince people that they should change the name of their holiday than that they should stop celebrating it and start celebrating something else—I think precisely because that still preserves the Schelling point.

Creating holidays has obviously been done before—indeed it is literally the only way holidays ever come into existence. But part of their structure seems to be that the more transparent the reasons for choosing that date and those rituals, the more empty and insincere the holiday seems. Once you admit that this is an arbitrary choice meant to converge an equilibrium, it stops seeming like a good choice anymore.

Now, if we could find dates and rituals that really had good reasons behind them, we could probably escape that; but I’m not entirely sure we can. We can use Darwin’s birthday—but why not the first edition publication of On the Origin of Species? And Darwin himself is really that important, but why Sagan Day and not Einstein Day or Niels Bohr Day… and so on? The winter solstice itself is a very powerful choice; its deep astronomical and ecological significance might actually make it a strong enough attractor to defeat all contenders. But what do we do on the winter solstice celebration? What rituals best capture the feelings we are trying to express, and how do we defend those rituals against criticism and competition?

In the long run, I think what usually happens is that people just sort of start doing something, and eventually enough people are doing it that it becomes a tradition. Maybe it always feels awkward and insincere at first. Maybe you have to be prepared for it to change into something radically different as the decades roll on.

This year the winter solstice is on December 21st. I think I’ll be lighting a candle and gazing into the night sky, reflecting on our place in the universe. Unless you’re reading this on Patreon, by the time this goes live, you’ll have missed it; but you can try later, or maybe next year.

In fifty years all the cool kids will be doing it, I’m sure.