Sunday, March 2, 2014

Kelo, Home Schooling and Drug Laws - Inconsistent Theories of "Social Costs"

NOTE: I am reproducing several articles from my old blog. The first, "The Best Argument Against the FairTax", should have been included among the other essays I reposted recently, but was not. The second, "The Problem of Pornography", is one I found while searching for the FairTax article, and as it seemed interesting, I decided to reproduce it here. "I  Knew I Was On To Something" is cited in the second essay, and is one of my favorite essays about a topic which troubles me greatly. In fact, I am surprised I did not reproduce it earlier. (The same quote it discusses is the subject of my "Stupid Quote of the Day" series on December 30, 2012. Since I plan to reproduce that whole series sometime this week, I am not copying that essay tonight.) "The Politics of Psychiatry" mentions the Potter Stewart quote examined in "The Problem of Pornography" (and is amusingly controversial to boot), and "Finding What You Are Looking For" is cited in that essay. "False Precision" provides a good analogy, showing the futility of "scientific management" of economics, a topic examined again in "The Perfect Model". "Be Careful When 'Sticking It' to 'Big Business'", though burdened with a horrifying number of needless scare quotes (thankfully, something I have given up in recent years), is an interesting predecessor to the argument I made best in "In Praise of Contracts". "Kelo, Home Schooling and Drug Laws - Inconsistent Theories of "Social Costs"" is an interesting examination of the harm done by pragmatic solutions, often proposed by moderates and even conservatives. "Trial by Parenthood" consists of my reflections on how having children divides us into two groups. "An Interesting Contrast" meanders here and there, covering everything from the definition of hypocrisy to the benefits of search engines, yet, somehow, it manages to amuse me. "Why Term limits Will Fail (And Should)" is one of my earlier examinations of the subject of term limits, a topic examined again in "Critique of a Congressional Reform", "Some Thoughts on Term Limits", "Damn the Torpedoes!", "Making the President Irrelevant", "Racketeering Through Legislation", "Power and Disorder", "Our Aristocracy" and "The Problem of Professional Politicians, or, The Impossibility of a True 'Ousider' Candidate". "The Cost of Big Government" takes an all too brief look at precisely that, the cost of big government. "Transparency, Corruption and Reform" is a frequently cited essay looking at the relationship between the size of government and the amount of corruption.  Finally, "A Perfect Quote" provides a very brief statement I found on IMDB, which perfectly summarizes the greatest problem with the political left.

Conservatives are often upset at my claim that they are not all that different from liberals, especially the "moderate" conservatives, who espouse a "common sense" approach ignoring a consistent theoretical approach in favor of a "pragmatic" use of "what works". Then again, I have hardly made friends among the "traditionalist", or the "paleocons" or any of the hundreds of other versions of conservatism which fail to adhere to a consistent vision of individual rights. Normally, when I criticize conservatives for failing to consistently ask for the elimination of government, when I ask why they allow the government to remain involved in schooling1, or in road building, or the management of public parks, when I question how they can allow the government to protect us from ourselves by regulating broadcast content, or by licensing radio and television at all2, by banning "harmful" drugs, or any drugs3, by defining our money, or controlling the banks4, by determining what is safe for workers5, and so on, they tell me my consistency is "too extreme", that "someone" must provide these "services", that without the state doing it, we would not have it, and so on. (Basically the same argument the left provides, though they don't want to hear that.)  

I could go on, but let me just sum it up simply. Conservatives, at least many of them, are often blinded by history, or inconsistent in their application of theory, and advocate some mix of freedom and slavery. Most, perhaps all6, suggest more freedom than their opposite number on the left, but they still advocate some degree of government oppression, and, as I argued before, allowing some degree of oppression will create the ideal circumstances for the eventual growth of total slavery.

Of course, many will ask how I expect public schooling or the Federal Reserve or workplace safety rules to lead to tyranny, so I feel the need to show how the logic behind one policy supports policies which seem, superficially, to come from the opposite end of the "political spectrum"7, after which I shall argue once again that supporting one policy, even one seemingly harmless, can create circumstances for much worse to arise. Hopefully, by so doing, some will finally realize that you need not advocate outright socialism to set the stage for the birth of an omnipotent state.

To demonstrate the way in which the same concept can support sacred cows of both right and left, and an idea which one person supports can also be used to justify an idea the same person despises, I will start with a concept which appears quite often when talking about laws, and that is "social cost" or "cost to society" or even, in some contexts, "burden on society." It is, as I will show, an infinitely flexible concept, which, at its root, is really absolutely meaningless because of that flexibility, but is nevertheless used to justify quite a range of ideas, concepts supported by both the right and the left8.

Actually, rather than limit myself to a single concept, let us deal with a somewhat expanded field. The concept of "social cost" is rather an old one, having been used as long ago as the 1920's by the eugenics movement to justify forced sterilizations and the like, so it obviously has spawned some newer variants. And since we are dealing with the concept and all its logical implications, we should probably deal with those more recent variations as well. For instance, in one of the more recent variations, there is the idea of "social benefit", as seen in the Kelo case and elsewhere, often explicitly linked to the original social cost concept. The basic argument goes as follows: "We could do X and bring society a net benefit, therefore if we refuse to do X, it is truly a burden upon society as society is losing all those benefits." In other words, rather than the more traditional "social costs", which tried to find the downside of existing circumstances, the "social benefit" argument imagines what could possibly be done and then calls the lack of such imaginary improvements a cost. Both are speculative to be sure, but at least the first bases its speculation upon what is, and tries to guess at what benefits its absence would bring, the second imagines a wholly different world and tries to figure both the costs and benefits and then compare the two. It should be obvious which is even less rooted in reality than the other.

But enough introduction. Let us move to specific examples to show how the argument for one cause or another can bring support for a whole host of unwanted laws. In other words, let us look at some examples of laws supported by these "social cost" theories, and then at a few nominally conservative positions which, if endorsed, would justify the theory of social costs, implicitly supporting many other, less conservative positions.

Well, I have already mentioned one position supported by social cost theory, or its offshoot of social benefit, and that is the abuse of foreclosure laws to support government supported redevelopment projects, such as that in the Kelo case. These projects are founded upon the somewhat dubious proposition that leaving property owners in possession of their land, using it in the way they are, harms society by depriving them of the tax revenues a more high income use would.

Or let us look at the opposite extreme, the argument against home schooling. The basic proposition by those who fear home schooling is that some parents will not "properly" educate their children9, and those children will end up being burdens on society, so ill educated they will not be able to work -- may even be driven to crime by their ignorance -- or, at the very least, will represent a social cost, as they will be unable to find any but the most menial jobs, reducing the wealth of society. (There are other arguments, such as the idea that parents who neglect or abuse their children will use "homeschooling" to hide such actions, but those are a different matter entirely. We are here discussing those who fear parents improperly educating their children.)

I think these two concepts show the problem with "social cost", it is an infinitely flexible concept, and one which is based on highly speculative, perhaps imaginary, values. It rests almost entirely upon a series of "what if" propositions, with little foundation in hard evidence. But, even if it did, there is a second problem, which is very rarely recognized, and that is that every action, even the most respectable has costs. What we must do is balance those costs against benefits. But the social cost theory very rarely does that, simply showing the cost of some action or another, and implying that cost alone shows that something should be forbidden.

Allow me to illustrate that first example with a program many conservatives support, and that is public education. Public education is also founded upon an argument that is, in essence, a variation upon social costs, as any suggestion it be discontinued is met with the argument "then who would educate all those children? What would you do with so many uneducated people?" basically implying that the cost of having an uneducated populace justifies continuing public education. And, on the basis of this social cost theory, many conservatives endorse public education.

What those conservatives forget is ... well they are forgetting many things. For example, just because the government can do something, it does not follow they must. For example, the same logic could be sued for medicine. If the state does not provide medical care for everyone, who will provide for the poor? And yet conservatives rightly reject that argument, but buy into the same argument for public education. In addition, they forget the very simple fact that any government program is funded by money taken from citizens, so if the state stops providing that service, the money does not vanish, it goes back to citizens who can sue it to pay for education, probably much more efficiently, as well as for charity which can help to educate those who have less. Again, much more efficiently than the state.

But the worst problem is that the whole public education argument often comes down to a simplistic social cost argument. "Pay now, or pay later", assuming that if we don't allow the state to educate children, if we do not fund it, then "we" will "pay" by putting those individual in jail10, or supporting them on welfare11. And when conservatives endorse such arguments, and the whole logic of social costs, they may not realize it, but they support the logic of Kelo, the logic which opposes home schooling, the logic of draconian gun control and a host of other measures they despise12.

And that does bring me to the two most noteworthy social cost arguments, guns and drugs13. And they form a good pair, as most conservatives strongly oppose gun laws, and equally strongly support the war on drugs14, though the same defective logic supports both15, and, rationally, supporting one makes you an inadvertent supporter of the other, like it or not.

When not being pushed as a way to end crime, guns are usually denounced in terms of the "cost to society", the medical costs, the lost wages, the declining property values, the additional policing costs, the increased jail costs and so on. And, as you already know if you ever once say a PSA from the 1980's, drugs are denounced in the same terms. The medical costs, the lost hours of labor, the cost of social services, of police, of jails, the money spent on interdiction and so on16. Normally, conservatives do not offer up such arguments explicitly, though some conservative politicians do, but the argument is still there. But even then, they make some implicit social costs argument, for example the traditional reply to those calling drug use a victimless crime17 that "it hurts everyone around them" is in many ways a modified social cost argument. 

I had originally planned to elaborate upon this even more, maybe to point to protectionism and its efforts to save jobs, at the expense of raising prices, as another blind application of "social costs" without considering the matching benefits, but I think my point is made. Once we accept that we can make laws based on nothing more than the fact that someone can show how it imposes some nebulous "costs" on society, we have come to a point where we allow any laws. 

But that may even be more than I need to say. Over and over I have shown how a specific error allows the creation of arbitrary laws. But really, when I look back over all of those essays, I find I could make the same argument in much more simple terms. So long as laws are based on any justification other than the violation of rights -- by which I mean the rights to life, liberty and property only -- we will have a situation where eventually any law will be permissible18. And so, unless we want to grant the government unlimited power, we must inisst that laws remain limited to the protection of rights, and nothing else.

But if I did that, then most of my posts would be rather terse, wouldn't they? So perhaps I will continue writing about specific applications. Not only because it makes for a more enjoyable read, but because in many cases, there are people who find it difficult to tell if a specific line of reasoning is a proper basis for laws or not. So hopefully by examining many of the approaches the state takes in justifying laws, I will help someone understand things just a little better.


1. See "Reforming Education", "You Don't Drown in a Glass of Water - Vouchers Revisited", "Why Vouchers are not the Answer" and "Never Ascribe To Evil, A Discussion of Education".

2. See "The Danger Inherent in Banning "Bad Ideas"", "The State and Morality", "A Bit More Explanation" and "Culture and Government". It may also be beneficial to read "Three Approaches to Social Conservatism", as it deals with related issues.

3. See "Medical Regulations" and "Medical Regulation II".

4. See "Monetary Issues Made Simple Part I", "Monetary Issues Made Simple Part II", "Bad Economics Part 7 ", "Bad Economics Part 8", "Why Gold?", ""What Is Money?" and "What Is A Dollar? ".

5. See "Who Is Safer?", "Worker Safety", "Salt, Transfats, DDT, Bad Science and Even Worse Law" and "Certainty and Pop Science".

6. Some nominally conservative movements have very few truly conservative concepts. Whether because of excessive moderation or because of focus on a single issue, such as some of the more extreme social conservative groups, they tend to miss the bigger picture. See  "Misplaced Blame and A Power Play", "Remember I Predicted It", "Many Types of Conservatives?", "Please Stop Calling Them Conservatives", "Reticent To Adopt a Title", "A Possible Designation" and  "The Right Identity".

7.  See "The Political Spectrum" for my objections to the modern conception of the political spectrum. 

8. The right does not often use "social costs", though sometimes raising the idea of "burden on society". However, the arguments the right raises in support of certain positions regularly raise the same concepts that the left would describe as "social costs".

9. I have written before, in "Reforming Education", that it is impossible to define rationally what a proper education would be. Education only has value in terms of one's own goals and ideals, and so to say one education is better than another is to assume there are absolute values by which we can define such things, and that simply is not the case. (Cf "Absolute Values".)

10. Actually, I could argue the opposite. By keeping children in school who do not wish to be there, or who have absolutely no academic aptitude, we prevent them from beginning to learn a manual skill earlier, and thus make them earn less than they could if they started n their manual labor career earlier. I know we hate to imagine there are people who are unreachable through education, but the truth is there are children with little aptitude, who will only absorb so much, and there are many others who are not ready to learn, who do not sufficiently value education. Perhaps one day they will, and then they may seek it out, but now they do not, and keeping them in school, at best, wastes everyone's time and money, and at worst allows them to disrupt the education of those who do want and need an education. This is my main argument against compulsory education, and will, now that I have brought it up, be covered in much more detail a bit later in a separate essay.

11. This is one of the biggest flaws in "social cost" arguments. Some find different sources for their estimates of costs, but many, especially concerning guns, pregnancy or drugs, base their arguments on the costs the state must pay for medical assistance or welfare. However, this ignores the easier solution. Rather than elaborate programs to stop teen pregnancy, banning guns or fighting an endless war on drugs, why not stop spending state money on medical assistance and welfare? That would quickly end the social costs, and likely dissuade at least some from their self-destructive behaviors. (Cf.   "Consequences", "Perverse Incentives", "When Help Hurts", "When Help Hurts II" and "Subsidizing Irresponsibility and Poor Planning". )

12. This obviously echoes the arguments I made in ("How Conservatives Defeat Themselves", "Defending Freedom?", "Why We Lose", "Giving Away the Game", "The Single Greatest Weakness",  "What We Deserve", "What is Wrong with Us", "Pyrrhic Victories", "Who Is To Blame?", "Don't Blame the Politicians", "The Difficulty of Principle", "Damn the Torpedoes!" and "You Lose When You Think You Win".

13. Social costs are clearly not the only arguments in either drug or gun laws, but they are quite prominent. Outside fot he "for their own good" argument for drug laws, social costs are the most common reason given. Similarly, gun laws, when not argued as "common sense protection" to prevent us form "living in the wild west" (see "The Weakest Gun Control Argument"), they are supported by elaborate numeric justifications based on the costs to society. So, though no one ever considers  the two related, they have a lot more in common than many think. (Though not relevant here, both are also examples of laws intended to save us from ourselves, or save us from the "bad decisions" of our fellows.In fact, they both have quite a bit more in common, so much that I may some day get around to writing on that very topic.)

14. Though in recent times there have been more and more conservatives willing to break with the war on drugs, as more former libertarians find fault with some of the more extreme positions of that rather chaotic party ("Why I Am Not A Libertarian", "Some Libertarian Analogies", "Copyright as Politics", ""Best Practices"")and redefine themselves as "economic conservatives" or similar. Though we are often denounced as "neocons", I would argue that those of us who advocate liberty are closer to the traditional foundation of this nation than those paleocons who reflect the Republican party of the 19th century, or the country club Republcians who are essentially conservative Democrats. (Cf. "The Best Historical Example", "A Passing Thought", "Rethinking the Scopes Trial" and "The Political Spectrum".)

15. Conservatives are not alone in this. Liberals in general support both gun and drug laws, but there are a considerable number who advocate for stronger gun laws and weaker drugs laws, which is not quite as inconsistent as conservatives, but nearly so. And, needless to say, the liberals who support gun control and want to end the war on drugs are every bit as inconsistent. But it should hardly come as a surprise that political inconsistency is present in both liberals and conservatives.

16. Not to beat a dead horse, but again note that at least half of the costs mention for both drugs and guns are only there because these things are banned or regulated. If drugs were legal, the costs of jails and interdiction would either vanish or at the very least diminish considerably. Similarly, if guns were legal, some of the jail and police costs would decline. (And, on a more speculative note, perhaps even more crime would vanish, as armed citizens might deter the more timid muggers and rapists.)

17. I do not like "victimless crime" terminology, the same way I do not like the term "legalization" (cf ""Legalization""). When discussing issues such as prostitution, drug use and the like, I prefer to argue that they are crimes which do not violate the rights of others. After all, one can create a "victim" for an offense and still not have a real crime. Price gouging laws, for example, have countless "victims" and yet still should not be crimes. ("Saving Us From Lower Prices", "Price Gouging", "Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, Or The Logical Implications of Price Gouging Laws", "Excuse Me?") So the term "victimless crime" seems rather pointless. It is far better to speak of violations of rights, or the absence of the same. (Of course, those on the left proposing decriminalizing drugs or prostitution cannot do so, as they do not recognize that crimes require the violation of rights, unless they simultaneously redefine rights as described in "Negative and Positive Rights", as well as "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government" and "Fictional "Rights" Versus Real Rights".)

18. A more elaborate argument justifying my assertion that once we adopt a position it will always be taken to its logical conclusion can be found in "Slippery Slopes ", "Inescapable Logic", "The Endless Cycle of Intervention" and "The Cycle of Compassion". I also discussed it briefly in my more recent post "Res Ipsa Loquitur".

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2011/02/09.

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