Monday, December 20, 2004

Lexicographic Lapses

Here is one of my favorite quotes, from a little-known 1979 essay1 by Harold Demsetz:
Lexicographic orderings crumble in the face of scarcity.
Rather esoteric, I admit, and it took me a long time to appreciate it. But the more I think about it, the more profound I think it is. Let me try to explain.

“Lexicographic” means “ordered in the manner of a dictionary.” If you want to order two words, the first letters are the only thing that matters, unless the first letters are the same. If you’re comparing ‘azzzzz’ and ‘baaaaa,” those following z’s and a’s have no impact whatsoever.

Other things are sometimes ordered lexicographically. For instance, some authorities rank nations’ performances in the Olympics based on the number of gold medals received, looking only to silver medals to break ties in gold (and looking to bronze only to break ties in both gold and silver). The odd result is that a nation with 10 gold and 1 silver beats out a nation with 9 gold and 20 silver.

The latter example demonstrates the problem with lexicographic orderings: they’re great for organizing a list, but they not so great for ranking preferences or values. Why? Because they imply a willingness to make any sacrifice in category B, however large, in return for any gain in category A, however small. Demsetz’s point is that lexicographic value or preference orderings may seem sensible in the face of small trade-offs, but they become highly implausible in the face of large ones. (To broaden its application, I would reword Demsetz’s quote to read, “Lexicographic orderings crumble in the face of steep trade-offs.”)

The lesson has implications for people of many different ideologies – for instance, environmentalists who insist on preserving nature “whatever the economic cost.” But since I know many libertarians read this blog, I’ll give three applications that pose challenges to libertarians – in particular, those libertarians who base their beliefs on a dogged attachment to deontology or inviolable natural rights.

The first application is from philosophy. There is a famous thought experiment (I’m sure some commenter will tell me the original source) in which you and ten other people have been captured by a military junto in the South American jungle. The general gives you a choice: you can either execute one of the other prisoners yourself, or you can refuse, in which case he will execute all ten. This thought experiment is supposed to provide a kind of “utilitarian test case” (are you really willing to act on utilitarian precepts?). I’ve never found the test very demanding, because the answer is bloody obvious: taking the hypothetical’s conditions at face value, of course you should execute a prisoner. But say you disagree with me on this; how far are you willing to take your moral stance? If your refusal would lead to the execution of a hundred prisoners, would that change your mind? How about a thousand? A million? The insistence that you should never kill an innocent, regardless of the consequences, amounts to a lexicographic preference that places first priority on the number of people you kill, and only second priority on the number of people who get killed by others.

The second application comes from law. Suppose you fall out the window of your 20th story condo. On the way down, you catch hold of horizontal flagpole on the 19th floor. You could swing over and break through a window of someone else’s condo, or you could let go and plummet to your death. Which do you choose? And more importantly, how should the law treat your action? I think the answers are clear: you should break into the condo, and the law should require you to pay compensation for the broken window (and any other damage that results). But I’ve actually heard deontological libertarians argue that you should respect the 19th floor condo owner’s property rights come what may. Fortunately, the actual law is on my side: cases like these are called “necessity cases,” and they are indeed treated with a liability rule (which requires compensation for damage) instead of a property rule (which punishes with the intent of preventing violations in the first place). Those who insist on the property rule in this case are clinging to a lexicographic preference that places first priority on respecting material property rights, and second priority on… well, everything else.

The third application comes from political economy. Should libertarians favor a minimal state or anarchy? Some deontological anarchists (I exempt consequentialist anarchists like David Friedman from my criticism) oppose the minimal state because any taxation is theft, any exclusion of competing protection services is coercion, etc. This position commits them to supporting anarchy regardless of what consequences may occur, including consequences that impinge severely on individual rights the anarchists themselves hold dear. For instance, what if anarchy resulted not in the nicely balanced and competing protection agencies that anarchist libertarians imagine, but instead in a Hobbesian state of war? (Some anarchists dispute that prediction. That’s a perfectly good consequentialist argument, but not the issue here. My argument is directed at the deontological position.) Even if it is shown that anarchy leads to a much larger overall amount and severity of rights violations than a government, deontological anarchists must oppose the creation of a government because it legitimizes some of those violations. In essence, they adopt a lexicographic ordering that places first priority on minimizing legitimized rights violations, while placing second priority on all other rights violations.

I don’t wish to imply that treating rights as side constraints on human action is a silly idea. Most of the time, rights are an eminently practical and just way to characterize our obligations to each other. Performing a quick cost-benefit analysis in every moral, legal, or political situation would be a prescription for disaster (in cost-benefit terms!). Nonetheless, rights are not ideal for dealing with lifeboat situations. Our choices in tough situations should not be invariant to the trade-offs involved, especially when the trade-offs are steep.

1 “Ethics and Efficiency in Property Rights Systems,” in Mario Rizzo, ed., Time, Uncertainty, and Disequilibrium, Lexington Books (1979), 97-116.


Anonymous said...

"Nonetheless, rights are not ideal for dealing with lifeboat situations. Our choices in tough situations should not be invariant to the trade-offs involved, especially when the trade-offs are steep."--perfectly said.

Thank you Glen for that lucidly illuminating post. That post deserves a standing ovation. I often thought some of you hard-core libertarians lived in a utopia that doesn't exist and held ideals that would forego morals for strict principles that just simply seemed nonsensical and a little out of touch with reality.

The 19th floor condo example is a perfect one. I cannot believe that there were some who actually said property rights came first before life. This is some seriously misplaced priority.
This reminds me of the time when an MD called in on the NPR show that Julian was on about smoking ban (FYI, I agreed with some of the points Julian was making). The doctor practically reprimanded him about his stance based on similar reasoning.
And the example of an anarchist against "taxation b/c it's theft"; I've heard that rhetoric before and I find it trite. And as Glen said, what if a complete chaos and all out Hobbesian war resulted instead of the "imagined" balanced protection agencies? I think we all can admit that we benefit greatly from the police force we have albeit not perfect, from an otherwise worse anarchic scenario that will result if it weren't in place.
I remember seeing this 'how libertarian are you?' test online and I was damn glad i was at a low 30-40%. There were people on that post boasting 80-100%. I found them crazy and wondered how they could be so out there in space? Some of those questions were downright scary, privatizing of the supreme court(this one was mild) and other crazier suggestions. Extreme libertarians strike me as really cold and out of touch with reality. So it's nice to hear that there is some reason and practicality in libertarian thought.


Anonymous said...

This is something of a tangent to your post, but I must comment on the value of moral hypotheticals.

The problem with such questions is that, in their attempt at reductionist morality, they throw the baby out with the bathwater. The classic lifeboat problem, in which the actors are isolated from the social consequences of their actions, has no morality to explore; the social consequences are morality, and the idea that morality is some universal law that can be teased out in the manner of a physics experiment results in paradoxes for the simple reason that it is not true.

The first questions that came to my mind in the bloodthirsty general situation is "can the general be trusted?", and "what is his motivation to keep his promise?" This isn't incidental to the question; I'd say it's the meat of the question, and - sorry to sound like a "relativist" - but as everyone who's actually been in a war says, the action you take is contingent on the social environment at the time.


Glen Whitman said...

Tony -- yes, I agree. That's why I threw in the important "taking the hypothetical's conditions at face value" qualification. Hypotheticals can be useful, but it depends crucially on what context and details they're leaving out.

SK -- glad you liked the post! Just to be clear, though, I think a hard-line stance on property rights is *usually* correct. The tough cases typically involve situations with extreme absence of alternatives. In the case of the smoking ban, people don't *have* to patronize bars and restaurants that allow smoking. Non-smoking establishments do exist, as do establishments with separate smoking and non-smoking sections. And you can always choose to stay home. So the doctor may have been making the "extremism" criticism in exactly the type of situation where it *doesn't* apply. The health costs of smoking are not a relevant issue when it's possible for individuals to evaluate the costs and decide whether to bear them or not. And for the record, Julian is one of the least dogmatic libertarians I know.

As for Bryan Caplan's libertarian purity test, I also dislike it -- though I think I scored in the high 70s or low 80s. What I dislike is its implicit presumption that anarchism is the "true" libertarianism; if you're not an anarchist, you'll never score above 85 or 90 percent. My take is that anarchism and minarchism (that is, support for a minimal state) are two different "flavors" of libertarianism, with neither being definitive of the libertarian position.

Anonymous said...

I agree. People don't have to hang out at bars or restaurants that allow smoking. There are non-smoking sections and non-smoking venues. I also think banning smoking at the beach is absurd. But I think they were addressing bar tenders who are faced with smoking their whole shift. But even them, they can get a job elsewhere. It was their choice to forego health reasons for the good money at bars as opposed to blockbuster. But if i remember correctly (it's been so long), I think the doctor was just referring to the fact that Julian simply had such almost a non-chalant, logical stance on 'ban the ban' without giving more concern to the public health issue. For someone who's seen patients over the years suffering from effects of smoking, I'm not surprised he thought so.
In this case, I think the doctor did use the 'rights are not ideal for dealing with lifeboat situations' argument, but he failed to see that the lifeboat situation resulted by individuals' choices.


Anonymous said...

Julian--Isn't your dad a doctor? I wonder what he thinks about all this. I think I googled you once and found your dad's bio. Interesting man, a well known doc and a student of history of opera(i don't remember)?
And I'm also glad that your dad didn't name you Ramses. He would have never even given you a chance! He was arguably the greatest pharoah of Egypt who was a big advocate of culture and architecture, but he was also a bad bad man enslaving all the Jewish people. And of course how can I forget the face off with Moses and the plagues...


Anonymous said...

Very Good