Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them. - Laurence J. Peter

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Are Libertarian Consequentialists Biased?

Followup to: A Case Against The Minimum Wage

One useful way to distinguish kinds of libertarians is to distinguish those who believe that initiating coercion is wrong in itself (like Ayn Rand) from consequentialists (who think that the initiation of coercion leads to bad results measured according to some other criterion, like utility or happiness).

A lot of libertarians are some mixture of the two. Could this could lead to some questionable consequentialism? Believing that initiating coercion is wrong is likely to bias you when considering the consequential effects of coercion.

In 2006, Daniel Klein and Stewart Dompe surveyed economists who were in favor of the minimum wage. Klein and Dompe wanted to know why the economists supported the minimum wage. Question Seven asked whether the economists believed the minimum wage was coercive:

In one manner of speaking, liberty is freedom from political or legal restrictions on one’s property or freedom of association. Subscribers to this definition are apt to say that the minimum wage law is coercive because it (along with concomitant enforcement) threatens physical aggression against people for engaging in certain voluntary, consensual acts (namely, employing people at sub-minimum wages). (Notice that even subscribers to this definition of liberty recognize that it does not by itself carry a policy recommendation; values other than liberty exist and might conflict with it.)

Q7: Please indicate which of the following options best fits your view of this semantic issue:

These were the results:
A. I agree that that definition of liberty is the primary definition of liberty, and in that sense the minimum wage law is coercive.5%
B. I give some weight to that definition of liberty, but not primary weight; the minimum wage law is only coercive in a sense.19%
C. I give little to no weight to that definition of liberty; the minimum wage law is not coercive in any significant sense.50%
D. Other [please specify]:24%
No response2%

Klein and Dompe discuss the result:
Only five respondents assented to the primacy of the posited definition of liberty and that the minimum wage was coercive. Forty-seven (or 67 percent of those selecting A, B, or C) said they give little to no weight to that definition and denied that the minimum wage law is coercive in any significant sense. Furthermore, of the 23 individuals who selected “Other,” the vast majority wrote in comments which indicated strong reservations about that definition, if not outright rejection. Thus, 90-95 percent all minimum-wage supporters reject the primacy of the posited semantics, and about 65 percent reject any significant place for those semantics. We hazard to guess that a survey of minimum-wage opponents would yield a frequency ranking A > B > C, the reverse of what is found here. If so, disputants of the issue for the most part do not agree on what “liberty” and “coercion” mean. Since those conceptions relate directly to one’s understandings of “voluntary choice,” “the free market,” “intervention,” and other fundamental analytic distinctions and categories, the implication is that conceptual cleavages probably often separate how the two sides formulate and analyze the issue. (Emphasis added)

I also expect that a survey of minimum-wage opponents would find an opposite perception of coercion in the minimum wage.

So, someone's biased. Who is it?

A case could be made that the libertarians - the ones who think that the minimum wage is coercive - are biased. The minimum wage supporters are, presumably, just regular old consequentialists, or something close to that. They're just looking at the facts about the minimum wage and deciding what the effects are likely to be. But the perception of those worried about coercion is already tainted by their distaste for coercion.

Or is it the minimum wage supporters who are biased? Is there a bias to overestimate the effectiveness of government intervention? There just might be. And there's status quo bias, of course.

I have no conclusion. Do you?


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