Saturday, November 08, 2008

Childbearing and Incentives

Chris Dillow proposes a Pigovian tax on parents "whose children do badly at school." Some of his commenters complain that poor educational performance might be more the fault of bad schools than bad parents. But this misses the point. The tax is not meant as punishment for bad parenting. It simply serves as an incentive for those in a position of influence to prevent an unfortunate outcome, namely the existence of a child who will likely go on to be a burden to society. Even good parents shouldn't bear kids into a bad situation, i.e. one where it is foreseeable that they will go on to flunk out of school, become criminals, etc. It's not their fault, but if that's the situation they're in, it might nonetheless be better for society were they not to have children. And a well-tailored tax policy will seek to 'nudge' individual incentives into line with social utility, no?


  1. Exactly how would this tax work?

    Are you really wanting to tax the poor 19 year old who got pregnant? Or the single divorced mother having to work extra jobs because her ex-husband isn't paying child support?

    This seems like a non-starter. (I dislike taxes designed to make social nudges though in general)

  2. With taxes it really doesn't matter what's meant; whether the tax is meant to be a punishment for bad parenting or not, it's a penalty for parents whose children are doing badly at school, and that can't really be glossed as anything other than a punishment for parents who have children who do badly at school; and, in fact, it is an incentive by being such a punishment: it punishes those who are "in position of influence to prevent an unfortunate outcome" but have failed to prevent it. And given that it really is important to ask how much they deserve such a penalty. An incentive that would expose people to more trouble than they deserve to be exposed to would be...well, troublesome.

  3. Clark - those are problems with the baseline, not the incentive adjustment. We can remedy it by combining the policy with a universal basic income / tax credit. Equivalently: leave those parents the same while rewarding everyone else, i.e. non-parents and parents of successful children.

    Your assessment seems troublingly one-sided: what we might call 'cost analysis' rather than 'cost-benefit analysis'. In addition to the struggling mother burdened by the policy, we must also consider the innocents whose lives are saved by preventing future murderers from coming into existence, and the poor people of the future who can be better supported by an economy that has seen less of a welfare drag in the meantime, etc. (Are you "really wanting" those innocents to be killed?)

    "(I dislike taxes designed to make social nudges though in general)"

    Really, why? I'd've thought it uncontroversial that our economic system should internalize negative externalities so far as possible. Pollution is the standard example, but bringing future criminals (etc.) into existence is not so different in principle. Perhaps you simply meant that you oppose paternalistic nudges? But here the motivation is to prevent harm to others.

    Brandon - it's certainly a penalty ('punishment' involves more than that). I don't think there are any utility-independent 'desert' facts that are relevant to tax policy. (Do struggling families deserve to pay a higher gas tax? The question is ill-formed. Whether there should be a tax depends simply on whether it would be for the best, overall.) But see also my initial response to Clark.

  4. (More here on the economic irrelevance of desert.)

  5. You can't be serious.

    I'm not sure how you would judge that a student was doing badly enough to warrant their parents being taxed, but suppose we could, I've got a problem or two with this proposal.

    Here's my situation. Both of my parents are university educated and spent a lot of time trying to give me the educational jump-start as a child. I went to good schools and had a lot of academic support at home. Despite this, I had a hard time in school. I didn't do well at all. The school and my parents wondered at one point whether I was just stupid and I had IQ testing and whatnot. I did very very well on that, and so from the numbers I had no reason to not do well. Despite this, I didn't do well. Were my parents in danger of being taxed?

    I'm now in a good philosophy PhD program and have, since my second year of university done very well. There is a not-too-uncommon phenomenon of students doing poorly in their primary and secondary education and then doing very well later on (and it is not for lack of trying that the students do poorly early on; I remember trying very hard and still only getting poor grades).

  6. I suppose to some extent we just have different notions of 'punishment'; when I use the word I mean a deliberately imposed and coercively backed penalty for an action, behavior, or consequence. If I'm forced to pay a parking fine, I am being punished for the (presumed) behavior that got me the parking ticket; and it would be no good at all to say that it isn't a punishment but just an incentive to prevent an unfortunate outcome -- it's an incentive precisely because it is a punishment. But I'm not sure how you are using the term; and you seem to have in view an account of incentives in which an incentive is neither a reward nor a punishment.

    I'm thinking I might not have explained my point about desert very well: there is a fundamental problem of justice with treating people in ways they don't deserve, and there is no workaround for this. And thus even if economics should be forward looking, desert is always relevant; and in any tax or government action we need to ask, regardless of the goals of the tax or action, whether it gets desert right. It's exactly like law: laws should be forward-looking, but this hardly means that it's irrelevant whether a forward-looking law does a reasonable job of treating people as they deserve to be treated and not treating them as they don't deserve to be treated. We see this very clearly in things like poll taxes: voting-related poll taxes were used to weed out people from the voting booth who weren't educated and productive members of society, precisely on the grounds that this was best overall; they were overturned and permanently outlawed precisely because they involved treating large segments of the population (blacks in particular) in ways they didn't deserve (namely, making it unnecessarily difficult to vote). The error of the argument for the poll tax was that there is no coherent conception best overall, common good, general welfare, that does not include consideration of what people deserve and consequently have a right to expect. And this I think is related to Clark's point (although slightly different): there are plenty of areas of human life where cost analysis is quite enough to decide the matter, because the costs are disproportionate burdens on people who don't deserve to bear them.

  7. Three thoughts. First, if the goal is to dissuade unfit people from becoming parents in the first place, this proposal will fail miserably. A large portion of children born in this country were unplanned. (And if the burden of having a child to take care of wasn't enough to get these couples using proper birth control, an additional tax incentive's not going to do it either.) But even if you only consider those who were planned, do you really think a substantial number of parents are looking ahead at the tax code, pondering "how will my having a child affect my taxes, and how does this weigh out against my desire to have children?" ??? 'Cause I think the people who would think that through would be very much in the minority, and that these people would overwhelmingly be the very people who should be having children.

    Second, how would we deal with "special needs children"? Surely the parents of children with Down syndrome shouldn't be penalized because their child does poorly relative to other children in general. (If the parents are opposed to aborting, there's nothing they could have done to prevent the birth of such a child.) Where do we draw the line for treating someone as "special needs"? This proposal would make the answer to this really important. And I don't think there's a good way of answering it... (You're either going to create messed up incentives to label lots of people as having learning disabilities, with arbitrary cutoffs, or else you'll wind up punishing parents who through no fault of their own have children who really do have special needs. And more burden is the last thing these parents need.)

    Third, its worth noting that we'd need some sort of national education standards to implement this. Developing such standards is notoriously difficult. No one can ever decide on what should be tested. And even if they could, we don't have good tools to be able to measure the understanding. (If nothing else is fatal to this proposal, this is.)

    Parents would be really invested in their kids doing well according to these standards. This would create even more pressure than there's been with No Child to teach to tests (both teaching to the tests in content, and spending time teaching how to take tests of whatever format). It would also create constant pressure to dumb the standards down. The combination of these two pressures could be really, really bad.

  8. Brandon - failure to implement such policies also leads to "disproportionate burdens on people who don't deserve to bear them", e.g. innocents who get murdered. You can't just ignore them. So I really couldn't disagree more about the theoretical inadequacy of one-sided "cost analysis". (As you might imagine, I'd give a completely different analysis of the problem with poll taxes -- they aren't intrinsically unjust. The problem is purely utilitarian: they're overwhelmingly likely to be implemented badly, i.e. in a way that does not serve the overall good at all.) But I suspect our basic premises are simply too far apart to have any productive discussion on this point.

    Mark - semi-serious. It's hard to see how this particular proposal could be well-implemented, for the sorts of reasons Helen points to (esp. the first and third). But it seems like a neat idea in principle.

    You point out that school success is a sometimes unreliable proxy for life success. It would be preferable if we could come up with an even more reliable proxy, but there will always be some room for measurement error. Even so, the correlation (between measurement and fact) might be high enough to have the right sort of incentive effects. (It would lead to some parents, perhaps like your own, being taxed when they ideally shouldn't be. But targeted policies always have some spillover; again, the question is whether they are well-enough targeted that they do more good on the whole.)

    Helen - yeah, my initial reaction was to think something like your first point. And maybe that's right. I'm not sure though; changing the down-stream consequences would at least have some marginal effect (there are people on the borderline of laziness concerning birth control, who would become more careful if the costs were otherwise more severe). The question is how much of an effect. A policy like this would presumably be pretty notorious (so: well-publicized) if implemented, so I don't think anyone would need to sift through the tax code before it became salient to them. It might actually have a disproportionate effect, by making more salient all the disadvantages (not only this one) of having children in rough circumstances. But I guess we need social scientists to answer this one for sure.

    On the second point, I wasn't imagining any such exemption. (Compare my first response to Clark, upthread.)

    I agree that your third point is probably fatal to the idea of using educational outcomes for this purpose. Any thoughts on how to better implement the guiding idea? (Note that the goal is to discourage the birth of children who will likely go on to be a burden to society -- which may be due to other factors besides unfit parenting.) I guess there's always the old favourite of cash rewards for sterilization? (I heard they actually do that in Singapore...?)

  9. I would actually agree with your point that this seems to internalize some of the costs/benefits of having poorly performing children. It would also make possible parents more cognizant of their situation and the possible situation of their children. I think the problem is that this is strikingly similar to a more subtle form of eugenics (you could say that parents can still choose whether to pay the tax or not, but certainly some form of "symbolic violence" is being enacted such that they perceive very different values for children). Mainly, it would reproduce social distributions of power by allowing those already with the means to bear progeny, while depriving those without the means of having a lineage. In fact, children are often a key possibility for upward mobility. So, while economically plausible, I think it is a sociologically problematic proposal.

  10. Certainly, you can't just ignore innocents; but the fact that people will otherwise bear disproportionate burdens they don't deserve isn't itself seem particularly helpful for justifying deliberate actions that involve placing disproportionate and undeserved burdens on people, any more than the fact that people will otherwise be murdered is a useful justification of murdering people who stand a higher-than-usual chance of becoming murderers. And as far as I can see, this is not something that goes away even when we are considering the matter even in purely utilitarian terms: There is no possible utilitarian justification for rules that allow you to violate the ends for which the rules were put in place. And this is really where my problem lies, and if our premises are far apart, this is the sign of it: I don't see what the coherent utilitarian justification would be for any action of this sort, and so simply saying that it is purely utilitarian doesn't clarify anything for me.

    I agree that poll taxes are not intrinsically unjust; but that wasn't what I intended to convey. The problem was that any genuinely feasible implementation of the poll tax in actual society was unjust. No doubt in a society of angels poll taxes would be a serious option; no doubt in a society of innocents the disproportionate burdens would simply have been an unfortunate accident needing to be corrected; but in the Reconstruction South they knew full well that the burdens placed were disproportionate, and given even that alone should have rejected it out of hand.

  11. Brandon - "I don't see what the coherent utilitarian justification would be for any action of this sort"

    This is a baffling comment. Utilitarians (and impartial consequentialists generally) merely require that a policy yield net benefits: that is, the burdens imposed on some must be less than the benefits obtained by others. Ex hypothesi, that is the situation in this case. You and Clark have complained that some people will be greatly burdened. I have responded that others will be even more greatly benefited (i.e. saved from suffering even greater burdens). This is a completely standard utilitarian trade-off. So what are you talking about?

  12. Richard,

    I think there are several threads getting tangled in the discussion.

    (1) Whether desert (and likewise fault) is irrelevant to this issue; you said several things that seemed to suggest that you are asserting this. Indeed, although according to your comment @1:43 you intended to convey that "that others will be even more greatly benefited", I can't find any place in the above discussion at which you have clearly argued this. What your argument has sounded like instead is an argument that desert can be dismissed as an irrelevant factor in this discussion; just judging from the comments, this is what seems to have drawn in most of the people arguing against you in this thread.

    (2) Whether there are costs critical enough to act as stopping rules for utilitarian analysis. Any sort of analysis has stopping rules in the relevant sense, i.e., criteria for determining when the analysis need not proceed any further, so it's not surprising that utilitarian analysis has them. One question I've raised is whether there are costs critical and massive enough that they can be treated as stopping rules; or rather, since any coherent utilitarian analysis has to assume there are (if only, e.g., costs so massive no foreseeable benefit could outweigh them), what they might be. And my suggestion is that desert is a significant factor in determining this issue.

    (3) Whether a coherent utilitarian analysis can, ceteris paribus, justify a counter-X-tending action on the basis of its possibly contributing to X. It is in fact not universally true of utilitarians that "merely require that a policy yield net benefits"; this is false of Mill, for instance, who requires (among other things) that the policy, in addition to having on-balance beneficial consequences be itself an on-balance benefit, whatever its consequences. Thus Mill's utilitarianism puts massive restrictions on how much anyone can be harmed or even unbenefited relative to others by a policy, even where overall there is a net benefit resulting from the policy itself. In a genuine Millian utilitarianism, harm-tending policies cannot be justified by the fact that, under the circumstances, they produce, beyond themselves, net-beneficial consequences, because it is not enough to increase happiness, you must, to the (admittedly limited) extent practically possible, increase everyone's happiness. That you don't agree explains a bit why you've argued the way you have; and also why we've differed on what analysis would show in purely utilitarian terms, since I think Mill is right that something like his approach is required for coherent application of principles of utility.

    (4) Whether in this particular case the costs relative to the benefits are serious enough to justify rejection of the policy; which I haven't intended to argue here. You may be right that the benefits would be greater than the costs; I just don't think this can be determined independently of questions of desert and fault.

  13. Well, again, I don't think there's any such thing as 'desert' in the relevant sense (i.e. having normative force prior to considerations of utility-maximizing rules). My linked post on 'institutional rights' is relevant here. It's basically the inverse of your point #4, and a major reason why I think there's little we can productively say to each other here.

    On #2, you seem to be changing the subject to decision procedures. 'Stopping rules' are no part of a moral theory per se, which is concerned in the first place with the metaphysical question of what's right in fact, and not the epistemic issue of how we should conduct a moral 'analysis'. Strictly speaking, there's no such thing as "costs so massive no foreseeable benefit could outweigh them" -- since it's always possible that the alternative involves some even greater cost, in which case consequentialism's verdict would favour the former. (But again, I expect we're talking past each other here, since your mention of the 'foreseeable' suggests you have an epistemic issue in mind.)

    Try as I might, I can't really understand what you're saying in point #3. What does it mean for a policy to be "itself" a benefit? And what does it mean to "increase everyone's happiness"? If this means something different from increasing the net happiness -- say if it is more important to give small benefits to each than to secure massive benefits in total -- then this simply isn't anything recognizable as 'utilitarianism'. But nor does it seem relevant to the earlier discussion, which was not so much about aggregation as it was about whether it is okay to impose a harm on one to prevent even greater harms to others. And really, this is pretty much the core claim of consequentialism.

  14. Parents already have an incentive to help their kids. (Um, love?) But for parents who nevertheless can't seem to get their kids to do better in school, maybe it would be better to ease their financial burden?

  15. Well, again, I don't think there's any such thing as 'desert' in the relevant sense (i.e. having normative force prior to considerations of utility-maximizing rules).

    But there doesn't have to be a sense of desert having normative force "prior to considerations of utility-maximizing rules"; there just would have to be a sense of desert having normative force, derived from general considerations of utility-maximizing rules, that mediate between these general rules and their application in particular contexts.

    On your response to (2), I don't see how the distinction you are making is anything other than purely arbitrary; stopping rules are clearly a part of moral theory, since they play a significant part in the application of other rules to actual situations; e.g., the application of moral rules. (A good example: Uncle Tom's Cabin, about the morality of slavery and compromise with it, is entirely about stopping rules, since its argument is that Northerners failed to stop their moral inquiry at the right point. Whether this is right or wrong, it brings stopping rules into the realm of moral theory.)

    On your response to #3: policies themselves, and their implementations, are consequences just as much as what proceeds from them; therefore the development and implementation of policies also falls under utility-maximizing rules. For a utilitarian like Mill who distinguishes quantity from quality in his account of utility, there is the possibility that a policy with net benefits may itself be a consequence such that a world with it is worse or better than a world without it; thus in evaluating a policy it is not sufficient to determine its benefits if implemented; one must determine whether it itself is a benefit, i.e., a good consequence. In practice Mill determines this by evaluating how they contribute to liberal society, which standard is itself arrived at from general considerations of utility. Mill likewise, and for closely related reasons, does not formulate the principle of utility in terms of net benefits but in terms of net benefits for everyone; thus (for example) we cannot, to the extent that we are able to avoid it, impose burdens on people without guaranteeing that they themselves will find it balanced out by some benefit. He compensates for the rigor of this rule by permitting approximation, to our best ability, as good enough. Thus, whenever it is a question of imposing a burden, one can never evaluate the burden in isolation from the question of how people will be fairly compensated for imposing it. If you don't want to call this utilitarianism, fine; as long as you realize that you're saying utilitarians who follow Mill on these points would not be advocating anything 'recognizable as utilitarianism'.

  16. 1) Perhaps it would have a small effect, but I'm really skeptical of the size. The burdens of having and caring for a child for 18+ years are so great that if you want a tax to have any measurable effect on people's deliberations, it would need to be enormous. (Someone will pay me one million dollars to cut off my left pointer finger.... I'm not sure what to do. Then you come along and go "hey, yeah, we'll throw in an additional tax rebate of $200 if you cut the finger off." It's a drop in the ocean.)

    You'd probably need an aggressive advertising campaign to raise awareness about the tax, or else the very people who'd be the primary targets would likely remain oblivious to it, no matter how notorious it was.

    Let's assume that everyone is aware of the tax. Even so, I don't think it would be wholly absurd if the tax had the reverse outcome to the desired one. Suppose that the sort of people who would be likely to raise successful children are significantly more likely to deliberate before having children. Since you can't be sure whether a child will do well by whatever measure's settled on, some of these families who would otherwise have had children, now won't. Of those families who would be likely to have unsuccessful children, and who deliberate about having children, presumably far more will decide not to have children. But whether this benefit to society outweighs the harm of the successful-parents not having children depends on how many of the two groups actually do deliberate beforehand. If there's enough of an imbalance, you could actually wind up with a larger portion of unsuccessful children than at present.

    (You might be able to fix this with an advertising campaign to get people to deliberate about having children, as I suggest in 3. But then I think the deliberation's doing all the work, given the point that a tax increase is a drop in the ocean of child-rearing burdens.)

    2) Whether these localized harms are outweighed depends on how big the benefit to society as a whole is. I think it would be foolish to dismiss them outright. (I'm also a bit surprised that you wouldn't make any exceptions. Surely if we can reliably spot a disease that affects academic performance, it doesn't have borderline cases, and we know that it's not something that can be predicted in advance, we shouldn't penalize the parents of these children. Even if we can't weed out all such cases, it would be better to weed out some than none at all...)

    3) Free and accessible birth control for all who want it. More funding into male hormonal birth control. Free (obviously voluntary!) abortions for those with genetic defects. Social services to improve the ability of parents to care for their children e.g. quality early childhood education programs, free education programs for parents (especially in poor areas). Use media to alter people's impressions of what's cool regarding children: Use TV, movies, and advertising to make birth control look cool to those you want to use it, to make having large families look uncool to those you think shouldn't have kids, to make not having children acceptable, to make deliberation over whether to have kids the norm, etc.

  17. Brandon - my thought was that tax policy is part of the institutional structure of society, and hence fixed directly by the principle of utility. It is only once we get into everyday questions 'internal' to the institutional structure that derivative moral considerations (rights, desert, etc.) come into play. That is why they are strictly irrelevant to tax policy. Again, I explain all this in my post on 'institutional rights'.

    On (2), we're just talking about different things. The distinction I'm talking about is completely standard in contemporary moral theory, and not something I can be bothered defending here.

    On (3), a policy is not itself happiness (of any quantity or quality), so it obviously can't be taken into fundamental consideration by any utilitarian, even one concerned with the qualities and not just quantities of happiness.

    And can you cite where Mill endorses your non-aggregative definition of the 'general happiness'? Because that allegation just doesn't ring true.

    In both cases, I suspect, you're confusing fundamental utilitarian concerns with indirect recommendations for how to promote the aggregate happiness in practice (namely, by instead respecting all sorts of rights and deontological constraints).

  18. Helen - right. Regarding your (2), I was assuming that those conditions typically aren't met: there are foreseeable risk factors for having Downs children, for example. And for (1), I was thinking that salient incentives could influence behaviour without necessarily involving conscious deliberation. But overall, you're probably right that the policy is completely impracticable, especially compared to some of your suggestions in (3).

  19. Richard,

    By my count Mill says it at least twice in Chapter 2 of Utilitarianism; it is reaffirmed, in more political terms, in Chapter 3; and it's implied by his argument about the goodness of happiness in Chapter 4 and (arguably) about the thoughts of the virtuous man in Chapter 2. [He also, I can't help but point out, explicitly insists that there are moral maxims, including ones pertaining to rights that, based on the principle of utility, trump any principles for the management of human affairs (which is what I have been saying in other terms) in his discussion of justice in Chapter 5.] For instance, he says in Chapter 2 that the standard of morality is "accordingly be defined, the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation." Nor can 'all mankind' be read in context here as simply a vague collective term; he really is saying that we should secure the maximum of happiness, in quantity and quality, for everyone (at least to the extent possible).

    However, I'm not sure you're right to assume that it is non-aggregative, as long as the aggregation can handle differences in quality and kind as well as quantity; and Mill, rightly or wrongly, certainly thinks such aggregation is possible, since he talks about the sum total of happiness quite a bit. But this 'sum total' takes into account the fact that some goods, e.g., those of higher pleasures like art, science, and moral life, are massively greater than others(and perhaps even different in kind as well, although he can definitely be read both ways on this).

    You are free, of course, to restrict the term 'benefit' to happiness; likewise you are free to hold that policies aren't (part of) happiness. But this is not essential to utilitarianism, and Mill again is a counterexample: Mill holds that there are lots of different parts of happiness, among which can be found policies (whose place in happiness is determined by their being parts of the sort of society that is a happy society; again, in practice, for Mill these will be liberal policies). (He does the same for virtue: virtue is to be pursued both as a means and as a part of happiness.) Anything that can be consistently pleasing or painful is part of happiness or misery for Mill; he doesn't treat happiness as an abstract quantity since he regards it as a lived pleasure. Likewise, Mill, as a social reformer actually interested in the practical improvement of real society, has no distinction between "fundamental utilitarians concerns" and "recommendations for how to promote the aggregate happiness in practice"; it is, or at least seems to me to be, inconsistent with his view for the former to be anything other than the latter. So, again, I think you are simply defining away utilitarianisms that don't agree with you on this point.

    I agree with your response to (2): While I think the distinction is as absurd in standard discussions as it is here, it certainly is standard, and I'm willing to concede it for discussion's sake.

  20. "Mill, rightly or wrongly, certainly thinks such aggregation is possible, since he talks about the sum total of happiness quite a bit.

    That's all I was claiming. "The general happiness", for Mill as for any utilitarian, just means the sum total of happiness, and not, as I understood your previous suggestion, that "it is more important to give small benefits to each than to secure massive benefits in total".

    Now if you did not mean to claim that Mill was anti-aggregation, then again I haven't a clue what you were getting at with your earlier distinction between promoting "happiness" [i.e. in sum] and promoting "the happiness of all".

    But I'm afraid this discussion has gotten far into the realms of diminishing returns, and given that we seem to be speaking different (philosophical) languages, I'm going to bow out at this point.

  21. But Mill does hold that (all things being equal) it is more important to give small benefits to each than to secure massive benefits in total; it follows from his view of the principle of utility, which is that it doesn't privilege anyone's happiness over anyone's else. The happiness aggregated into a sum total must literally be everyone's happiness, because he denies there is a utilitarian basis for favoring anyone's happiness. You seem to be thinking of the 'total' happiness as something separate from the happiness of each; but Mill doesn't have an abstract notion of general happiness. His general happiness is the happiness of everyone in society, to the extent it is possible for them to be happy. The idea that you could increase the total happiness by increasing merely the happiness of a group is completely foreign to him; he wouldn't consider that increasing the sum total of happiness, because the principle governing the aggregation is not 'greatest happiness' but 'greatest happiness for the greatest number', where the greatest number is everyone, where possible.

    But perhaps you're right that we should call it quits; you do seem to be advocating something that Mill wouldn't call utilitarianism, because he's speaking a different philosophical language than you.

  22. A final clarification:

    "The happiness aggregated into a sum total must literally be everyone's happiness, because he denies there is a utilitarian basis for favoring anyone's happiness."

    Do you take me to disagree with this? The sum total of happiness is the sum of everyone's happiness: nobody is excluded, nobody is 'favoured' or counted for more than anyone else.

    It follows from this, on any recognizably utilitarian view, that it is better to (say) give all hungry people a lifetime's supply of food, than to give each person in the world a mere lollipop. The former option increases the sum total of happiness more, despite benefiting only a "group" while others of us remain unaffected. You seem to be proposing that it is better to give everyone a lollipop, since this at least provides some benefit to each, even if so minimal that the sum total still remains far less than the alternative intervention.

    Nothing you've said (or referenced) here supports the attribution of this insane view to Mill.

  23. Richard - sorry for not answering sooner.

    I guess my point is that for the overworked single mother with children suffering the trauma of divorce punishing them (a) won't work and (b) simply punishes the innocent. Giving them a base salary is pointless as well since the problem is that the parent is unable to give the time to their children and the children's behavior is due to trauma.

    Put an other way, your whole premise seems to be that there is some easy way for parents to make children do better in school that is available to them. I reject that premise. If it is false then this tax would work on only a small group of people and be significantly unfair to others.

    As to your other question about social engineering. While I'm anything but a libertarian I do strongly feel that it is not the government's business to have some utopian scheme and then pressure citizens into fulfilling the utopia of whatever ideology happens to be in power at the moment. I distrust the ability of the government to competently implement social engineering policies but worse I don't want every ideology to then be pushing for such social engineering. I'm sure you wouldn't want Mormons in your neighborhood implementing their views of utopia on you. I think that for a community to work properly we should avoid such things otherwise you end up with the danger of the tyranny of the masses.

  24. I just read the rest of the comments.

    I don't think there's any such thing as 'desert' in the relevant sense (i.e. having normative force prior to considerations of utility-maximizing rules).

    I think that's a big divide between you and many others and may be the deal breaker that makes discussion difficult if not impossible.

    Second, I think Helen's point is important. The question must be whether it is reasonable to expect that it'll have much of an effect ignoring the moral questions. That is because the bigger people having a problem with their children are the overworked poor who likely pay little or no taxes right now, those living in high crime areas who tend to also be poor and pay no taxes, those who have unplanned children who tend to be young and reckless and for whom future tax consequences offers little realistic incentive. (Seriously, if you at 17 were told you'd pay more taxes when 30 would it influence you in the least?)

    The second issue is the genetic one. While that is tied to the question of deserts it's also a realistic question of how much this would improve quality of life for children if their success depends upon genetics.

    Want to make a better improvement? Provide more aid to young children and young parents for early reading. Provide more therapy early for cognition dysfunctions and learning disabilities. Improve schools.

    On a cost/benefit analysis on more pragmatic grounds it just seems this is a very inefficient way of doing much. (And likely a non-starter in any country as a realistic proposal by government)

  25. Richard,

    If there's anything that shows that you aren't speaking Mill's language, it is your last comment! Of course Mill doesn't hold such a view; nor does anything I said imply it, I think. But I note that (1) you seem to be expressing yourself in a way inconsistent with your prior comment (since lollipops are no more happiness than policies); and (2) what is at issue is benefits, and Mill has a more sophisticated notion of benefits than your response takes into account. Sufficient food to satisfy hunger is a qualitatively as well as quantitatively greater benefit (and possibly a higher-valued kind, although, again, Mill can be read both ways on whether such things exist) than a lollipop, which may or may not even be a benefit, depending on the particular case. Everyone should be given the greater benefit, to the extent that this is feasible; and where it is not feasible steps would have to be taken to establish, on principles of utility, general rules of fair distribution and dealing that approximately express reasonable and practically useful judgments about typical utilities for that particular situation, with careful attention to guaranteeing that these were impartial; on the basis of these general rules or moral maxims actual policies of distribution would be evaluated; and the preferred policies would be applied, as far as possible, with voluntary consent to minimize unintentional disruptions or impediments to happiness, and where it was absolutely necessary to apply it without voluntary consent, effort would be made, as far as possible, to make clear compensation for the inconvenience precisely because their happiness is not less significant than anyone else's; and so forth. Mill abhors simple cost/benefit analysis; he tends to treat such things as of a piece with the caricatures of utilitarianism he was fighting. It would never, for him, be a simple case of putting a small burden on these people to give a great benefit to those, because that wouldn't be liberal (and thus would on his view be inconsistent with the principle of utility, since he thinks liberalism follows from utilitarianism); if you were violating anyone's rights, you would be stripping a benefit from everyone, namely, the benefit of living in a society conforming to liberal standards; and even if that were set aside, the fact that you were burdening the former group at all would still remain a serious problem that would need to be solved, if at all possible -- and looking at this would be essential to any evaluation of the policy, and could lead it to being rejected in favor of a policy that had exactly the same, or even somewhat smaller, net benefit but burdened fewer people. Greater happiness for the greater number: we have to aggregate for each person and not just over the group; and both aggregations are essential to the analysis.

    Sorry about the length; I meant this to be just a short note to say that I didn't intend to convey that Mill had the "insane view" you noted, but Mill's view requires that every situation have (if we want to be thorough, and aren't just looking for a practicular rule of thumb) an extraordinarily complex analysis. I'll shut up now.

  26. This proposal is interesting from a purely theoretical point of view, but:

    1) It's completely impossible to actually implement in practice.

    2) It's undesirable to even try to implement, because I imagine the inevitable negative consequences would outweigh the possible benefits, not to mention that it would cause an outrage among the public.

    3) It probably wouldn't have the beneficial consequences you envision: people with poor genes who grow up under lousy circumstances (i.e. the kinds of people who produce criminals and other people who are a burden to society, and whom your proposal would be intended towards) do not respond to rational, economic incentives. These people are already reproducing like crazy, even though they have lots of economic incentives not to do so -- why do you think an added tax would change their behavior?

  27. Brandon - I can't make any sense of your comments. You wrote that one cannot "increase the total happiness by increasing merely the happiness of a group", and then, when I give you an example of increasing the happiness merely of a group (namely, starving people), suddenly you reverse yourself and say that this is a good thing after all. I wish you would make clear precisely what principle of aggregation you have in mind; as it is, I simply haven't a clue. Many of the more practical things you note, I completely agree with (on a practical, not fundamental, level). But since you seemed to think you were proposing a fundamentally different form of utilitarianism to mine, it would be helpful to clarify the alleged difference, say with an example to show how the 'greatest happiness' and the 'greatest happiness for everyone' would come apart. As I've said three times now, I just don't know what you have in mind with the latter phrase: each time I fix on a possible interpretation, and show it to be absurd, you distance yourself from it.

    (I'm almost certain that the majority of this exchange we've simply been talking past each other. You've said things which suggest you take yourself to be disagreeing with me, but they don't seem to really engage with my view. So I suspect that your grasp of my position is as flimsy as my grasp of yours.)

    "you seem to be expressing yourself in a way inconsistent with your prior comment (since lollipops are no more happiness than policies)"

    No, I never suggested we should assess the lollipops in themselves, independently of their consequences (e.g. how much happiness people got from eating them), as you claimed regarding policies.

  28. Lvb - right, Helen convinced me of the impracticality upthread. But I guess I'm more interested in the more general principles behind it, namely:

    (1) It's generally appropriate to respond to 'negative externalities' with a tax or other methods to insure that those creating the bad effects internalize the costs.

    (2) Bringing more people into existence, in certain circumstances (e.g. when they're unlikely to end up well-educated, etc.) can be a negative externality.

    This leads to the conclusion that all else being equal, a tax on parents of underperforming children could be justified. Now, as many commenters have rightly noted, all else isn't equal! True enough. But the general issues are interesting to consider nonetheless.

    Clark - "While I'm anything but a libertarian I do strongly feel that it is not the government's business to have some utopian scheme and then pressure citizens into fulfilling the utopia of whatever ideology happens to be in power at the moment"

    This is interesting. I assume you agree with taxing some negative externalities, say pollution. We don't usually think it's "social engineering" to make people pay for the costs they impose on others. So why is this case so different in principle?

  29. You wrote that one cannot "increase the total happiness by increasing merely the happiness of a group", and then, when I give you an example of increasing the happiness merely of a group (namely, starving people), suddenly you reverse yourself and say that this is a good thing after all.

    But this wasn't what your lollipop example said at all. You had said:

    It follows from this, on any recognizably utilitarian view, that it is better to (say) give all hungry people a lifetime's supply of food, than to give each person in the world a mere lollipop. The former option increases the sum total of happiness more, despite benefiting only a "group" while others of us remain unaffected. You seem to be proposing that it is better to give everyone a lollipop, since this at least provides some benefit to each, even if so minimal that the sum total still remains far less than the alternative intervention.

    So on the one side we have "give all hungry people a lifetime's supply of food" and on the other, "give each person in the world a mere lollipop". But, as I pointed out, the latter is not such that it "at least provides some benefit to each," since whether it's a benefit at all will vary radically from person to person; and the former is a massively and obviously a benefit: if these were exclusive choices you would be choosing, for each hungry person, to give them a lollipop rather than a lifetime freedom from hunger. The one is something from which everyone benefits (since we all benefit from no one being hungry), the other one from which only a handful of people benefit (namely, those occasional people for whom a lollipop would definitely be a benefit). You have the character of your choices exactly reversed; the one you say is a benefit for everybody is necessarily a benefit for only a handful, while the one you say is a benefit for merely a group is obviously a benefit for everyone. You think I've reversed myself because your view on this example is completely backwards.

    I have more to say on some other things in your comment, but I'm worried about the comment getting overlong, particularly given that a longer comment might confuse an already confusing interaction even more.

  30. We can stipulate that the well-off group remain unaware of whether the starving group are helped or not, so as to guarantee that the happiness of the well-off group is not affected by the charitable intervention.

    We can also stipulate that anyone who doesn't like lollipops gets a minor benefit of some other kind -- something they do like, at least a little bit.

    Really, this is a thought experiment. Play along.

  31. It's difficult to play along with a thought experiment that is based on false assumptions, like that what benefits everybody benefits only a few, and vice versa; I recommend that we try instead for better thought experiments. Simply making things up as we go along won't help clarify anything.

    So the modified scenario, I take it, is this:

    (1) We are given a choice of two alternatives, such that we cannot choose both and must choose one;
    (2) And in alternative (A) we give everyone who is hungry a lifetime of food, in such a way that no one else knows about it or ever will know about it in any way, and (presumably) either I will forget about it immediately so as not to be benefited by the choice, or I am one of those benefited, and (presumably, again) not only will no one ever know about it, but no one other than the hungry people will have their happiness improved indirectly by this (e.g., there are no family and friends and concerned strangers who will be freed from worry, and no one whose happiness will be affected by the increase of happiness on the part of the formerly-hungry);
    (3) And in alternative (B) we give everyone whatsoever a lollipop, or some other minor benefit if the lollipop wouldn't suffice, so that everyone gets a minor benefit, and (presumably) there is also here no special benefit to be derived from the choice beyond the distribution of minor benefits;
    (4) And (presumably, again, since you don't mention it, but it would have to be added) this will be the only choice I ever make, so I cannot compensate for this choice by future choices and cannot strategize this choice as part of a greater series of choices.

    And the question we are to ask ourselves in this scenario is: Is only (A) acceptable as a choice here, or is only (B) acceptable, or are both (A) and (B) acceptable, thinking of the matter purely in utilitarian terms? But, setting aside the fact that I sincerely doubt Mill could regard all the new conditions on (A) as coherent (or (4), for that matter), we would have to keep in mind that the Millian will look first at the individuals involved, and note, for instance, that a case like this is not a case of giving some people a pure surplus benefit, but giving them a massive benefit that overcomes a serious source of unhappiness that other people (ex hypothesi) do not have. Thus it is an equalizing benefit, and is again more conducive to maximizing the happiness of the greatest number than the alternative is.

    This sort of scenario doesn't really raise a problem for the position you are criticizing: either the (A) benefit will be (1) something that raises a group up to a level others already have, or (2) it will be a pure surplus benefit; either the (B) benefit will be (1) major; or (2) minor. Then, under the possible scenarios:

    A1, B1: either may acceptable, and you would choose the one that on your best judgment was best, i.e., gave the greatest happiness for the greatest number (probably A, one would think, but it's impossible to say for sure without knowing the benefit)

    A2, B1: This is a choice between a great benefit for some or a great benefit for all; assuming no other considerations, obviously you'd take B.

    A1, B2: This is the sort of case above. You'd pick A: you are bringing your society closer to the standard of greatest happiness for the greatest number. It's not that you are benefiting the few, simply speaking; it's that you are rectifying their lack of benefit relative to everyone else

    A2, B2: either may be acceptable, and, again, you'd choose the one that seemed under the circumstances to be best (probably B, but it's impossible to say for sure without knowing the benefit).

    But none of these would involve catching a Millian (of the sort that would be possible if I am interpreting Mill more-or-less correctly) in an inconsistency. The Millian's goal is the greatest happiness for the greatest number; this is not, in the real world, a matter of single choices. A choice may only partially contribute to that end and still be justifiable when combined with other choices that contribute what it lacks; in the real world a choice between an (A)-benefit and a (B)-benefit would be one where it's entirely possible that either road might be acceptable, as long as more was done down the road to make even further progress. But you can't increase the total happiness by merely increasing the happiness of a subgroup, any more than we can make everyone in the world rich by making one person so; 'total happiness' is the happiness of everyone (to the extent that this can come within our purview); and it's a contradiction to say you are increasing the happiness of everyone by increasing the happiness of only a few (or, more precisely for the sorts of cases we are considering, doing things that tend to increase the happiness of everyone by doing things that tend to increase the happiness of only some of them).

  32. I assume you agree with taxing some negative externalities, say pollution. We don't usually think it's "social engineering" to make people pay for the costs they impose on others. So why is this case so different in principle?

    Not to get off on a tangent, but no I don't. I tend to think that if something is harmful it should be regulated or made illegal. I don't like the tax approach in the least for a variety of reasons.

  33. Really? How curious. If you'd like to pursue that issue further, you're very welcome to comment on my old post on 'Costs and Regulation'.

  34. The short answer is that most of my political views are based more on practical issues than philosophical. I think that in practice taxes are dangerous because (a) good accountants find loopholes (b) most people don't know what taxes they are paying - especially with hidden corporate taxes. Thus there isn't the practical democratic analysis of how taxes are working. (c) I think it wrong to punish someone for something that is legal.

    Now that last element is more philosophical but I'm not making an ethical point but more an organizational one. It ends up being blurring since you could argue that some fines aren't really about legality but simply hidden taxes. By this model drugs at most encounter a minor tax upon entering the country when you examine losses and fines on the main corporations. However if we really think something is immoral and ought be eliminated we ought not simply pass on effective taxes that seem to be "paid" dependent upon how smart people are at avoiding them.

    Put an other way I think taxes should primarily be about revenue and the argument should be about how effective they are at generating revenue while trying to minimize their economic cost on society.

    If something is wrong (regardless of what meta-ethical theory you hold although I doubt most people consider such things) then the best way to handle it is either to simply to regulate it.

    But my primary argument is primarily that I think government needs to be accountable and complex taxes mean that the government can control without that democratic feedback. (Relatedly I think the unnecessary proliferation of complex laws also is problematic for the same reason)


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