Defending Mankiw

Via Will Wilkinson, I learn Ezra Klein heartily endorsed Matt Yglesias‘s complaint on “the habit of distinguished economists using prestige acquired within their field to pass off sloppy work in other fields.”  He gives only two examples; one is Greg Mankiw’s “pretty half-assed moral philosophy.” Mankiw had argued:

The moral and political philosophy used to justify such income redistribution is most often a form of Utilitarianism. For example, the work on optimal tax theory by Emmanuel Saez … is essentially Utilitarian in its approach. … If you are going to take that philosophy seriously, you have to take all of the implications seriously. And one of those implications is the optimality of taxing height. … A moral and political philosophy is not like a smorgasbord, where you get to pick and choose the offerings you like and leave the others behind without explanation.

Matt Yglesias was outraged:

I think there are a ton of mistakes being made here. … How dangerous it is that the public discourse is so dominated by low-quality freelance philosophy done by people with PhDs in economics. I’m fairly certain that if Mankiw were to walk over to Emerson Hall he could find some folks (possibly T.M. Scanlon who I know sometimes reads this blog) who could explain to him that there’s little grounds for the belief that a commitment to utilitarianism is the main justification for redistributive taxation.

Gee Matt, given such strong language, don’t you feel some obligation to offer supporting evidence?  Mankiw cited an example, and you even cite your classmate Neil Sinhababu supporting redistribution on utilitarian grounds. Where is the contrary evidence?   And even if Mankiw happens to be wrong here, he doesn’t seem crazy or sloppy wrong – an awful large fraction of ethical analyzes justifying redistribution are utilitarian, even if they aren’t strictly the most common.

Note that it isn’t obvious that a Rawlsian analysis won’t similarly support a height tax.  Also note that many professional philosophers blog, and none have yet voiced support for your condemnation of Mankiw’s unexcusably sloppy philosophy.

Yglesias continued:

I think the “smorgasboard” argument is a confused way of thinking about moral reasoning. … If forced to contemplate the alleged contradiction, there are a bunch of things we might want to consider. Maybe the analysis of the height issue has gotten something wrong, utility-wise. After all, though the paper is clever, it’s hardly a comprehensive review of all of the hedonic issues in play. Or maybe utilitarianism isn’t the best theoretical grounding for the conviction that murder is wrong. Or, maybe the height tax thing actually is a good idea, albeit an unrealistic one. But since this isn’t a “live” subject of political controversy, and since there seem to be a lot of other more clear-cut policy issues, we decide to spend our time and energy thinking about less outlandish policy suggestions.

So the reason Yglesias gives that Mankiw’s “alleged contradiction” is wrong is that, hey maybe Mankiw made a mistake, and anyway Yglesias is too busy to think about crazy proposals?  (Though not too busy to defame Mankiw based on them.)  Yglesias learned of Mankiw’s claim via Conor Clarke, who similarly said:

Everyone has moral intuitions they can’t justify in the same we can justify the pythagorean theorem, and I don’t see the point of fighting that strong impulse in the name of a hobgoblin-ish consistency. … I have a strong moral intuition — even though I know it’s one I can’t justify — that height is something I deserve. But proving that my moral intuitions are an inconsistent smorgasbord doesn’t mean I’m going to give them up!

To me, Yglesias and Clarke seem here to exemplify unprincipled courtiers, who talk sagely of important considerations, and can find sage reasons for any opinion, and so need never allow analysis to move them from the dictates of inertia or fashion.  In contrast, principled philosophers understand that raw moral intuitions are noisy, and so seek coherent moral frameworks which they expect will require them to reject some raw intuitions, and embrace some unfashionable conclusions.

What am I missing Matt?  Is this your whole case for saying Mankiw’s philosophy is “half-assed,” and half your case that sloppy economist-philosophy is destroying public discourse?  That Mankiw plausibly claims most philosophy analysis supporting redistribution is utilitarian, and that you don’t have time to consider Mankiw’s proposal?

In another post, Yglesias elaborates on economists’ bad philosophy:

Fairly abstract misguided ideas in ethics, political philosophy, and economics have come to have extraordinary cultural and political power … all to incredibly pernicious effect. … Most of these ideas are propounded, originally, by people whose degrees are in economics. …

One important set of ideas is the perverse notion that it’s wrong or inappropriate to subject people to moral criticism for making selfish decisions as long as the decisions don’t involve breaking the law. … Another example is … under guise of eschewing values, economics has adopted a philosophical value system which says that the well-being of rich people is more important than the well-being of poor people. … As a third example, … the idea that when empirical evidence seems to contradict basic economic theory … that we ought to accept the theory as true.

These seem bizarre complaints.  I’ve never heard any economist say theory should always trump data, nor that legal acts are beyond criticism.  We criticize, for example, folks who selfishly drive at rush hour, getting in other folks way.  And standard econ lectures emphasize that the efficiency standard has little to say against unexpected redistribution; it mainly recommends allowing trade after redistribution.

Added: An anonymous reader offers more cites of utilitarian justified redistribution:

Chapter 23 of Dave Schmidtz’s Elements of Justice.

Nagel, Thomas 1991. Equality and Partiality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 65.

Hare, R.M. 1982. “Ethical Theory of Utilitarianism,” in Sen and Williams, eds. Utilitarianism and Beyond. 23-38. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 27.

Baker, Edwin. 1974. “Utility and Rights: Two Justifications for State Action Increasing Equality,” Yale Law Journal 84: 39-59, 45-47.

Lerner, Abba. 1970. The Economics of Control. New York: Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, 28 & 32.

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