Reply to Clarke

When Conor Clarke said:

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!

I snarked:

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.

Today Clarke responded:

The disagreement, if there is one, is in [Hanson’s] statement that reflective equilibrium “will require [us] to reject some raw intuitions, and embrace some unfashionable conclusions.” My sense is that you can move toward reflective equilibrium and remain fashionable. … I would tinker with the principle of fair equality of opportunity until it included a ban on taxing biology in the name of fairness….  I’m not sure Hanson should be so quick to reject the impulse to cling to a deeply held moral intuition in the face of radical social planning. … This is a fundamentally conservative impulse — standing athwart history yelling stop and all that.

My problem is that I find it hard to believe this intuition really is “deeply held.”  As I said when I first blogged on this:

I could sympathize if the [height tax] seemed to violate a fundamental moral principle, defended by ethicists for generations.  But we are not talking about endorsing rape, slavery, murder, or baby eating here.  We are talking about adding height as one more factor considered by a complex system of taxation and subsidizes that already considers hundreds of details, including age, marriage, children, job, hours worked, ethnicity, nation, city, housing type, kinds of products purchased, types of investment made, and roads used.  How the #@$! is it a sacred moral principle that a tax system weighing all these details shall not also consider height?

To elaborate with one example:

The [U.S.] sugar program … inflates domestic sugar to twice the world price. … In the domestic market, the Agriculture Department decides what total sugar production ought to be and allots 54% of production to beet sugar and 46% to cane sugar.

Clarke, does your moral intuition say it is just fine for tax/subsidy policy to prefer folks who prefer to eat or make beet sugar over cane sugar, or folks who like corn syrup over sugar?  More generally, what fraction of the factors already considered in our tax/subsidy system offend you more than height?  If most of them do, well then you are really just objecting to our whole system; height is a side issue.  But if height really is an especially offensive factor to you, well then I am truly puzzled.  My best guess was and is:

[Elites] … display a huge status-quo bias.  All policies outside a certain range of familiar possibilities seem “silly” to ordinary people.  So no matter how strong the supporting arguments, [elites] feel they must reject such proposals, so as not to seem silly themselves.

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  • confused

    0.) Conor Clarke says he has a strong moral intuition that height is something he deserves.

    1.) Robin Hanson says that this moral intuition makes little sense in light of all the other things we tax.

    2.) Robin Hanson concludes that Conor Clarke does not in fact possess any such moral intuition. Instead, what Conor Clarke thinks is a moral intuition is in fact a strong status quo bias?!

    Q: How has Robin Hanson obtained more knowledge about Conor Clarke’s moral intuition than Conor Clarke?

    Am I missing something?

    I, for one, am rather unpuzzled that different people have different moral intuitions. I may find some people’s particular intuitions puzzling, but not the fact that they are different.

  • Robin, across the range of inequalities there are some that people consistently feel are fair and deserved and some they find appalling. You suggested that these intuitions about fairness are to do with allowing clear fitness signals ( Clarke’s supposed intuition seems a prime example of that, rather than status quo bias especially; height is a wonderful fitness signal.

  • komponisto

    I find it hard to believe that Clarke (or anyone else) really thinks height is something they “deserve”. (How in the world?) My suspicion is that such people are simply not convinced on an intuitive level that height really does affect one’s success in life to the extent claimed.

  • I doubt most elites think our sugar policy is good.

    • Perhaps, but I doubt they object based on a moral intuition against government policy that differentially influences people with different sweet tooth preferences. Most probably object to its inefficiency, which is not a problem with the height tax.

  • Grant

    Taxing height doesn’t make much sense to me, because it won’t alter anyone’s height. The Department of Agriculture taxes sugar imports with the misguided goal of boosting domestic sugar production, but this is a goal it can actually accomplish. We can’t make people’s heights more similar by taxation unless we take it to such an extreme that parents malnourish their children and adults have corrective surgery. In general, people feel a system which penalizes or rewards based on factors they have no control over (e.g., their own height) is unfair. What good would come of taxing height?

    My intuition is “taxing height is silly, dumb and wrong”. Intuition doesn’t explain itself, but that doesn’t mean its incorrect.

  • Taxing height doesn’t make much sense to me, because it won’t alter anyone’s height.
    That’s precisely the point, no “dead weight loss” unlike income taxation.

  • James K

    Grant: If the point of a tax is to contain an externatily then you want the tax to change the amount of the thing you are taxing. But here, we’re talking about revenue-raising taxes. When raising revenue you want to tax things people can’t change, so the tax has a minimal distortionary effect.

  • Devon

    All of this presumes that some entity has a right to tax at all. Despotisms claim the right to tax and impose it by force. Democracies may also impose a tax by use of force, but in theory it is limited to enforcing tax laws that are agreed-to jointly by the body politic.

    Presumably, the concept of fairness comes into play, as only a tax deemed fair would be agreed-to by the taxed. Also, when a tax is considered for imposition, it is not only the method and criteria that are considered, but the use of the proceeds as well. Democratic government does not have free reign to spend tax receipts in just any fashion deemed desirous by those holding office at the time the receipts are garnered or borrowed against. There are limits imposed by law, custom, tradition, and morality.

    The same principle applies, though one step removed from the voting public in a representative republic. The tax and its use must in essence be agreed-to by the body politic. Taxes, in representative governments therefore, are generally approved for a common good, cumulative necessity, and to advance a national interest.

    In a redistributive scenario, a portion of the taxes obtained are being used not for a common good, or cumulative necessity, or to advance a national interest, but rather to enrich one group or special interest at the expense of another. Where those being taxed don’t, on the whole, agree, the redistribution is tantamount to theft, plain and simple, and the government practices despotism in enforcing it. Governmental theft is still theft, and the fact that it is being carried out by the government doesn’t mitigate its moral or ethical vaccuousness…. It enhances it.