The Righteous Mind’s Blindside: The Ethics of Means

Allow me to be the fist to point it out: Jonathan Haidt is not an economist. Why then is he getting attention on a site dedicated to slamming economists who aren’t Austrian? The answer is obvious: Haidt has some significant insights and tremendous truths to share, but because he is not an Austrian he misses out on some key points. So here we are.

I’ve got to say I love his book, The Righteous MindEpisodes 429 and 676 of The Tom Woods Show are two of my favorites just because Haidt was the guest. He was also one of the most interesting guests Stephen Colbert ever had.

My issue with Haidt is that throughout his book he deals only with ultimate ends. This may be obvious in the field of religion but is often confusing when it comes to politics. Sometimes the issue is one of ultimate ends – such as pro-life versus pro-choice – where values collide. Autonomy and self-ownership versus the value of life itself.

Sometimes the issue is one of mere means, such as debates about education. Perhaps if it were ever to be proven that children were educated better under a condition of free market education, all those who attack school voucher programs and support teacher unions would change their tune. If it were proven in favor of the other side, perhaps homeschoolers and advocates of free market education would vote for higher taxes to support better government schools and send their children there accordingly. The goal for both sides is that children be well-educated. Despite what each side might say about the other, neither wants the next generation to be illiterate, innumerate, and dull-witted.

It is this very type of disagreement, with all its vitriol and hostility, that I expected to be explained and remedied when I first picked up Haidt’s book and read the title. Much, maybe most of politics is a lot more exciting than it should be.

Let’s look at a few supposed “hot button” issues that aren’t all that hot at all:

Minimum Wage – Neither side wants people to be poor.
Foreign Intervention – Neither side wants terrorists to attack America.
Gun Control – Neither side wants people to die from mass shootings.
Education – Neither side wants children to be uneducated.
Central Bank/Monetary Policy – Neither side wants recessions.
Government Healthcare vs Free Market Healthcare – Neither side wants high medical costs nor difficult to attain health services.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I would venture most of the disagreements we have are over “means” issues rather than “ends” issues. Haidt has no answers for this predicament, but he does have a great theory about riders and elephants. (If you read my blog, but don’t listen to the The Tom Woods Show, you deserve to be confused. Listen to Episode 429) In The Righteous Mind, as well as in his first episode with Tom Woods, Haidt explains that our rational mind has the sort of unbiased decision making much as a Judge would fair riding on an elephant. He essentially argues that the elephant (our emotions or intuitions) are what guide our decision making while the rider (or Judge, our reason) is mostly there to justify the action taken. While the Judge can rein in his elephant and act according to reason rather than emotion, most of the time the elephant is allowed to be in control and the Judge is just hanging on for the ride.

A problem such as working on a Rubik’s cube isn’t in an intuitional burden until you are frustrated enough to stop working on it and you crush the damn thing with your bare hands. The question I want answered by Haidt is simple: Why do so many people remain emotional with problems and fail to go into problem-solving mode? Why do libertarians get called names for advocating a monetary system that can’t be controlled by political appointees? I don’t think I will ever again argue about abortion, or gay marriage, or other such hot button issues. Not because I don’t have strong feelings about them, but because they are disagreements over ends and as Mises alluded to in Human Action: If you can’t quickly convince someone that they have the wrong ends, you never will.

But the crux of most matters relate to disagreements over means and not ends. Whatever the dispute, I feel duty bound to argue the case for freedom, because that is what works. Here Haidt’s book only scratches the surface. Why can’t people analyze these problems like chess players analyze a chess position? Why are they so emotional, sometimes just plain hostile, to those who disagree? How can people fail to see the winning move even when it is shown to them by another? Why are they so stubborn? And why do people get, or remain, emotional over a controversy based purely on logic and reason and not at all on subjective values?

Yet, might there be a seventh pillar? You can teach your kids how to eat the right way: to use a fork, or chopsticks, and chew with their mouth shut.  If they don’t get it right, they haven’t hurt anyone. At worst they are offensive in certain settings, but people remain unscathed. However, there are right ways and wrong ways to do things. If a man builds a bridge ineffectively and it collapses and kills those traveling across it or if a “doctor” uses the old Anglo-Saxon trick of rubbing horse manure into a wound and the patient becomes septic, these people have made situations and lives worse. If it can be reasonably demonstrated through logic or experience that one method is preferable over another or certain practice is ill-advised, would it not be immoral to purposefully ignore this evidence and continue on with policies which negatively affect people? I think so.

At some point you have to admit doing things in certain ways, the means, is immoral. A command economy is immoral. We could use the extreme example of North Korea, whose policies lead to the death of hundreds of thousands or millions through starvation. The minimum wage is immoral because it hinders young people without a skill set from entering the work force or people in need of a second chance might not be able to get an honest job because no one wants to take the risk to hire them when they are required to pay them the same amount as another who has kept his nose and record clean. The War on Drugs is a near perfect example of immorality because it invigorates black markets, encourages violence, increases reckless drug use, and causes more broken homes and more death.

Haidt does touch on one subject that is a means issue when he discusses libertarians towards the end of his book. He makes the case for healthcare reform, but it seems that he entirely misses the fact that he has transitioned from argumentation over the ends to argumentation over the means. It is the only example anywhere in his book that deals with means.

In another place of note, he brings up the death penalty; an unusual issue as it can be argued on either the merits of ends (“It is always wrong to kill another human,” or “Justice demands the life of a murderer.”) or of means (whether or not the death penalty works as a deterrent or a counter deterrent). The death penalty is one of the few issues where there are four possible sides to take.

In some ways perhaps my criticism isn’t fair. Maybe Haidt, like many other great scientists and philosophers, answers one question only to raise a dozen more. While Mises had a firm handle on means versus ends and addressed it nearly 100 years ago, I hope one day Haidt or another psychologist can help break down the barriers for those who stick to their elephants of emotion rather than grappling with matters pertaining to logic and reason. It is a wonderful idea to consider what a sequel book would look like if Haidt were an Austrian. If you read Human Action directly before you read The Righteous Mind you can come up with some ideas as to what that book might look like. Perhaps Mises’ The Anti-Capitalist Mentality would be a heavy influence on such a paper.

But Haidt isn’t an Austrian and I’m not a psychologist. As a combined result of reading Mises and Haidt, I have decided that in any argument I’m in I should ask what is the other person’s aim. I will try to get them to dismount their elephant of intuition and sit down at the chess board of logic and reason.

“Why do you want ‘X’ to happen!?”

“WOW! What do you know? I want that too!”

“What if we could get there better by another route? Would you be interested? If not, why?” 

The question “Why?” is indispensable. Whether “X” is providing for the poor, children being educated, or a reduction in drug use we have to ask what is the best way to get there.

The Fallacy of Irrational Action from Richard Thaler

It’s been dry lately, and busy. It’s been a combination of being super busy, a string of shows that aren’t particularly controversial, and a bit of writer’s block. It’s been one of these constantly, every time I sit down to write. Well, one of the latter two when I do sit down to write, and then for the days where I don’t get that far it’s from being so busy and exhausted.

I’m here now and I have found time to read quite a bit lately. I looked into behavioral economics, a school of thought that Jason talked about a long long time ago. It’s interesting. I’m not sure all of it is really economics, either by Sowell’s definition or by the Misessian definition, but much of it does seem plausible. There are some very basic and fundamental problems with behavioral economics. Since the show hasn’t been giving me a lot of material lately- or what material there is, is either out dated or purely political- I’m going to take on Richard Thaler.

In his book, “Misbehaving” Thaler attacks one of the fundamentals of economics, as it has been known since the late 1800s. Thaler takes pride in demolishing “homo-economicus.” That is the “old” notion that men base all their actions according to calculations regarding their own value scale, opportunity costs, values, costs vs profits, and their time preferences, and assessments of the probability of varying unknown future events. In other words, men act rationally and are self-interested.

The Austrian School teaches that all men act, and that the purpose of each act is to relieve a felt sense of uneasiness. Or, to put it another way, each act aims at exchanging the actor’s current condition for a better condition. It is purposeful action that employs means to attain ends.

Furthermore, there is a logical structure of the mind, so that individuals prefer some things to others, our limitations of time and resources create the necessity for us to prioritize how we spend our time and resources. This leads to what is referred to as a value scale.

Individuals organize their desires in a linear sort of way, a man prefers A to B, and B to C, and C to D, and so on. Not that every person writes all this out in long hand, but merely that this is how we operate, this is how we must operate. We must act and each act precludes other acts. So that on a given afternoon you must make a choice between taking a walk or going to a movie, or going fishing. If you choose to do any of those, it is proof you prefer that activity more than the other possible activities.

Thaler presents some challenges to this notion, one being how people would respond to the different scenarios. For instance if given two choices: A, where you are guaranteed to win $100, and B, where you have a 50% chance of winning $200 and a 50% chance of winning nothing, most folks chose the sure thing. When presented with a second choice: A, a sure loss of $100, or B, a 50% chance of losing $200 and a 50% chance of losing nothing, most people take the gamble.

In each case it was just about 2 to 1.  But this isn’t really the realm of economics at all. The main point of this study is trying to understand how people make their choices, not a study of human action.

Somewhere in that book he presents a problem that actually had me questioning the whole notion of a value scale for about 5 minutes. He mentioned two guys who won tickets to a game. One man sold the tickets for $1,000. The other man went to the game. Neither could understand the logic of what the other was doing. Clearly an example of subjective value theory at work.

Consider this: suppose “YOUR TEAM” is going to the Super Bowl. You enter a raffle at work or at the local chamber of commerce or whatever and you win! Now you have two choices: you go or you don’t go and you sell the tickets for $2,000. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend there is no travel expenses, just suppose the Super Bowl is in your home town… Now, what do you do? If you go, it clearly demonstrates you prefer attending the game over $2,000. But suppose you don’t win any tickets. You can either buy the tickets for $2,000 and go, or you can not spend the money and watch it on T.V. In this case, if you don’t go it is because you prefer $2,000 to attending the game.

It seems plausible that this could happen, but how could this fit into that neat Misessian/Rothbardian value scale?  I put the book down and began to question how this could be. How can a person prefer A to B and at the same time prefer B to A? I considered if this were my situation, If I could go to the Super Bowl for free, why I would go, and why I wouldn’t go if my team did go to the Super Bowl but I had to buy the ticket.

I began to think over the fundamental premises of economics. Men use means to attain ends. Each act is intended to exchange one’s current condition for a more desirable condition. And that was it, in a flash, it made perfect sense.

Before the tickets are acquired, my condition is $X in the bank. After the tickets are acquired, I either have $X in the bank and the tickets. If I won the tickets, or $X-$2,000 if I had to buy the tickets. And, of course, $X+$2,000 if I decide to sell the tickets. Depending on what that $X is, my choice would be different. If $X=$500, I’m selling the tickets if I win them and I will not buy them if I don’t win them, obviously.  If $X=$1500 I may go to the game if I win the tickets, but I will not buy them if I don’t win them. And if $X=$6,000 I  will buy the tickets if I do not win them.

Now that’s perfectly logical and reasonable. There are actually 3 sets of value scales, not one.

1. $6,000 and tickets
2. $4,000 and tickets

1. $1,500 and tickets
2. $1,500 and no tickets

1. $2,500 (after selling tickets that were won)
2. $500 and no tickets.

Maybe the Austrians do have some cracks somewhere, but not here. Men do use reason (many times flawed). Men plan, quite imperfectly sometimes, and men do act in order to better their condition, even if they regret their actions later and their condition is actually worsened.

I do think we are homo economicus, but that doesn’t mean we are always right, or that we don’t make gross errors in our calculations. But, all the theory of homo economicus states is that we do make calculations.