AI: Bootleggers and Baptists Edition

“Elon Musk Is Wrong about Artificial Intelligence and the Precautionary Principle” – via @nuzzel

(disclaimer: I haven’t dug any deeper than reading the above linked article.)

Apparently Elon Musk is afraid of the potential downsides of artificial intelligence enough to declare it “a rare case where we should be proactive in regulation instead of reactive. By the time we are reactive in AI regulation, it is too late.”

Like literally everything else, AI does have downsides. And, like anything that touches so many areas of our lives, those downsides could be significant (even catastrophic). But the most likely outcome of regulating AI is that people already investing in that space (i.e. Elon Musk) would set the rules of competition in the biggest markets. (A more insidious possible outcome is that those who would use AI for bad would be left alone.) To me this looks like a classic Bootleggers and Baptists story.

Let’s rehash! When is speech violence?

A new column at the New York Times attempted to use our knowledge about distress and human psychology to conclude that “speech that bullies or torments … is literally a form of violence.”

The response online has been swift and largely just a rehash of a debate, which is feverishly boring by now, on the connection between speech and action. We’ve been having this discussion at least since student activists began protesting non-left speakers on campuses, which frequently turned violent — batterizing professors, throwing smoke bombs, shoving around attendees. That was actual violence.

All the cards are on the table at this point, collecting dust: there are the civil libertarians looking to preserve the conditions for debate in a free society, and the left-wing response which sees some issues as non-debatable and wants to protect vulnerable groups at whatever cost. The speech restrictionists receive some philosophical backbone from people like Herbert Marcuse while speech defenders are supported by the Constitutional legal system. Just last month, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of free speech twice without dissent (on the topics of trademarks and social media). Justice Alito wrote, simply, “Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.”

Rigor mortis was just about settling into this long-dead debate until Lisa Barrett published this article, “When is speech violent?”, in which she presents an argument as fresh which is actually well known by its opponents. That said, the column is well-written, if not logically sound; she recognizes the fundamental difference between Yiannopolous and Murray; she offers some benefit of the doubt to Republicans in their distrust of the new university, although presumably that is not her political camp; her example from class demonstrates a recognition of the overall importance of pushing bad ideas into the spotlight. These notes distinguish Barrett’s article from the usual ideo-fanatical imbroglio that unceasingly propagates from the left to justify chilling speech. The argument itself, in a general form, is old and already receiving ample criticism. I want to comment on just one line. 

She abbreviates the crux of her argument as thus:

If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech — at least certain types of speech — can be a form of violence. But which types?

That is one huge “but,” and a painful stretch of transitivity. 

Obviously this argument allows for anything that causes prolonged stress to be a form of violence. Thusly, I can report my professors for every finals week I’ve ever had. The implicit assumption is that things which cause physical harm are always forms of violence (more specifically: if x can cause physical harm then x is a form of violence when it does so). This is how that little leap of logic is made toward the end. What is even more interesting, however, is that this thing might not be a form of violence when it doesn’t cause physical harm, according to the logic — and of course Barrett must believe that, lest she commit all speech to be a form of battery.

This position is interesting to me because, like many other advocacies being discussed today, it seems to violate our basic usage of terms.

Is there an example of any other action (taken here to include anything done by a human) — given our vocabulary for “violence” — that the doing of itself need not be necessarily violent but which can still be dubbed “violent” based on the physical harm it causes? A subsequently rather than simultaneously judged violence? … I don’t think so. I think our standard usage of the word “violence” hitherto this Times article includes and only includes those actions whereby their occurrence itself necessarily means physical harm has also been done. (The relationship being one-sided.) Put simply, our usage of violence is such that if the action happened then harm was committed. Punching someone in the face is not violent only when it “causes physical harm.” It is a form of violence because it always causes physical harm. 

So, it seems to be a misuse of words to call speech violent. Torture, murder, rape: these things and others are violent because they are always so, not because they “can” be so. This fact is absolutely necessary for deliberation in the courtroom. However, speech can be abusive (likewise, spanking may or may not be abusive), and retribution for prolonged verbal harassment is already part of criminal law… so again, why even the need to keep talking about this?

I think everything else that could be said on the issue has been said on hundreds of blogs with dozens of different political attitudes, many times over. In my political and social philosophy class last year, a jurisprudence professor from Rutgers did a guest lecture on why America should adopt laws criminalizing hate speech. The main point, which she openly disclosed as an appeal to popularity, was that plenty of Western European countries had done likewise and the United States was beginning to look a little stubborn. She then accused her vocal opponents, myself included, of slippery slope fallacies when we complained about more government involvement in what people can and can not say.

Are there better defenders of speech restrictionism than this visiting professor? Yes, but by God there are not many. And the fact that most of them tend to be left-of-center, and especially far left, undermines the ostensible purity of the position. In the same way that right wing rhetoric has helped spark violence in people already predisposed to behave that way, and, further still, radicalized them from pacifistic tabula rasas, left wing rhetoric has too. Should we be eliminating Marxist thought from our universities, since orthodox theory predicts and lauds a violent uprising of the proletariat? In my sociology class last semester, our professor announced on the first day that we would be (exclusively) using a “Marxist framework to answer these questions.” Who can doubt that reading the socialist and left-anarchist canon, from Lenin to Guevara to Emma Goldman, has led to violence, when the text and much of the philosophical framework views physical harm as absolutely necessary to the supreme cause? The “revolutionary terror” perspective laughs at democratic reformation. 

This is not to say violence is never justified. I am no Nicholas II loyalist. But the decision about when it is justified is not up to a handful of left-leaning professors and journalists. So if speech is to be censored on the basis that it can lead to violence, the government will have to wipe out a lot of university cirricula — all of it has the potential for radicalization. 

As for the argument that speech literally is violence, no, that is not how words work.


In Search of Firmer Cosmopolitan Solidarity: The Need for a Sentimentalist Case for Open Borders

Most arguments for open borders are phrased in terms of universalized moral obligations to non-citizens. These obligations are usually phrased as “merely” negative (eg., that Americans have a duty to not impede the movement an impoverished Mexican worker or Syrian refugee seeking a better life) rather than positive (eg., that the first obligation does not imply that Americans have a duty to provide, for example, generous welfare benefits to immigrants and refugees), but are phrased as obligations based on people in virtue of their rationality rather than nationality nonetheless.

Whether they be utilitarian, moral intuitionist, or deontological, what these arguments assume is that nation of origin isn’t a “morally relevant” consideration for one’s rights to immigrate and rely on some other view of moral relevance implicitly as an alternative to try and cement a purely moral solidarity that extends beyond national border. They have in common an appeal to a common human capacity to have rights stemming from something metaphysically essential to our common humanity.

Those arguments are all coherent and possibly valid and are even the arguments that originally convinced me to support open borders. The only problem is that they are often very unconvincing to people skeptical of immigration because they merely beg the question of that moral obligation is irrelevant with respect to nationality. As one of my critics of one of my older pieces on immigration observed, most immigration skeptics are implicitly tribalist nationalists, not philosophically consistent consequentialists or deontologists. They have little patience for theoretical and morally pure metaphysical arguments concluding any obligation, even merely negative, to immigrants. They view their obligations to those socially closer to them as a trump card (pardon the pun) to any morally universalized consideration. So long as they can identify with someone else as an American (or whatever their national identity may be) they view their considerations as relevant. If they cannot identify with someone else based on national identity, they do not view an immigrant’s theorized rights or utility functions as relevant.

There are still several problems with this tribalist perspective, given that nation-states are far from culturally homogenous and cultural homogeneity often transcends borders in some important respects, why does one’s ability to “identify” on the basis of tribal affiliation stop at a nation-state’s borders? Further, there are many other affinities one may have with a foreigner that may be viewed as equally important, if not more important, to one’s ability to “identify” with someone than national citizenship. They may be a fellow Catholic or Christian, they may be a fellow fan of football, or a fellow manufacturing worker, or a fellow parent, etc. Why is “fellow American” the most socially salient form of identification and allows one to keep a foreigner in a state tyranny and poverty, but not whether they are a “fellow Christian” or any of the many other identifiers people find important?

However, these problems are not taken seriously by those who hold them because tribalist outlook isn’t about rational coherence, it is about non-rational sentimental feelings and particularized perspectives on historical affinities. Even if a skeptic of immigration takes those problems seriously, the morally pure and universalizing arguments are no more convincing to a tribalist.

I believe this gets at the heart of most objections Trump voters have to immigration. They might raise welfare costs, crime, native jobs lost, or fear of cultural collapse as post-hoc rationalizations for why they do not feel solidarity with natives, but the fact that they do not feel solidarity due to their nationalist affinities is at the root of these rationalizations. Thus when proponents of open borders raise objections, be it in the form of economic studies showing that these concerns are not consistent with facts or by pointing out that these are also concerns for the native-born population and yet nobody proposes similar immigration restrictions on citizens, they fall on deaf ears. Such concerns are irrelevant to the heart of anti-immigrant sentiment: a lack of solidarity with anyone who is not a native-born citizen.

In this essay, drawing from the sentimentalist ethics of David Hume and the perspective on liberal solidarity of Richard Rorty, I want to sketch a vision of universalized solidarity that would win over tribalists to the side of, if not purely open borders, at least more liberalized immigration restrictions and allowance for refugees. This is not so much a moral argument of the form most arguments for open borders have taken, but a strategy to cultivate the sentiments of a (specifically American nationalist) tribalist to be more open to the concerns and sympathies of someone with whom they do not share a national origin. The main goal is that we shouldn’t try to argue away people’s sincere, deeply held tribalist and nationalist emotions, but seek to redirect them in a way that does not lead to massive suffering for immigrants.

Rorty on Kantian Rationalist and Humean Sentimentalist Arguments for Universalized Human Rights

In an article written by American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty called “Rationality, Sentimentality, and Human Rights,” he discusses two strategies for expanding human rights culture to the third world. One, which he identifies with philosophers such as Plato and Kant, involves appealing to some common faculty which all humans have in common—namely rationality—and claim all other considerations, such as kinship, custom, religion, and (most importantly for present purposes) national origin “morally irrelevant” to whether an individual has human rights and should be treated as such. These sort of arguments, Rorty says, are the sort that try to use rigorous argumentation to answer the rational egoist question “Why should I be moral?” They are traced back to Plato’s discussion of the Ring of Gyges in the Republic through Enlightenment attempts to find an algorithmic, rational foundation of morality, such as the Kantian categorical imperative. This is the sort of strategy, in varying forms, most arguments in favor of open borders try to pursue.

The second strategy, which Rorty identifies with philosophers such as David Hume and Annette Baier, is to appeal to the sentiments of those who do not respect the rights of others. Rather than try to answer “Why should I be moral?” in an abstract, philosophical sense such that we have a priori algorithmic justification for treating others equal, this view advocates trying to answer the more immediate and relevant question “Why should I care about someone’s worth and well-being even if it appears to me that I have very little in common with them?” Rather than answer the former question with argumentation that appeals to our common rational faculties, answer the latter with appealing to our sentimental attitudes that we do have something else in common with that person.

Rorty favors the second Humean approach for one simple reason: in practice, we are not dealing with rational egoists who substitute altruistic moral values with their ruthless self-interest. We are dealing with irrational tribalists who substitute more-encompassing attitudes of solidarity with less-encompassing ones. They aren’t concerned about why they should be moral in the first place and what that means, they are concerned with how certain moral obligations extend to people with whom they find it difficult to emotionally identify. As Rorty says:

If one follows Baier’s advice one will not see it as the moral educator’s task to answer the rational egoist’s question “Why should I be moral?” but rather to answer the much more frequently posed question “Why should I care about a stranger, a person who is no kin to me, a person whose habits I find disgusting?” The traditional answer to the latter question is “Because kinship and custom are morally irrelevant, irrelevant to the obligations imposed by the recognition of membership in the same species.” This has never been very convincing since it begs the question at issue: whether mere species membership is, in fact, a sufficient surrogate closer to kinship. […]

A better sort of answer is the sort of long, sad, sentimental story which begins with “Because this is what it is like to be in her situation—to be far from home, among strangers,” or “Because she might become your daughter-in-law,” or “Because her mother would grieve for her.” Such stories, repeated and varied over the centuries, have induced us, the rich, safe and powerful people, to tolerate, and even to cherish, powerless people—people whose appearance or habits or beliefs at first seemed an insult to our own moral identity, our sense of the limits of permissible human variation.

If we agree with Hume that reason is the slave of the passions, or more accurately that reason is just one of many competing sentiments and passions, then it should come as no surprise that rational argumentation of the form found in most arguments for open borders are not super convincing to people for whom reason is not the ruling sentiment. How does one cultivate these other sentiments, if not through merely rational argumentation? Rorty continually comments throughout his political works that novels, poems, documentaries, and television programs—those genres which tell the sort of long sad stories commented on above—have replaced sermons and Enlightenment-era treatises as the engine of moral progress since the end of the nineteenth century. Rational argumentation may convince an ideal-typical philosopher, but not many other people.

For Rorty, the application of this sentimental ethics had two main purposes, the first of which is mostly irrelevant for present purposes and the second of which is relevant. First, Rorty wanted to make his vision of a post-metaphysical, post-epistemological intellectual culture and a commonsensically nominalist and historicist popular culture compatible with the sort of ever-expanding human solidarity necessary for political liberalism; a culture for which the sort of algorithmic arguments for open borders I mentioned in the first half of this article would not seem convincing for more theoretical reasons than the mere presence of nationalist sentiment. Though that is an intellectual project with which I have strong affinities, one need not buy that vision for the purposes of this article—that of narrowly applying sentimental ethics to overcome nationalist objections to immigration.

The second, however, was to point out a better way to implement the liberal cultural norms to prohibit the public humiliation of powerless minorities. The paradigmatic cases Rorty says such a sentimental education has application are how Serbians viewed Muslims, how Nazis viewed Jews, or how white southern Confederates viewed African-American slaves. Though those are far more extreme cases, it is not a stretch to add to that list the way Trump voters view Muslim refugees or Mexican migrant workers.

A Rortian Case against Rortian (and Trumpian) Nationalism

Though Rorty was a through-and-through leftist and likely viewed most nationalist arguments for restricting immigration and especially keeping refugees in war-zones with scorn, there is one uncomfortable feature of his views for most radical proponents of immigration. It does leave very well open the notion of nationalism as a valid perspective, unlike many of the other arguments offered.

Indeed, Rorty—from my very anarchist perspective—was at times uncomfortably nationalist. In Achieving Our Country he likens national pride to self-respect for an individual, saying that while too much national pride can lead to imperialism, “insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely.” He defended a vision of American national pride along the lines of Deweyan pragmatism and transcendentalist romanticism as a nation of ever-expanding democratic vistas. Though radically different from the sort of national pride popular in right-wing xenophobic circles, it is a vision of national pride nonetheless and as such is not something with which I and many other advocates of open borders are not sympathetic with.

Further, and more relevant to our considerations, is he viewed national identity as a tool to expand the sort of liberal sentiments that he wanted. As he wrote in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:

Consider, as a final example, the attitude of contemporary American liberals to the unending hopelessness and misery of the lives of the young blacks in American cities. Do we say these people must be helped because they are our fellow human beings? We may, but it is much more persuasive, morally as well as politically, to describe them as our fellow Americans—to insist it is outrageous that an American to live without hope. The point of these examples is that our sense of solidarity is strongest when those with whom solidarity is expressed are thought of as “one of us,” where “us” means something smaller and more localized than the human race.

It is obvious why many critics of immigration restrictions would view this attitude as counterproductive. This type of description cannot be applied in many other scenarios at all relevant to questions of immigration at all. Liberalism, in the sense Rorty borrowed from Shklar (and also the sense which I think animates much of the interest in liberalized immigration policies), as an intense aversion to cruelty is concerned with merely ending cruelty as such. It wants to end cruelty whether it be the cruelty of the American government to illegal immigrants or suffering of native-born African-Americans as a result of centuries of cruelty by racists. This is surely something with which Rorty would agree as he writes elsewhere in that same chapter:

[T]here is such a thing as moral progress and that progress is indeed in the direction of greater human solidarity. But that solidarity is not thought of as recognition of a core self, the human essence, in all human beings. Rather, it is thought of as the ability to see more and more traditional differences (of tribe, religion, race, customs, and the like) as unimportant when compared to the similarities with respect to pain and humiliation—the ability to think of people wildly different from ourselves in the range of ‘us.’

Surely, that moral progress doesn’t stop at the unimportant line of a national border. The problem is that appeals to national identity of the sort Rorty uses, or of mythologized national histories, do stop at the border.

Rorty is right that it is easier for people to feel a sense of solidarity with those for whom there are fewer traditional differences, and that no amount of appeal to metaphysical constructions of human rationality will fully eclipse that psychological fact. However, the problem with forms of solidarity along national identity is it is much easier for people to stop there. In modern pluralistic, cosmopolitan societies such as America, it is hard for someone to stop their sense of solidarity at religion, tribe, custom and the like. This is because the minute they walk out the door of their home, the minute they arrive at their workplace, there is someone very close to them who would not fit that sense of solidarity yet someone for whom they would still feel some obligation, just based off of seeing the face of that person, off of mere proximity.

Stopping the line at national identity is much easier since many Americans, particularly those in the midwestern and southeastern states which gave Trump his presidency, will rarely interact with non-nationals on a regular basis while they will more likely interact with someone who is more distant from them in other ways. While other forms of solidarity are unstable for most because they are too localized, nationalism is stable because it is too general to be upset by experience of others while not general enough to be compatible with liberalism. Moral progress, if we pursue Rorty’s explicitly nationalist project, will halt at the national borders and his liberal project of ending cruelty will end with it. There is an inconsistency between Rorty’s liberalism and his belief in national pride.

Further, insisting “because they are American” leads people to ask what it means to “be American,” a question which can only be answered, even by Rorty in his description of American national pride, by contrast with what isn’t American (see his discussion of Europe in “American National Pride). It makes it difficult to see suffering as the salient identifier for solidarity, and makes other ‘traditional’ differences standing in the way of Rorty’s description of moral progress as more important than they should be. Indeed, this is exactly what we see with most xenophobic descriptions of foreigners as “not believing in American ideals.” Rorty’s very humble, liberalized version of national pride faces a serious danger of turning into the sort of toxic, illiberal nationalism we have seen in recent years.

Instead, we should substitute the description Rorty offers as motivating liberal help for African-Americans in the inner city ,‘because they are American,’ with the redescription Rorty uses elsewhere: ‘because they are suffering, and you too can suffer and have suffered in the past.’ This is a sentimental appeal which can apply to all who are suffering from cruelty, regardless of their national identity. This is more likely to make more and more other differences seem unimportant. As Rorty’s ideas on cultural identity politics imply, the goal should be to replace “identity”—including national identity—with empathy.

Thus, in making an appeal to Rorty’s sentimentalism for open border advocates, I want to very clearly point out how it is both possible and necessary to separate appeals to solidarity and sentiment from nationalism to serve liberal ends. This means that the possibility of nationalist sentiments of seeming acceptable to a non-rationalist form of ethics should not discourage those of us skeptical of nationalism from embracing and using its concepts.

Sentimental Ethical Appeals and Liberalized Immigration

The application of this form of sentimental ethics for people who merely want to liberalized immigration should be obvious. Our first step needs to be to recognize that people’s tribalist sentiments aren’t going to be swayed by mere rationalist argumentation as it merely begs the question. Our second step needs to be to realize that what’s ultimately going to be more likely to convince them aren’t going to get rid of people’s tribalist sentiments altogether, but to redirect them elsewhere. The goal should be to get people to see national identity as unimportant to those sentiments compared to other more salient ones, such as whether refugees and immigrants are suffering or not. The goal should be for nationalists to stop asking questions of immigrants like “Are immigrants going to be good Americans like me?” and more “Are they already people who, like me, have suffered?”

This does not mean that we stop making the types of good academic philosophical and economic arguments about how immigration will double the global GDP and how rights should be recognized as not stopping with national identity—those are certainly convincing to the minority of us to whom tribalism isn’t an especially strong sentiment. However, it does mean we should also recognize the power of novels like Under the Feet of Jesus or images like the viral, graphic one of a Syrian refugee child who was the victim of a bombing which circulated last year. The knowledge that Anne Frank’s family was turned down by America for refugee status, the feelings of empathy for Frank’s family one gets from reading her diary, the fear that we are perpetuating that same cruelty today are far more convincing than appeals to Anne Frank’s natural rights in virtue of her rational faculties as a human being.

Appeals to our common humanity in terms of our “rational faculties” or “natural rights” or “utility functions” and the like are not nearly as convincing to people who aren’t philosophers or economists as appeals to the ability of people to suffer. Such an image and sentimental case is far more likely to cultivate a cosmopolitan solidarity than Lockean or Benthamite platitudes.


Rorty, Richard. “American National Pride: Whitman and Dewey.” Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America. Rpt. in The Rorty Reader. Ed. by Christopher J. Voparil and Richard J. Bernstein. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010. 372-388. Print.

Rorty, Richard. “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality.” On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures. Rpt. in The Rorty Reader. Ed. by Christopher J. Voparil and Richard J. Bernstein. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010.
352-372. Print.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.


The Economics of Hard Choices

In economics, there are two types of numbers that we use. Cardinal numbers express amounts. For example, “one”, “two”, “three”, etc. are all cardinal numbers. You can add them, subtract them, or even take them to an exponent.

Money prices are cardinal, which is why you can calculate precise profits and loss.

On the other hand, ordinal numbers express ranks. For example “first, “second”, “third”, etc. are all ordinal numbers. It doesn’t really make sense to talk about adding (or subtracting or exponentiating) ranks.

Almost all economists believe that utility is ordinal. This means your preferences are ranked: first most preferred, second most preferred, and so on. Here is a made up value scale:

1st. Having a slice of pizza
2nd. Having $2 in cash
3rd. Having a cyanide pill

Someone with the above preferences would give $2 in cash in order to get a slice of pizza. But would rather keep their $2 than to have a cyanide pill. By the same principle, they would also prefer to have a slice of pizza to a cyanide pill.

This is in contrast to cardinal utility, which requires the existence of something like “utils”. It’s just as nonsensical to say that “Sally gets twice as many utils from her first preferred good than the next best thing,” as it is to say “I like my first best friend twice as much as my second best friend.”

Usually, this is where most discussions of ordinality as it applies to economics end. But I believe I have a new extension of this concept that affect utility theory.

A New Perspective on Ordinal Preferences

Some people are dissatisfied with the ordinal approach to utility. “Sure, I prefer pizza over cyanide,” they’ll say, “but I really, really prefer pizza. You can’t show this intensity of preferences ordinally!” In other words, they believe the ordinal approach is lacking something real that a cardinal approach could approximate.

Well, it’s true that in a specific moment when I observe you choosing pizza over cyanide, I can’t really tell “how much” you preferred it.

But one way I can model it is that in your mind, you have a value scale of all things you wanted in that moment. And that the thing that you “really, really” wanted is ranked “much, much” higher relative to the other thing.

Let’s say pizza was first on your value scale, and cyanide was 1000th. So while it’s wrong to say you preferred pizza “one thousand times” as much as cyanide, it would be correct to say you would have preferred 999 other things to cyanide.

In other words, you would rather have any one of these 999 other things instead of instead cyanide—with pizza being chief among them. This is the sense in which you “really, really” prefer pizza to cyanide. We’ve been able to express the “intensity” sentiment without resorting to cardinal numbers.

Let’s extend the example. If your choice was between pizza and sushi, and sushi was your 2nd ranked good, then we can say several equivalent things: (i) you’re closer to indifference (i.e., viewing them as the same good) between pizza and sushi than pizza and cyanide; (ii) your preference for pizza over cyanide is stronger than your preference for pizza over sushi; (iii) you prefer pizza less intensely to sushi than to cyanide; and (iv) it’s easier for you to choose between pizza and cyanide than it is to choose between pizza and sushi.

Of course, we don’t walk around with an exhaustive list of all the goods we could possibly want at any time. This fact may make it virtually impossible to empirically test this account of psychology. But this way of thinking about “intensity of preferences” is at least consistent with ordinal preferences, meaning we can better understand this phenomena using mental tools we’re already familiar with.

I believe this way of thinking is also useful in interpreting “hard choices”. Everyone is familiar with being in a situation where you don’t know what to choose between to seemingly attractive alternatives. An easily relatable example might be choosing a drink at the self-serve cola machines that are in most fast food restaurants now. You might really like both Vanilla Coke and Cherry Coke, but you can only choose one. Because you feel as though you like both of them equally, this is what makes it a hard choice.


In other words, I’m proposing the reason that this is a hard choice is because these two goods are positioned very close together on your value scale. So close, in fact, that you have a difficult time determining which outranks the other. This is what makes the choice hard.

Applications of this framework

You might object. “This might be fun to think about, it might even be a contribution to psychology. But what implication does this have for economics—that is, the science of human action?”

My answer is this: when presented with a difficult choice, a person will choose to wait instead of choosing instantly. Waiting allows them to collect more information, deliberate more, and consider other options.

(More formally: a person facing a choice between two goods that are indistinguishably close on their value scale will not choose either good in the present period; instead, they will postpone the choice to a future period where they expect to have a larger information set.)

How can we apply this framework to the real world? Before we begin, note well that hesitation is itself an action. And as an action, it has a place on the individual’s value scale. For an entrepreneur, this has at least two implications.

First, the entrepreneur’s consumers may be facing hesitation because they can’t choose between the goods on sale. Think back to the cola examples. It’s possible that you’re in such a rush that the hesitation is not worth your time. The consumer may choose not to buy cola at all.

Second, I believe this approach can shed new light on the issue of so-called “transfer pricing”. While transfer pricing typically is used in the context of tax ramifications to a firm that is trying to buy or sell assets from a subsidiary, we can generalize the concept by considering how a either a very large firm that has “horizontally integrated” by buying and selling inputs for its final product from itself, either because it has grown so large that it’s merged with all its competitors and suppliers, or it has a government monopoly where no other firm is allowed to produce that input. In short, if a firm has monopolized the production of inputs to the extent where no market prices exist for them, how should he calculate his own costs (and therefore profits)?

Murray Rothbard was the first to observe that in effect a firm that has grown so large where this is a problem has become a socialist economy. And just as how a socialist economy can’t produce efficiently without market prices, neither can this hypothetical firm. (For more on this point, see pp. 659-660 of Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market.)

And so while the standard story of why a socialistic economy can’t rationally calculate profits and losses is based on the cardinal notions of money—without money prices, you literally cannot subtract costs from revenues—I approach from a different angle. Namely, action becomes “harder” because the lack of a market does not allow the firm (or socialist government) to observe its own ordinal rankings for its inputs. And so, the firm faces a “hard choice” in how to optimize its own production schedule.

Firms and governments also demonstrate that they’re engaging in hard choices, by establishing bureaucracies. Firms hire “transfer pricing specialists”, governments set up councils that “determine” prices, and so on. This is analogous to an indecisive person hiring a consultant to help them pick between Vanilla Coke and Cherry Coke.


In summary, a “hard choice” is when a person cannot distinguish where two heterogeneous goods rank on their own value scale. This can be demonstrated through hesitation and/or deliberation. The harder it is to establish a market price for goods, the more hesitation and deliberation will be required.

I believe this approach, if correct, can be insightful for both entrepreneurs and research. A new question that is raised is, “how do individuals, firms, and governments respond under different circumstances when faced with a hard choice?”

In a future post, I hope to extend this framework of ambiguous ordinal rankings to probabilities as well. In the meantime, I look forward to any feedback on this post.


BC’s weekend reads

  1. I thought the Nancy MacLean’s book attacking James Buchanan was great for present-day libertarianism, in that it only weakens the already weak Left. Henry Farrell and Steven Teles share my sensibilities.
  2. What is public choice, anyway? And what is it good for?
  3. One of the Notewriters reviews James C Scott’s Seeing Like A State
  4. Aztec Political Thought
  5. Turkey dismisses 7,000 in fresh purge
  6. 10 Chinese Megacities to See Before You Die

Trump Jr.

Last school year I had to deal with a pair of students (Tweedledee and Tweedledum) I caught cheating on a takehome final. When confronted with the evidence, each insisted that it was the other’s fault, and that only that other student should face any consequences.

Bear in mind that if they complete their degrees, they would be in the top 30% of the population in terms of educational attainment. In today’s world, that basically means they’re among the best and brightest, they’re high status, and they’re “the future”. If we could meaure status on a linear scale, getting a college degree still pushes you high up on that scale. 

At the time I figured that they were at least towards the bottom of that top 30%. Certainly, I still hope they’ll grow out of it. Unfortunately, Draco Malfoy’s Junior’s latest scandal shows that being bad at cheating isn’t the social hinderance we might have hoped for.

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Minimum Wages: Short rejoinder to Geloso

A few days ago I posted here at NOL a short comment on some reaction I’ve seen with regards to Seattle’s minimum wage study. Vincent Geloso offers an insightful criticism of my argument. Even if his point is quite specific (or so it seems to me), it offers an opportunity for some clarification.

But first, what was my argument? My comment was aimed at a specific point raised by advocates of increasing minimum wages. Namely, that even if Seattle’s study shows an increase in unemployment, a study with a larger sample may say otherwise. My point is that the way I’ve seen this criticism raised is missing the economic insight of minimum wage analysis, namely that jobs will be lost in less efficient employers and employees first. So far so good. The problem Geloso points out is with my example. I refer to McDonald’s as the efficient employers fast food chain (think of economics of scale) and as less efficient employers the neighborhood family-run little food place (neighborhood’s diner).

Geloso correctly argues that different employers react in different ways. It is expected, for instance, that a larger employer such as a fast-food chain would have more options to make a marginal adjustment when there is an increase in minimum wages. Of course, I agree, but the point I’m rising is about where jobs will be lost first (not the specific mechanism in each employer). Geloso flips my example and argues that a small diner has more (in relative terms) to lose by letting go one out of two employees than a fast food joint that has to let one employee go among maybe ten thousand. By letting one employee go, the small employer loses a larger share of its output. Therefore a small employer would be more inclined to keep all of his labor force and cut costs on another front (less hours work in average doesn’t cut it, that’s like a shared unemployment that would also cut output down).

A large employer like a fast food chain, however, can let one out of ten thousand employees go because the loss in output is not that significant. I have two issues with this example. The first one is that a fast food chain is facing the increase in minimum wage ten thousand times, not two. To cut even the rise in cost, the firm fast food chain has to cut down its labor force 15% (1,500 employees.) But I think the problem with this example does not end here. If it were the case that small diners don’t cut employment but fast food chains do, then we should see more unemployment in larger employers than in small neighborhood diners.

A second point I want to make is with Geloso’s argument that the study is about focusing “like a laser” on one out of multiple channels in the group most likely to respond in that manner (unemployment?). That the study, as long as the focus is on unemployment, should focus on the less efficient employers (and employees) first, and not just look at the unaffected employers because that’s where we just happen to have better statistics for is my point. There are two options. The first option is that what matters is focusing on the channel the increase in cost will be managed by employers. But this is neither a focus on unemployment nor on the criticism I’m replying to. Option number two, that the study should focus on the employers “most likely” to reduce unemployment, which is actually my point regardless of how many “channels” are included in the sample.