Thoughts on ‘For Method’

Our project hasn’t seen much public-facing action, but it’s still happening. For my part, I have (so far) read Lakatos’s lectures that were meant to form the basis for his joint project with Feyerabend.

Before I jump into it, let me start with my favorite quote:

The social sciences are on a par with astrology, it is no use beating about the bush. (Funny that I should be teaching at the London School of Economics!)

Imre Lakatos, p. 107 For and Against Method

These lectures were an entertaining evisceration of some old (and still prevalent) superstitions about the functioning of science, plus Lakatos’s own view on how science actually works. I think his picture (which I’ll describe below) is a pretty good one, but doesn’t actually solve the demarcation problem.

The Big Question (TBQ) is this: how do we separate good science from bad? Lakatos presents three main schools of thought (besides his own):

  1. Demarcationism — a set of schools of thought that share a belief in something like an objective answer to TBQ.
  2. Authoritarianism — the belief that there are some people who can identify good science, but can’t necessarily enunciate their positions.
  3. Anarchism — which argues (according to Lakatos) that there is no good or bad science.

He quickly rejects the various flavors of Demarcationism. These schools of thought are either logically impossible (e.g. inductivism), inconsistent with the history of science, and/or too subjective. They’re popular caricatures of science–cartoons with heroic scientists battling ignorance, limited only by funding. But they aren’t true.

For example, Falsificationism (which is alive and well, half a century later, in the minds of many practicing scientists) tells us that scientists are only swayed by disconfirmatory evidence. But in practice scientists tend to ignore anamolies (i.e. disconfirmatory evidence) with the hope that they’ll be explained away later–and they tend to be swayed by confirmatory evidence in spite of Falsificationist priors.

All told, Demarcationists run into the problem of not being able to come up with a theory that doesn’t make significant errors such as classifying Newton as bad science.

On the far side of the spectrum are anarchists. Far from believing in any formula, criteria, or line in the sand, they say TBQ misses the point entirely. There isn’t such thing as “good” science or “bad” except from the perspective of whatever the current orthodoxy says. For the objective-truth-seeking philosopher, science ultimately boils down to “anything goes!”

For Lakatos, the anarchists have basically surrendered in the face of the demarcation problem. But it’s not clear to me that Lakatos hasn’t joined them. He’s got his progression criterion (more on that later), but can we really pin that down in any objective way? Motterlini seems to think Feyerabend thought Lakatos was really an anarchist after all, and I’m inclined to agree based on what (little) I’ve seen. Lakatos offers heuristics, but makes no guarantees that any formula will work reliably.

Let me come back to Authoritarianism after describing Lakatos’s theory of research programs.

A research program is (if I’m understanding this correctly) basically a mix of scientific framework and community. Austrian Economics is a research program comprised of a common theoretical view (with some disagreements), a network of citations, and a social network across space and backwards through time. Austrian Econ contains smaller programs within it: entrepreneurship, political economy, history of thought, capital theory, etc.

Any given research program (RP) may look relatively “good”(ish) or “bad” at any given time, but the future is always uncertain. I wouldn’t bet money on it, but how am I to prove that astrology won’t turn out to be true at some point? It’s the Grue problem writ large.

What we can evaluate is whether an RP is “progressing” or “degenerating.” In the former case it’s gaining predictive power. In the latter case it’s turning into an ad hoc mess in the face of evidence.

It’s up to individual scientists to make the entrepreneurial [my word, not his] decision to invest some effort in whichever program they think is promising. The natural move would be to join a progressing RP. But there might be an opportunity to save a degenerating RP.

In other words, Lakatos wants to describe what science is doing, but he wants to avoid making value judgements about unknown futures. Rather than draw a demarcation line he instead offers a way to ask if a RP is going in the right direction (right now or retrospectively).

Let’s digress a minute and consider objective reality. Putting aside Cartesian skepticism, it seems reasonable to take the existence of an objective universe as a basic axiom. But just as surely, that objective universe has far more complications than humanity will ever be able to fully account for. The universe has more dimensions than us; what did you expect? In considering science’s ability to grasp objective reality, we have to understand that there’s always going to be some degree of (radical) uncertainty, even at the best of times.

“Good” science is that science that gets us closer to capital-T Truth. But we’ll never be in the omniscient position necessary to conclusively judge a bit of science as actually being good or not.

I think Lakatos and I share a sense that there is this objective reality that we can move towards. I think we also share an understanding that this objective reality is fundamentally inaccessible. I also share his position that the demarcationists are wrong. But I’m not ready to give up on the anarchists or the authoritarians.

Authoritarians basically argue that although there is good and bad science and that they can identify them even if they can’t explain how. Lakatos deals mostly with the uglier side of this school of thought, but misses a nicer side. That nicer version, ironically, includes him telling us things like astronomy is more valid than astronomy. To be fair, he hedges by acknowledging that the future is always uncertain… maybe in 1000 years astrology switches from a degenerating body of knowledge to a progressive one.

Hayek’s notion of tacit knowledge applies to scientific knowledge. The tacit knowledge of scientists allows them to tell future scientists things like “don’t even bother with alchemy.”

Still, just because you know something, doesn’t mean it’s right. We all “know” that Roman soldiers spoke with English accents because that’s how they’ve always been portrayed in movies. Try imagining Gladiator with Italian accents; it doesn’t work!

Sometimes authorities give us useful advice like distinguishing between astronomy and astrology. But sometimes they turn out to be wrong (after encouraging us to pursue eugenics in the meantime).

Authority is a useful guidepost, and represents the (current) structure of knowledge. I am not willing to give up my own authority because when it comes to economics, I know it’s not a matter of “anything goes!”

Reading Lakatos, I can’t quite settle on a camp between the anarchists and authoritarians. The anarchists are literally correct, but the authoritarians are able to actually make bets on a reality I think exists.

We’re all in the position of the blind men and the elephant. When someone tells me an elephant is like a tree, I think it behooves me to a) accept that as evidence about what the world is like, and b) take it with a grain of salt. The bumper sticker version of my stance might be “the Truth is out there… and its bigger than you think.”

So what about Lakatos? It’s all a bit rusty at this point so please push back in the comments. But here’s my tl;dr:

  • Don’t trust anyone who tells you they’ve got the formula for “good science.”
  • The way science actually works (as opposed to the mythology we’re taught in high school science) is that RP’s build up complex bodies of knowledge around a few core postulates. Normal science is concerned with attacking the knowledge that isn’t in that core.
  • Scientific progress (e.g. the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics) isn’t an Occam process… we’re not eliminating anomalies, but changing the set of anomalies we deal with.
  • The mark of bad science is adding ad hoc theory that hand-waves away anomalies but doesn’t generalize to describing novel facts (if Nasim Taleb were in the audience, he’d be shouting via negativa! right now)

Link: The Most Controversial Tree in the World

https://psmag.com/ideas/most-controversial-tree-in-the-world-gmo-genetic-engineering

Tending an ecosystem is hard. With all the interconnections it’s impossible to do just one thing. We should absolutely be skeptical of calls to engineer the environment from the top down, but we should also recognize that we’ve already been unintentionally doing so.

To me, the linked article raises interesting questions about the sort of common law restrictions on GMO that seem reasonable. Default infertility seems like an efficient Coasian compromise for industrial GMO. But the case of the American chestnut seems like an exciting opportunity to reverse an ecological tragedy.

This case seems like a good polar opposite to Jurassic Park on the spectrum of GMO threat/promise.

Against Ideology

Since first dipping my feet (brain?) into philosophical waters I’ve realized that the world has more dimensions than my mind. Many more. Which means insisting on a consistent philosophy is, in all likelihood, a recipe for disaster.

This isn’t to say I’ve got an inconsistent philosophy, or that I’m ready to throw up my hands and say “anything goes!“. But like a good bridge, my philosophy is full of tensions.

I can’t derive everything back to the Harm Principle (a principle I like), recognition of subjective values (which I’m on board with), or some notion of a social utility function (which I do like as a rhetorical crutch or skyhook, but am unwilling to take with me more than arm’s length from the whiteboard).

Instead, I’ve got a smorgasbord of mental tools–ethical notions (“don’t kill people!”), social science models (prisoners’ dilemma, comparative advantage)–that I try to match appropriately to the situation.

This puts me in the unfortunate position of requiring a great deal of humility. But as it will say on my tombstone: worse things have happened to better people…

I approach the world with libertarian priors. At the end of the day, I’m a left-libertarian anarchist. But Jonathan Haidt’s work has convinced me that my priors say more about me than the world. To be sure, libertarianism brings something important to the table, but so do other views.

Recognizing the importance of ideological pluralism lets me use my ideology like a lever instead of a bat–a tool instead of a weapon. And hey, what’s more libertarian than pluralism?!

As a centuries-long-run prospect for a meta-utopia I’m still staunchly libertarian. Go back in time 500 years and you’ll be told democracy is a pipe dream. I think we’re in a similar moment for the ideas of radical freedom, self-determination, and decentralization of power I’d really like to see put into practice. But imagine going back in 500 years, convincing everyone you’re a powerful wizard, then implementing democracy all at once. I don’t think it’d work out very well. Hell, I’m not even sure about going back in time 3 years to run that experiment! Similarly, flipping the An-Cap switch tomorrow would probably be 100 steps forward, 1000 steps back. Without the appropriate culture in place, good ideas are likely to backfire.

Still, I’m a libertarian anarchist by default and want to see the world move in that direction. But in the short-medium run I refuse to be dogmatic.

I get a lot out of my ideological priors, but I get more by refusing to slavishly follow them at all costs. Yes, the greatest good will be served in an anarcho-capitalist world (I think). But it’s a long trip from here to there. Sustaining that equilibrium will require a cultural shift that hasn’t happened yet–and ignoring those informal institutions is likely to lead to something more like feudalism than utopia. In the mean time, I say move towards greater freedom and avoid getting bogged down in partisanship.


So I’ve got a long-run goal: radical federalism and maximal freedom. But how do we get there? What are the short- and medium-run goals?

Simply to make things better while encouraging people to engage in voluntary interactions that create value, especially by building up social capital networks.

My Austrian-subjectivist priors are in tension with my rationalist-utilitarian instinct. But I think we find a way out by considering policy effects on future generations. Tyler Cowen suggests pursuing policy that promotes long run economic growth.

The big caveat is that although GDP is the best available metric to pursue, GDP is an imperfect measure. Figuring out “GDP, properly understood” adds a layer of complexity that makes policy evaluation all the more difficult. Which is part of the controversy with my recent posts on pollution taxes.

For example, after the end of slavery, total leisure time increased which would decrease measured GDP. But clearly a proper accounting of productivity would discount the initially higher GDP by the cost of forced labor. Similarly, we have to refine our notion of measured* economic well-being to account for things left out of the old methods–like household consumption, leisure, black markets (side note: the war on drugs is a waste!), human capital**, and ecological assets that fall outside the private property system.

Addendum for the left: what’s best for the world’s poorest people is a worthy addition to Cowen’s policy. And it’s an addition that also tends to push us towards libertarian arguments (like liberalization of immigration policy).


Unfortunately, I’m a rationalist by default which means I have to work at my epistemic humility. I’m constantly tempted to see the world as more legible than it really is. I have to keep reminding myself that I don’t know could fill a library. But the world is much more complex than any functional team of smart people could handle, let alone a lone economist–even if he happens to be one of few who really do get it.

One of my favorite arguments is the Austrian-libertarian point that “if we knew what people would do with their freedom, we wouldn’t need it.” For example, the reason to allow someone to start new businesses isn’t because we know that it’s going to make things better. Instead, it’s because market innovation depends on decentralized, crowd-sourced experimentation. We don’t say “oh, this Steve Jobs guy is about to improve our lives,” because if we could do that (we can’t) then we could instead find a less costly way to get the same outcome (we can’t do that either). 

This line of reasoning also applies to policy. There are some easy cases–there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit in occupational licensing. But society is a complex system, so you can’t do just one thing. Any one policy change ripples through the system and creates unintended consequences. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should do nothing. But my conservative friends are right that we shouldn’t go too fast. In any case, we’ve got more tensions that require me to listen to a wider range of ideological voices due to my cognitive limits.


A particularly interesting policy question is to what extent we should (not) take account of the impacts of American (Canadian, European, Chinese, etc., etc.) policy on non-Americans.

Here we find another tension. On the one hand, surely being accidentally born into a particular geography doesn’t give you greater moral weight than others. On the other, even if we want American policy to help Haitians, there’s a knowledge problem exacerbated by distance.

I think the appropriate response is a friendly and open federalism. Local issues should be handled locally. We should be neighborly. We should resist the temptation to centralize power. 

But we should also take advantage of large-scale governance structures (private or public) to deal with large-scale issues. Match the scale of governance to the scale of the relevant externalities.

The downside of this approach is that some locales will do terrible things. “States’ rights” is a bad argument for slavery (or for anything else). But stepping in to make things better isn’t an unambiguous improvement. If there’s one thing to learn from America’s adventures in statecraft*** it’s that you can’t just force a country to be free.

Given that, we should be more open to accept the world’s huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Historically, our record is far from spotless. But there have also been humanitarian successes in moving people away from tyranny

We have a moral obligation to at least consider the well-being of everyone around the globe. And the lowest hanging fruit for actually making a positive difference is opening up our borders. Not to say there’s a simple answer, but the answer lies in the direction of freedom of movement.


How should we (according to me) go about deciding questions of public policy? We should opt to encourage the creation of value and reduction of costs (i.e. economic growth). But we should do so carefully and with open minds.

GDP growth is a worthy goal, but not for it’s own sake. John Stuart Mill wrote

“How many of the so-called luxuries, conveniences, refinements, and ornaments of life, are worth the labour which must be undergone as the condition of producing them?… In opposition to the ‘gospel of work,’ I would assert the gospel of leisure, and maintain that human beings cannot rise to the finer attributes of their nature compatibly with a life filled with labour.”

Mindless insistence on measurable output overlooks important things like going to your kid’s little league game, grabbing a beer with friends, or quiet contemplation. And even if the people arguing for protecting the environment seem a bit silly, we’re wrong to ignore the importance of environmental externalities in affecting our standard of living. All of which is to say, Cowen is right that we need to carefully consider the shortfalls of how we measure economic growth, all while encouraging it.

Perhaps most importantly, we should relish a tension between consequentialism and principles. There are plenty of low-hanging fruits for libertarianism, but if we want to get the most out of this metaphorical tree we need to let a fear of bad outcomes encourage us to invest in civil society, informal institutions, and rich social networks so that freedom can expand without costing us inhumanity. I want to see the welfare state ended, but I’m willing to wait while we start by reducing barriers to entrepreneurship. I want to see taxes go away, but I’m willing to see a less-bad tax replace an egregious one.

We should reject the dogmatism that too often leads us to over-prioritize ideological purity. First, such purity can trap us in local optima (metaphor: a self-driving car programmed to never go east sounds like a good way to get from NYC to LA… till it gets stuck in a cul de sac somewhere). Second, that purity is an illusion. God’s true ethical system simply isn’t available to us–it’s more complex than our brains are–so why worry?


Post script: don’t take this to be an argument against libertarianism. Or a call to prioritize “pragmatism” over ideology or any other political values. I’m not trying to make a definitive argument abolishing ideology, I’m just gently pushing back. The key word here is tension. We can’t have tension between A and B if we get rid of A.


*Here’s another tension: I don’t believe we can actually measure economic well-being. I think we can make educated guesses based on well-thought out studies of observable proxy variables, but I believe in the impossibility of interpersonal utility comparison.

**A major pet peeve of mine is the conflation of education and schooling. Education, properly understood, is simply not measurable. We might find some clever proxy variables (for example, the Economic Complexity Index is my current favorite metric for productive capability–which overlaps capital and human capital accumulation).

***That’d be a good title for a comic book! If you know the right historian and/or international relations scholar, put them in touch with Zach Weinersmith!

For and/or Against Method, initial miscellany

The past couple weeks I’ve been accumulating material related to our fledgling summer reading group. First I got For and Against Method, realized it was more for than against so I ordered the third edition of Against Method and also found the (apparently much shorter) first edition online.

I’m currently dipping my toes into For and Against, reading Lakatos’s lectures at LSE on the scientific method. I was expecting to be more interested in Feyerabend’s perspective, but so far I’m pleasantly surprised. Lakatos is an interesting guy, and the conversational tone of the (transcribed) lectures is delightful.

I’m not sure how we plan to do this reading group, so, anarchist that I am, I’m going to randomly lash out until something sticks! Here are some initial thoughts from Lakatos’s first two lectures:

  • Around pp. 24-25 he lays out the demarcation problem: we want a (set of) method(s) to separate good and bad science. Presumably, our method should stand up to its own scrutiny. If our method is L(t), taking theory t and returning “good” or “bad”, then L(L) should return “good”. To me, this looks Gödelian.
  • p. 26: “I remember when back in my Popperian days I used to put this question to Marxists and Freudians: ‘Tell me, what specific historical or social events would have to occur tin order for you to give up your Marxism?’ I remember that this was usually accompanied by either stunned silence or confusion. But I was very pleased with the effect.

    “Much later I put the same question to a prominent scientist, who could not give any answer because, he said, ‘of course anomalies always spring up, but somehow sooner or later we always solve them.’ This is why, according to Feyerabend, who follows in Popper’s footsteps, all these criteria for intellectual honesty have one and the same function: they are empty rhetoric to frighten school children.” [emphasis my own]
    • Anyone here know something about rhetoric and the Greeks? Personally, I’m drawn to the notion that it’s all basically rhetoric. The term I prefer, though, is bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, by BS I don’t mean “wrong” or “bad” (per se). And for that matter, I don’t quite mean rhetoric either. It’s something like the sort of communication that goes on during a poker game.
      • You might be able to see that I’m going to be naturally sympathetic to Feyerabend who, apparently, preferred to think of himself as an entertainer than an academic philosopher. That’s part of the reason I’m reading Lakatos first. But I’m happy to see that a) Lakatos has a sense of humor, and b) He’s got a character endorsement from Feyerabend.
    • There’s good BS and bad BS. Bad BS leads to things like advertising campaigns and college accreditation schemes. Good BS leads to open minded learning. Good BS is what happens between grad students in a good program after midnight.
    • Good BS isn’t arbitrary, but it isn’t too tightly bound to reality either. You can’t send an astronaut to space on good BS, but you probably need good BS to come up with the idea in the first place.
    • I’m a materialist at the end of the day, and I believe in an objective external universe (though I can’t reject a Cartesian evil genius). But my map of that universe is highly impressionistic. I think anyone who’s map is more precise is either fooling themselves, or highly specific (i.e. they’re missing out on something).
    • Currently, I’m thinking rhetoric is for strangers and BS is for friends.
  • Lakatos talks about three basic groups: Militant positivists, anarchists, and elitist authoritarianism.
    • The positivists would be right if they were omniscient. In principle we could come up with theories that perfectly aligned with reality. And we could come up with a theory of theories that neatly separated the good from the bad. But the universe is more complex than our finite minds can handle.
      • Did you hear the one about the economist who was told about the latest brilliant new business? His response: “sure it works in practice, but does it work in theory?”
    • Lakatos’s view of the anarchists is that different theories are essentially all at the same level, but some get more support and others get less.
    • According to the elitists “there is a demarcation, but there are no demarcation criteria.”
    • I’m basically an elitist-anarchist with a heavy dose (I hope) of humility. There are better and worse theories (it’s not quite “anything goes”), and often (but not always) the elite are in the right position to pass (fallible) judgement. If a professional economist (ahem) says “Theory X is stupid”, then odds are good they’re correct. But it’s not guaranteed. Not even if all economists agree.
  • There’s no easy way out. Some science is good and some is bad, and there’s no algorithmic way to distinguish them.
    • It’s like the historians’ joke: “What was the outcome of WWII? Too soon to say.” We can extend the metaphor all the way back. It’s too soon to declare any specific outcome to the Big Bang. It’s surely the case that there will be some outcome (according to my materialist, even LaPlacian, priors), but predicting that outcome would require a computer bigger and more powerful than the universe.
  • Fundamentally, distinguishing good and bad science requires going out on a limb, taking a risk, making a judgment. All theories will ultimately be tested against objective reality, but nature isn’t always great about sharing her data and our methods (especially our language, which places the ultimate constraints on our ability to share and accumulate knowledge) prevent us from getting to 100%.

My understanding is that Lakatos will be building up to some notion of a more-or-less objective way to demarcate good and bad science. I believe there is good and bad science, but I’m skeptical of humanity’s ability to draw any sort of hard line separating the two. I think the evaluation of science is more like the evaluation of art than the evaluation of competing answers to a well defined mathematical question.

Sometimes science is more art than science…

Tying this in to my wheelhouse: science (as LaVoie has repeatedly told us) is in a similar position to market enterpreneurship (and also ants, which are amazing) and the Austrian insights apply: this is the sort of stuff that fundamentally only works in a decentralized, anarchic fashion. The ant queen is not actually a central planner. Entrepreneurship is decentralized social learning that central planning is no substitute for. And science is not so comprehensible that we’ll ever find some way to automate approval of grant proposals.

Learning is hard because we’re finite beings staring into an infinite abyss.

Dunbar’s Number

One of my favorite ideas in social science is Dunbar’s number: the cognitive limit to the number of relationships our brains can handle. It’s something like 150. That’s about the number of people our ancestors might have shared their tribe with 20,000 years ago.

Our sense of social propriety is tuned to dealing with people within our circle. Economics often seems counter-intuitive because it’s largely about how to interact with people outside that circle.

Here’s the example I use in class:

You’ve got a date tonight. You stop at a florist to pick out a bouquet and start wondering if maybe chocolate would be a better gift. Dark chocolate or milk? Or maybe something else. You think back to your economics classes and realize that if your date had $20 cash, they could buy this bouquet if it’s what they really wanted, or chocolates if that’s preferred. So when you knock on the door, instead of offering a bouquet, you hold out a crisp $20 bill.

What happens next?

If you aren’t dating an economist, you get the door slammed in your face.

So you run back to the florist, buy the flowers, run back, and nobody answers the door. Your date probably went to the bar with friends. You call a cab. When it pulls up to your door, the fare is $20. You just spent $20 on these flowers. You try to pay for your fare with the flowers.

What happens next?

The driver refuses and insists on cash.

So what’s better, flowers or cash? Is your date irrational, or the cab driver? Neither. Both are rational within the context they’re acting in. The driver is a stranger and market rules are appropriate. In this context, $20 is worth more than $20 worth of flowers. Maybe the cab driver wants flowers, but cash gives them the option to buy whatever best meets their needs.

You and your date were trying to cease being strangers. The cab driver is outside of Dunbar’s number, but your date would have (could have) been inside that inner circle. At that point, the signaling value of the flowers would trump the economic value of the cash.

Economics has a lot to tell us about how to behave with those inside and outside of our Dunbar’s number. But that dividing line calls for different rules on either side: the rules of family and neighbors on one side, and the rules of the market on the other.

I’m thinking about Dunbar’s number because I just finished a recent episode of EconTalk where they talked about a classic example from behavioral economics: An Israeli daycare, tired of late pickups started charging fines to late parents. Ironically, this resulted in an increase in late pickups that persisted even when the policy was reversed.

The daycare example is often trotted out to say “see! Sometimes adding an incentive backfires! Raising the price from $0 to $x increased the quantity of lateness demanded. People are irrational!” Of course it only takes about 5 seconds of thinking to realize that we aren’t holding all else equal here. As usual, there’s a lot of interesting stuff hidden in the ceteris paribus assumption.

The more sophisticated interpretation of this example is that attaching a price shifted parent’s interpretations of the norms. In my language: the inclusion of money in that interaction shifted the rules of behavior from those of neighbors to those of strangers.

(Roberts brought up an important point I hadn’t considered with this example: the price was too low. Prices communicate information about how onerous it is to produce a product, and that price told parents “it’s not a big deal if you’re late…”)

More generally, when we’re looking at some social scientific question, Dunbar’s number demarcates a point separating the assumptions we can make about sharing and monitoring–whether it’s about the practicability of communism (the real kind, not the kind with mass murder), corporate bureaucracy and firm size, or the tenability of informal institutions.

History and Philosophy of Science

Disclaimer: I’m not a philosopher of science by training, but I occasionally play one in the classroom.

The above playlist is* an excellent overview to the issues surrounding the question, “How do you know?”

I first stumbled into the topic of the philosophy of science (PS) as an undergrad at San Jose State. I was required to take an upper-division general elective class from a list of what seemed like tree-hugging indoctrination courses. I don’t remember what the other options were, but this class was probably the most important class I’ve ever taken.

This spring I taught “Modern Economic Theory” which I twisted into a mix of PS and History of Economic Thought. The biggest lesson I wanted to convey was: there are no right answers, there are lots of wrong answers, and our task is to seek the less wrong answers.

From my syllabus:

I hope to convince you of two big ideas:
1. There are no “right answers” but there are plenty of wrong answers.
2. What we know about the world rests on a foundation of received wisdom. And that foundation isn’t always as solid as we’d hope.

The video playlist above does a nice job of shedding light on how and which science is difficult. There is surely some objective truth to the universe, but it’s bigger than we can fit in our limited brains. Trying to understand our universe requires a heavy dose of humility, lest we impose grand plans that make things worse.


*As far as I know… a) See the disclaimer at the top. b) There’s an inescapable irony here. Science is fundamentally about uncertainty, so even if I was a philosopher of science, I wouldn’t be in a position to guarantee anything. See Feyerabend for more details.

Proposal: Let’s stop calling them “Property Rights”

I think an alternative that is both clearer and more general is “Decision Rights”. When I teach Coase Theorem I use both terms, and (I think) students have an easier time grasping it when they realize that property rights are really just rights to make certain decisions. I can’t see a good reason to keep using the term property rights except that by historical accident it’s become entrenched jargon.

Property sounds like “stuff” to most people. And property rights sounds like “owning stuff”. This raises two points that need clarifying:

1. There is more to the world than just the physical, and there is more to property than just stuff.

I would argue that economic rights are human rights. (I would also argue that corporations are owned and staffed by humans but are not humans themselves.) And I would say that right to self-ownership is a particular type of economic/human right.

When we talk about environmental issues, the root problem is usually over some shared resource (e.g. we can’t neatly privatize the atmosphere and let now-private conflicts be resolved in court). It’s much easier to focus in on the relevant particulars when our language directs us to what’s really at stake (e.g. whether I can decide to put more than X amount of pollution into the atmosphere without legal consequences).

2. I own a bit of land and I can make many decisions about how to use it. But I can’t set up a nuclear reactor or burn a massive pile of debris. My ownership is not carte blanche, but a bundle of different rights. I have the right to use (for normal domestic purposes), to exclude, to sell, etc. By “I own” what I really mean is “I can make a particular set of decisions.

I hope my hard core libertarian friends will agree with me that the decisions I can make are not limited by what is explicitly legislated. I suspect my interventionist friends will disagree. But I also think interventionists can agree that it’s more reasonable for me to have a set of decision rights (how ever nebulous the extent of that set is) than some more magical sounding dominion/ownership over a particular fifth of an acre.

The notion of decision rights makes it clearer what political debates are over. If we want to pass a law saying you can’t put a pool in your yard because of spotted owls, “property rights” muddies the discussion. The law would take away a particular property right–which is to say, the right to make a particular decision. But the debate is going to devolve into “you’re taking our land” vs. “no we aren’t.” It’s close to the real issue, but not close enough.

tl;dr: When we talk about “property rights” or ownership what we really mean is a set of various decisions that one has a right to make. Those decisions might be over the use of what we traditionally call property (e.g. my yard), but it might also be over shared resources (e.g. the atmosphere), decisions with collective impacts (e.g. ecosystem management–or lack thereof), or socially constructed issues (e.g. intellectual property). The term “property rights” is not clear or obvious (particularly for people who aren’t already likely to read this blog). A better term would be “decision rights.”