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Suppose that a kingdom contains a million peasants and a thousand nobles, and:

  • Each noble makes as much as 10,000 peasants put together, such that collectively the nobles get 90% of the income.
  • Each noble cares about as much about themselves as they do about all peasants put together.
  • Each person’s welfare is logarithmic in their income.

Then it’s simultaneously the case that:

  1. Nobles prefer to keep money for themselves rather than donate it to peasants—money is worth 10,000x as much to a peasant, but a noble cares 1,000,000 times less about the peasant’s welfare.
  2. Nobles prefer a 90% income tax that is redistributed equally—a tax that costs a particular noble $1 generates $1000 of value for peasants, since all other nobles will also pay the higher taxes. That makes it a much better deal for the nobles (until the total income of nobles is roughly equal to the total income of peasants).

In this situation, let’s call redistribution a “moral public good.” The nobles are altruistic enough that they prefer it if everyone gives to the peasants, but it’s still not worth it for any given noble to contribute anything to the collective project.

The rest of the post is about some implications of taking moral public good seriously.

1. Justifying redistribution

This gives a very strong economic argument for state redistribution: it can easily be the case that every individual prefers a world with high redistribution to the world with low redistribution, rich and poor alike. I think “everyone prefers this policy” is basically the strongest argument you can make on its behalf.

(In fact some people just don’t care about others and so not everyone will benefit. I’d personally be on board with the purely selfish people just not funding redistribution, but unfortunately you can’t just ask people if they want to pay more taxes and I’m not going to sweat it that much if the most selfish people lose out a little bit.)

I think this argument supports levels of redistribution like 50% (or 30% or 70% or whatever), rather than levels of redistribution like 99% that could nearly level the playing field or ensure that no billionaires exist. I think this enough to capture the vast majority of the possible benefits from redistribution, e.g. they could get most households to >50% of the average consumption.

This argument supports both foreign aid and domestic redistribution, but the foreign aid component may require international coordination. For example, if everyone in developed countries cared equally about themselves, their country, and the world, then you might end up with optimal domestic policies allocating 10% of their redistribution abroad (much less in smaller countries who have minimal influence on global poverty, a little bit more in the US), whereas everyone would prefer a multilateral commitment to spend 50% of their redistribution abroad.

2. There are lots of public goods

I think it makes sense for states to directly fund moral public goods like existential risk mitigation, exploration, ecological preservation, arts and sciences, animal welfare improvements, etc. In the past I’ve thought it usually made more sense to just give people money and let them decide how to spend it. (I still think states and philanthropists should more often give people cash, I just now think the presumption is less strong.)

In fact, I think that at large scales (like a nation rather than a town) moral public goods are probably the majority of public goods. Caring slightly more about public goods slightly changed my perspective on the state’s role. It also makes me significantly more excited about mechanisms like quadratic funding for public goods.

I enjoyed David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom, but it repeats the common libertarian line that donations can help the poor just as well as taxes:

If almost everyone is in favor of feeding the hungry, the politician may find it in his interest to do so. But, under those circumstances, the politician is unnecessary: some kind soul will give the hungry man a meal anyway. If the great majority is against the hungry man, some kind soul among the minority still may feed him—the politician will not.

This seems totally wrong. The use of coercive force is an active ingredient in the state feeding the hungry, as it is with other public good provision. Anarchists either need to make some speculative proposal to fund public goods (the current menu isn’t good!) or else need to accept the pareto inefficiency of underfunding moral public goods like redistribution.

3. Altruism is not about consequentialism

Consequentialism is a really bad model for most people’s altruistic behavior, and especially their compromises between altruistic and selfish ends. To model someone as a thoroughgoing consequentialist, you have two bad options:

  1. They care about themselves >10 million times as much as other people. Donating to almost anything is in insane, no way the recipient values the money 10 million times more than I do.
  2. They care about themselves <1% as much as everyone else in the whole world put together. When choosing between possible worlds, they would gladly give up their whole future in order to make everyone else’s life a little better. Their personal preferences are nearly irrelevant when picking policies. If they found themselves in a very powerful position they would become radically more altruistic.

I think neither of these is a great model. In fact it seems like people care a lot about themselves and those around them, but at the same time, they are willing to donate small amounts of their income.

You could try to frame this as “no one is altruistic, it’s just a sham” or “people are terrible at morality.” But I think you’ll understand most people’s altruism better if you think about it as part of a collective action or public goods provision problem. People want to e.g. see a world free from extreme poverty, and they are (sometimes) willing to chip in a small part of that vision for the same reason that they are willing to chip in to the local public park—even though the actual consequence of their donation is too small for them to care much about it.

On this perspective, donating to local charities is on much more even footing with donating to distant strangers. Both are contributions to public goods, just at different scales and of different types, and that’s the thing that most unifies the way people approach and think about them. The consequentialist analysis is still relevant—helping the poor is only a moral public good because of the consequences—but it’s not that the local charity is just a consequentialist error.

In addition to misunderstanding normal humans, I think consequentialists sometimes make related errors in their own judgments. If a bunch of utilitarians want to enjoy a nice communal space, it’s worthwhile for each of them to help fund it even though it neither makes sense on utilitarian grounds nor for their own self-interests. That’s a good norm that can leave every utilitarian better off than if they’d spent the same money selfishly. I think that a lot of moral intuition and discourse is about this kind of coordination, and if you forget about that then you will both be confused by normal moral discourse and also fail to solve some real problems that everyday morality is designed to solve.

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It occurs to me that viewing global poverty through the lens of public goods makes it clearer that global-poverty-related charity donations are not about terminally valuing a world without extreme poverty (because if it was, there would be more efforts than we actually see at coordination/cooperation to collectively produce the public good), but is rather about being seen (if only by oneself) as a good person or a moral nation (in which case it would make a lot more sense to unilaterally contribute).

The public goods idea _does_ help explain things if we think there's a threshold issue (not valuable unless a certain amount is redistributed) _AND_ a coordination problem such that many people would like to donate, but only if they know the total is over the threshold. It may also explain things if the motivation to not get full utility by an altruist donating more is some form of punishment for free riders (those who don't donate, but still get value). I agree that the more likely explanation is that poverty altruism isn't linear (in utility with money donated) for any individual, and most people are, in fact, giving at the level they want to give. They would like to get some "free" utility by encouraging/forcing others to give more. This isn't at odds with a public goods model - there are lots of public goods that go un-provided because they're not worth it to enough people to provide it privately or mandate it publicly. "this is a public good; therefore government must do it" is not a valid argument.

This seems totally wrong. The use of coercive force is an active ingredient in the state feeding the hungry, as it is with other public good provision.

I feel like you've come up with an example where people are just barely charitable enough that they support redistribution, but not charitable enough that they would ever give a gift themselves. This is a counterexample to Friedman's claim, but it's not obvious that it's real.

That is, suppose altruism is distributed unevenly among the population; then it likely will be the case that whenever the median opini

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For consequentialists, the gap between "charitable enough to give" and "charitable enough to support redistribution" seems to be more than a million-fold; if so, I don't think it warrants that "just barely" modifier.
I'm confused about the 'million-fold' claim; I thought that if a noble dialed up their "caring about peasants" by 100x, so that rather than a factor of 1e-6 it was 1e-4, then they would have utility 4 and derivative 1e-4 from their income, a peasant would have utility 1 and derivative 1 from their income, and so the noble would be indifferent between holding onto a dollar and giving it away, and so any increases above 100x (like 101x) cause some gifts to happen. (Like, this is where the <1% in your post comes from, right?) There are two gaps; between 'not caring about peasants' and 'supporting redistribution', and between 'supporting redistribution' and 'gives a gift at least once'. I meant 'just barely' about the first gap, where they only care 1e-6 about an individual peasant. If they cared 1e-7 about individual peasants, then I don't think they would support any level of redistribution. Also, in this model I don't think nobles have altruism towards each other? Given the low derivative on noble utility compared to peasant utility, this doesn't matter much for a while; like, if they care equal amounts about themselves, nobles as a whole, and peasants as a whole, then it looks like the optimal tax is something like 27%. If they care about nobles as a whole ten times as much as they care about peasants as a whole, then it looks like redistribution is off the table.  (If they care about individual nobles as much as they care about individual peasants, then it doesn't shift things much.) --- Suppose this is more like an actual kingdom, where each peasant is assigned a noble, and nobles only care about the peasants assigned to them, and they care about all of their peasants as much as they care about themselves. Then without the state stepping in, the nobles maximize their utility by giving away almost half of their money to their peasants (where total peasant income and noble income are equalized). That is, even for consequentialists, having some way of preferrin
For the nobles the ratio is only 1000 (= the total number of nobles). In e.g. the modern US the multiples are much higher since the tax base is much larger. That is, there is a gap of > a million between the levels of altruism at which you would prefer higher taxes vs. actually give away some money.
Oh, I see; in situations where your altruism is scope-invariant (i.e. you care half about yourself and half about others, regardless of the size of the others), then as you vary the population size centralized coercive redistribution remains basically equally desirable (since it's just a question of wealth gaps and percents) whereas diffusion of responsibility eats consequentialist private charity (since there's nothing singling out the people you decide to help). There's still some ways to voluntarily maintain concentration, like picking increasingly narrow public goods to wholly own. (Carnegie's "I funded public libraries across America" compared to something like "I funded open access to transcribed ship logs of ocean weather measurements from 1500 to 1800.") But this is a prestige market instead of an effectiveness market ("I funded a bunch of toilets"), and the more public goods look like wealth redistribution instead of entrepreneurship / project completion the less attractive this variant becomes. [And even in worlds where it looks more like entrepreneurship / project completion, decentralized funding causes unilateralist / vetting problems.]
No, the <1% in the post comes from the other "bad option" (the first being that "They care about themselves >10 million times as much as other people"), namely that people care about themselves <10 million times as much as other people. (Since there are more than a billion people in the world, <10 million times as much as other people is "<1% as much as everyone else in the whole world put together.")

This argument supports both foreign aid and domestic redistribution, but the foreign aid component may require international coordination.

I don't think I've ever heard of any efforts to coordinate internationally on foreign aid. (ETA: I forgot about the World Bank, and didn't know about the 0.7% target that Lanrian mentions. See this comment for my current views.) How do you explain that, when there is plenty of efforts to coordinate on other things like pollution, infectious diseases, weapons proliferation, arms control?

But I think you’ll understand

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5Lukas Finnveden
I think there has been attempts to coordinate around foreign aid, see for example Also, several parts of the UN (e.g. WHO) does things that could be classidied as aid, and the UN is funded by member countries.
This seems to be how people relate to local public goods. I think that's a better model than fixed weights for different values, but I don't think it explains everything.
2Wei Dai
For local as well as other global public goods, we also see a lot of lobbying for governments to take collective action. And for other global public goods we also see a lot more effort/success at international coordination. Why do we see so little of that for global poverty? That seems better explained by moral error or value differences, which result in only a small fraction of people caring significantly about "a world free from extreme poverty" so they don't think they can get enough votes to pass government policy. (Existing foreign aid is perhaps more about strategically gaining power/prestige on the global stage than trying to achieve "a world free from extreme poverty".) What does it not explain, that your model explains?
If you literally just mean to compare to "people have a fixed fraction of their budget they spend on altruistic things": * Rhetoric about doing your part, feelings of guilt. In general the structural similarities between discourse and norms around alms on the one hand and public goods on the other. * If the bucket served by US donations is "caring about US needy" then I think you have to explain people's apparent relative ambivalence between political advocacy for more redistribution and direct donations. * I think that local giving makes more sense as part of a story about collective provision of public goods, though I haven't thought it through much and this may just be responding to rhetoric and so double-counting the first observation. I haven't thought about it that much, but my basic sense is that you are going to have to invoke a virtue signaling explanation for lots of behaviors, and that's going to start to look more similar to norms for providing public goods. E.g. is your view that normal public goods (like funding a local park) are provided because of virtue signaling? If so, then it's not as clear there is much gap between our views and maybe this is more an argument about some accounts of "virtue signaling."
4Wei Dai
Thanks, this really helps me understand your position. I think I was confused because when I think of "public goods" I just think "government action or diplomats signing treaties" whereas you think "also, private donations driven by for example rhetoric about doing your part, feelings of guilt". The latter didn't occur to me because in my daily life almost all normal public goods (such as parks) are provided by the government, and examples of public goods provided by private donations are marginal at best. All I can think of are PTAs and political donations (neither of which fit the category of public goods that well). I guess you must be thinking back to a time when governments were smaller/weaker, and lots of public goods were driven by private donations, e.g., sometimes neighbors got together and built a park by themselves? Assuming I now have a correct understanding, I can restate my objection as, if anti-poverty is a public good, why hasn't it followed the trend of other public goods, and shifted from informal private provision to formal government or internationally-coordinated provision? Here's my explanation (which may be totally wrong as I've only thought about it for a few hours). Some things are true public goods where people care about the underlying objective facts, and others are valued more as virtue signaling opportunities, and the latter are the ones that don't shift or don't fully shift towards formal/public/coordinated provisioning. Consider food banks and soup kitchens. It wouldn't be hugely costly for governments to just provide full food security for everyone so why don't they do that? Perhaps people would rather have the opportunity to virtue signal by donating to or volunteering at food banks? Or consider foreign aid. It doesn't seem impossible (see below) for governments to negotiate a binding treaty for some target level of foreign aid. Why is there not even any visible effort to do that? Well, if they did that they could no longer use f
I don't know much about this, but describes a 0.7% target for ODA and claims that and At face value it seems like like 0.7%/year is considerably larger than the investments in any of the other efforts at international coordination you mention (and uptake seems comparable). (The Montreal Protocol seems like a weird case in that the gains are so large---I've been told that the gains were large enough for the US that unilateral participation was basically justifiable. Copyright agreements don't seem like public goods provision. I don't think countries are meeting their Paris agreement obligations any better than they are meeting their 0.7%/year ODA targets, and enforcement seems just as non-existent.)
2Wei Dai
Looking at it appears that foreign aid as %GNI for DAC countries has actually gone down since 1960, and I don't see any correlation with any of the (non-enforced) agreements signed about the 0.7% target. It just looks like countries do ODA for reasons completely unrelated to the target/agreements. Information goods are a form of public goods, and they are provided (in large part) because governments enforce copyrights. Each individual government has incentive to not respect copyright of other countries (so its citizens can free-ride on other countries' production of information goods) so international coordination is required to obtain cross-border enforcement. Does this make it clear that it's pretty analogous to public goods funded directly by governments?
Do you think the story is different for the climate change agreements? I guess the temporal trend is different, but I think the actual causal story from agreements to outcomes is equally unclear (I don't think the agreements have much causal role) and enforcement seems similarly non-existent. Copyright enforcement seems more like trade. I will require my citizens to pay you for your information, if you require your citizens to pay me for my information. You can analogize copyright enforcement to a public good if you want, but the actual dynamics of provision and cost-benefit analyses seem quite different. For example, signing up to a bilateral copyright agreement is a good deal between peer states (if copyright agreements ever are)---you've protected your citizens copyright to the same extent you've lost the ability to infringe on others. The same is not true of a public good, where bilateral agreement is almost the same as unilateral action. At any rate, I actually don't think almost anything from the OP hinges on this disagreement (though it seems like an instructive difference in background views about the international order). We are just debating whether the lack of international agreements on foreign aid implies that people don't much care about the humanitarian impacts of aid, with me claiming that international coordination is generally weak with rare exceptions and so it's not much evidence. There is plenty of other evidence though. E.g. when considering the US you don't really need to invoke international agreements. The US represents >20% of gross world product, so US unilateral action is nearly as good as international action. US government aid is mostly military aid which has no real pretension of humanitarian motivation, and I assume US private transfers to developing countries are mostly remittances. So I certainly agree that people in the US don't care to spend to very much on aid.
2Wei Dai
That reminds me that another prediction your model makes is that larger countries should spend more on ODA (which BTW excludes military aid), but this is false: According to the chart I linked earlier, the countries with highest ODA as %GNI are UAE, Norway, Luxembourg, and Sweden, all at around 0.9 %GNI. This seems like a pretty fatal blow? Or at least you have to add some explanation why the last paragraph of section 1 makes a seemingly false prediction about the world...
The consideration in this post would help explain why smaller countries spend more than you would expect on a naive view (where ODA just satisfies the impartial preferences of the voting population in a simple consequentialist way). It seems like there is some confusion here, but I still don't feel like it's very important. I think there was an (additional?) earlier miscommunication or error regarding the "factions within someone's brain": * When talking about the weight of altruistic preferences, I (like you) am generally more into models like "X% of my resources are controlled by an altruistic faction" rather than "I have X exchange rate between my welfare and the welfare of others." (For a given individual at a given time we can move between these freely, so it doesn't matter for any of the discussion in the OP.) * When I say that "resources controlled by altruistic factions" doesn't explain everything, I mean that you still need to have some additional hypothesis like "donations are like contributions to public goods." I don't think those two hypotheses are substitutes, and you probably need both (or some other alternative to "donations are like contributions to public goods," like some fleshed out version of "nothing is altruistic after all" which seems to be your preference but which I'm withholding judgment on until it's fleshed out.) * In the OP, I agree that "and especially their compromises between altruistic and selfish ends" was either wrong or unclear. I really meant the kind of tension that I described in the immediately following bullet point, where people appear to make very different tradeoffs between altruistic and selfish values in different contexts.
2Wei Dai
I don't understand this paragraph at all, but the rest of your comment makes more sense, and here's my current attempt to build an alternative model: [Edit: I've moved the description of the model to somewhere more visible. Please followup there.] This model can probably be refined even more, but let me know if it is unclear or wrong as far as it goes, or if there's anything puzzling you see that is still not explained by it.
1Lukas Finnveden
Given random variation between countries, we shouldn't be surprised to find smaller countries on the top of such a list: (i) because there are more small countries than big countries, and (ii) because smaller countries are likely to be more internally homogenous, which means that e.g. the average inclination to give away money among the countries' population is likely to differ more from the global average. I guessed that I'd find small countries at the bottom of the list, too. But then I actually looked, and found Thailand, Taiwan, Russia, and Romania on the bottom, two of which are big, and all of which are larger than UAE, Norway, Luxembourg, and Sweden. I don't know what's up with that, though part of the explanation might be that a bunch of poor, small countries are grouped as a single big "DAC-countries"-category. Edit: This last sentence is false, see Wei_Dai's comment ("DAC-countries" are apparently rich countries, rather than poor, and each of them are reported separately in the list). Seems like a lot of poor countries aren't included in the list at all.
3Wei Dai
No, DAC-countries are reported separately in that chart as well as in aggregate: BTW, please see my latest comment on this topic if you haven't already.
Most redistribution is provided formally by governments and it may be the single most common topic of political debate. I'm not even sure this is evidence one way or the other though---why would you expect people not to signal virtue by advocating for policies? (Isn't that a key part of your story?) Relatedly, how does "we don't want the government to enforce X so that we can signal our virtue by doing X" even work? Advocating for "make everyone do X" signals the same kind of virtue as doing X, advocating against seems to send the opposite signal, and surely the signaling considerations are just as dominant for advocacy as for the object-level decision? I think I often can't really engage with the virtue signaling account because I don't understand it at the level of precision that would be needed to actually make a prediction about anything. Domestically, are you asking: "why do people donate so much more to charity than to other public goods"? I don't think any of the competing theories really say much about that until we get way more specific about them and what makes a situation good for signaling virtue vs. what makes public goods easy to coordinate about in various ways vs. etc. (and also get way more into the quantitative data about other apparent public goods which are supported by donations). (Overall this doesn't seem like a particularly useful line of discussion to me so I'm likely to drop it. Most useful for me would probably be a description of the virtue signaling account that makes sense to me.)
2Wei Dai
Advocating for it sends a virtue signal, but voting for it doesn't (due to secret ballots) so people vote their real values (or closer to their real values, which do not weigh anti-poverty as highly as they say in public, or as highly as their publicly revealed preferences as indicated by donations etc.). (See "preference falsification".) (I realize that I'm changing/refining the explanation a bit.) Actually I'm not sure this makes sense either, so I'll just retract this and say that intuitively it seems like the puzzle has to do with virtue signalling but I'm not sure what the right model is. Even if you're right that the virtue signaling explanation doesn't work (I agree that a more precise account would be nice), it seems like the "public goods" account of anti-poverty charity at least still has a puzzle here, especially in the global setting (i.e., why is there so little effort to create binding agreements on foreign aid when there is plenty of effort on other global public goods)?
I'm not convinced this is the case. Do you have some comparisons of international spending on different public goods, or lobbying for such spending? (I agree that there is more international coordination on arms control, but don't think that this is analogous.)
2Wei Dai
I don't think such a comparison would make sense, since different public goods have different room for funding. For example the World Bank has a bigger budget than the WHO, but development/anti-poverty has a lot more room for funding (or less diminishing returns) than preventing global pandemics. My sense that there's little effort at coordination for global poverty comes from this kind of comparison: US unilateral foreign aid (not counting private charitable donations): US donation to the World Bank (which is apparently determined by negotiation among the members) in 2007: $3.7 billion (this covers 2 years I believe). Lanrian mentioned an effort to coordinate foreign aid (ODA) but the effort seems very weak compared to other public good coordination efforts, because there is no enforcement mechanism (not even public shaming, as when was the last time you heard anything about this?). According to this document: I guess "public goods" is part of what's happening, given that some non-zero level of coordination exists, but it seems like a relatively small part and I'm not sure that it explains what you want it to explain, or even what it is that you want to explain (since you didn't answer the question I asked previously about this). ETA: I added a statement to my top level comment to correct "I don’t think I’ve ever heard of any efforts to coordinate internationally on foreign aid."
Do you have some example of a public good that you are using to calibrate your expectations about international spending on typical public goods? I don't think it's enough to say: people do a tiny amount of X but they don't coordinate explicitly. You should also provide some evidence about the overall ability to coordinate. (That said, I also agree that most of what's going on, for explaining the difference between real aid budgets and what a utilitarian would spend, is that people don't care very much.)

The framing of "nobles" and "peasants" distracts me from your question; it implies connotations that you might want to clarify or endorse, or change your terminology.

Real-life nobles don't produce 10,000x value; they extract value from peasants, by force of arms and law and custom. It makes no sense to redistribute wealth by taxing everyone's income if the nobles get their income by taxing the peasants; just stop the nobles from extracting so much value.

Some of the modern super-rich do generate disproportionately high value, e... (read more)

This isn't a post about social justice and wealth inequality in general. The moral calculus from the point of view of most people isn't the point of contention here, it's the point of view of the rich that's being discussed.
That's a good point. Then Wei_Dai's question becomes more important: why don't we see other coordination mechanisms in this space, besides forcible taxation? And why don't rich people disproportionately vote in favor of more progressive taxes on themselves? After all, if all we can learn from this post is that rich people don't in fact have the posited preference, so this model doesn't apply, then it's not very interesting.
Maybe because there is value left on the table? You could apply the same logic to any new idea: "If it was so great, someone would have already thought of it and exploited it, so it clearly can't be that great." Also, I would claim charity tax deduction already is such a coordination mechanism, allowing the rich to engage in philantrophy in ways they believe to be more effective than taxation (e.g. they would like more of their donations going towards foreign aid)
That doesn't seem to be enough to explain the rich not voting in the past to increase the marginal tax (like a few of them are now calling to do). Many different tax bills have been proposed over history; this doesn't seem like an idea nobody thought of until now. It's likely that the rich (or people in general) don't trust the government with their money, don't believe it would be spent nearly as effectively or beneficially as pure redistribution, and may entirely oppose some of the government's uses of tax money and not want to fund them. In that case, what we need is a bill that proposes a special tax on the rich whose proceeds go only and directly towards redistribution, or some sort of universal income which not sufficient to live on but also doesn't count as 'income' for ordinary taxation and disqualifications for social services for the poor. And such a thing is plausibly hard to think of, draft, and get enough support behind. It's not a coordination mechanism; it doesn't allow people to commit to giving money if and only if everyone else also gives money, as a tax does. Even if giving money was free (untaxed), the OP's coordination problem would remain.
Actually it is, just a bit contrived. The penalty for violating the "commitment" is having to pay extra taxes (lose the tax break). Just a matter of labels.
I don't understand your point. Paying taxes or not is not related to whether and how much other people also make charitable deductions. Bezos donating less or more doesn't influence Gates donating less or more. What is the coordination mechanism?
The same way taxation is a coordination mechanism. Taxation = social arrangement Fines/prison sentence for tax evasion = enforcement mechanism Charitable donation = social arrangement Higher taxation = enforcement mechanism
I don't see how that is applicable. In the first case, to avoid the penalty of being fined, you pay taxes. In the second case, to avoid the penalty of being taxed, you don't donate. If I allow you to donate without being taxed, it doesn't follow that you will donate. Maybe you don't want to donate to begin with, or not unless everyone else does as well. That's the model the OP assumes. Tax rates on non-donation gifts (= marginal income taxes of the non-rich) are "only" a few tens of percents. For the OP's model to work, he had to assume a ratio of 1:1,000,000 between the value to a noble of keeping or donating money. That's as if there was a 99.999,999,9% tax rate on donations! If there was such a tax rate, then making donations tax-free would certainly stimulate a lot of donations. But as it is, under the OP's general assumptions, tax rates of ~~ 30% should not much matter.
I think that redistribution by taxing still makes sense, e.g. if nobles effectively get their money by owning and controlling the land (by force or whatever) and taking a big cut from the people who work it. But I also agree that there may be easier and better things to do than raising taxes, it seems like a waste of effort for nobles to collect local taxes and then the king to collect taxes from the nobles and pay it back. I think this probably isn't right---e.g. capital income is a minority for the top 1% of earners in the US today, and the situation is even starker for global inequality. In retrospect I agree it would have been better to use a different example. (In retrospect people also didn't like the big and unrealistic numbers, so I could have just made them 10 and 100 instead. I generally overestimated the extent to which readers would separate the simple quantitative point, which I wanted to make in the shortest way possible but didn't think about that much, from other features of the scenario.)
That's surprising to me. Where does most of the income of rich people come from, then? Can you point me to some relevant resource?
I think it's mostly wages. Might be misreading, but see table III here (h/t Howie Lempel for the source). Looks like even the top 0.01% is still <50% capital income. [Edit: though in the past the capital shares were higher, in 1929 gets up to 50% of income for the top 0.1%.] There are various ways this data isn't exactly what you want, but I still think it's very unlikely that it's more than half capital income.
Thanks, that's informative. One thing I would like to figure out is whether this can be explained by businesses restructuring so that some of the rich people who used to be owners getting dividends are now company executives getting salaries - but the salaries are still set mostly by themselves to benefit themselves, out of proportion to the value of their work to the company. Directors or board members often also get salaries, again for very little work in most cases. These are things that might be colloquially called 'capital'. Jeff Bezos has a total compensation of 1.6 million; that is indeed a tiny part of his net worth, but I still think of it as "Jeff Bezos is a capitalist who is making money from the successful business he owns", not as "Jeff Bezos is being paid for his talents as a CEO". I don't care about the distinction from the income he gets from Amazon dividends, shares, or his salary as a CEO. But then I'm not an economist; perhaps these are really significant differences that I should care about.
1Neel Nanda
For what it's worth, I think the big, unrealistic numbers and framing of the example made this feel like a much more valuable intuition pump to me, so thanks! (Key point I took from it: It is actually perfectly reasonable to favour taxation while being unwilling to donate yourself, and there's a big gap between these two thresholds)

If I didn't make a calculation error, the nobles in general recommend up to a 100*max(0, 1 - (the factor by which peasants outnumber nobles)/(the factor by which each noble is richer than each peasant))% tax (which is also equivalent to 100*max(0, 2-1/(the fraction of total wealth collectively owned by the nobles))%). With the numbers given in the post, this produces 100*max(0, 1 - 1000/10000)% = 90%. But for example with a billion times as many peasants as nobles, and each noble a billion times richer than each peasant, the nobles collectively recommend n

... (read more)
In this model the nobles don't recommend a further tax if in aggregate they have 50% of the total income, utility is logarithmic, and they care about themselves as much as everyone else put together. (This is a good argument that this model may just not capture your intuition. But I do think the case for taxes is in fact quite a lot better when the nobles collectively control a large share of the income rather than just being individually wealthy.)

Great post!

Consequentialism is a really bad model for most people’s altruistic behavior, and especially their compromises between altruistic and selfish ends. To model someone as a thoroughgoing consequentialist, you have two bad options:

  1. They care about themselves >10 million times as much as other people. [...]
  2. They care about themselves <1% as much as everyone else in the whole world put together. [...]

It seems to me that "consequentialism" here refers to total utilitarianism rather than consequentialism in general.

I agree that this is more like the dilemma for modeling someone as a welfarist than a general consequentialist (if they were a total utilitarian then I think they'd already be committed to option 2). But I think you do have similar problems with any attempt to model them as consequentialists.
I should have written "aggregative consequentialism" instead of "total utilitarianism". (The problem being that a noble who is an aggregative consequentialist would care about themselves <1% as much as n peasants put together, for sufficiently large n.) This makes sense to me if we restrict the discussion to causal reasoning (otherwise, a noble who suspects that they are correlated with many other nobles may donate money to some peasants, even if they care about themselves >10 million times as much as any single peasant.)

Potentially relevant new paper:

The logic of universalization guides moral judgment
To explain why an action is wrong, we sometimes say: “What if everybody did that?” In other words, even if a single person’s behavior is harmless, that behavior may be wrong if it would be harmful once universalized. We formalize the process of universalization in a computational model, test its quantitative predictions in studies of human moral judgment, and distinguish it from alternative models. We show that adults spontaneously make moral judgments
... (read more)

Scott Alexander makes a similar point in his post Too Much Dark Money in Almonds, arguing that the main reason why people do not donate much more money to politics and charity is because there is a public goods problem and lack of a coordinating mechanism: "People just can’t coordinate. If everyone who cared about homelessness donated $100 to the problem, homelessness would be solved. Nobody does this, because they know that nobody else is going to do it, and their $100 is just going to feel like a tiny drop in the ocean that doesn’t change anything."

3Wei Dai
Off by an order of magnitude. (ETA: Unless Scott meant "annually".) Sources: 1 2
I don't think Scott is talking about the bay area in that quote, is he? (ETA: also if his estimate is per year then I think it's similar to the report you quoted, which estimates $700M/year to provide shelter to all of the homeless at a cost of ~$25k/person/year, so that seems like another plausible source of discrepancy.)
2Wei Dai
Over the whole US, the initial capital costs would still be much higher than $100/person, I think, but annualized makes more sense. (See this article which gives a similar annualized figure over the whole US.) I added a clarification to my comment. But if $100/person/year is low enough that most people would prefer to have everyone just pay that to solve homelessness, it becomes a bigger puzzle why people don't just vote that into policy.

Thanks, this is interesting. I'm trying to understand your ideas. Please let me know if I represent them correctly.

It seems to me that at the start, you're saying:

1. People often have strong selfish preferences and weak altruistic preferences.

2. There are many situations where people could gain more utility through engaging in moral agreements or moral trade - where everyone promises to take some altruistic action conditional on everyone else doing the same. That is because the altruistic utility they gain more than makes up for the selfish util... (read more)

If welfare is logarithmic in income, you can get huge utility by giving a dollar to someone who has almost no money. I think that's what makes the numbers work out in your example, and at the same time makes it unrealistic.

I think the example works fine with numbers like "the welfare effect of $1 is a hundred times larger for this poor person than that rich person" which seem conservative. (e.g. I think it is very likely that many poor people would value a doubling of consumption at least as much as I would, suggesting multipliers >100). I think the weird thing about the example is the nobles having 90% of the total income.
Let's say each noble has 10000 dollars, each peasant has 1 dollar, and peasants get 100x more utility per dollar. Then each noble's utility is simply 10000+1x100, because each of 1000000 peasants has weight 1/1000000 which cancels out. Now let's take 1 dollar from each noble and distribute it to peasants. That's 1000 dollars total, so 0.001 dollars per peasant. Now each noble's utility is 9999+(1+0.001)x100, which is a decrease. What am I missing?
If you want an example with more modest numbers: * There are a billion rich people and a billion poor people (and a bunch in the middle we'll ignore) * Each rich person cares about themselves 5x as much as all poor people put together * The poor people get 100x the welfare from $1 as the rich people Then the rich people care so little about the poor people that they wouldn't want to donate unilaterally, but they would still support taxes to fund foreign aid until they reached the level where the poorest billion valued money only 5x more than the richest billion.
Yeah, this makes more sense. For the scheme to work, the proportion of rich people multiplied by the disparity between rich and poor has to be high enough.

I think you're right that redistribution can make sense. Pretty weird that people will still argue against any notion of government-facilitated redistribution: We can explicitly write out hypothetical utility functions and starting bundles and show that redistribution can be preferred by everyone. Even if a person thinks that no one should be coerced, they shouldn't be against a mechanism that redistributes if and only if everyone benefits, even if they think that status quo is currently sufficient for Pareto optimality (since this fact might not hold in t... (read more)


I think before accepting the conclusions I would like to see some sensitivity analysis around the assumption of the two representative agents that underlie the model.

The post is just arguing that redistribution can behave like a public good, it's not arguing for increases in redistribution. (I think the quantitative behavior of the hypothetical is not at all like the real world, there isn't a small group that gets 90% of the income, and the optimal tax rate is very sensitive to the fraction of income the nobles start with.)
You set the stage to call redistribution a moral public good based on a representative agent for each class. I don't think that gets you there so essentially you assume this moral public good conclusion and then draw out some implications. I question that you argument offered does imply redistribution can behave like a public good in a real world setting. I might but I don't think your approach get you there. If so, then the rest of the post is just musing about a possible implications if one just assumes redistribution dynamics have some similarity with those of public goods. I think Dagon points out might not even be the case, it may purely be threshold funding that is driving the behavior in which case applying the logic of public goods may lead one astray. Similarly, I'm not sure that adding "moral" is actually doing any real work. Seems more of a mood setting rhetorical device.

The first part of this turned seemed like mostly politics - oversimple and flat-out non-real example being used to justify a policy without any nuance or sense. Point 1 is just unsupported and hard to argue for or against, other than by saying your example is wrong and doesn't justify any specific type or level of redistribution, and you haven't specified even what "redistribution" means, especially in a dynamic equilibrium where wealth and income are related but distinct.

Point 2 is completely missing the fundamental question of what p... (read more)

The example is just to illustrate that it's possible for everyone to prefer taxation but not want to donate unilaterally. Maybe this is an easy enough point that it wasn't worth illustrating with an example. I tried to make the example obviously silly so that it wouldn't be taken as politically live, but I think that failed. e.g. policies justified by benefiting poor people at the expense of rich people, e.g. an income tax which the state then spends to benefit people equitably. I absolutely agree that this is not a case for an income tax, it's one argument for an income tax (which is different from arguments about justice or fairness and seems worth having in a separate mental category). It seems consistent for me to prefer that all poor people get food than that all rich people get iPhones, yet to prefer that I get an iPhone than that a particular poor person get food (since I care more about myself than the average rich person). Do you disagree that this would be a consistent set of preferences? Do you agree that it's consistent but just disagree that it's empirically plausible? At any rate, it seems like we should agree that Friedman's argument doesn't work without some additional assumptions.
Sure, it's consistent to prefer non-you poor people get food over non-you rich people getting iphones. But most actual people prefer THEY get an iphone over feeding any specific poor person. People aren't fungible, and no actual humans are fully indifferent to which humans are helped or harmed.
Using coercive force to fund public goods is also 'theft', but still it can end up with near-unanimous support. So I don't think that this is a good argument in and of itself. This post isn't really about leveling the playing field. (Even in the stupid example with nobles, the nobles still end up 1000x richer than the peasants.)
-3Stuart Anderson
Ethics is individual level altruism in pursuit of group level pragmatism. If it was just individuals making self-centered decisions, they would reject taxation as libertatianism advises.
1Stuart Anderson
If one personally gets a return , then it's not altruism. The return is to the group. There's no personal benefit to you doing most of the things you are ethically required to do. Maybe, but not out of self interest. You are assuming that the only possible purpose of redistribution is to bring about an equilibrium of complete equality. That is not the case. There are multiple justifcations for redistribution. Whom are you arguing against?
1Stuart Anderson
You have stepped back from the claim that ethical action always benefits the individual to the more obvious claim that they sometimes do. Who was making it.? Redistribution can be justified by social stability (bribing the poor not to overthrow the rich), political stability (bribing the poor not to embrace socialism) investment in human capital, etc. Who says we are? So? Do you have an actual argument? Redistribution in peaceful societies just isn't the same thing as revolution. Theres plenty of proof that it fixes things. But maybe not things you care about.
I am not changing the subject, I am disagreeing with the claim that redistribution is only justified by equality. Non communist societies can have redistribution, so that is simply irrelevant. "Revolution" is not defined as "any use of force whatsoever" , so, irrelevant again. And what is, taken in tax is partly redistributed, so you are not talking about a fundamentally different thing. You might object to more extreme forms of redistribution, but then it would have been helpful to say so explicitly. [edits for spelling and clarity]