Moral public goods

by paulfchristianoSideways View4 min read26th Jan 202071 comments

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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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