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:
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
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... (read more)
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).
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?... (read more)
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)
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)
It seems to me that "consequentialism" here refers to total utilitarianism rather than consequentialism in general.
Potentially relevant new paper:... (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."
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 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 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)