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Thursday, February 14, 2008

"Our Moral Sense and the Extensive State"

There's a debate at Cato Unbound about - this is going to surprise you - the proper role and size of government. This is the second entry in the series:

Our Moral Sense and the Extensive State, by Gerald Gaus, Cato Unbound: Anthony de Jasay is correct: the apparent failure of constitutional provisions to effectively constrain the state within anything close to the bounds that classical liberals endorse must lead them to rethink their analysis of constitutional constraints. And surely de Jasay is right that one fundamental problem is that the interests of the government and its supporters are advanced by expansion of the state’s activities, and in the face of these interests, constraining constitutional provisions tend to be inadequate. ... As he sees it, this shows the limits of “rational choice” theory as a basis for constraining government. To the extent that we understand political actors and citizens as overwhelmingly self-interested, all this strikes me as quite right.

But are interests the whole story? Or even the only part of the story worth paying attention to? ...

“Rule systems,” de Jasay writes, “can be fruitfully divided into two types, conventional rules and rules by and for government.” I think this dichotomy leads de Jasay astray because it leads him to ignore the importance of distinctively moral rules. There is overwhelming evidence that a division of rules into the conventional and the political is too simple: cognitive psychologists have shown that even young children distinguish conventional/prudential rules from moral rules. ... Children recognize that conventional rules can be relative to time and place, and may be put aside in some circumstances, whereas moral rules are held to be categorical...

Now what is really important is that, in contrast to merely conventional rules, moral rules are not subject to being overridden by authority. Even children recognize that an authority figure such as a teacher may legitimately make a rule canceling out a purely conventional rule, but they do not accept that authority can override or cancel moral rules... This is of the first importance. ... Certainly moral rules include various prohibitions against harming others and some types of deception. Although there is dispute about this, I think there is also considerable evidence that these moral rules include some standards of fair distribution. The norms that enabled human groups to survive and thrive during most of our evolutionary history were not simply coordination rules, but also norms about the fair sharing of goods. As Cristina Bicchieri ... has shown, fairness norms are fundamental to social life and we now have a deep “taste for fairness.”

Given all this, ... the evidence is that the subjects of authority will accept the legitimacy of government-made rules overriding conventional rules, but they will resist government-made rules that override moral rules. We now see the deep problem for the classical liberal project of holding back the state. If the rules that are fundamental, according to classical liberals, are merely conventional, then citizens will see them revisable by authority. ... The problem is that the opposite seems nearer the truth... The welfare state reigns supreme not because the state and it allies have tricked the rest of us in a power grab; it reigns supreme because in the eyes of most citizens it conforms to the egalitarian fairness norms that have evolved with humans... Classical liberals who convince themselves that the New Deal is best explained as a power grab by Roosevelt and his allies are manifestly deluded: it was (and still is) very widely seen as demanded by our sense of fairness. ...

Judging from the last section of his essay, I suspect that de Jasay might reply that this “lay moral code” is based on a “non-interest motive arising from superstition.” ... But the claim ... has been undermined by recent cognitive psychology and experimental economics. Our sense of fairness is as much part of our utility function as is our aim for wealth or other goods...

The debate is complex, concerning both empirical and moral issues. Few proponents of classical liberalism are willing to engage the debate on these complex grounds..., preferring instead to ignore our complex pluralistic moral sentiments by building their case only on self-interest, or retreating to a narrow “natural rights theory” of morality shared by few. It is no wonder that classical liberals are losing the debate about the limits of the justified state. The state grows to a large extent because most citizens think that fair dealing, as well as the protection of everyone’s basic interests, requires it. Until they are willing to engage the moral sense of their fellows, classical liberals worried about the unbound state should look no further then their own failure to convince the vast majority of their fellow citizens that morality does not endorse it.

    Posted by on Thursday, February 14, 2008 at 12:47 AM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (33)


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