The hard steel of impeccable logic

It is a great pleasure to see an argument full of hot air punctured with by a the cold, hard, stiletto steel of logic.

Tim Worstall argued at the Adam Smith Institute blog that:

…  British Airways allows passengers, for a modest sum, to offset the carbon emissions from their flight. Roughly 1 in 200 actually do so, which would, on a strict reading of people’s preferences, mean that 0.5% of the flying population are prepared to pay more to avert climate change.  … There really is a large difference between how much extra people say they would like to pay for things and how much extra they actually will pay. Probably has something to do with why taxes are usually mandatory rather than voluntary I suppose.

And in the comments, Patrick Hubble wields the intellectual stiletto that punctures Tim’s bubble:

Surely if asked the question, ‘would I rather pay more tax / pay more to save the environment / etc,’ a ‘yes’ answer means ‘yes, if everyone else does’, not ‘yes, I’m prepared to be a mug whilst everyone else freeloads on my generosity (stupidity)’. 

That whistling sound you hear is a bag of hot air deflating. 

What the hard line libertarians don’t get is that some choices only make sense if we make them collectively.  Individually we would – rationally – make choices that lead to outcomes that are irrational for us collectively; and that is why we establish systems to enable us to make choices together.  Government is such a system. The fact that people would choose differently if they were making an individual choice is not an argument against government, it is precisely the reason why we need it.

12 thoughts on “The hard steel of impeccable logic”

  1. The fact that people would choose differently if they were making an individual choice is not an argument against government, it is precisely the reason why we need it.

    Hear hear. This is also why encouraging disaffiliation from collective structures, without having anything to put in their place, is such a pernicious line of argument.

  2. Spot on. Supposed revealed preferences don’t get you round the discussion of which rights are absolute (the decision whether I get pissed tonight or not) and which are contingent (the decision to pollute or not, what right I have to money I’ve earned, and so on).

  3. Pingback: doctorvee / Why we need government

  4. Owen, I sympathise with your point about free riding.

    Sometimes, our decisions must be collective, and government is (conceivably) a means to make us all better off. This is the standard Buchanan/Tullock explanation, and I’m sure Tim wouldn’t disagree with the logic.

    But in practice government decision aren’t unanimous.

    Consequently, we’re forced to pay for policy that we wouldn’t chose individually, and don’t want communally (e.g. the CAP).

    The solution? How about a Clarke Tax?

  5. What a cop-out, “we’d be happy too if we were all forced to do it, but not if it was voluntary”.

    I’d be happy to take a moral action regardless of what was the majority opinion. There is no virtue with compulsion said Aquinas, and I make him right.

    If you want an outcome, work towards achieving it.

  6. Guido

    I don’t think that is a cop-out at all.

    If I sit down at a football match and everybody else stands up, then I don’t see the game. We’d all be better off if everyone sat down, but if everyone else is going to stand up, then there is no point in me sitting down.

    You could make a case that there are demonstration effects – if I sit down, maybe other people will take the hint and do likewise. Worth a try. But if in the light of experience leading by example does not work, there is nothing wrong with standing up, while arguing it would better to live in a world in which everybody sits down.

    Owen

  7. Is paying to offset carbon emissions from my flight really an example of a choice that only makes sense if others do it too? Clearly I’d consider it to be better if everybody else did too, but doesn’t my individual contribution make, well, a contribution? I’m not sure, but it seems to me a different sort of thing than the standing up at a football match analogy.

    So do you think the same argument applies to buying fair trade products, ecologically friendly washing powder or donating to charity? All of those are small contribution that are individually ineffective in the same way as paying to reduce a small amount of carbon emissions would be, aren’t they?

    I should point out that I agree with the argument that one of the valid roles for government is to solve co-ordination problems. Also that I agree that there are problems with the ‘revealed preference’ world view, which can be used to retrospectively validate any state of affairs – it must be like this because people clearly want it like this! If the government did away with all environmental regulation, for example, you could turn around and say, well people are buying these products that poison the environment, who are we to intervene in their choices? So I’m not anti-regulation, I’m just querying whether Tim’s point has been punctured quite so comprehensively.

  8. What a wonderful quote. You entirely missed out the intervening paragraphs which looked at the Massachusetts voluntary tax. What I said, specifically, about the CO2 payment is this:

    “Roughly 1 in 200 actually do so, which would, on a strict reading of people’s preferences, mean that 0.5% of the flying population are prepared to pay more to avert climate change. Somewhat, you may have noticed, less than the percentage who say they would pay extra to save the planet.”

    Something which is both true and obvious. There’s nothing “hard line libertarian” about it at all. Simple observation of revealed preferences, fairly standard economic tactic.

    I would also point out the wisdom of my old English teacher, a Mr. Venning. The answer to any question which begins “Surely” is “No”.

    In the case of a flight any individual has three choices.

    1) Take the flight.
    2) Take the flight and pay to offset the CO2.
    3) Don’t take the flight.

    As any of the three are an individual action then the amelioration or not of the emissions is similarly an individual one. Whether or not other people do so that tree still gets planted and the CO2 of your decision gets disposed of.

    You could argue that CO2 emissions are an externality which the tax system should force people to pay for, so as to internalise it. I’m highly sympathetic to that argument and have used it myself. It simply doesn’t fit into the brief I have at the ASI….no, not that I shouldn’t mention such things but that I should be providing a few hundred words with a simple point. Which is, in this example, that what people say and what people do can at times be different.

    Government as a means of collective decision making? Sure, it is such a system. I’d be a lot happier if you also acknowledged that there are other forms of collective decision making rather than your usual position that it is the only one. The existence and funding of the RNLI is, to name just one, evidence that it is not the only one that works.

    Finally, don’t you think that the last line, about taxes being mandatory, rather answers the point that Patrick makes?

  9. Tim:

    “It simply doesn’t fit into the brief I have at the ASI….”

    No, I am sure that it doesn’t. The readers of the Adam Smith Institute blog do not want to hear examples of the need for collective decision-making. That is a reason not to write for them, not a reason to distort the evidence to make a bogus argument.

    Of course there are other forms of collective decision-making. I am proud to have served clubs and other voluntary organizations; and in open source software projects. But if the problem involves a decision that requires goes beyond voluntary participation – for example, which requires the threat of coercion – then we need a decision making process with legitimacy.

  10. Tsk, Tsk. What quotation.

    “It simply doesn’t fit into the brief I have at the ASI….no, not that I shouldn’t mention such things but that I should be providing a few hundred words with a simple point.”

    As for voluntary organisations yes, I’ve heard about the Oxford Union and the election count.

  11. What the hard line libertarians don’t get is that some choices only make sense if we make them collectively

    Hard line libertarians ‘get’ that just fine, they just don’t see where the ‘we’ bit comes from when it comes to these ‘choices’ being made.

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