State and Dystopia

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In his latest Forbes column, Richard Epstein tears into the bailout with some help from Robert Nozick:

Disasters like this latest financial meltdown don't just happen. Mistakes this huge require an impoverished political philosophy to grease the skids. Fannie and Freddie didn't design their horrific lending policies by chance. No, behind this lending fiasco lay the strong collective preference for the "patterned principles" of justice that Robert Nozick attacked so powerfully in his 1974 masterpiece, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Believers in patterned principles hold that there is some preordained social order that is more just than others. Accordingly, the function of the state is to use the levers of powers to manipulate behavior to achieve the desired outcomes. These patterned principles stand in opposition to historical principles of justice, which are content to establish the rules of the game and then let the legal moves by individual players determine the social outcomes. For Nozick, the key rules were rules of justice in acquisition (to set up the initial property rights) and justice in transfer, whereby those rights (and others derived from them) could be exchanged or combined through voluntary transactions.

[…]

Congress, alas, is a pattern junkie.

Whole thing here. Brian Doherty's 2002 obituary for Nozick here.

(Via Todd Zywicki, who notes, "this has to be the first time in recent memory that a popular op-ed has been organized around Nozickian themes.")

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  1. The Joy of Social Engineering–with sexy diagrams of people socially engineering one another.

    Maybe Congress should fund research into psychohistory, so that they can anticipate and control large-scale human behavior. Only for good, of course.

  2. Good idea Pro Lib. But we should tell em it will help predict voting patterns so they can get re-elected.

  3. Naga,

    Oh, I don’t think we’ll have to tell them that. That’s why they’ll pass the bill in the first place.

  4. Congress, alas, is a pattern junkie.

    Interesting. There was a major study recently released that found people who tended to feel out of control, were more likely to see patterns in paces where there were none, and more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

    Conversely, people who felt more in control of their destiny were much less likely to see patterns in random noise, and not believe in conspiracy theories.

  5. “For Nozick, the key rules were rules of justice in acquisition (to set up the initial property rights) and justice in transfer, whereby those rights (and others derived from them) could be exchanged or combined through voluntary transactions.”

    Actually, if such rules led to a dystopia, no one would accept it. All societies are measured by goals like wealth, justice, liberty, etc., so it is not correct that one merely sets up rules without having some idea or plan of whether the society that results is acceptable.

  6. No, behind this lending fiasco lay the strong collective preference for the “patterned principles” of…some preordained social order

    I didn’t RTFA, but isn’t this just a fancy way of blaming the fiasco on centralized decision making? Which I’m inclined to believe, but thus far there hasn’t been much in the way of a smoking gun for such. If, by “collective preference,” Epstein means the influence of third parties advocating for this “preordained social order” but who had no coercive based authority to implement their preference, that’s an interesting idea, but it would do little to allay the fears that the current problems were indeed caused by “huge mistakes” made by private parties. Why didn’t they know better than to listen to this “collective preference”? There’ll always be no lack of bad advice floating around!

  7. All societies are measured by goals like wealth, justice, liberty, etc., so it is not correct that one merely sets up rules without having some idea or plan of whether the society that results is acceptable.

    Yes, I agree, good principles should lead to good results. Problem is, dystopia is often in the eye of the beholder and one can always identify a part of the glass that is not full. The point of following good principles is to trust in their deliverance of good results when viewed in the larger picture and to not abandon them when they do not deliver Utopia! (And good principles should also satisfy an innate sense of justice!)

  8. I didn’t RTFA, but isn’t this just a fancy way of blaming the fiasco on centralized decision making? Which I’m inclined to believe, but thus far there hasn’t been much in the way of a smoking gun for such.

    Ditto. Fannie and Freddie were unquestionably part of the problem. But the demand for MBSs went way beyond their desire to supply em. The problem was MBSs were still selling as though they were made of gold long after they turned to lead. Nobody was looking under the hood. And that was mistake repeated many times over all around the globe.

  9. The GSEs and the government served up the ball, then screamed “Spike it, spike it!” to consumers and to the industry. And they did.

  10. Pro Lib,

    Time is running out before the apocalypse. Can still join me and be Marchwarden of Florida.

  11. Too late, Naga! I have proclaimed myself Lord Protector of Tampa and the Greater Bay Area! Kneel before me, all residents of this fine place, and bring unto me oranges and fresh fish of all kinds. As well as gold and other hard currencies.

  12. “Patterned principles of justice” sounds an awful lot like libertarian paternalism.

  13. As Lord Protector of Tampa and the Greater Bay Area, I will maximize the liberty of the Lord Protector, who will symbolize the freedoms of his people.

  14. Pro Liberate,

    You fool! You have played right into my hands. I will merely pay lip service to freedom while stoking my armies appetite for conquest with tales of your decadence. Even now my spies inform me of your every move. BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

  15. Naga,

    You misunderstand my intentions. I intend to maximize my liberty. At the expense of my people. However, they will vicariously enjoy freedom by observing my absolute freedom.

  16. This is the second commentary I’ve heard today on how the bailout has already failed. And the other one was on NPR, so it’s not all coming from conservatives.

    If the latest media consensus is that the bailout failed, can we please pull the plug on the plan before we spend the dough? Got a hunch it will be spent, anyway.

  17. In his latest Forbes column, Richard Epstein tears into the bailout with some help from Robert Nozick:

    Richard Epstein must not have a real job if he’s got time for this.

    No Mike you don’t get it, we can’t pull the plug. But we can and will socialize medicine, impose carbon taxes, and then raise “affirmative action” to such new heights that all of American industry will, at last, really and truly be run by utter incompetents.

  18. Just another way of saying means vs. ends…

    For Nozick Justice is in using the right means, for Pols in following the right ends (as defined by them, of course)

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