Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Fortunately For Me, I Don't Care

Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Alan Miron responds to the Senate's abortion vote on Tuesday this way:
Abortion is an issue where imposing one policy on the entire country is disastrous. There are passionately held positions at both ends of the spectrum, yet most of the population falls squarely in the middle. Imposing policy at the federal level generates polarization and acriminony that is desctructive of a civil society. Leaving abortion policy to the states allows for different outcomes in different places, which means a broad fraction of the population can feel its views have at least been heard.
That's all fine, I guess, provided that you have no substantive moral or political views on abortion itself. Yes, the majority of the population "falls squarely in the middle" of the debate, but that majority consists of individuals, each of whom has his or her own preferred set of abortion laws. The catch is that it's unlikely that any of those individuals actually believes that abortion ought to have a different legal status in each state; it's much more likely they each think that each state ought to enact his or her preferred set of abortion laws.

This is a basic case of the fallacy of division. The mistake is thinking that because the collective opinion of the majority is muddled that the opinion of each individual member of the majority is similarly muddled.

It's not that there's nothing whatever to this compromise business, it's just that it's kind of a cop-out of the actual ethical question to just cut straight through to the compromise. There's no question that life is easier if you haven't got moral beliefs, or refuse to let them enter into the picture, so I can see the appeal of trying to abstract away from people's differing views. The fact, however, is that most people do have such moral beliefs and it's rarely productive or wise to act as if they don't or that they won't be important.


Kevin said...

Isn't he just making a classic Economic argument of preferences? That letting each individual state pick their politics is much more likely to have a higher utility?

It's like a choice between guns and butter. If we pick nationwide, and the vote is 51%-49%, then 49% of the people are unhappy. But lets assume that it's not 51-49% in all states. Most states are either something like 76-24 butter or 24-76 guns. (Assuming states have equal pop for simplicity..) If we let them vote as states, then overall 76% of all people will be happy. That's a better result.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Hmmm... I think your proposition hinges on whether (for example) anti-abortion advocates are going to be happy with a local ban if CA and NY keep abortion legal. I guess half a loaf is better than nothing.

Really, I find this question to be a bit academic. It simply isn't possible to de-federalize the abortion issue without a constitutional amendment - and that's not happening. At best Miron is wasting our time, at worst he's peddaling that fantasy that if liberals just back off or Roe v. Wade the pro-life crowd won't just try to pass federal laws restricting it.

Paul said...

Two comments about the utility thing.

First, even if he is making that sort of classical utilitarian argument, it all hinges, as Tom said, on the rest of the population taking a similarly utilitarian stance. Pro-lifers are not known for their fondness of utilitarianism.

Second, if you're going to hop on the utilitarian train, you've got to get all the way on. A good utilitarian argument wouldn't just try to set up a compromise between the parties, it would apply utilitarian thinking to abortion itself.

Which gets back to my most immediate reaction to Miron's post - he doesn't really seem to think much about abortion at all - it's all strictly political.

None of which is to say you're wrong about what Miron's doing - maybe you're right. But that just gets to one of the reasons I think right-wing arguments about federalism can get so silly - there are a great many political questions that are also important moral questions and about which we just wouldn't be willing to settle for half a loaf.

Kevin said...

I think he was just pointing out the math of the situation... not a political/philosophical point.

If his entire goal is national harmony, rather then a 'solution' to the abortion question, then his point is entirely apropos. A State-by-state solution is simply mathematically more likely to please more people. It has nothing to do with the utilitarianism of other people, unless you think the rage of other states doing something different entirely outweighs the pleasure from voting in your own point of view.

It's not a compromise so much as it is a complete repositioning of the relevant battleground, the outcome of which is predictable according to current voting patterns. Yes, more people will be happy, not because of a 'compromise' but because a political wall has been erected between them.

I understand your point that, if you truly believe that it is morally right/wrong, you have no compunction against pushing it on/off everyone else in your country. This is intellectually respectable. But I believe the value of it is significantly outweighed by the chance of your opponents taking control of this vast coercive machinery you've set up and, for example, banning gay marriage forever in all states. In addition, committing the issue to the states can often be more protective of minority opinions -- they can move to more friendly states. Again, gay marriage.

In my view, the above considerations are simply factors to be weighed, not absolute criteria. In things like Desegregation it's clear that the moral evil of maintaining the institution outweighs the trouble caused and flexibility sacrificed by keeping it state-only. But there should be a strong presumption in favor of states-rights, unless the evil is so great, and the need for heavy-handed federal intervention so clear, that we cannot keep the issue to the states.

Paul said...

Again, two things.

First, I don't think the differences in our interpretation of Miron make any difference. He seems wrong in either case (and I'm not sure there are really any differences in our interpretations anyway.) I just don't see how it's all logistically workable. Abortion is precisely the kind of thing that doesn't work under that sort of federalist arrangement. It's too easy to just go to a different state. Which, as I think this very discussion illustrates, is not going to be sufficiently uncontroversial. I mean, this conversation started precisely because the Senate was unsatisfied with differences in abortion laws across states.

Second, and maybe this is a bigger issue, I'd argue that we really don't want a strong presumption in favor of states' rights. On my view, at most, you relegate an issue to individual states when it's more efficient to do that than to do it at the federal level. But that's not a very strong presumption, because efficiency is only one component of good government. I wouldn't even go so far as to say it's the biggest component.

Kevin said...

Why wouldn't a state-wide approach work? There's something for everyone. Overall, of course, it's just pure mathematics that more people will live in a jurisdiction they agree with. Pro-abortion people will be reassured that women with serious needs can drive to a blue state.. and will not risk a ban on abortion at the Federal level. Anti-abortion people will be able to ban abortion in their own states.

I don't know why you feel like abortion is a natural Federal issue -- it was only Federalized by Roe v. Wade, and the aftermath has been thirty years of divisive, ugly politics. Issues that are 'naturally Federal' are those where much of it takes place across state lines, or where there is a clear nationwide moral imperative.

Issues like abortion are local, health-related, and sharply moral. I don't want the Federal government in the business of legislating morals -- why do I want Alabama telling me who I can have sex with? Same goes for the majority of drug regulation. The lesson of the past 8 years should be the danger of giving the Federal government the power to impose morals and beliefs on the rest of the nation -- viz the FTC.

Why should an issue be given to the Federal government, instead of being reserved to the States? First of all, I would much rather the State of California vote on social/moral issues then the current Federal government. Second, I generally trust the States to be more responsive to voters then the gerrymandered, massive Federal government. (Or even better, Local government). Finally, Federal issues really should cross state lines. That's a big arena -- environment, defense, constitutionally-guaranteed liberties -- but not an automatic forum.

Federalism is better for Liberals.

Paul said...

Right now, we have an arrangement in which different states have laws that differ to various, but relatively minor, degrees. This arrangement is considered sufficiently unsatisfactory by people who, in aggregate, represent enough political power, to make them push Congress to eliminate those differences in their preferred way. I see no reason why the situation would improve if the differences between the states became greater.

Also, I fail to see how dropping the question of abortion down to the states is better for liberals since the liberal position on abortion (by and large) is pro-choice. Letting each state decide for itself would create more states in which abortion was illegal - hardly a big liberal victory. Pushing a question down to the states is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

But the BIG issue for me is this:

Issues like abortion are local, health-related, and sharply moral. I don't want the Federal government in the business of legislating morals -- why do I want Alabama telling me who I can have sex with?

I strongly disagree. Politics is just a special case of ethics. Why do I want a progressive tax code? Because I believe, not uncontroversially, that a progressive tax code is more just than a flat or regressive tax code. That is most definitely a moral position on my part, and I've got no problem pushing the government to act on my moral belief.

Most, if not all, of my political views are moral views and I don't see how you can have a conversation about what the government ought to do without having a conversation about what is right, as a moral matter. What does it mean to say, "America's tax system ought to restribute more wealth down to the poorest Americans" if that "ought" isn't normative?

The problem with Alabama isn't that it tries to legislate morality - the problem is that it tries to do so very poorly. I don't want California telling me how the public school system should be funded, but that's not because there's a problem with funding public schools as such, it's because California does a crummy job of it.