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That Cold-Hearted Discipline – Article by David J. Hebert

That Cold-Hearted Discipline – Article by David J. Hebert

The New Renaissance Hat
David J. Hebert
November 6, 2013

But of all the duties of beneficence, those which gratitude recommends to us approach nearest to what is called a perfect and complete obligation. What friendship, what generosity, what charity, would prompt us to do with universal approbation, is still more free, and can still less be extorted by force than the duties of gratitude. —Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

A recent article by Wharton Professor Adam Grant has been popping up here and there, most recently in Psychology Today. Grant suggests that studying economics breeds greed, and he cites several studies to support his claim. The studies conclude economics professors give less money to charity than other professions, economics students are more likely to deceive others for personal gain, and people who study economics have less of a concern for fairness and tend to think that “greed” is okay.

To his credit, Grant does consider the alternative: that maybe economics actually attracts greedy people or that greedy people tend to thrive by studying economics. He dismisses these possibilities by noting that “there is evidence for selection . . . but this doesn’t rule out the possibility that studying economics pushes people further toward the selfish extreme.” He goes on to chide practitioners of the discipline for teaching self-interest in the classroom.

Finally, he concludes with four points that are meant to provide evidence of the social harm in studying economics, which can be summarized in two overarching points:

1) Economics justifies greedy behavior, and

2) Studying economics makes people less altruistic.

I want briefly to discuss these two points here.

Economics Justifies Greedy Behavior?

Studying economics, and specifically the role of incentives, teaches us that relying on altruism is a brave assumption that has but limited applicability. For example, among people we know, we can rely on a certain degree of altruism or benevolence. I know, for example, that my family and friends will be there for me not because I pay them to do so, but because they care about me. Similarly, they know I will be there for them. However, I don’t know the same thing about random people I encounter on the street.

And yet in order to enjoy the immense wealth that the division of labor affords us, society demands that we have interactions both with people we know well and people we do not know at all. These two distinct spheres of activity require two distinct forms of cooperation, which one might get from reading Adam Smith’s twin pillars of economics: The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations.

More tidily, perhaps, F. A. Hayek describes this situation in The Fatal Conceit by noting the difference between the macroeconomy and the microeconomy. Macro, in this context, refers to society as a whole, while micro refers to just the people to whom we are close. Hayek says that if we were to apply the same rules of the family unit to the macro, as would be the case if we were to allocate resources altruistically, we would destroy the macro. This is because there would be a complete lack of economic calculation, resources would be misallocated, and plans would fail to be coordinated (see these articles for more on economic calculation).

Hayek also notes that the reverse is true: If we were to apply the rules of the market to the family, we would destroy it as well. We don’t need prices and incomes at the dinner table to allocate the food. Even the most ardent defender of markets would agree that having prices and such as the means of allocating food at the dinner table would be wrong, just like paying your friends to help you move across town would be strange. (Beer and pizza don’t count.)

Instead, students of economics recognize not that greed is good, as the saying goes, but that greed can be transformed into the service of others given the proper institutional setting. That institutional setting, which has been thoroughly discussed elsewhere, is one that celebrates the role of property rights, prices, and profits (and losses) and recognizes their role in creating the incentives to properly husband resources, generates the information about the relative scarcities of various goods and transmits this information to consumers and producers in a quick and efficient manner, all of which provides a feedback mechanism to drive continued innovation.

Economics Makes People Less Altruistic?

Grant cites a 2005 article by Neil Gandal et. al. as concluding that “students who planned to study economics rated helpfulness, honesty, loyalty, and responsibility as just as important as students who were studying communications, political science, and sociology,” but that by the third year, economics students rated these values “significantly less important than first-year economics students.”

While the Gandal study does include such conclusions, it also includes much more. For example, economics students attribute less importance to fairness. Evidencing this, Gandal points out that, when questioned about the allocation of radio frequencies to different mobile-phone service providers, students who study economics are more likely to advocate selling the rights to the highest bidder while students of other disciplines are more likely to advocate for allocating the rights to “anybody who meets some minimal eligibility criteria.”

Students of economics do not advocate for property rights because we are greedy; we advocate for property rights because we understand and take seriously potential incentive problems in politics. The notion of minimal eligibility requirements may sound nice, for example, but problems may lie in who gets to draw that line, by what process that line gets drawn, and the incentives faced by the line-drawers. As Madison points out in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

Economics students know men are no angels. And as Nobel laureate James Buchanan points out, government officials are human beings, too, with their own hopes, dreams, and aspirations—and yes, forms of avarice. Supporting the allocation of resources to the highest bidder sidesteps the issues raised by these potential incentive problems. This means that the choice of how to allocate resources fundamentally comes down to a choice of institutions.

We can have a central authority establish guidelines by which anyone who wants can use the radio frequencies, or we can let the market decide. The former leads to a standard tragedy of the commons problem, whereby the radio frequency gets overused. In the case of cell phones, this means that the frequency would be crowded with multiple conversations simultaneously; imagine trying to shout to your friend across a crowded bar. The latter leads to the frequencies being allocated to the person who is best able to utilize them to serve the general population. So AT&T, for example, gets exclusive rights to a certain bandwidth and then tries to figure out how to best serve its customers. In this case, the customer gets to enjoy a clear phone call without the distraction of several other conversations in their ear simultaneously.

In any case, these are not examples of quelling altruism, but of keeping it in its place.

Less Greed, More Cooperation

Viewed in this light, economics does not so much teach greed but rather the beauty of cooperation. How else could we explain how a woolen coat gets made, how Paris gets fed, or how a pencil gets made? And if allocating, say, radio frequencies based on highest valued use makes people learn to discard fairness, well, how exactly is that a bad thing?

David Hebert is a Ph.D. student in economics at George Mason University. His research interests include public finance and property rights.

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.


Editor’s Note by Gennady Stolyarov II: Mr. Hebert’s article is excellent in focusing on the true significance of economics and the need for private property rights. In one important respect, though, my position differs from his when it comes to the allocation of radio frequency to highest bidders such as AT&T and other entities exercising similar coercively granted monopoly and quasi-monopoly powers.

My position, arising out of similar libertarian principles, is that the allocation of radio frequencies to AT&T (and similar local/regional telecommunications monopolies) through the political process would not result in an economically optimal allocation, even if AT&T were the highest bidder. The reason for this is that AT&T’s very bidding ability arises out of (1) its decades-long history as the telephone monopoly in the United States and (2) the protections from competition that it enjoys in certain jurisdictions as a local or regional monopoly provider of certain services wrongly considered “natural monopolies” – such as high-speed cable services. In a pure free-market system, there would likely need to be some sort of allocation process for radio frequencies, so long as the use of radio frequencies by some parties has the physical ability to interfere with the use of the same frequencies by other parties. However, the outcome of such a free-market allocation process would differ considerably from the outcome of a bidding process in today’s status quo, conditioned by decades of deleterious path-dependency arising out of the privileges granted to AT&T and similar local/regional monopolists. Probably, an auction of radio spectrum on a purely free market would result in many smaller firms buying up many smaller ranges of spectrum and competing with one another more vigorously to provide superior customer service than do a handful of large, politically privileged telecommunications companies (AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, et al.) today. In this path-dependent, partially unfree environment it may be, in some cases, that allocations to lower bidders would result in better uses of resources and improved consumer outcomes, as long as institutional political privilege (e.g., enforced monopolies or historical insulation from competition) of the higher bidders can be incorporated into the bidding process in the form of some reasonable handicap used in considering their bids.

A Barrage of Assaults on Internet Freedom – Video by G. Stolyarov II

A Barrage of Assaults on Internet Freedom – Video by G. Stolyarov II

Even after SOPA/PROTECT IP’s demise, assaults on the Internet in its present form have continued on a variety of fronts. Some of these assaults are in the form of legislation, while others are deployed by nominally private entities that in fact thrive on political connections and special privileges. These attempts would limit harmless individual expression and create the presumption of guilt with respect to online activity — quashing that activity until the accused can demonstrate his innocence.

Mr. Stolyarov focuses on four of these assaults: H.R. 3523 – the dubiously named Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), NSA surveillance, ISP/trade-association cooperation, and Arizona’s House Bill 2549.

Remember to LIKE, FAVORITE, and SHARE this video in order to spread rational discourse on this issue.

– “A Barrage of Assaults on Internet Freedom” – Essay by G. Stolyarov II
– “Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act” – Wikipedia
– “Stop Online Piracy Act” – Wikipedia
– “PROTECT IP Act” – Wikipedia
– “The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)” – James Bamford – Wired Magazine – March 15, 2012
– “NSA vs USA: Total surveillance zooms-in on Americans” – Video from RT
– “RIAA chief: ISPs to start policing copyright by July 1“- Greg Sandoval – cNet – March 14, 2012
– “American ISPs to launch massive copyright spying scheme on July 12” – Stephen C. Webster – Raw Story – March 15, 2012
– “US ranked 26th in global Internet speed, South Korea number one” – Shawn Knight – TechSpot – September 21, 2011
– “Arizona bill could criminalize Internet trolling” – Chris Morris – Yahoo! Games – April 3, 2012
– “Arizona Wants to Outlaw Trolling by Banning ‘Annoying’ Comments” – Paul Lilly – Maximum PC – April 5, 2012

A Barrage of Assaults on Internet Freedom – Article by G. Stolyarov II

A Barrage of Assaults on Internet Freedom – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
April 11, 2012

           After massive public outrage and activism by major technology companies in January 2012 put an end to the draconian proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act, one might have expected the US political and media establishments to relent in their attempts to suppress Internet freedom. But the assaults on the Internet in its present form have continued on a variety of fronts. Some of these assaults are in the form of legislation, while others are deployed by nominally private entities that in fact thrive on political connections and special privileges. These attempts would limit harmless individual expression and create the presumption of guilt with respect to online activity – quashing that activity until the accused can demonstrate his innocence. Virtually every attempt is promoted under the guise of one of four motivations: “security” against “terrorist” online activities, copyright protection, protection against pornography, or the simple desire not to be offended.

            Consider H.R. 3523 – the dubiously named Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). Like most of the worst bills, it is a “bipartisan” creature, sponsored by Representatives Michael Rogers (R-MI), C. A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-MD), and 29 others. This bill is being advanced with the dual ostensible purpose of “protecting” networks against unspecified “attacks” and enforcing copyright and patent law. The end result of the bill would be a virtually unlimited power of the US federal government (or private companies that would be empowered to “voluntarily” hand over private user data to the federal government) to monitor any and all online activities at any time without a warrant – even if the activities have no relation to online attacks or infringement of patents or copyrights. Furthermore, there is no limitation in CISPA on how the information collected by government agencies and private companies could be used – and no guarantee that it will not be used for purposes other than “cybersecurity.”  Indeed, the agencies to whom CISPA would delegate authority over “cybersecurity” – the National Security Agency and Cybercommand – are military agencies that are permitted to operate in complete secrecy regarding their aims and protocols. This is a common pattern in attempts to gain power over the Internet: a specific series of threats is asserted, but the proposed “remedy” to these threats is so broad and general as to encompass practically every online activity – with no safeguards to preclude nefarious uses, even when including those safeguards would be a matter of basic common sense. This leads to the unsurprising conclusion that the specific threats are a mere convenient excuse for something else.

            The National Security Agency, in the meantime, does not believe that it even requires legal authority (much less Constitutional authority) to construct a massive data center in Bluffdale, Utah (see this article from Wired Magazine and this video from RT) that is intended to capture and store all e-mails, voice mails, online searches, and other Internet activities by all Americans, all under the ostensible aim of somehow enhancing “national security” – as if your phone conversation with a friend or business e-mail could somehow have any conceivable connection to terrorist activity! While this information will do nothing to prevent terrorist attacks, it will allow the federal government to launch investigations of individuals on the basis of information that has hitherto remained off-limits: sensitive health and lifestyle data, details of private lives that individuals would rather not share with the outside world, the misconstrued off-hand remark in an e-mail or text message, legitimate and peaceful entrepreneurship or intellectual expression that are disagreeable to some federal official, or the unintended violation of some obscure federal law that one did not even know existed.  Even today’s deeply convoluted and often inscrutable system of federal laws can be endured by most Americans, simply because the federal government does not have the ability to pry into the minutiae of each of their lives. Of course, there is so much information online that the NSA would not be able to focus on every individual’s activities in real time. But with access to the entire “electronic footprint” of a person, crucial information about such activities could be produced on demand – say, if a powerful politician wished to investigate a vocal critic for tax evasion (as Franklin Roosevelt often did to his political opponents), or if a federal agency sought to catch a prominent activist in an act of indiscretion (as the FBI routinely attempted to do with leaders of the civil-rights movement). Such surveillance will not lead to every technical violation of every obscure prohibition or mandate being recognized and punished – but if you stand out too much and attract notice for other (perfectly legal) reasons, beware!

          Much of the vast information that would come to the NSA would be automatically flagged for containing “suspicious” keywords or patterns of words – without the imposition of a common-sense filter of meaning. There is the real possibility that Americans might be subject to surveillance, investigation, prosecution, or worse, on the basis of a statistical algorithm. The NSA is even working on ways to break some of the codes used by individuals to encrypt their online communications – a deliberate attempt to bypass privacy safeguards which these individuals have intentionally put in place.

            The trade associations for establishment media interests, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), have not stopped in their designs to limit internet freedom for people merely suspected of copyright infringement. Having lost the legislative battle (which they will surely attempt to fight again), the RIAA and MPAA have instead decided to partner with the regional-monopoly high-speed internet service providers (ISPs) in order to arrive at a “voluntary” scheme of graduated response against individuals whose usage of Internet bandwidth is deemed “suspicious.”  This arrangement is expected come into effect on July 1, 2012, and would, in practice, largely affect users of torrents (which could be utilized for entirely legal purposes, such as an independent artist or game designer freely “seeding” his own work). The first several times, torrent users would be given warnings and asked to attend RIAA/MPAA-sponsored “educational” courses. Ultimately, after repeated suspicions of “infringement,” the ISPs would be required to severely limit the user’s bandwidth – although it is not clear whether they would be permitted to terminate Internet access for the user altogether. All this would be done without recourse to legal due process, without the presumption of innocence, and without the opportunity for the accused user to demonstrate innocence to a body whose Executive Board will be comprised of RIAA/MPAA leadership anyway.

            While this arrangement may superficially seem like a consensual deal among private trade associations and private ISPs, this is far from the underlying reality. Neither the RIAA/MPAA nor the American ISPs are close to free-market entities. The RIAA and MPAA have routinely attempted to use the force of legislation to limit competition and protect the market dominance of their members – the large film and recording studios whose greatest fear is the open, free, decentralized culture of creation emerging on the Internet. The ISPs grew out of telephone companies with local or regional monopolies on service granted to them by law – a legacy of the breakup of AT&T, which until 1982 was the coercive telephone monopoly in the United States. While the AT&T breakup legalized some measure of competition, it did not provide for a market of truly open entry in each jurisdiction; rather, each of AT&T’s pieces (many of which have since re-consolidated) became a mini-AT&T and has used its monopoly profits to artificially bolster itself in subsequent rounds of technological evolution. As a result of their legal privilege, many large ISPs have been able to engage in quasi-monopolistic practices, including the capping of bandwidth on ostensibly “unlimited” plans, the requirement that customers rent modem equipment which they could easily purchase themselves, byzantine phone “help” lines which seem more designed to deter consumers from calling than to actually offer assistance from real people, and frequent reluctance to improve Internet infrastructure despite the ready technological means to do so. The coercive monopolies of the ISPs have resulted in the United States being in mere 26th place in the world – just slightly ahead of the global average – for Internet download speeds. In South Korea, typical Internet speeds are about four times faster – a tantalizing hint at what a freer, more competitive market could accomplish for consumers.  Some of the greatest harms of unfreedom come not in the form of direct legislative or executive action, but rather from the creatures of unfreedom – the politically privileged entities that would not have existed in a free society and that use their power to make deals amongst themselves at consumers’ expense.

            For those who do not understand that freedom of speech includes freedom to offend, there is a new possible recourse in Arizona’s House Bill 2549 (see here and here), which has already passed both houses of the Arizona Legislature. The bill is intended as a way of deterring online bullying, but it would, among other prohibitions, render it illegal to use “any electronic or digital device” to “annoy or offend” anyone or to “use any obscene, lewd or profane language” – punishable by six months in jail for violations that do not involve actual stalking. If you make a controversial comment about a political or religious subject – or simply offend someone’s tastes in art, sports, or food – you will certainly “annoy” someone and be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor in Arizona. And as for that First Amendment and its guarantee of free speech – bring that up, and you will surely have annoyed someone, so off to jail you go. And if you think that “profane language” is limited to words relating to human bodily functions, a religious fundamentalist might have a rather different understanding of that term, which might involve your disbelief or less fervent belief in the principles of his religion.

          The pattern is clear: a seemingly limited purpose with at least some public sympathy is used as a rationale for unprecedented, sweeping powers of surveillance and punishment – designed to transform the Internet of today from an engine of creativity and individual empowerment into a tamed arm of the establishment. The Internet envisioned by the politicians and lobbyists championing CISPA, NSA surveillance, ISP/trade-association cooperation, and Arizona’s House Bill 2549 is a glorified and technological version of “bread and circuses” for the masses – providing them with plenty of entertainment but within carefully controlled and supervised parameters. The intellectual innovator, the independent artist, the small-scale technologist, the do-it-yourself researcher, the electronic activist, the open-source software designer – all members of the “read-write” Internet culture of individual hyper-empowerment – have no place in the centrally planned world of these political and media elites. The old world in which these elites thrived is rapidly succumbing to the broadly uplifting possibilities of electronic technology – but they will not let their power go without a fight. As the downfall of SOPA and PROTECT IP showed, only massive public outrage can defeat ongoing efforts to limit Internet freedom, the last bastion of largely unfettered liberty that exists in contemporary Western societies. An Internet that continues to be predominantly individualistic and unrestrained can catalyze technological and cultural progress that will make freedom and prosperity in all other areas possible within our lifetimes. An Internet that is placed in shackles will become a mere tragic tool for surveillance and social control.