The scope of the moral community: an exchange

Alex Tabarrok and I discuss the tension between overcoming individual selfishness and avoiding the bad consequences of collective selfishness.

Alex Tabarrok and I had an email exchange this morning about Alex’s “moral community” post and my critique. With his permission, I’m publishing the full exchange, unedited.

I hadn’t thought about it this way before, but it strikes me that the tension between those who worry mostly about individual selfishness leading to bad social outcomes and those who worry mostly about group-level selfishness leading to bad social outcomes is an underappreciated dimension of political ideology.

Here’s Alex:

Three quick responses.

First, my post was in part addressed to economists. Economists know something about the benefits of trade and explaining those benefits is where our comparative advantage lies. We know less about distribution. Distribution also involves moral issues and I was suggesting that regarding those moral issues we not simply adopt the common nationalist viewpoint but instead

stick to the traditional economic assumption that everyone counts equally.

More substantively, in many of the comments the response has been, of course we should be trade nationalists because we love the nation. (Your post is more nuanced.) But to me the fact that we love our fellow-/citizens/ is more a sign of the problem than a reason to be a

trade nationalist.

One final point is that of the many policies that we can usefully adopt as a collective, surely we can find plenty better than restricting trade with other nations.

To which I replied:

My point wasn’t about distribution. It was that there are good analytical reasons for acting on in-group preferences, and that in particular that national boundaries aren’t morally irrelevant. What we ought to do about that is a different question; I’m mostly a fan of free trade and open borders. But if you start with the proposition that the welfare of someone in Tblisi, Georgia, ought to count exactly as much in the thinking of Americans as someone in Albany, Georgia, I think you wind up coming to wrong conclusions.

This is part of the larger disagreement between liberals and Burkean conservatives on the one hand and libertarians on the other. Libertarians want to reason about policy and morality as if the exchange nexus were the only important form in which cooperation is organized. (As if Adam Smith had written only The Wealth of Nations and not also the Theory of Moral Sentiments. That seems to me a fundamental mistake, and leads people to say things like “the fact that we love our fellow-citizens is a problem.”

Collective social capital in all its forms — the willingness of individuals to contribute to the public goods of groups — is an economically important resource, and sensible public policy and private morality ought to think hard about how to make it grow.

Alex again:

Do we really want more individuals willing to contribute to the public good of groups? Only if we define public good and groups in the way that a 21st century American liberal would define these terms (I would count myself as such a liberal in this context). But let’s be realistic, the way these terms have been defined historically and in the world today is “willingness to sacrifice for the collective.” The willingness of Hindus to burn Moslems alive during the Bombay riots (and the latter to bomb the former a little later), the willingness of

Germans to fight for Volk and fatherland, the willingness of Americans to fight for the Christian God who is “bigger” than Allah, a false “idol” – each of these illustrates willingness of individuals to sacrifice for the greater good as they understood it. I really do not mean these examples to be tendentious. I think they are typical expressions of the yearning to identify with the collective.

The forces that bind groups together produce public goods and public bads and I don’t think that public policy can reliably separate the two. True, a world of rootless cosmopolitans or liberal atomists might be a little lonely and yes the streets would probably be dirtier. But the yearning to identify and sacrifice for the collective is without question the root of much of the worst aspects of humanity.

I promised Alex the last word, so my lips are sealed (for now). But I think the above is a fair representation of both sides of the argument.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: