Moral issues and economic solutions

Yesterday I had a bit of fun at the expense of the "Right to Dry" movement, mainly because I dislike the manufacture of new morality, and I worry that the invocation of morality leads to a slippery slope. People who want to do something because they believe it is their moral duty to do it do not merely seek the right to do it. Rather, they see the right to do it as a starting point to making other people do it -- by government force if necessary. Some vegans, for example, do not merely seek the right to be vegans. Because they believe their veganism is rooted in morality, they see their own veganism as only a beginning. The right be a vegan leads to demands that vegan meals be made available on airplanes, in government cafeterias, and the ultimate goal of some of these people is prohibition of meat. So naturally, I worry that the "Right to Dry" can lead first to irritating guilt trips, then to demands that others (especially governments and public institutions) avoid using dryers, and quite possibly limitations on the sale or use of gas and electric dryers. Things that seem funny now can have a way of becoming mainstream in a surprisingly short period of time. When I was a kid, people burned leaves; now many communities prohibit leaf blowers, and there are many people who would ban power lawnmowers.

never_enough.jpg Glenn Reynolds linked a piece called "Coase, Clotheslines, and Climate Change" which proposes an economic solution to the members of homeowners associations who seek an exemption from the laws aimed at preventing eyesores like the lovely tie-dyes on the left:

...homeowners associations could "bribe" right to dry advocates not to hang clothes by giving them a piece of the increased values of homes that result from electric dryers, either in the form of cash or carbon credits, or both. (Presumably, cash is the better choice.)

Whew! Everyone walks away a winner, no matter what the happens to the law.

I have no problem with win-win solutions like this, and I found myself intrigued by the Coase Theorem:
The theorem states that when trade in an externality is possible and there are no transaction costs, bargaining will lead to an efficient outcome regardless of the initial allocation of property rights.
Basically, this means that the offended homeowners pay the "Right to Dry" woman not to use a clothesline. Well, for starters, might this invite cries of unfairness by people who don't use clotheslines and don't get paid? I can just hear them, kvetching about how it's not fair.

The other problem is that while some of the Right-to-Dry-ers might accept compensation, what about those who believe that the use of a dryer is inherently immoral? This is what I mean by manufactured morality. Once a new form of morality emerges, the moral issue is often seen as trumping any economic argument.

For example, I think it would have been a great idea for the federal government to have ended slavery by simply compensating every slave owner for the value of each and every slave. Not only would this have been a win win for all concerned, but it would have been far, far cheaper than the huge economic and human costs of fighting the Civil War. If we use the Civil War costs as a reference figure, there would probably have been enough money left to house, feed, and educate every slave until each one had been resettled in a new and comfortable life. The problem with implementing this would have been moral objections on both sides. On one side, slave ownership was deemed a moral right and even a religious right ordained by God, while on the other the practice of slavery was so inherently immoral that the buying of slaves by the government would have been deemed inconscionable. (And there'd have been a national chorus of "That's not fair!" by people justifably upset to see slaveholders being given billions of dollars in public funds as a reward for their immoral behavior.)

Lest anyone think morality does not infect economic arguments nowadays, Lawrence Kudlow recently noted that more money has been spent on Hurricane Katrina than it would have cost to buy every single person living in New Orleans a new home:

The grand total is $127 billion (including tax relief).

That's right: a monstrous $127 billion. Of course, not a single media story has highlighted this gargantuan government-spending figure. But that number came straight from the White House in a fact sheet subtitled, "The Federal Government Is Fulfilling Its Commitment to Help the People of the Gulf Coast Rebuild." Huh?

This is an outrage. The entire GDP of the state of Louisiana is only $141 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. So the cash spent there nearly matches the entire state gross GDP. That's simply unbelievable. And to make matters worse, by all accounts New Orleans ain't even fixed!

You might be asking: Where in the hell did all this money go? Well, the White House fact sheet says $24 billion has been used to build houses and schools, repair damaged infrastructure and provide victims with a place to live. But isn't everyone complaining about the lack of housing?

Perhaps all this money should've been directly deposited in the bank accounts of the 300,000 people living in New Orleans. All divvied up, that $127 billion would come to $425,000 per person! After thanking Uncle Sam for their sudden windfall, residents could head to Southern California and buy homes that are now on sale thanks to the sub-prime mortgage crisis and bid up the sagging house prices in the state.

Again, it could never have happened. Imagine the reaction to such a plan! A national chorus of "That's not fair!" would be heard all over the land.

This all begs the question of what is morality. If you don't believe CO2 is a serious threat to humanity, you're unlikely to ever be persuaded that using an electric dryer is a moral issue. But if you do, you might resent the hell out of people who don't.

As for me, I hate my lawn. No, seriously, I really and truly do. I'm placed in a damned-if-I-do, damned-if-I-don't situation. If I let it grow, I'm seen as evil by the neighbors. If I cut it or pay people to cut it, I'm evil in the eyes of the environmentalists because lawn mowers are responsible for a whopping "5% of the nation's air pollution and a good deal more in metropolitan areas." Now, I don't believe in the inherent evil of this, but the truth is, I'm a lazy son of a bitch who does not want to cut the grass. Not only that, I'm a cheap son of a bitch who doesn't want to pay other people to do it.

Obviously, the solution is to have my neighbors pay me to cut the grass.

But will they do it?

(I might have to threaten to do the morally correct thing, and "restore the native flora"....)

posted by Eric on 09.21.07 at 04:38 PM










Comments

Do like they do in Sun City Arizona and replace your lawn with rocks.

This reminds me of a Car and Driver article where they analyzed a proposed change to the California emissions laws based on the most optimistic (lowest) cost and the most opimistic (highest) reduction in pollution. They figured out that it would be much cheaper to set up one of those laser pollution detectors and stop old clunkers that spew clouds of smoke and give the drivers a brand new Cadillac. 40,000 cars replaced would have produced as much pollution change for far less money.

When confronted with this, the head of CARB said that they weren't just trying to reduce pollution, they were trying to force technology development...

Riiiiight.

Earnest Iconoclast   ·  September 21, 2007 4:59 PM

Get the Home Owners Association to pay for a very tall wooden fence.

Carbon sequestration and ecology and property values all in one.

Especially if the covenant can't be enforced.

M. Simon   ·  September 21, 2007 8:19 PM

Says William;
I'm not so certain that the North would have found it so objectionable to buy the slaves outright. After the Clay Compromise of 1850, according to the Fugitive Slave Law, Southern slave owners could retrieve their property from the North. Very frequently Northern Abolitionists and/or church groups or other organizations would take up collections to buy the freedom of a runaway slave, by paying the owner before the slave was extradited to the South. The Coase Theorum at work. To be certain, there's a great difference between isolated collections and the Federal Government, itself spending millions of dollars. Still, the horror and indignation of the North during the "war" for Kansas, just might have had the popular majority in favor of such an option.

Says Meleva;
Does this mean someone could pay a Pit Bull owner, like you, to buy a dachshund?

Say William AND Meleva;

We both think you're on a roll lately. Keep up the good work!


William and Meleva   ·  September 21, 2007 10:13 PM

Says William;
I'm not so certain that the North would have found it so objectionable to buy the slaves outright. After the Clay Compromise of 1850, according to the Fugitive Slave Law, Southern slave owners could retrieve their property from the North. Very frequently Northern Abolitionists and/or church groups or other organizations would take up collections to buy the freedom of a runaway slave, by paying the owner before the slave was extradited to the South. The Coase Theorum at work. To be certain, there's a great difference between isolated collections and the Federal Government, itself spending millions of dollars. Still, the horror and indignation of the North during the "war" for Kansas, just might have had the popular majority in favor of such an option.

Says Meleva;
Does this mean someone could pay a Pit Bull owner, like you, to buy a dachshund?

Say William AND Meleva;

We both think you're on a roll lately. Keep up the good work!


William and Meleva   ·  September 21, 2007 10:13 PM

Americans have been insisting their personal preferences are moral imperatives since the colonization of Massachusetts.

I find it intriguing that the intellectual descendants of the Puritans are to be found in our universities, laboratories, and hospitals rather than churches. The secular denizens of the educational/medical establishment would consider themselves the antitheses of the Puritans, but that is because they think they really are qualified by their superior morality to bully the rest of us.

Brett   ·  September 22, 2007 9:10 AM

I think you are wrong about the slavery issue. The market value of all of the slaves was greater than the market value of all manufacturing, railroads and banks combined. Where would the US have gotten the money to purchase all of the slaves in order to set them free?

Mike   ·  September 24, 2007 3:51 PM

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