Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal

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God in the Utility Function

I have been trying to figure out why I am moved by Amy Grant’s song by Sarah Hart and Chapin Hartford ”Better than a Hallelujah.” Some of the lyrics are 

God loves a lullaby, in a mother’s tears in the dead of night, better than a Hallelujah sometimes 

God loves the drunkard’s cry, the soldier’s plea not to let him die, better than a Hallelujah sometimes.

We pour out our miseries. God just hears a melody. Beautiful, the mess we are: the honest cries of breaking hearts are better than a Hallelujah. 

In celebrating human life despite all of its suffering, it reminds me of the passage from Richard Dawkins’s book Unweaving the Rainbow that I quoted in my sermon "The Mystery of Consciousness"

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

But I think that there is something more than this in “Better than a Hallelujah.” I see “Better than a Hallelujah”: pointing out how beautiful the good side of human utility functions is. 

The good side of human utility functions is more than beautiful: in the terms of my view in "Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life," the good side of human utility functions is our starting point for building God. I wrote: 

let me do a riff on Anselm by defining God as “the greatest of all things that can come true.”  God is the heaven—or in Mormon terms, the Zion, the ideal society—that we and our descendants can build, and god is a reasonable description of the kind of people who make up that society.   But what does a heavenly society look like?

No doubt our descendants will have a clearer idea of the greatest of all things that can come true than we do, but only if we start moving in that direction based on the good side of human utility functions. 

What is the good side of human utility functions? It is all of our desires that can, in principle, be satisfied without bringing others down—desires the likes of which we could logically wish to come true for all people. It is those desires that “Better than a Hallelujah” points to. 

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It’s My Life; Let Me Live It!

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The parts of political philosophy that make the biggest difference in the world are those that even kids know. When I was a kid, I often heard other kids say

It’s a free country, isn’t it?

What they meant was a distillation of what John Stuart Mill laid out in On LibertyChapter IV, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual” paragraph 7:

 The distinction between the loss of consideration which a person may rightly incur by defect of prudence or of personal dignity, and the reprobation which is due to him for an offence against the rights of others, is not a merely nominal distinction. It makes a vast difference both in our feelings and in our conduct towards him, whether he displeases us in things in which we think we have a right to control him, or in things in which we know that we have not. If he displeases us, we may express our distaste, and we may stand aloof from a person as well as from a thing that displeases us; but we shall not therefore feel called on to make his life uncomfortable. We shall reflect that he already bears, or will bear, the whole penalty of his error; if he spoils his life by mismanagement, we shall not, for that reason, desire to spoil it still further: instead of wishing to punish him, we shall rather endeavour to alleviate his punishment, by showing him how he may avoid or cure the evils his conduct tends to bring upon him. He may be to us an object of pity, perhaps of dislike, but not of anger or resentment; we shall not treat him like an enemy of society: the worst we shall think ourselves justified in doing is leaving him to himself, if we do not interfere benevolently by showing interest or concern for him. It is far otherwise if he has infringed the rules necessary for the protection of his fellow-creatures, individually or collectively. The evil consequences of his acts do not then fall on himself, but on others; and society, as the protector of all its members, must retaliate on him; must inflict pain on him for the express purpose of punishment, and must take care that it be sufficiently severe. In the one case, he is an offender at our bar, and we are called on not only to sit in judgment on him, but, in one shape or another, to execute our own sentence: in the other case, it is not our part to inflict any suffering on him, except what may incidentally follow from our using the same liberty in the regulation of our own affairs, which we allow to him in his.

The only problem with the retort “It’s a free country, isn’t it” is that in some countries the answer is “No, it isn’t.” So it is worth having an alternative slogan that works even when a country is less free than it should be:

It’s my life; let me live it! 

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Noah Smith: Render unto Ceasar

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Rembrandt’s etching “The Tribute Money,” depicting the moment Jesus said “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things which are God’s.”

I am pleased to be able to put up another guest religion post by Noah Smith. I find this post especially interesting because it raises deep issues of individual libertarianism vs. group libertarianism vs. Utilitarianism. 

This is Noah’s 8th guest religion post on supplysideliberal.com. Don’t miss the other seven days’ worth of Noah’s creations!

  1. God and SuperGod 
  2. You Are Already in the Afterlife
  3. Go Ahead and Believe in God
  4. Mom in Hell
  5. Buddha Was Wrong About Desire
  6. Noah Smith: Judaism Needs to Get Off the Shtetl
  7. Why Do Americans Like Jews and Dislike Mormons?

Here is Noah:

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Recently, the radio show This American Life had an episode called “A Not-So-Simple Majority,” about Hasidic Jews is a town called Ramapo, about an hour north of New York. Apparently what happened was that the Hasidic Jews moved in until they were a majority, then threatened to strip funding for public schools unless the local school board didn’t investigate what was being taught – or not taught – in the religious private schools the Hasids were running. Naturally, the school board takeover was accompanied by copious references to Hitler and the Nazis.

Another incident I noticed recently was an incident in which a Hasidic Jew refused to sit next to a woman on a flight – ultra-Orthodox Judaism requires that men view women not in their family as “unclean,” because they might be menstruating – which caused the flight to be delayed. I realized that if this disruption had been caused for other, non-religious reasons – say, because someone refused to sit next to a fat person, or a person of another race – the offenders would likely have been thrown off the plane. (Because the airline is a corporation, this may not sound like a church/state issue, but the airline was no doubt worried about legal issues, which brings in the state. And separation of church from public corporation is important for some of the same kinds of reasons that separation of church and state is.) 

These incidents illustrate the importance of separation of church and state, even in the case of religious minorities. The U.S. and other Western countries have a tendency to enforce separation of church and state more forcefully when the “church” in question is the nationally dominant religion (Christianity). This is a bad policy born of a good impulse – it’s important to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority. But national dominance doesn’t equal local dominance, as the case of Ramapo shows. Another example is the battle over whether to allow Muslim communities to enforce sharia law in Canada.

This is a bad road to walk down. If religious minorities are given special license to violate the separation of church and state, there will be a number of negative consequences. First of all, it will provoke resentment among the religious majority, potentially leading to violent backlash or to the election of right-wing, intolerant politicians.

Second of all, it incentivizes the creation of more and more religious minorities, since these can expect to enjoy special rights and privileges. That in turn would lead to a Balkanized nation, in which religious communities rule everything, and very few people have a stake in civic life – imagine the airline brouhaha described above, but writ large, so that splintered religious communities simply refuse to allow public, cosmopolitan spaces to exist.

Finally, the Western value of equal treatment of individuals under the law is utterly violated if rights are accorded to groups rather than individuals. Affording rights to groups removes the government’s ability to protect individuals from “local bullies.” (In fact, I’ve argued that this is the big mistake modern American libertarianism makes.)

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John Stuart Mill on Other-Regarding Character Flaws (as Distinct from Self-Regarding Character Flaws)

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Image source: Personality and Spirituality blog: “Character flaws: The seven chief features of ego.”

One of the things people forget about John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is that he lays down rules for when society can appropriately apply social pressure against bad behavior as well as when society can appropriately use the apparatus of law to punish people. When what is at issue is the appropriate use of the powerful apparatus of social pressure, John feels it is appropriate to act against a wide range of anti-social acts and character flaws. The following passage from  On LibertyChapter IV, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual” paragraph 6, is an important list of antisocial acts and character flaws. I think we would have a better society if we all took seriously this list of things for which society can appropriately apply “moral reprobation”: 

What I contend for is, that the inconveniences which are strictly inseparable from the unfavourable judgment of others, are the only ones to which a person should ever be subjected for that portion of his conduct and character which concerns his own good, but which does not affect the interests of others in their relations with him. Acts injurious to others require a totally different treatment. Encroachment on their rights; infliction on them of any loss or damage not justified by his own rights; falsehood or duplicity in dealing with them; unfair or ungenerous use of advantages over them; even selfish abstinence from defending them against injury—these are fit objects of moral reprobation, and, in grave cases, of moral retribution and punishment. And not only these acts, but the dispositions which lead to them, are properly immoral, and fit subjects of disapprobation which may rise to abhorrence. Cruelty of disposition; malice and ill-nature; that most anti-social and odious of all passions, envy; dissimulation and insincerity, irascibility on insufficient cause, and resentment disproportioned to the provocation; the love of domineering over others; the desire to engross more than one’s share of advantages (the pleonexia of the Greeks); the pride which derives gratification from the abasement of others; the egotism which thinks self and its concerns more important than everything else, and decides all doubtful questions in its own favour;—these are moral vices, and constitute a bad and odious moral character: unlike the self-regarding faults previously mentioned, which are not properly immoralities, and to whatever pitch they may be carried, do not constitute wickedness. They may be proofs of any amount of folly, or want of personal dignity and self-respect; but they are only a subject of moral reprobation when they involve a breach of duty to others, for whose sake the individual is bound to have care for himself. What are called duties to ourselves are not socially obligatory, unless circumstances render them at the same time duties to others. The term duty to oneself, when it means anything more than prudence, means self-respect or self-development; and for none of these is any one accountable to his fellow creatures, because for none of them is it for the good of mankind that he be held accountable to them.

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"Keep the Riffraff Out!"

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Mormonism is a proselyting religion. Close to 35 years ago, I was one of many Mormon missionaries trying to persuade people in Tokyo to become Mormons. And most of you will one time or another see Mormon missionaries at your door, wherever you are in the world. 

One of the positive features of a proselyting religion that is not always fully appreciated is that newcomers are fully welcome, as long as they make even a minimal attempt to fit in. And if they so choose, it is not hard for them to become full members of the community.

Sometimes, members of the Mormon Church question the virtue of bringing someone into the community who has enough needs that they are likely to require more help from the community than the amount they are able to help others. But the young women and men serving for a year and a half or two as full-time missionaries and higher Mormon Church authorities quickly overrule such sentiments.

I don’t believe in the supernatural any more, so I don’t believe in Mormonism. But I do believe in America. 

I wish America were a proselyting nation, eager to bring newcomers into the fold. I believe it would be a better world if more of the world’s 7 billion people were Americans. There are many people who would be willing converts to being Americans, but we keep them out.  

I have written a lot about immigration policy. For example, see “The Hunger Games is Hardly Our Future: It’s Already Here" and "You Didn’t Build That: America Edition.” But sentiment “Keep the riffraff out!” shows up in other contexts as well. It is an important motivating force behind the lobbying for occupational licensing as well, which I wrote about in "When the Government Says “You May Not Have a Job." And the sentiment “Keep the riffraff out!” is a serious barrier to affordable housing, as it leads many cities impose regulations that severely limit the construction of new housing, as Ryan Avent and Matthew Yglesias talk about in their respective books:

To me, a central ethical principle is that people are people, and all human beings deserve to be treated as human beings. “Keep the riffraff out!” should not be our first impulse in relation to other human beings.  

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John Stuart Mill on the Middle Way Between Criminalization and Acceptance

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In our culture, we have a dangerous tendency to act as if a given pattern of conduct must be either criminalized or fully accepted. There are many things that are so self-destructive that they should not be simply accepted. Yet writing into the law statutes defining victimless crimes and jailing those who commit them has enormous costs. One of the costs is to freedom itself.

Given the difficulties our culture has in seeing clearly a middle way between criminalization and acceptance, in my post "Allison Schrager: The Economic Case for the US to Legalize All Drugs," I argued for leaving narcotics use technically illegal, in a way that is mostly unenforceable, to set down a clear marker that society was not just accepting narcotics use as something OK. Here is what I wrote:

I agree with Allison that we need to legalize the production and sale of drugs in order to take revenue, and therefore power, away from criminal gangs. But I think it is important that we do whatever we can to drive down the usage of dangerous drugs consistent with taking the drug trade out of the hands of criminals:

  • Taxes on dangerous drugs as high as possible without encouraging large-scale smuggling;
  • Age limits on drug purchases as strict as consistent with keeping the drug trade out of the hands of illegal gangs;
  • Free drug treatment, financed by those taxes;
  • Evidence-based public education campaigns against drug use, financed by those taxes;
  • Demonization in the media and in polite company of those who (now legally) sell dangerous drugs;
  • Mandatory, gruesome warnings like those we have for cigarettes;
  • Widespread mandatory drug testing and penalties for use of dangerous drugs—but not for drug possession;
  • Strict penalties for driving under the influence of drugs.

If our culture were better at pursuing the middle path between criminalization and acceptance, the right answer to drugs might be more like what John Stuart Mill describes In On LibertyChapter IV, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual” paragraph 4 and 5:

In the conduct of human beings towards one another, it is necessary that general rules should for the most part be observed, in order that people may know what they have to expect; but in each person’s own concerns, his individual spontaneity is entitled to free exercise. Considerations to aid his judgment, exhortations to strengthen his will, may be offered to him, even obtruded on him, by others; but he himself is the final judge. All errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.

I do not mean that the feelings with which a person is regarded by others, ought not to be in any way affected by his self-regarding qualities or deficiencies. This is neither possible nor desirable. If he is eminent in any of the qualities which conduce to his own good, he is, so far, a proper object of admiration. He is so much the nearer to the ideal perfection of human nature. If he is grossly deficient in those qualities, a sentiment the opposite of admiration will follow. There is a degree of folly, and a degree of what may be called (though the phrase is not unobjectionable) lowness or depravation of taste, which, though it cannot justify doing harm to the person who manifests it, renders him necessarily and properly a subject of distaste, or, in extreme cases, even of contempt: a person could not have the opposite qualities in due strength without entertaining these feelings. Though doing no wrong to any one, a person may so act as to compel us to judge him, and feel to him, as a fool, or as a being of an inferior order: and since this judgment and feeling are a fact which he would prefer to avoid, it is doing him a service to warn him of it beforehand, as of any other disagreeable consequence to which he exposes himself. It would be well, indeed, if this good office were much more freely rendered than the common notions of politeness at present permit, and if one person could honestly point out to another that he thinks him in fault, without being considered unmannerly or presuming. We have a right, also, in various ways, to act upon our unfavourable opinion of any one, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of ours. We are not bound, for example, to seek his society; we have a right to avoid it (though not to parade the avoidance), for we have a right to choose the society most acceptable to us. We have a right, and it may be our duty, to caution others against him, if we think his example or conversation likely to have a pernicious effect on those with whom he associates. We may give others a preference over him in optional good offices, except those which tend to his improvement. In these various modes a person may suffer very severe penalties at the hands of others, for faults which directly concern only himself; but he suffers these penalties only in so far as they are the natural, and, as it were, the spontaneous consequences of the faults themselves, not because they are purposely inflicted on him for the sake of punishment. A person who shows rashness, obstinacy, self-conceit—who cannot live within moderate means—who cannot restrain himself from hurtful indulgences—who pursues animal pleasures at the expense of those of feeling and intellect—must expect to be lowered in the opinion of others, and to have a less share of their favourable sentiments; but of this he has no right to complain, unless he has merited their favour by special excellence in his social relations, and has thus established a title to their good offices, which is not affected by his demerits towards himself.

There is a lot of overlap between John Stuart Mill’s recommendation and mine. I am willing to push somewhat past what he would be comfortable with. But I am  much, much closer to John Stuart Mill’s recommendation than I am to current policy in the US.       

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John Stuart Mill: People Should Be Allowed to Govern Their Own Lives Because They Care More and Know More about Themselves Than Anyone Else Does

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Image source: "Self-knowledge, A Path to Happiness" by Karem-Barrett

Even if the self is an illusion, what we call the self reflects a fundamental fact about the aggregate of all human consciousness: informational links are much thicker within a human being than between human beings. Even a Utilitarian social planner who has no doctrinal attachment to Libertarianism should take advantage of those dense informational links within a human being by allowing each person to make decisions about his or her own life. 

John Stuart Mill makes that case in On LibertyChapter IV, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual” paragraph 4:

But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his own well-being: the interest which any other person, except in cases of strong personal attachment, can have in it, is trifling, compared with that which he himself has; the interest which society has in him individually (except as to his conduct to others) is fractional, and altogether indirect: while, with respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else. The interference of society to overrule his judgment and purposes in what only regards himself, must be grounded on general presumptions; which may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases, by persons no better acquainted with the circumstances of such cases than those are who look at them merely from without. In this department, therefore, of human affairs, Individuality has its proper field of action.

John talks not just about an individual knowing more about his or her own situation but also about how the individual cares more about him or herself than others do. Letting people make decisions about their own lives does a lot to take care of bringing the the strongest preferences into social choice.

But in addition to simply making sure that all strong preferences are well represented in social choice, letting each individual make decisions about his or her own life makes sense also because each person also typically has a knowledge advantage not only with regard to circumstances, but also with regard to his or her own preferences. Without a great deal of tricky inference, one of the most difficult things for someone else to know about me without me telling them, is what I want and how much I want it. One of the most basic jobs of any adult is to carefully figure out what he or she wants. It is difficult for anyone else to do that for the individual, though software designers for websites like Amazon, Netflix, Pandora etc. are trying hard to be able to predict what someone will like.   

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The Book of Uncommon Prayer

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The Book of Uncommon Prayer is a collection of prayers for non-supernaturalists. I plan to keep this updated, and to add a section of shorter mantras.

"The Litany Against Fear" was written by Frank Herbert, the rest by me. The title of each prayer below also serves as a link to the original post that has commentary on each prayer.    

Daily Devotional for the Not-Yet

In this moment, as in all the moments I have, may the image of the God or Gods Who May Be burn brightly in my heart.

Let faith give me a felt assurance that what must be done to bring the Day of Awakening and the Day of Fulfilment closer can be done in a spirit of joy and contentment.

Let the gathering powers of heaven be at my left hand and my right. Let there be many heroes and saints to blaze the trail in front of me. Let the younger generations who will follow discern the truth and wield it to strengthen good and weaken evil. Let the grandeur of the Universe above inspire noble thoughts that lead to noble plans and noble deeds. Let the Earth beneath be a remembrance of the wisdom of our ancestors and of others who have died before us. And may the light within be an ocean of conscious and unconscious being to sustain me and those who are with me through all the trials we must go through. 

In this moment, I am. And I am grateful that I am. May others be, now and for all time.

An Agnostic Prayer for Strength

May I be strong and steadfast, 

calm and collected, 

as I set out to serve 

the God or Gods who may be.  

An Agnostic Invocation

May this gathering uplift our hearts, enlighten our minds, and inspire our endeavors to bring us closer to, and glorify, the God or Gods Who May Be.

  • Gratitude: (We are thankful …)
  • Hopes: (We hope …)
  • Concerns (We are concerned …)
  • Worries (We are worried about …)
  • Thoughts (We are thinking of …)
  • Addition wishes (May …)
  • etc., in no particular order

And may we understand more fully the mystery of the humanity we all share, and act as one family to bring this Earth nearer to Heaven. Amen.

An Agnostic Grace

May the works that we do, sustained by this food, bring us closer to, and glorify, the God or Gods Who May Be.

  • Gratitude: (We are thankful …)
  • Hopes: (We hope …)
  • Concerns (We are concerned …)
  • Worries (We are worried about …)
  • Thoughts (We are thinking of …)
  • Addition wishes (May …)
  • etc., in no particular order

And we remember Jesus Christ, symbol of all that is good in humankind, and thereby clue to the God or Gods Who May Be. Amen.  

The Litany Against Fear (from Frank Herbert’s Dune)

I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.

Only I will remain.

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