The marginal utility trap

I think the idea of marginal utility of income is misused to inappropriately ignore property rights.

Using the Golden Rule, if you are concerned about someone taking dollars from you to give to those they believe have higher utility, then you should not advocate that it be done to others.

That should be enough to stop this bad idea from becoming policy and corrupting the incentives and feedbacks that happen to produce improving standards of living for everyone.

But it’s also worth knowing how it corrupts those incentives and feedbacks.

What marginal utility a third-party thinks another person has with one extra dollar isn’t nearly as important as what that person does to get the dollar.

If the person does nothing to get the dollar, their incentive to do something of value to earn it is subverted.

On occasion, the person’s dignity overrides and they refuse the handout. The typical response, it’s okay. You don’t understand. You see, I’m educated. Let me explain this to you. We’re not giving you the dollar just for you, Silly. See, you help the economy simply by spending that dollar. So, have at it.

Now dignity and shame are removed from the feedbacks that would typically encourage folks to want to do something in return. Now, good luck even getting a thank you card. Wouldn’t that be interesting? Require recipients of taxpayer money to write thank you cards to their fellow citizens.

I just read an article in Bicycling magazine about mountain bike racer, Heidi Swift’s, experience in a race in Haiti (I’ll post a link when it becomes available). Tired and pushing a bike up a steep road with big boulders as pavement (very tough to negotiate in cycling shoes), the author meets an 11-year-old boy who was eager to push for her. He dutifully sticks by her side until he’s sure she can handle it.

For his efforts he scores a Clif bar, a chocolate bar and some cash. Here’s here final words:

He turns to go, and as he does, he smiles at me again. It’s probably nothing more than a polite thanks for cash, and admittedly I am exhausted, but this smile seems to exist outside the bound of our transaction: proud, approving, satisfied and reliable — just kind of thing that could help a girl get to the top of an unclimbable mountain.

Yes. That’s the dignity and pride of someone who earned his keep by producing value. Many in our society have shamed ‘the transaction’ because they view it as a manifestation of greed. They forget the part where value was created for someone else and pride and dignity were also earned in doing the job well.

Contrast her experience in Haiti with the creep in this Judge Judy video that demonstrates that greed exists outside the bounds of mutually beneficial transactions (thanks to Mike M for the video):

We could use more of the ‘proud, approving, satisfied and reliable’ smile from someone who earns his keep and less of the snickering, entitled, disingenuous, scamming attitude that smart people think are helping the economy by spending other people’s money.

‘…losses encourage prudence.’

As I mentioned at the end of this post, last week’s EconTalk with Nassim Taleb, Skin in the Game, is worth listening to. He describes some history of how having skin in the game is a simple and effective risk management rule and how removing it causes problems.

In ancient Babylonia, architects who built houses that fell down and killed people could themselves be killed. As Taleb explained, ‘that simple rule outperformed any inspector.” And, yet, there were still architects there. Apparently good and/or confident ones.

Here is more of what Taleb had to say about the Golden Rule:

And of course we have the Golden Rule that we see in the Old Testament, which is a positive–up till then it was a negative rule: ‘Don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do to you.’ And then the Golden Rule: ‘Do to others what you want them to do to you’ and so on. Up to then we had a civil rule. What you see behind this is the foundation of moral philosophy, as a foundation of ethics and a foundation of civil society. But in it we saw something much more potent–we saw the foundation of risk management.

I thought this was interesting, too, regarding parenting and letting kids grow up:

The expression in Lebanon, that the first 7 years you play with them (and protect them), the second 7 years you let them get in trouble and the third 7 years you advise them on how they got in trouble.

Liberty is the Golden Rule

Why I’m Libertarian is a new Tumblr blog (via Pretense of Knowledge and EconLog blogs) where folks declare why they are libertarian. Great idea.

Here’s why I’m libertarian: Because I believe in The Golden Rule. I believe that’s the true source of liberty.

Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.

The day we talked about The Golden Rule in church when I was a kid was a clarifying moment. I remember thinking, man, that makes a lot of sense. What a fabulously easy way to test your actions. Would I want others to do that to me? If the answer is no, or even a maybe not, don’t do it.

Lots of libertarians say they are libertarian because of things like ‘limited government’, ‘individual rights’, ‘don’t believe in war’…and so forth.

But, for me the Golden Rule is why all of those things are important.

Update: In another coincidence on this blog, in this week’s episode of EconTalk, Russ Roberts interviews Nassim Taleb about an essay he wrote called, Skin the Game. He also discusses the source of the Golden Rule.

I personally believe that the Golden Rule is a social norm that is responsible for the advances in the standards of living humans have experienced over the last several hundred years. I haven’t finished listening to the EconTalk podcast yet, but I’m hoping Taleb will agree with me.