A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Easy Divorce

The divorce industry?
In my previous post, I offered this little syllogism:

1.    The granting of enhanced administrative powers should generally be avoided.
2.    Activist government requires (almost by definition) enhanced administrative powers.
3.    Therefore, activist government should generally be avoided.

 I then outlined some rough and ready criteria for assessing whether activist government was appropriate or legitimate. There were five criteria, the violation of any one of which would, at least prima facie, be sufficient to invalidate legislation on republican grounds. The first two of these criteria are perhaps the most important, and yet they are probably the ones most often violated:

1.    Is there a problem, and can it plausibly be solved? (The second part of the question is intended to eliminate administrative wild goose chases, such as “the war on drugs”, “the war on terror” and “the war on poverty”. The first part of the question is meant to draw attention to the fact that something is not necessarily a problem just because an activist or an entrepreneurial politician says it is.)

2.    Is government the appropriate or best-placed agency to solve the problem? Or alternatively: Is there a robust and exclusive rational connection between the nature of government as such and the nature of the problem?

Conveniently, as I was writing that, a new provincial law came into effect in Ontario that illustrates my point. The law requires that couples who want a divorce must first attend an information session on alternatives to the standard legal methods of obtaining one. According to Chris Bentley, Ontario’s Attorney-General, “going to court and having a court battle in family proceedings can be enormously costly, take a lot of time and probably most significantly be very emotionally damaging to children and to the two individuals.”

No doubt his assertion is correct. For our purposes, we can take Mr. Bentley’s assertion as his statement of the problem for which he feels his legislation is the solution. So according to my criterion, our first step must be to ask, “Is there really a problem?” According to Mr. Bentley, the problem is one of expense for litigants, as well as emotional turmoil for them and their children.

Divorce horror stories abound. And yet, from what I can tell (admittedly not having been divorced myself), often much of the extra turmoil and expense associated with messy divorces can be attributed to the adult principals in the affair not behaving much like adults. Lawyers are expensive. One doesn’t need a government-mandated information session to figure that out. And it gets more expensive the more one chooses to make the process more difficult than it needs to be. Most of the people entering the process know all this, at least on some level. Any additional pain and expense they undergo is largely of their own making. The causes are natural human selfishness and pettiness, with an admixture of anger, resentment, betrayal, and desire for vengeance. These are natural human feelings that can overcome rational thought and make one undergo a litigation process no rational person would ever want to enter. But, again, I stress that the problem here is not ignorance of the fact that divorce is expensive and stressful. If anything, a forced information session might simply add another level of complication and humiliation to the process. This is especially true for those couples (and they do exist) who are rational, and who would otherwise manage to effect a clean break. As for stress on children, not every couple who divorces even has children. I don’t have statistics on this, but I’ll bet the proportion of divorcing couples who are childless is quite significant.

In short, if there is a problem here, it is mostly of a self-imposed and/or private nature. I don’t see an interest here that government must protect, at least where no children are involved. I see no economic externality which government must correct, and if harm is occurring, it is mostly self-harm. As such, it is not obviously a problem for which government interference is a desirable or effective solution.

On the other hand, it might be argued that the purpose of the government-mandated information sessions is to educate couples on the options for alternative and less painful methods of separating. They simply may not know that there are other options besides the traditional and expensive legal route. Again, I would reply that this might be the case. These people may profit from the information the sessions provide. But should they not be responsible for seeking this information out themselves? Why is it my and your duty to provide them with this? If they desire a cheaper and less painful divorce, they thereby have an interest and an incentive to seek it out themselves. If the horse is thirsty, it will seek out water and it will drink it. And if the horse isn't thirsty, although you can lead it to water... well, you know how the rest goes.

Besides the fact that the parties themselves should be responsible for making their own divorces less painful, there are at least two other reasons why the government should not be involving itself in this area. First, there are presumably professionals that specialize in alternative dispute resolution. They are the ones that would profit from people seeking divorce alternatives. Don’t they therefore have some economic incentive to educate the public, through advertising, just like any other business? Why must the government be responsible for bringing business to them? This legislation in effect subsidizes their industry. In fact, it is precisely this subsidy that leads me to suspect a certain degree of rent-seeking behind this legislation, a suspicion by no means allayed by the suddenness and lack of discussion surrounding its implementation.

Second, even if you believe there is a role here for government intervention, cannot the goal of public information be just as well-served by posting information on a website or sending a pamphlet to people who file for divorce, rather than forcing them to attend information sessions as if they were outpatient sex offenders or congenital morons?

This program will cost money: “The program is directed specifically towards saving time and legal fees for couples hoping to get divorced, he [Bentley] said – although he hasn't been able to quantify those savings yet…. The attorney general's office will spend an extra $5.3-million a year making the program mandatory at all courts, bringing the total cost of the initiative to $8-million a year.”

In other words, since it costs people money to get a divorce, this legislation spends taxpayer money to help them save money. Again, at the end of the day we’re talking about a subsidy, this time to divorce seekers in addition to divorce counsellors. In reality, it’s probably not a very wise or effective subsidy, since there are cheaper ways of providing the same service.

Let’s say that information pamphlets would cost 50 cents each to print (it’s probably a lot less). Since there are around 13 million people in Ontario, the $8 million that will be spent under the new legislation could instead ensure that every man, woman, and child in Ontario receives a pamphlet informing them about alternative dispute resolution. There would even be spare pamphlets left over in case you lose yours. A mass mailing could be done just once, rather than spending $8 million year after year. Heck, we could save some trees by having the pamphlet available as a downloadable pdf. And I suspect that the pamphlets would be just as (in)effective as the information sessions, but without the paternalism and hassle involved in the latter.

Some readers might not be impressed with these savings. After all, they might say that $8 million is a tiny fraction of Ontario’s overall budget, nothing to be concerned about. This is a common and fallacious line of argument, and it frankly drives me crazy when I hear it. By this logic, we could increase spending indefinitely, so long as each increment is a so-called “tiny fraction” of the budget. Eight million here, eight million there… At some point the budget will swell so large, that the $8 million becomes a tinier and tinier fraction of the whole, until one day we’re surprised to find ourselves bankrupt.

It should be added that some divorcing couples have good reasons for going the traditional legal route. Alternative options might not work for everyone. Forcing these people to go through this process seems, again, a needless and humiliating complication forced on them by a well-meaning but paternalistic government.

And we might reasonably question how “well-meaning” the measure really is. When I see measures like this that have so little justification, methinks I again smell the telltale stench of rent-seeking. As I demonstrated in my previous post, Cicero can be helpful in these situations. We should ask ourselves the same question he advised asking in his speech Pro Roscio, “Cui bono?” (“Who profits?). Put into current English, Cicero would say “Follow the money”. We’ve already noted that the legislation effectively involves subsidies to two different parties. One subsidy goes to couples seeking divorce; they are provided with information (at taxpayers’ expense) on how to cut down on their legal costs. Another subsidy goes to the alternative dispute resolution industry, which now has the government working in sales and marketing on its behalf. In this instance government is playing the role of carnival barker, but one that has the power to force you to see the bearded lady or the two-headed calf.

Here’s a better analogy: It would be as if the government forced potential car buyers to sit through a commercial for General Motors before they were allowed to buy a car. The commercial will, of course, tell them how wonderful General Motors cars are, along with how expensive and liable to breakdown the competitors’ cars are. The question is, will such tactics be effective? Some may be convinced to buy a GM car (and of those, some would have bought a GM car in any case, without the commercial). Others may be resentful at being forced to sit through the commercial and will refuse to purchase a GM car, on principle.

Is it asking too much to expect people in the market for a car or a divorce to seek out what they think is the best deal? Is it wise or desirable for the government to play consumer advocate? It is especially undesirable when the government clearly advocates for a specific brand or product, as the result of a process of rent-seeking by interested parties.

If there has been rent-seeking, I doubt very much it is coming from citizens seeking divorce. If there were a significant groundswell of average citizens who were sincerely asking for cheap and painless divorces, we probably would have heard more about it. This legislation was brought into force so quietly that it is more likely the result of lobbying by a less legitimate and more organized interest: the dispute resolution industry. Simply Google the terms “Ontario”, “alternative”, and “divorce”, and you will see that such an industry exists.

Finally, there might be a moral hazard argument here, although it would be a counterintuitive one. Let us assume that, speaking generally, divorce is a bad thing. By this I mean that we would rather that our society had fewer of them than more. We would prefer it if marriages were generally happy and divorces unnecessary. We take it as given that divorces involve emotional pain. As it stands, they also involve substantial financial expense. Let us further assume that some subset of couples are currently unhappy, but that under the right circumstances they could avoid divorce and remain married. Not all couples who are unhappy are destined to be unhappy, and not all couples who divorce need to divorce. In other words, there are currently unhappy couples who are faced with the choice of (i) working things out with each other and struggling towards a married modus vivendi with each other, or (ii) getting a divorce. These are couples who could go either way. Some will choose (i) and some will choose (ii). Now, what will happen if the government facilitates cheaper and less painful divorces? I predict that at least some of those couples who would have chosen (i) will now choose (ii). The divorce rate will probably go up, though admittedly not by a lot. More importantly, more divorces will happen that need not to have happened.

Of course, it could be objected that if (ii) is now cheaper and easier, this would undercut the original premise of the argument that divorces, being expensive and painful, are generally to be avoided. After all, if the divorce rate goes up, but people are happier than before, then no harm done, right? The moral hazard is no longer really a hazard, as such.

I suppose this depends on one’s view of marriage. If you believe that marriage is simply a transactional arrangement of convenience whose sole purpose is to provide utilitarian gratification to two parties (a sort of open-ended mutual financial and sexual prostitution contract), then naturally you might advocate that dissolving the contract when it is no longer of benefit to the parties should be made as easy as possible. Those who think there is something more to marriage than this might be uncomfortable with the idea that marriage should be too easily terminable. For the latter, easy divorce is a moral hazard and makes bad policy.

Whether you believe divorce should be made easy or difficult, one might still have reasonable doubts about the idea of being forced to subsidize what is essentially a private interest, and one can reasonably balk at the idea of government playing an activist role in such an interest.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cicero on Rent-Seeking

Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106 - 43 BC
In 63 BC a Roman tribune of the people named Publius Servilius Rullus proposed an agrarian law to redistribute land. Agrarian laws were not new. The tribune Tiberius Gracchus attempted such a redistribution in 133 BC, and his brother Gaius tried again in 123 BC.

It should be noted at the outset, that agrarian laws did not propose taking privately-owned land away from current owners and redistributing it. Rather, the idea was to take some or all of the ager publicus, the public land. These were lands belonging to the Roman state, usually acquired through conquest. There was often resistance to agrarian measures from the nobility, as many rich Romans had acquired the use of such public lands, whether through corruption or fraud, for very nominal rents. Having possessed such rights to these lands long enough, many of them naturally looked upon themselves as rightful owners, even though at law they were not. Any attempt to redistribute public lands seemed to the nobility like an attempt to dispossess them of their property.

It is hard to have any sympathy with these nobles. They had used the public lands to build up huge agricultural estates (latifundia) worked by armies of slaves, while small farmers who could not compete with them lost their lands and flocked to the city. There were many needy poor crowded into the city of Rome, and preventing something from being done to better their condition seems, well, churlish.

However, redistribution became a political program for ambitious politicians to use for party purposes. There was a so-called “popular” party (the populares) who agitated for better conditions for the poor. They sought to turn mass appeal into electoral success. Opposed to them were the “better sort” (optimates), a senatorial class of wealthy, propertied and powerful citizens who preferred to rely on their traditional auctoritas and their networks of dependent clients. In reality, the leaders of the populares cared little for the poor. They were mostly led by men who could just as easily have sided with the optimates if it weren’t for the fact that they saw opportunities in playing the role of “men of the people”. By way of illustration, the wealthy patrician Julius Caesar was a popularis. And Publius Claudius Pulcher, a member of one of the most illustrious patrician families of Rome, had himself adopted by a plebeian family and changed his name to “Clodius” (reflecting the plebeian pronunciation) so that he could gain election as a tribune of the people. A man as unscrupulous as Clodius could have little real sympathy with the urban mob. The mob was simply a political tool, an alternative route to political success.

(Most of the so-called “left-wing” parties in today’s Western democracies are little different. Having worked in government relations for awhile, I’ve met many of my provincial legislature’s supposed tribunes of the people personally. I can tell you that they are all charlatans, possibly peppered with a smaller number of outright sociopaths. Calling these left-wing politicians “Champagne Socialists” would be giving them too much credit, implying as it does that they actually have a political creed in addition to their merely personal ambitions. To be fair, the right-wing politicians I’ve met are no better; they just haven’t sunk to the same depths of hypocrisy in order to cloak their moral bankruptcy. But I digress.)

It was in this context of a struggle between populares and optimates that Rullus’ agrarian law was introduced. From the populares’ point of view the introduction of the bill was a win-win situation. If it was passed, then they would get their way and gain great popularity with the plebs. On the other hand, if the optimates managed to defeat it, they would in the process have to make themselves look very bad in the eyes of the people. Cicero, who was one of the consuls that year, dared to oppose the bill. He had to walk a tightrope in doing so. He did have some small sympathy for the plight of the poor, but as a novus homo (a “new man” whose ancestors were not nobles and had never held high office) he lacked a powerful familial political base and could not afford to alienate the nobility, upon whom he was dependent for political support. But he also needed the support of the people if he were ever to be able to win another election. For someone less skilled than Cicero at tightrope-walking, to oppose Rullus’ agrarian law might have been political suicide. But Cicero opposed it.

Why did Cicero oppose the bill? In short, because it was dangerously flawed. What’s more important, it was flawed in ways that are instructive to the modern reader who wishes to contemplate various government measures that propose to do good works with other people’s money.

To begin with, Cicero noted the great secrecy surrounding the crafting of the legislation. When Cicero heard that the tribunes were planning an agrarian bill, Cicero, as consul, claimed to have sought to aid them with his political knowledge and experience. After all, he said, doing something to help the poor was a good idea (here Cicero is walking that tightrope, portraying himself as a man of the people). His overtures were rebuffed. Obviously those responsible for the bill did not wish the consul to see what they were up to.

Once the bill was introduced, many flaws became apparent to Cicero. It called for provincial public lands to be sold off, with the proceeds to be put toward purchasing (more expensive) lands in Italy. Colonies of landless poor would then be settled on them. However, the numbers didn’t add up. Cheap land would be sold (probably at a discount) to pay for more expensive lands. And large and profitable latifundia would be broken up into smaller and less profitable peasant holdings. Besides the loss in productivity (to use modern phraseology), the difference in purchase price would have to be made up from the public treasury, thereby likely bankrupting the state.

There were other problems. The sale, purchase, and distribution of the lands was to be entrusted to an elected board of ten men — the decemvirs. However, the arcane and highly unorthodox process for electing the decemvirs provided for in the bill would virtually ensure that none but populares could become decemvirs, Rullus and his cronies among them. In other words, it was a highly partisan piece of legislation. It also stipulated that any candidate for the board of decemvirs had to present himself in person for election. This was engineered to exclude Pompey from standing for election, since he was off campaigning against Mithridates in the East. Pompey was perhaps the only person in Rome at that time powerful enough to stand up to any nefarious designs of the populares.

It was with regard to the decemvirs that Cicero smelled a rat. Several rats in fact. First, the decemvirs were to be given wide discretionary powers. They could buy and sell whatever public lands they liked, to whomever they liked, at whatever price. Heck, they could even sell it to themselves if they wished, since their decisions were final and not subject to veto. It was all a recipe for near-certain corruption and public fraud on a massive scale.

The powers granted them would allow the decemvirs to buy land for a song, either for themselves or their friends. What was worse, Cicero saw the spectre of tyranny looming. Since the decemvirs could distribute lands to whomever they wished, they could strategically settle all their clients in colonies, providing garrisons and bases for future military operations against the state:

“Did you, Rullus, think that we should hand over to you and your engineers of all these schemes the whole of Italy unarmed, that you might strengthen it with garrisons, occupy it with colonies, and hold it bound and fettered by every kind of chain? For where is there any guarantee against your establishing a colony on the Janiculum [a hill just outside Rome, across the Tiber], against your being able to press and beset this city by another? ‘We shall not do that,’ says he. First, I am not so sure of that; secondly, I am afraid; lastly, I will never act so as to leave our chance of safety to depend more upon your kindness than upon our own wisdom.” (Cicero, De Lege Agraria, 1.5.16, Loeb edition)

The wide discretionary powers the bill would give to the ten land commissioners amounted for Cicero to a perfect blueprint for anyone wishing to grab absolute power to do so, which is why Cicero repeatedly referred to the decemvirs as “kings”:

“And from the first article to the last, Romans, I find that the only idea of the tribunes, their only scheme, their only aim in what they [the tribunes] do is that ten kings of the treasury, the revenues, all the provinces and the entire republic, or friendly kingdoms, of free nations — in fact, ten lords of the whole world, should be set up under the pretended name of an agrarian law.” (2.6.15)

Despite the many problems with the bill, it must still have been no easy task for Cicero to sway the people of Rome against it, for many of those people stood to benefit from it, or at least they thought they would benefit from it. He was in effect attempting to stop a bill the purported aim of which was to give relief to the poor. What kind of monster can have anything against helping the poor?

It is this dilemma that has always caught my interest in this speech of Cicero’s on the agrarian law, a speech which in the opinions of many classical scholars is otherwise not among Cicero’s major works. It fascinates me because it represents a problem that is faced by political systems today: many measures are proposed by politicians that are popular, in the sense that they purport to help some group that seems to need help, or purport to be of personal benefit (at least in the short term) to a broad plurality of voters. To oppose such a bill is to court accusations of being in the pockets of plutocrats, or of hating the poor, or of not understanding what is in the interests of the people. It takes political courage to oppose something that appears prima facie morally unassailable.

Sometimes such measures are proposed with the best of intentions by well-meaning politicians. Sometimes, less often, they are proposed with a hidden agenda that is anything but altruistic or aimed at the public good. But even well-intentioned legislation may grant administrative powers that can do damage when wielded by others who are less public-spirited. A few years ago the previous left-leaning mayor of my city, David Miller, demanded that he be given “strong mayor” powers to deal with some of the issues the city was facing. At the time it was a very popular proposal among “progressive” types, but I thought it was a very bad idea. I believed Mr. Miller was not very adept at using the powers he already had, and that little good could come of giving him more. However, putting my personal political bias aside for a moment, I ask supporters of Mr. Miller to imagine that he had been granted those enhanced powers. They would now be wielded by his successor, the right-leaning Rob Ford, who is much-despised by Mr. Miller’s “progressive” fan base. The measure would have thus cut both ways.

I am more comfortable with the general rule of thumb that administrative powers be granted by the people only very grudgingly, and only where they are clearly delineated and limited. They are sometimes necessary, but they are always a necessary evil. From this rule of thumb I am led to a syllogism that must make my “progressive” friends scratch their heads at my retrograde political views:

1.    The granting of enhanced administrative powers should generally be avoided.
2.    Activist government requires (almost by definition) enhanced administrative powers.
3.    Therefore, activist government should generally be avoided.

I use the qualifier “generally” because there will obviously be problems that require some kind of coordinated effort by government to solve. However, I have come to the conclusion that such contingencies are much rarer than many people seem to think. At least, I propose that we use something like the following very general test to determine the necessity and extent of government activism:

1.   Is there a problem, and can it plausibly be solved? (The second part of the question is intended to eliminate administrative wild goose chases, such as “the war on drugs”, “the war on terror” and “the war on poverty”. The first part of the question is meant to draw attention to the fact that something is not necessarily a problem just because an activist or an entrepreneurial politician says it is.)

2.   Is government the appropriate or best-placed agency to solve the problem? Or alternatively: Is there a robust and exclusive rational connection between the nature of government as such and the nature of the problem?

3.   Does the government action proposed as a solution involve minimal impairment of rights?

4.   Are the enhanced administrative powers required by the solution (i) clearly delineated, (ii) accountable, (iii) revocable, and (iv) proportional?

5.   If the enhanced administrative powers necessarily include the exercise of discretion, is such discretion minimized as far as possible?

I could probably add more, but that is a start. At the very least, Cicero would have said that Rullus’ agrarian law violates 3, 4, and 5. Depending on one’s view of the nature and causes of Rome’s urban poverty, it may have violated 1 and 2 as well.

Let us return to the tightrope I referred to earlier. Cicero had to avoid alienating the senatorial nobility. This he accomplished in the very act of opposing Rullus’ bill. However, he also needed to avoid alienating the populus, which was best accomplished by somehow positioning himself as a man of the people. As an extremely wealthy consul and member of the Senate, how was Cicero to pull off this latter task? His strategy was multi-pronged.

First, in pointing out the wide powers granted to the decemvirs under the proposed legislation, Cicero repeatedly deployed the language of kingship. He harped on the fact that the decemvirs would be kings in all but name, and maybe some day in name too:

“Thus I maintain, O Romans, that this admirable and popular agrarian law gives you nothing, but makes a present of everything to certain individuals; it holds lands before the eyes of the Roman people and robs them even of liberty; it increases the wealth of private persons and exhausts the fortunes of the State; lastly, the most disgraceful thing of all, a tribune of the people, a magistrate whom our ancestors intended to be the protector and guardian of liberty, is to set up kings in the republic.”(2.6.15, italics added)

To understand this rhetorical strategy, one must understand the Romans’ almost pathological dread of kingship. To be ruled by kings was alright for the peoples of Asia, who were natural slaves anyway as far as the Romans were concerned. But the Romans had overthrown their kings and founded a republic back in 509 BC. This made them free and therefore superior to other peoples. A Roman’s reaction to the word “king” was similar to — though possibly more visceral than — a modern American’s reaction to words like “communist” or “terrorist”. In short, Cicero was attempting to turn the tables on the tribunes of the people, by portraying them as agents of monarchy and himself as protector of the republic. In his references to kingship he was pressing rhetorical hot buttons.

Second, he acknowledged the poverty that many Romans were faced with, and affirmed a desire to do something about it, but not by the means suggested in Rullus’ bill. He even bestowed some praise on reforming tribunes Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, whose memory was beloved by many of the people, but was anathema to the optimates: “For, to speak frankly, Romans, I do not disapprove of every kind of agrarian law in itself…. I am not one of those consuls who, like the majority, think it a crime to praise the Gracchi, by whose advice, wisdom, and laws I see that many departments of the administration were set in order” (2.5.10). (It should be noted that Cicero was being less than honest here, for elsewhere in his writings he had little good to say about Gracchi.)

Finally, he adopted a line of argument that, in my opinion, does Cicero little credit, for it seems designed to pander to the people’s laziness. He argued that the agrarian law was a bait-and-switch manoeuvre that would take away from the people a privilege that they already enjoyed and replace it with something of lesser value. The people already received a free grain dole. If the agrarian law were passed, they would lose this handout and have to farm for their own grain instead. This seems a very base argument. If the people were disposed to respond favourably to it, then this might say as much about the people’s lack of integrity as it does about Cicero’s.

A more charitable view is that Cicero was speaking to an audience that had been dependent on the grain dole for so long that they wouldn’t know the first thing about farming a plot of land for their sustenance. Many may have been out-of-work artisans rather than farmers. A gift of land might have been of little use to such people. If this were the case, they would probably end up selling their allotments to landowners who could make better use of them. They would then end up back in the city, landless again, with no dole, while their lands wound up in the hands of the rich. This may be why Cicero was arguing that this scheme of the popular party would in reality be no help to the people, but was more likely to make them worse off, while the rich became richer in the bargain.

In the end, Cicero was successful. Thanks to his supreme rhetorical skill, he managed to walk the tightrope, portraying himself as a man of the people and the agrarian bill as a nefarious plot against the liberties and economic well-being of the poor. Cicero was the greatest orator of the age. Our orators are sad rhetorical punies by comparison. We could certainly use a Cicero.

Such quasi-agrarian measures are easy to find today. They are most commonly of three kinds. The first kind involves the proposed sale or privatization of public assets that are a net gain rather than drain on the public treasury. Such assets are often sold off in less than transparent deals without a competitive bidding process to parties who have connections with officials doing the selling, our modern-day Rulluses. As a case study, several years ago the university at which I work sold off a huge tract of its land — an endowment that had originally been granted to it by the taxpayers of Ontario — to a developer who, it turned out, was related to someone on the university’s board of governors. There was no Cicero to speak against it.

The second kind of modern agrarian measure takes the form of some proposal for tax cuts that will “help middle class families” or “create jobs”. Successive such bills make it into law, even though they have done nothing to help middle class families or create jobs. In fact, most of them were never intended to do these things. They were intended to enrich politicians and those who lobby them. Even worse, they are passed in the face of budget deficits, thereby bankrupting future generations who have no voice in the transaction. And again, there is rarely a Cicero to speak against them, because after all, who can be against middle class families or job creation?

The third kind comes in the form of various taxes, tariffs, and subsidies intended to help one economic party, usually at the expense of another. In these cases, government is put in the position of picking winners and losers in the economy, rather then being the representative of all. The “winners” that are picked are usually those who have lobbied hardest and given the most money or in-kind contributions to politicians (i.e. they offered the largest bribes, to call a spade a spade). The “losers” are those who either played by the rules and minded their own business or who failed to lobby hard enough or contribute enough money to those with non-market power.

These are all forms of rent-seeking. In this sense, much of Cicero’s De Lege Agraria can be read as an early contribution to the political economy of rent-seeking. Cicero, it turns out, was a proto-public choice economist, providing insights into non-market decision-making. In fact, the insights offered by Cicero are at the heart of much traditional republican political theory, so perhaps we ought to say that public choice economics is in reality a branch of republicanism. It may be anachronistic to call Cicero a public choice economist, but he was most certainly a republican, one of the greatest who ever lived.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Is Ignorance Really Bliss?

For many centuries it has been believed by the best minds that knowledge of oneself is the key to happiness. Nosce teipsum, “Know thyself”, was the oracle’s advice, while Stoic philosophy required the sage to look inward, to discover one’s secret motivations, so that one could control them in the service of virtue. Even those brave few who contended that we are mostly mysteries to ourselves — Rochefoucauld and Nietzsche come to mind — rather lamented than commended our ignorance. Today, many a psychotherapeutic approach to mental well-being involves some kind of treatment predicated on the notion that the acquisition of self-knowledge will lead to psychological health. Various therapeutic theories differ on what exactly constitutes self-knowledge, whether it lies in confronting repressed memories of traumatic experience, or uncovering repressed desires of a largely sexual nature. But the basic therapeutic structure is usually the same: there is some truth about self that must be discovered, confronted, and worked through in order for psychotherapeutic goals to be achieved. Self-discovery leads to self-knowledge, which leads to well-being.

So, what if it could be demonstrated that self-knowledge was not correlated with such well-being, or worse, was negatively correlated with it? Some psychological research claims to show exactly this negative correlation. One well-known study from back in the 1980s by Shelley Taylor and Jonathon Brown claimed to demonstrate that people tend to have unrealistically positive views of themselves and their abilities, and that this is correlated with greater subjective well-being. In this study the authors make the claim that well-being is linked to positive illusions about the self (Taylor and Brown 1988).

Before proceeding, it should be noted that by “illusion”, Taylor and Brown mean not merely occasional bias or error, but something more enduring: “Error and bias imply short-term mistakes and distortions, respectively, that might be caused by careless oversight or other temporary negligences. Illusion, in contrast, implies a more general, enduring pattern of error, bias, or both that assumes a particular direction or shape” (Taylor and Brown 194).

Contrary to the oracle’s advice of “Know thyself”, the study by Taylor and Brown indicates that the high road to happiness may very well lie in ignorance of self. Indeed, it has even been suggested that “therapists working with depressed people should not stop therapy once patients have reached a balanced, realistic self-concept; perhaps they should continue showing them a way to ‘creatively deceive themselves’” (Avia 49). Conversely, other studies purport to show that subjects who are severely depressed (and thus who presumably experience diminished well-being) have a more realistic estimation of themselves and their abilities (Alloy and Abramson 1979; Frijda 1993:396). On the face of it, these studies constitute a strong objection to the view that self-knowledge contributes to the happiness of an agent.  As a philosopher who cares about truth, I personally find this conclusion disturbing. Can it be refuted?

Well, to begin with, let’s take the clinically depressed person who has an accurate but unflattering sense of self-worth. First, we must ask the extent to which her self-assessment is the result of effects associated with the depression itself. If she cannot get out of bed or live up to her responsibilities because she is suffering from depression, it is not hard to imagine that this would have a negative effect on her self-image. Yes, perhaps her assessment is accurate, but her lack of well-being (i.e. her depression) could not be said to be caused by her self-knowledge; things are more likely the other way around. In other words, it is possible that the cycle begins with depression, which leads to life problems, which leads to a negative (but realistic) view of self. If so, then it is not the case that veridical (true or “truthy”) self-knowledge leads to diminished subjective well-being.

Furthermore, it is plausible to suppose that some veridical self-knowledge is a necessary condition for recovery from the depression; the sufferer must at the very least be able to recognize her own lack of well-being if she is to be motivated to seek out help for her depression. This is unlikely to happen if she is positively deluded about herself. On the other hand, Taylor and Brown might say that if she is positively self-deluded, she is unlikely to be suffering from depression in the first place.

(Is this a tautology? Is it even possible to be positively self-deluded and depressed at the same time? Can someone be depressed but believe that they’re happy? It seems that positive beliefs about oneself, whether veridical or not, are incompatible with depression. And it seems that negative beliefs about oneself, whether veridical or not, are perfectly compatible with depression, which might lead one to suspect that the truth of the belief matters much less to mental well-being than its valence — its positivity or negativity. I imagine Taylor and Brown would concur.)

So far, the discussion has assumed that depression is a subjective state that is the opposite of psychological well-being. When one is depressed, one cannot be happy. And certainly, when one is depressed, one is by definition lacking psychological well-being. However, this may be too narrow a view of well-being. Well-being might better be viewed from the perspective of the person’s life course, rather than occurrently. It has been suggested that in many cases depression, rather than being viewed as a mere pathology representative of unhappiness, can alternatively be viewed as an opportunity for further emotional and spiritual growth, perhaps beyond the limited growth available to the happy but self-deluded, a proverbial “one step back, two steps forward” along a continuum of pathology and health (Martin 150-151).

In other words, at the risk of sounding dismissive of the depressive person’s suffering, depression could be regarded as an opportunity for growth not available to the happily self-deluded. At the very least, assuming that they possess veridical self-knowledge (even if it is negative), the depressed are better placed to see that there is room for improvement, whereas the positively self-deluded are less likely to perceive ways in which they could improve themselves. And the fact is, all of us have room for improvement; personal growth (in whatever sense you wish to give this phrase) is not something with a finish line.

Staying for a moment longer with the theme of supposed insight-related depression, we may also remark that the research on a supposed correlation between negative veridical insight and depression makes use of a group of subjects (the clinically depressed) who presumably have been identified (diagnosed) with clinical depression, which means that we are likely dealing with people who have sought out help at some point for their condition. This means that there is a selection bias at work here, because positively self-deluded people — those who have positive but false views of their unhealthy lives — are unlikely to seek out such help.  Unlikely, that is, unless something occurs that breaks through their positive illusions, a breakthrough that seems akin to the acquisition of some insight or self-knowledge, albeit of the negative variety. This would happen where the happily self-deluded person suddenly has an (involuntary?) insight into the real state of affairs: the curtain is pulled back for an instant, revealing that things are not coming up roses. Such a breakthrough could be seen as a structural failure of that very well-being that was supposed to be the reward of self-delusion. Self-delusion is a fa├žade that can spontaneously crack — hardly a sound basis for lasting psychological well-being.

Positively self-deluded people with unhealthy lives are just as much in need of help as those who have insight into their condition, if for no other reason than that the delusions cannot be relied on in the long term. Since just about all psychotherapeutic treatments that go beyond the mere ingesting of pills are predicated on the patient’s putative acquisition of self-knowledge, and since the positively self-deluded but unhealthy person is in need of help, the positive illusions of self represent a barrier to long term health, not the guarantee of it, contrary to the Taylor-Brown thesis. At the very least, a depressed person must recognize that he is depressed if he hopes to get well, and to stay well.

(I make no claims here to the efficacy of various psychotherapies, nor do I endorse any particular psychotherapeutic model available on the market. My point is merely that the majority of them claim to provide the patient with veridical insight of some kind about themselves, even if the nature of this insight varies from model to model. Furthermore, they claim that it is exactly this insight that lends their models whatever efficacy they may have. In other words, they make a strong link between self-knowledge and well-being.)

Moving away from the realistically depressed, let us examine a little more this other kind of person indicated in the research, the person who has an inaccurate but elevated sense of self-worth, accompanied by a consequent experience of well-being. First, by definition, he is ignorant, lacking self-knowledge. He also supposedly experiences higher subjective well-being. But it is a kind of well-being that is not in his control: positive self-illusions may be fragile if they are not grounded in something objective.

For example, in Taylor and Brown’s study it was found that these subjects tend to make inaccurate probability assessments of chance events (Taylor and Brown 196). They are more likely to believe that the good luck they experience is the result of their own talents, their own doing. This tendency will obviously make them poor gamblers (of course, probabilistically speaking, there are no such things as “good” gamblers, just lucky ones). They will tend to mistakenly believe that they have control over events that are in reality random. This means that such people will also display poor judgment in other things besides casino games. With such illusions, life will often threaten to throw unpleasant surprises at them. If things go well for them and their positive self-illusions are maintained, that is hardly due to a strong link between self-ignorance and well-being. The well-being here can be largely chalked up to chance, and self-ignorance cannot be recommended as an efficacious strategy for achieving it. We can add to this the fact that other people are a source of knowledge about oneself; you may be happily enjoying your positive self-illusions, but there will be other people who will just as happily disabuse you of those illusions. A candid friend or an over-optimistic miscalculation of one’s odds of success in a venture can interfere with one’s pleasant delusions. Of course, people can rationalize and spin new narratives in the face of uncomfortable truths, but there are always limits to such defense mechanisms.

The fact is, in the long run it is difficult to see what advantage is possessed by the deluded but optimistic person who believes that her chances of winning the lottery are very good, over the person who accurately believes her ticket only has a one-in-a–hundred-million chance of winning. The latter may avoid wasting money on losing tickets. And even if she does for whatever reason purchase a ticket, she is less apt to be surprised or disappointed when she loses.

Barring long runs of good luck, it is easy to picture the well-being of the positively self-deluded as being episodic, interspersed with frequent disappointments caused by poor judgment. Of course, at the end of the day their inflated self-worth may yet be left untouched; delusion may conquer reality. But if they only had a more realistic view of themselves and their abilities, they might be able to avoid making so many poor judgments. Furthermore, even if they manage to maintain their positive illusions against all contrary events and evidence, it is difficult to see why we should call these people happy, any more than we would call a well-fed sea slug or a lobotomized but contented zombie happy. If we speak of the “happiness” of the lobotomized, we do so in an attenuated sense; we are more likely to speak of them as unfortunate.

David Jopling, a philosopher who I was lucky enough to have had for a PhD advisor, points out an obvious fact: for most of us, the truth about ourselves matters to us, and it matters because we care about ourselves:

“Truth matters to people, even if it is at the expense of feelings of well-being, self-satisfaction, and social adjustment. People care about who they are, what they are like to others, what matters to them, and where they are going in their lives; and this concern is framed and articulated with respect to the issue of who they really are — not who they wish they were, or who they self-deceptively think they are. Care for self is not always filtered through the veil of soothing positive illusions.” (Jopling 1996:541)

If I am given a choice between really being the kind of person I would like to be, or merely believing (inaccurately) I am that kind of person, the rational choice would be the former. However, if I do not know who I really am (warts and all), I cannot take steps to make my real self match my positive illusions about myself. I am giving up the rational choice for the less rational — and more fragile — one.

Perhaps the final word here ought to be given to William James, who had the following to say about what he called “healthy-mindedness” (which we may equate with positive self-delusion) and “morbid-mindedness” (which we may equate with less positive but more realistic self-knowledge):

“The method of averting one’s attention from evil, and living simply in the light of good is splendid as long as it will work. It will work with many persons; it will work far more generally than most of us are ready to suppose; and within the sphere of its successful operation there is nothing to be said against it as a… solution. But it breaks down impotently as soon as melancholy comes; and even though one be quite free from melancholy one’s self, there is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.” (James 2002:130)

A truth is a truth, whether it be about the world or about oneself. If your happiness is based on denying the truth about yourself, you are making your happiness contingent upon the world’s cooperating with you by not revealing your ignorance. This is not necessarily wise policy, for at least two reasons: First, the world may not cooperate with you. Second, you may be cutting yourself off from opportunities for growth and understanding, things that must be considered valuable in any adequate conception of well-being.


In later work (e.g. 2008), Jopling has argued that many insight-oriented psychotherapies rely on a sort of placebo effect. To the extent that they are effective, such “talking cures” rally the native restorative forces of the mind in much the way drug placebos rally the native restorative forces of the body. On the surface, this would seem to support the Taylor-Brown thesis, at least insofar as it claims that the well-being produced by insight-oriented psychotherapies may bear no relation to the truth of the “insights” they generate. On the other hand, Jopling argues that in addition to producing well-being in a certain number of subjects, the “talking cure” placebo imposes risks on the subject too, risks associated with self-misinterpretation and self-delusion. Again, Jopling still contends that the truth about oneself matters. But he casts doubt on the notion that insight-oriented psychotherapies produce true self-knowledge, and he also casts doubt on the notion that it is the self-knowledge per se, whether true or not, that is important in the therapeutic process.

Works Cited

ALLOY, L. B. and L. Y. ABRAMSON. “Judgment of Contingency in Depressed and Nondepressed Subjects: Sadder but Wiser?” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 108 (1979), 441-485.

AVIA, Maria D. “Personality and Positive Emotions,” European Journal of Personality 11 (1997), 33-56.

FRIJDA, Nico. “Moods, Emotion Episodes, and Emotions,” in M. Lewis and J. M. Haviland (eds.), Handbook of Emotions. New York: Guilford Press, 1993.

JAMES, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. London: Routledge, 2002.

JOPLING, David A. “‘Take away the life-lie…’: Positive Illusions and Creative Self-Deception,” Philosophical Psychology 9 (1996), 525-544.

—— Talking Cures and Placebo Effects. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

MARTIN, Mike W. From Morality to Mental Health: Virtue and Vice in a Therapeutic Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

TAYLOR, Shelley E. and Jonathon D. BROWN. “Illusion and Well-Being: A Social Psychological Perspective on Mental Health,” Psychological Bulletin 103 (1988), 193-210.