Does libertarianism apply to animals, too?

Frances Woolley at Worthwhile Canadian initiative:

An average dog might prefer, say, chocolate over dry kibble. Yet an average dog owner has no qualms about ignoring the dog’s preferences and feeding the dog kibble over chocolate. Chocolate can kill a dog.

In the same way, an average human might prefer, say, soft drinks over water. Excessive soft drink consumption leads to a variety of health problems, such as increased risk of diabetes. Yet any attempt to encourage people to consume water rather than soft drinks through, for example, soda taxes, or bans on super-size soft drinks, is extremely controversial.

Why is it acceptable to limit animals’ choices, but not humans’?

Any economists who find this inherently daft might want to revisit Singer’s work on the subject from a utilitarian perspective.

  • The difference is obvious no? 

    Humans choose to purchase and consume something so their actions reveal their preferences.

    Pet owners do not have the same information about an animals preferences, and so make risk averse choices that my be different from the unknown preference of the animal in question.

    • Depends on the decision you’re talking about. For many decisions that are relevant to animals they do reveal a preference, given the opportunity.

      I don’t actually see this as a serious argument about whether pets shoud be allowed to make all their own decisions, though. I think it’s more useful as a device to examine the justifications for our paternalistic behaviour. In that sense, I can’t see the lack of preference succeeding: my dog has plenty of preferences for what she eats, where she sleeps, and so on, that I override every day!

      • I see several things here.

        1)  Having an animal is like functioning as a family, you are bound to over-ride actions when they have a negative impact on you that isn’t internalised by the animal.

        2)  You could make the argument of lower cogitative capacity for animals – and then apply that to people as well.  So if people honestly say “we should override peoples decisions because we think we are way smarter than them” they can go ahead – just make sure that people know that is what they are saying 😉

        • I think (2) is most likely here but, as you say, it implies that paternalistic interventions are justified when we believe that the subject is of lower cognitive capacity and might make poor decisions for themselves. Doesn’t that really lead you down the road of eugenics and IQ testing for government policy makers 😛

        • IQ testing for voters I could support.

  • Phil

    Why is it acceptable to limit animals’ choices, but not humans?

    I guess the difference is that we think it’s acceptable because a human is the master of the dog.  The human owns the dog.  The fact that James even posits this question reveals how important he thinks the role of freedom in society is (not much).

    We put dogs on leashes too.  Why is it acceptable to put a dog on a leash and not on a human?   

    • To be fair Phil, I don’t think James is trying to limit our freedoms – he is merely making us face uncomfortable truths.

      Many people demand we treat animals equally to humans, and yet even those same people perform certain actions that they would not with people – instead of ignoring the issue completely it is worthwhile to have to face our beliefs and see if they fit within the economic framework we will normally use when discussing issues.

      If we are railing for a certain outcome among people, what are the assumptions we are making?  And furthermore, given the different actions we perform in regards to animals, in what ways are the assumptions we are following different?

      A good economist faces concepts that makes them, and their readers, uncomfortable.  And James is a very good economist 😉

    • What Matt said. But also, the assumption that the owner of a dog is morally free from any obligation to take the dog’s wishes into account is interesting. How do we determine who is ‘master’ and who is the ‘servant’? If you care for a mentally handicapped person are you the ‘master’? How about a young child? A teenager? The subjects of your sovereign realm? As Matt says, the question of animal rights gives us the opportunity to examine our attitudes towards paternalism and consider the grounds on which we justify limiting freedom.

      • Did you just agree with the comment that “James is a very good economist”.

        That is pretty narcissistic of you – you’ve obviously spent too much time around me 😉

      • DetMackey

        I’d suggest that people don’t ignore the dog’s wishes, but that people are in a strong negotiating position and pay a reservation wage to dogs for their service; kibble being much cheaper than chocolate.

        Dogs might, perhaps, decide to leave home and take their chances at finding a sympathetic child who brings it home to the child’s family, or be picked up by the RSPCA.

        Or they might sulk; withdrawing dog services. After all, how many people know that chocolate is bad for dogs?  It’s something I only recently (last few years) discoverd.  Not by experimentation.

        • That is very true.  In that sense using this example would be akin to treating all citizens as people with a poor negotiating position with government – sounds a bit like stock standard communism 😉

        • DetMackey

          Except that it’s (‘paternalism’) not usually about treating all people that way.  Just some large minorities / small majorities.  The better comparison is slavery.
          Hyperbole aside, I like the example.
          I like some occasions of paternalism.  I like that Pharmac and my doctor essentially make medicine decisions for me as, like the dog, I’ve got no idea what’s best which no amount of information provision or competition is going to fix (more likely, make worse).
          I dislike other occasions.
          That’s the point of this post, I suppose.

  • Wondering now the odds that Frances is just pulling a reductio here. We have awfully good reason to expect that we can make our dog better off by stopping him from eating poison. Paternalists view us as their pets.

    • When paternalists are the educated elite, they undeniably want to help those of us that are not endowed with the same intelligence … I wish they would just say this out load so that everyone could get back to ignoring their more extreme statements 😀

  • dragonfly

    What say we change the title to “Does libertarianism apply to children, too”? Then how would the discussion go?

    • Hopefully the same way 😉

      • Agreed – children, rather than animals, is the usual example of this type of question among economists. Good to see you mixing things up a bit 😉

  • Emma

    The species-ism type argument is that we should treat entities with similar level of sentience etc  (human or non-human) in a consistent manner. Why do (most of us) eat pigs but not dogs? Why don’t we eat really senile old people (aside fomr the fact that they’d be rather sinewy)?

    I think our paternalistic treatment of animals (as pets) is more logically consistent than our treatment of eating animals (in general). We see it as okay to override the preferences of animals for their own good, as well as humans with some sort of mental impairment etc (not referring to the poor unwashed masses here). The reason why we see it as okay to limit animals choices but not most humans is because we sensibly lump them in the same bucket as humans with impaired cognitive capacity. Noone’s complaining that forcing old people to take their blood pressure meds is paternalism limiting their freedoms.  I’m sure the author of the above snippet knows this, and  I’m not sure why the reductio above is very thought provoking. (Aside from the implication that paternalists see their subject as mentally impaired, perhaps).

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Emma. I think there is generally agreement about the cognitive impairment argument but you underplay the importance of your last thought in parentheses. The implication is that paternalistic policies aimed at the general populace follow the same pattern. Do those making policy really think they’re significantly smarter and better informed that all those they’re deciding for and, if so, is that belief justified? 

      Perhaps you think it obvious that it’s true and unjustified but I don’t think that’s a widely held view.

      • Emma

        “Do those making policy really think they’re significantly smarter and better informed that all those they’re deciding for and, if so, is that belief justified?”

        Yep, sure of course this point is definitely open to debate, not a black and white issue as I perhaps suggested 🙂

  • Great discussion! Thanks for the comments. It wasn’t intended to be a reductio ad absurdum. I’m teaching the non-mathematical intermediate micro course next year, and I know it’s going to be really hard to get people to stay awake through the discussion of the fundamental assumptions underlying rat choice theory: transitivity, more is preferred to less, etc. We’ve got a family dog and frequently resort to revealed preference to settle arguments such as “which does the dog like better, chicken or tofu?” So I thought – yes, this is a way of introducing the basic concepts of rational choice that people may be able to get into. 

    The other thing that I wanted to get across to is that, in economics, preferences play a dual role. On the one hand, they’re used to explain/predict people’s choices – knowing that I prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla you can predict that, all else being equal, I’m likely to choose chocolate over vanilla. On the other hand, they have normative content – the economist says “if a person chooses chocolate to vanilla then she’s better off eating chocolate ice cream than vanilla ice cream.” It’s often hard to convey this distinction – but suddenly, if you start talking about a dog’s preferences, it becomes obvious that what the dog chooses and what is good for the dog might be different things. 

    As for the question “why is it acceptable to limit animal’s choices, but not humans?” – it’s summer. Nick Rowe, our #1 blogger, was off canoeing. I wanted to be a little bit provocative just to get the conversation started – though I was thinking of Peter Singer too.

    • Add in Tyler Cowen on animal welfare, Frances. Really nice piece. Basically argues that we must eat meat if animals get positive utility from existence, but we should tax it to fund transfers to the pet sector to subsidize more happier animal lives.