Has Greg Mankiw been smoking dak?

Another short post from an anonymous The Hand poster this week – make sure to comment with your views.

I hope that I didn’t give the impression in my last post that Mankiw actually likes philosophy.  If anything, he sounds rather negative.  Economists drawing on philosophy when making policy advice is apparently a “dirty little secret”.  The point seems to be that making a case for a policy will involve value judgements, often on disputed value judgements about distribution. 

Hey, I get it.  Just about any substantive policy would help some people but harm others.  So how does Mankiw propose to avoid the need to call in some philosophy?  His proposed principle is, …. hang on, I had it a minute ago … “[f]irst do no harm”.  Eh?  Didn’t he just say that government policies pretty much always harm someone?

I guess I must be getting the wrong end of the stick.  Perhaps I am failing to distinguish tasty and sweet-smelling type 1 harms from those nasty type 2 harms.  Or something.  He does give us a couple of hints about what it is all supposed to mean.  But I really think we could ask for some more clarity about the normative foundations of his perspective.  You know, like doing a bit of philosophy.

5 replies
  1. TheHandTVHE
    TheHandTVHE says:

    When I was thinking about making posts on TVHE, I imagined that I would be able to begin with a bit of throat-clearing. I didn’t really anticipate James’ impatience or Matt’s hyperactivity. But Matt is threatening to leave me behind, possibly taking interpretations of Mankiw that I wasn’t going to pursue. So perhaps I should at least distinguish (without endorsement and postponing objections, sorry James) some principles that we might use to interpret Mankiw, or maybe discuss for other reasons.

    1. Better safe than sorry. When we face a suitably asymmetric loss function, the safe option (if there is one) is a compelling choice.

    2. The devil you know. When we are in a stable environment, and the effects of change are unpredictable, there is a strong case for sticking with the status quo.

    3. Chesterton’s gate. We should be wary about interfering with benign influences. Such influences may be be involved in emergent phenomena such as markets, evolved traditions or ecosystems. But they might alternatively be plans or designs by people who know more than us.

    4. Don’t let it be your fault. It’s better to allow a bad thing to happen without your intervention, than it is to actively do something bad yourself.

    Mankiw wants to challenge utilitarianism and also to criticise some specific policies, the Affordable Care Act and minimum wages. Unfortunately, none of them are very well suited to both jobs. It seems to me that only prinicple 4 is a direct challenge to utilitarianism. Each of the first three might conceivably be used in a debate about the two policies, but it’s a bit of a stretch for the first two. The third is probably the most relevant. OTOH (I think) Matt is particularly interested in the first two of these principles.

  2. Blair
    Blair says:

    Public sanitation? First do no harm! Ha!

    One of the many ironies of this was that Mankiw was Bush’s adviser during the huge expansion of prescription benefits (aka statin subsidies) in 2003, paid for by … er … big tax cuts for the rich.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] the harm principle starts to get tricky! [Note:  In the comments to the recent Hand posts (here, here) there has been further discussion of […]

Comments are closed.