Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Why abortion isn’t murder

A fertility clinic is on fire. In the storage area at the back of the building there’s a portable freezer unit containing 100 live human embryos. In the reception lounge at the front, trapped under a chair, there’s a screaming three-year-old child. You can save one, but as soon as you open the door and let in the oxygen the fire will take the building. Which one do you save?

You see where I’m going here, right? This sort of question is bread and butter for moral philosophers: think of a scenario where the answer is obvious, then extrapolate principles that can be applied to situations where the answer isn’t obvious. Most people choose to save the child. From this it must follow that they don’t value an embryo’s life the same as a child’s, or even at one-hundredth the price.

Try asking a pro-lifer this question and see how they respond. I’ll tell you how they don’t respond, or at least haven’t lately in my many arguments with them since joining Tumblr: they don’t answer “I would save the embryos, of course. It’s very sad about the one child in the reception lounge, but it would be immeasurably sadder to lose all the children in the freezer.” Instead the answer you repeatedly get is “I would probably save the one child, but that’s an emotional response and doesn’t have anything to do with right and wrong.” And you have to prod them to get even that much. Generally they evade the question until you’ve asked it three or four times.

First off, if morality isn’t about emotions, what is it about? Most moral philosophers will tell you that morality isn’t objective, because you can’t get from an “is” statement like (in this instance) “A child is in danger” to a “should” statement like “I should save the child” except by calling in another “should” statement like “One should always protect children”, and if you try and prove that second “should” statement you just go around the circle again, and so on forever. Without rational proofs or empirical backing, all you have to call on is your moral instincts. And here they’re pretty clear.

Pro-lifers, as a rule, seldom get their morality from philosophers, but they are disproportionately likely to pay at least lip service to a certain 1st-century populist rabbi who will be found to have said (following Rabbi Hillel) that morality is an expression of love and consists of doing for other people what you would want for yourself, and obviously love and empathy are both subjective emotional states. But religion doesn’t break the circle; “You should do what God says” is just another “should”.

Personally I think the philosophers are overly pessimistic. A “should” statement can, in fact, be objectively true if it rests on an “I want” statement; if I want functional teeth then I should cut back on sugar, if I want to sleep tonight then I should get off the internet. (To use more technical language, “should” statements may have no truth-value, but they do have utility-value.) Might there be some “should” statement that applies to any possible “I want”?

Well, if we’re really pedantic about what counts as “possible”, then no there won’t be, because for any “should”, someone can always say “I want to do the opposite of that.” But there are some “should”s that at least apply to any plausible “I want”, and one of them is “You should not destroy anything you might need”, and one thing you can count on always needing is other people’s trust. And it just so happens that our moral instincts evolved to allow us to trust one another. I have made a longer, but not necessarily clearer, case for trust-based morality here.

Now if you want to earn people’s trust, you can’t weigh every decision separately according to how much it’ll make them trust you, because then they have to worry that one day your calculations might tell you to harm them. You have to behave in a way that allows them to predict you won’t do that. Your actions must not only be benevolent, but clearly and consistently benevolent. For an individual, that means practising virtues – kindness, fairness, courtesy, charity, patience, and so on. For an institution or a society, it means treating people according to a consistent code of rights. And this is where we can start to buckle down to the abortion problem, because here it seems that one person’s right to life conflicts with another person’s right to bodily autonomy. It’s conflicts like this that send us looking for a deeper principle that can resolve them, and I say that principle is trust.

The pro-life position is that abortion is murder. Murder is the breach of the human right to life, and I do hope I don’t need to explain how that might erode trust between people. Two questions arise here. First, who or what has the right to life, and who or what does not? Where do you draw the boundary? And second, if you have to choose between one person’s right to life and another’s right to bodily autonomy, which one should win? Always life, always bodily autonomy, or sometimes one and sometimes the other?

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Jobs or wages: pick one

It’s getting to that time of year when the Government once again explains to the nation, with tears in their eyes, why they can’t raise the minimum wage to keep up with inflation. And it’s always the same excuse: employers can’t pay a cent more than they already do, so if the wage goes up there will be less jobs. Geez, you guys, you want steady jobs and livable wages? What rabbit do you want us to pull out of our hats next? Affordable education?

Well, they’d better be sure they’re right. Of all the reasons I’ve seen for why so much of the American working class voted for Donald Trump, the most convincing is that they were sick of the established order and Trump was a handy sledgehammer to bash it with, and the reason they were sick of the established order was that it kept telling them they had to choose between wages and jobs. Which doesn’t explain why they turned to the Right instead of the Left, but that’s an issue for another time.

They are sure they’re right, of course. In fact, to the National Party’s way of thinking it’s dangerously over-generous to have a minimum wage at all. It’s basic economics (and middle-level economics as well, come to that). A minimum wage is what economists call a “price distortion”. Here’s the theory. If the government sets a minimum price for any product which is above the natural market price of that product, some buyers can no longer pay for it – that’s what the natural market price is – so people buy less of it, the sellers have to compete to attract customers, and everybody ends up worse than before. Actually, in an economics class, any time the government lifts a finger you can pretty much jump straight to “everybody ends up worse than before”. And of course to economists labour is just another product, sold by the worker and bought by the employer.

There are several questionable assumptions here, but I’m going to focus on one key one, because without it the entire argument collapses. That’s the assumption that the employers are paying as much as they possibly can. This only follows if the workers have just as much power to turn down work as the employers have to set wages. If that’s not true, then the market will shift in the employers’ favour. By economic logic that would be a price distortion, which would reduce the wage below its natural market value.

So how good is that assumption? What indications might we look for? Here’s one. I’ve never gambled on the stock exchange or anywhere else, but you can’t sit through three semesters of finance lectures and not become familiar with the phrase “close of trading”. That basically means 5pm every weekday, local time, after which the stockbrokers all go home and do whatever stockbrokers do when they’re not broking stocks (I wouldn’t know). On Saturdays and Sundays they do no broking at all. Same as everybody else, right?

No, not everybody else. Before the National Government’s bold, exciting new job-creating economic policies forced it to close, the railway-carriage factory near my house was always busy. And I mean always. Didn’t matter what time of night you walked past it, you’d hear motors humming and sparks spitting, and there’d be lights in the windows. Factory workers work nights and weekends if they’re told to. Stockbrokers, despite the quadruple profit they’d get by trading all 168 hours of the week instead of just 40, don’t.

There are several possible explanations for this discrepancy. The one any economist will think of first is that factory work pays much better than stockbroking, with better bonuses and holidays, to encourage people to work nights and weekends. Or perhaps factory work attracts a demographic of people who love darkness and cold and closed shops during their free time, and sunlight and traffic noise when they’re trying to sleep. Or just possibly, and I really think this hypothesis might deserve some consideration, it’s that stockbrokers have more power than factory workers to determine their pay and conditions.

Now if some people have more power to influence the labour market than others, it necessarily follows that the less powerful people will end up getting less benefits than the more powerful people. If that’s the case, then the economic objection to raising the minimum wage is false. There is some slack in the rope. Employers could pay more than they do and still employ just as many people. They don’t because they don’t want to. The workers put up with it or lose their jobs.

In such a case the government would be well-advised to iron out the distortion, because not paying people enough is bad for the economy. Henry Ford (no friend to anything smelling of unions or socialism) paid his employees well and gave them the whole weekend off because he understood that they were also his customers. People who haven’t got much money can’t buy your stuff. Pretty basic principle, I’d have thought. Unlike the free-market apologetics above, I have yet to hear about it in an economics lecture.

The trouble with this is of course the free-rider problem. In an economy with lots of employers, each one can bet that nearly all their customers are other people’s employees, and pay their own ones less than anybody else. The first employer to do this will get big savings in labour costs and minimal loss of revenue. As more and more pile on, the whole system will go down the drain. But no matter how bad it gets, it will always be cheaper for any one person to pay just that little bit less. Rational self-interest won’t save us here.

Government intervention might – if we had a government that could be bothered to stand up to the employers. National obviously can’t, but there’s an election coming up in September. Just putting that out there.