The Curves of Social Cost

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7 Responses

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    As a libertarian, I think curve 2 is closest to reality, but only because it’s impossible to push government power below a certain level. Governments occupy an ecological niche, call it “the gets away with open violence” niche. One of their functions is to keep other institutions, foreign governments, and local proto-governments like the Mafia, from taking that niche away from them.

    So, lower the power of government too far, and while the power of THAT government might be reduced, competition arises, and the sum total of government in a society rebounds. I’m frequently told that, if I don’t like government, I should move to Somalia. But Somalia isn’t at the left side of the curve, it’s near the right, because while any one government in Somalia might not have comprehensive power, might be somewhere near the left end of curve 1, there are a LOT of ‘governments’ in Somalia, and they add up…

    The real issue, as with the Laffer curve, is where we presently are on the curve. Liberals are convinced that, with more powerful government in this country than we’ve ever before experienced, we’re somewhere well down the curve on the left side, and need more government in order to get more liberty. Libertarians that we’re on the right end, and getting steeper fast.

    Partly this conflicting perception is because we define ‘liberty’ differently. Defining “liberty” as including a right to get stuff paid for by other people, and NOT including a right to retain your own stuff if the government wants it, you’re automatically shifted to the right. It’s as though your scale started halfway across the page.

    Oh, and I’d disagree that “All groups want to avoid L3.” You’re leaving out the most important group of all: The people actually running the government. Government power IS their liberty, and they are most assuredly working towards L3, even if they’d deny it.

  2. Shag from Brookline says:

    Brett provides comic relief with his identity of the “real issue, as with the Laffer curve …. ” I view this as a triangulation with a few arcs of a Second Amendment shootout. Just imagine customers lawfully carrying, openly, at a bar discussing “The Constitutionality of Social Cost” and the question arises as to who’s turn it is to buy the next round.

  3. Bruce Boyden says:

    Curve 2 does not strike me as “the progressive position.” (I assume by “progressive” you mean “liberal.”) It’s simply a recognition that there is not much individual liberty in The Lord of the Flies.

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks very much for engaging seriously with my comment.

    So I won’t contradict you a second time — I would indeed say you missed my point. (NB: in the spirit of Jeremy Irons’s character in Reversal of Fortune: just kidding.)

    Just a couple of points:

    (1) The choice of a parabola was illustrative. It could have been some other sort of curve with a maximum — e.g. an inverted catenary, 2π’s worth of a cycloid, or more likely something asymmetrical, such as a distribution exhibiting positive or negative skewness.

    (2) If you want to talk about points of intersection, though, the parameters of the curves involved do become quite crucial. E.g., you’ve not only drawn Curve 2 as symmetrical, but you have its maximum at (.5, .5); meantime, Curve 1 has a slope of -1. If Curve 2’s maximum were at a lower level of liberty, or if the curve were asymmetrical, or if Curve 1 had a different slope or intercepts, you’d get very different heuristic results.

    (3) To get back to what was my point: as anticipated, you’re using these figures metaphorically. That’s fine, but it should be clear from (1) and (2), as well as from the various qualifications you rightly include in your post, how many assumptions there are built into doing so, and how shaky are the deductions one can make from the picture. I also agree that it would be difficult — and rather silly — to try to come up with specific equations. So despite the outward appearance of mathematical precision, the actual arguments remain more poetic, albeit in a nerdy sort of way. The question remains what benefit the introduction of this pseudo-precision brings to the discussion. Even your conclusions near the end of the post (where you discuss the intersections) probably could have been reached, in substance, without the mathematical analogies.

    I don’t mean to make a big deal about using diagrams like this in a blog post, where they’re framed as speculative, metaphorical and imprecise. BTW, personally I share a tendency to think all too often in terms of metaphors from math or natural science. But I recognize that such metaphors are rarely illuminating to others, and even more rarely are the appropriate medium of discourse for public debate. Borrowing the authority of quantitative vocabulary and disciplines (costs and other technical concepts from economics, e.g.) by importing that vocabulary into a court’s Constitutional analysis makes me far more uneasy — be several orders of magnitude, let’s say .

  5. BL1Y says:

    Curve 2 represents the libertarian point of view. You’d be hard pressed to find a libertarian who does not think we need certain government institutions, such as a defensive military, a criminal justice system, traffic regulations, some food and health regulations, public primary education, etc.

    Curve 1 actually represents the anarchist point of view.

  6. I originally put this comment up at, but I’ll add it here too:

    I mostly agree with what you’ve written, and it gets at what I think is one of the serious problems with mainstream libertarian thought: there’s an unnatural conflation of “liberty” and “lack of government involvement.” I tend to agree with curve 2 (and so do most people, at least implicitly): there is some amount of government that is necessary in order to optimize liberty.

    There are two criticisms I’d make:

    1. Most liberals/progressives wouldn’t aim for L2 because they (generally) don’t engage in the kind of value-exclusivity that libertarians do. That is, liberty isn’t the only relevant standard. It might be worth it to sacrifice some liberty in the name of social justice, for instance.

    2. This passage is incorrect: “What Curve 3 captures is that there will always be some government, and always some liberty. As more government is added, the rate at which liberty exists decreases. Thus, the optimal amount of liberty on this curve is achieved through less government. But, you need *some* government to protect this liberty. This view, presupposes, that government is not viewed as a good unto itself, but merely a utilitarian means in order to obtain liberty.”

    That’s actually not captured by curve 3. It doesn’t tell you that some government is necessary to protect liberty (since on that curve less government always equals more liberty) it just tells you that for some unrelated reason, it’s impossible to completely get rid of government. Someone looking only to maximize liberty who buys into curve 3 wouldn’t say “this level of government is good” they would say “government will always exist, but we should do everything we can to weaken it as much as possible.”

    That said, I’ve never met anyone who bought into either curve 1 or curve 3 *and* thought that liberty is the only thing of value that should be optimized. Basically everyone operates on curve 2, and just disagrees about how far along the line the peak is, or thinks that maximizing liberty isn’t the only relevant factor for determining the amount of government.

  7. Bill Potts says:

    Being of a mechanistical frame of mind, I enjoyed reading your post. I think a graphical representation, for those who can interpret it, is a very good way to visualise a complex situation.

    However, it needs a clear understanding of what the axes represent.
    Individual liberty – we may all be free to buy a Lear jet but do not have the means to do so. Even if we all maximised our opportunities we cannot all earn or inherit sufficient wealth. There’s simply not enough of it.

    So is this axis “average” Individual liberty? Do we need a third axis of economic means?

    How do we measure power of the state? What values would you assign to Nazi Germany, Stalinist USSR or Idi Amin’s Uganda?

    Secondly, a pedantic point, curve 1 is not an inverse relationship, curve 3 is.
    If A is proportional to B, then A = kB, where k is the constant of proportionality.
    If A is inversely proportional to B, then A is proportional to 1/B, i.e. A = k/B, where k is the constant of proportionality. Plotted on a graph this is a hyperbola (curve 3).

    As A.J. Sutter says for curve 2 “It could have been some other sort of curve with a maximum” so curves 1 & 3 fall into a general class of decay curves, those decreasing from an initial positive value.

    Exponential decay is equally valid. Further the curves are bounded within a space of 100% liberty & 100% state power. So an inverse relationship cannot be true as the curve ‘breaks out’ of this space when state power is very weak.

    Thirdly, have you considered Catastrophe Theory. One can envisage a reversed ‘S’ curve rather like a smoothed figure ‘2’. Here as the power of the state increased there would be a gradual reduction in liberty until the point of inflection was reached when unable to follow the curve back on itself there would be a catastrophic collapse of liberty down to the tail of the figure ‘2’.
    Subsequent relaxation of state power would see only slight increases in liberty until the state became weak enough to allow a similar abrupt transition to a highly liberated situation.

    If we allow a third dimension, as I mentioned above, this gives a sheet, the undulations of which boggle the mind.

    This is a long winded way of agreeing with A.J. Sutter when he says “it would be difficult — and rather silly — to try to come up with specific equations.”

    Until these concepts can be measured and hence become variables, it is pointless trying to fit them to a curve. One could present convincing arguments for almost any curve. After all, social science is not physics.