The unpalatable truth about apples and oranges

This originally appeared on Bogpaper

It’s an unwritten rule that you should never explain a joke. I don’t know whether it applies to blog posts too, but just to be on the safest of safe sides I’m going to explain this one in advance. The point of this post is to bring into the sharpest relief possible the assumption that underlies all political action, in the hope that in seeing it up close in this extraordinarily clear-cut case the reader will go on to see it – and reject it – in every case. 

Operation Yewtree – the massive investigation into allegations of historic child abuse by celebrities – seems likely to be supplemented by a public inquiry into the recent allegations of an “establishment cover-up” of paedophiles operating in the heart of Westminster. This latest scandal has led some to worry that we, as a nation, may be facing a crisis of faith in political authority.

Well, “never let a good crisis go to waste”, as they say. And although statists are the undoubted masters of this sort of thing, there’s no reason us liberals can’t have a go, too. So, how do we get the most out of this ‘teachable moment’?

Well, what would you say to the following hypothetical argument? If the “bad” of a child being molested by an MP is outweighed by the “good” of the work done by that MP, such that when the “bad” is subtracted from the “good” a positive sum is left, then although the child suffers society as a whole profits and, as the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, the MP should be allowed to molest that child as much as he likes.

First and foremost, if this were put forward seriously it would be met with universal disgust – and rightly so. But aside from the ‘gut response’ it would elicit, no one would be taken in by the reasoning behind it. All would recognise that it rests on, to put it plainly, gibberish: the “bad” done to the child cannot be compared to the “good” done to other people – it would be like comparing apples to oranges. Neither can the “bad” of the child and the “good” of the MP’s constituents be aggregated to produce a ‘social’ gain or loss – it would be like taking five apples from four oranges and saying the result is “minus one orange”.

(The belief that such comparisons and aggregations are possible is the foundation of utilitarianism, the political philosophy that has perhaps done more to encourage the growth of government than any other – a fact which might help to explain its abiding popularity. Interestingly, the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, admitted in private correspondence that these operations were indeed impossible.)

Now, the error of reasoning that we can see with crystal clarity in this extreme example is also present, albeit less obviously, in every political decision. Governments, as everyone knows, get everything they have from taxpayers, whether current or future or both. This redistribution (redistribution in the fullest sense) is not limited to money, but includes goods, services, opportunities, people. Governments use what they have come by via compulsion to provide various things that their subjects would not choose to voluntarily produce in a free market via cooperation. The justification for this is the belief that the “bad” caused to those who lose out in the process of redistribution is outweighed by the “good” of those who gain from it.

As we have seen, however, such arguments are invalid. The comparisons, the aggregations, the calculations they depend on cannot be made. There is no unit of utility that would allow us to make any such calculations. In other words, every single act performed by any government rests on nothing more than gibberish.

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4 thoughts on “The unpalatable truth about apples and oranges

    1. The pool of writers dried up. I would guess that upwards of three quarters of posts on there since the start of the year are by me. All completely understandable – hectic schedules, work, family, university stuff. It might pick up – and I’d be very happy if it did – but I doubt it. It’s a shame.

      Anyway, thanks for coming to Strict Liberalism. It’s very nice of you.

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  1. Well said, Rocco. VERY well said. And much as Pareto apparently tried to get around it by saying “as long as no one is made worse off,” the question remains, in whose judgment?

    So to even try to bring that argument, you would have to name some narrow criterion (such as, for instance, “speaking strictly of financial results”), and then you still wouldn’t have proven anything because there are going to be some people who do consider themselves worse off in some way that’s important to them. And they will say, quite rightly, “Oh yeah? Who made YOU the judge of whether I’m ‘not made worse off’?”

    So, yes, good piece.

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