by Steven E. Landsburg
The author, an economist and columnist, uses cost-benefit analysis to tackle some thorny social issues, from the polygamy of the title to such varied topics as giving to charity, overpopulation, euthanasia, the global preference for baby boys vs. girls, disaster relief, the benefits of being tall and/or beautiful, the American propensity for self-denial, flaws in the justice system, and outsourcing jobs. Not only does he apply the principle of costs vs. benefits to these issues, he argues that this is the only rational way to approach them, dismissing in most cases such flimsy notions as patriotism or religion or human compassion. (In fact, he would say that cost-benefit analysis is the only compassionate route in the case of, say, taking a comatose woman off a respirator, since that respirator is then freed for someone who will presumably gain more benefit from it). He’s an intelligent writer who argues deftly, and his writing has the cocksure tone of the experienced professor, mixed with the somewhat defensive attitude of one who has heard many counter-arguments and gotten a lot of mail about his opinions before. The crux of his political thought is that if you’re not “footing the bill” (in various ways, not always with actual dollars), what others do is none of your business; this free-market libertarianism allows him to argue that, for instance, companies are doing the right thing by outsourcing jobs, as the jobs in India are just as “valuable” in an economic sense as an American one. That this should not be true to an American is lost on him.
Reading this book, which of course I found much to disagree with about, I was reminded of Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge, which makes a distinction between Humans, who do not always act rationally and have preferences for things that sometimes are not valuable, and Econs, who think everyone always knows what their neighbor is doing and include all available data in their calculations before acting. Landsburg is the consummate Econ – absolutely uncompromising, equating rationality with validity in every case, and nearly pod-like in his refusal to understand why his solutions would not work in the real world of irrational, patriotic, religious, humans, who cry over a picture of one hurt puppy but don’t blink at news reports of human massacres. This leads Landsburg to some bizarre conclusions, such as his argument that the world needs more people or that the world’s oil will not be over-used: since over-population and oil use must, according to Econ-style analysis, be voluntary, it will always serve our needs. (This is, of course, total nonsense; even if there was one person in the world and one can of oil, he could burn all his oil in one day and then be cold for the rest of his life, thus over-using it; and in the real world no one knows what others are doing with their oil use.) Landsburg’s Econ analysis also leads him to appear creepy and off-putting, as when he describes his daughter as a “cost.”
At times he is being jocular, as when he suggests that firefighters should be paid in the loot they save from fires; at other times he seems to be serious when he suggests the President of the USA be paid in land grants across the country, as if anyone becomes president for the big cash salary. All the time, his insistence of every action being a “cost” makes him appear downright obtuse, as when he claims that while a polluter might be costing a swimmer the ability to swim, the swimmer is costing the polluter the chance to dump gunk in the water! He really goes off the rails when he equates conservation with robbing the poor (people today) to give to the super-rich (our grand-children, who will surely be more prosperous than us!) – he seems truly unable to understand that a conservationist is not interested in transferring income but slowing consumption. Finally, although he’s clearly a very smart guy, he cheats on some of his own arguments, as when he claims that a husband who wants to bury his brain-dead wife is “preventing” the woman’s parents from feeding her and thus the parents have the greater claim – but he never classifies the parents as the “preventers,” who are stopping the husband from enjoying his right to bury. He also ignores his own respirator argument from earlier in the book: in feeding the daughter, the parents are selfishly “preventing” others from benefiting from the respirator, but he never mentions this. In short, some of Landburg’s arguments made me consider my assumptions. Some made me want to be in his class so I could ask follow-up questions. Some made me want to punch him in his stupid face. This must be, then, a very successful book: it captivated me and made me think about some things from an angle I’d never considered. I was engaged and enraged, and isn’t that a good thing?