Maintaining Optimism in the Face of Reality. Occasional observations on the state of the world, society, business and politics. Usually anchored by facts, always augmented by opinion.

The Blogosphere Just Got Smarter  | e-mail post

I was alerted by Powerline to the new blog from Richard Posner and Gary Becker. Becker is a Nobel-winning economist and Posner is a federal judge, and for years was a leader (the leader, arguably) of the law and economics school of jurisprudence at Chicago. These are very powerful minds and the fact that they will be blogging is everyone's good fortune.

I agree with Deacon's comment on Powerline, that their subject this week, preventative war, is too easy for the pair. [Posner's Essay] [Becker's Essay] Posner sums up the economic analysis of preventative war, such as in the case of Iraq:

while the probability of a future attack is always less than one, the expected cost of the future attack-the cost that the attack will impose multiplied by the probability of the attack-may be very high, perhaps because the adversary is growing stronger and so will be able to deliver a heavier blow in the future than he could do today. It may be possible to neutralize his greater strength, but that will require a greater investment in defense. Suppose there is a probability of .5 that the adversary will attack at some future time, when he has completed a military build up, that the attack will, if resisted with only the victim's current strength, inflict a cost on the victim of 100, so that the expected cost of the attack is 50 (100 x .5), but that the expected cost can be reduced to 20 if the victim incurs additional defense costs of 15. Suppose further that at an additional cost of only 5, the victim can by a preventive strike today eliminate all possibility of the future attack. Since 5 is less than 35 (the sum of injury and defensive costs if the future enemy attack is not prevented), the preventive war is cost-justified.
Becker's counterpoint is...well, there is no counterpoint, he basically lays out a similar claim, concluding:
The degree of certainty required before preventive actions are justified has been considerably reduced below what it was in the past because the destructive power of weaponry has enormously increased. Perhaps most worrisome, the power of weapons continues to grow, and to become more easily accessible. Critics of preventive wars and other preventive actions against rogue states and terrorist groups ignore these major changes in weaponry and their availability. Democratic governments have to recognize that they no longer have the luxury of waiting to respond until they are attacked.
I am cautiously optimistic about the blog. The fact that it is highly unlikely that Posner and Becker will spar intellectually with one another is a disappointment, but is of course expected given their shared philosophical beliefs. However, while lively debate between two great minds only improves discourse, Becker and Posner have such crisp minds and extensive thought on the issues of economics in social policy that even if the editorial theme is "yeah, what he said," I suspect we will be treated to regularly flashes of brilliance.

If you're curious for my probability-based rationale for our actions in Iraq, read my "Pragmatic Reason for Invading Iraq," which I would expand upon today, but still reflects my main hypotheses and analysis of the reason for this war.

Further Reading from Posner and Becker

If you are curious to read some of the work from these great minds, I can recommend Posner's The Problem of Jurisprudence, if you enjoy fairly dense reading, and ideally have a working vocabulary in economics, philosophy or the law. Possibly more important, however, is The Economics of Justice, the work that cranked up the law and economics movement in the U.S. when Posner published it back in 1981.

The old saying about seeing farther because one is standing on the shoulders of giants might apply to Posner. His work was heavily influenced by Becker's 1978 The Economic Approach to Human Behavior, in which Becker argues that economics can explain a great deal, from consumer behavior to marriage to altruism. Of more interest is his collection of essays from BusinessWeek: The Economics of Life: From Baseball to Affirmative Action to Immigration, How Real-World Issues Affect Our Everyday Life.

I haven't read it (it came out in 2003), but it sounds interesting: Becker's Social Economics: Market Behavior in a Social Environment. According to Amazon, the book address "many puzzling phenomena, including patterns of drug use, how love affects marriage patterns, neighborhood segregation, the prices of fine art and other collectibles, the social side of trademarks, the rise and fall of fads and fashions, and the distribution of income and status." If there is an entirely rational explanation for fads and fashion, Becker deserves another Nobel prize.

The law and economics discussion reminded me of a book I will recommend for an overview of both the law and economics theory as well as some broader theories of jurisprudence. The book is Yale professor Jules Coleman's Markets, Morals and the Law. I was dumbfounded when I first went to Amazon, as the first listing it produced for the book was out-of-print. Fortunately, it is still in circulation in softcover. When I read Markets almost 15 years ago in a tort theory class, I thought it was outstanding, and it also made clear why Jules Coleman was on course to be one of the preeminent minds in jurisprudence.

As an aside: when I first studied law and economics I thought it was an excellent descriptive theory but felt uncomfortable with it as a normative theory (that is, it was accurate, but I didn't think it was right). I was more of a Kantian with a view of justice that was not reducible to economics. Today, I believe in law and economics as both an effective mental model for description, as well as good guidance in much of law and social policy.
e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  |  | Tuesday, December 07, 2004
And I thought I was the oldest blogger. At least they look older.
Thanks for the tip on Posner and Becker. It's great to see minds like this joining the great unwashed. I wonder if they blog in their pajamas...?
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