Tuesday, February 26, 2008



I might not agree with all Roy Hattersley concludes from his general proposition about some of J.S. Mill's concepts of liberty being obsolete, but I do very much agree with that proposition.

His points about tobacco smoke and greenhouse gases are sound. Science can change our fundamental understanding of some liberties, even while it unfortunately does not always make immediately clear the appropriate adjustments or remedies.

Mill was an economist, yet generations of economic thought has developed important concepts with which Mill was ignorant.

An important example of this is the concept of externalities. An externality happens when someone exercising an economic right causes damage to the rights of others. The clearest example of this is why we have zoning regulation in cities. If someone were to build a slaughterhouse next door to your Mayfair mansion, the value of your property and the enjoyment you derive from it would disappear immediately.

Only regulation overcomes externalities. Markets, while powerful and vital, can not overcome externalities. Every market-oriented economist recognizes this fact today.

Another example from economics. Modern economists understand the importance of costs and prices reflecting all the inputs consumed in manufacturing anything. Air and water are often supposedly free, but they are not really free in a deeper sense. Indeed, one of the most important ideas for environmental problems is the need to reflect the full cost of resources in prices.

Whatever set of intellectual concepts you may make about society, with the ever-increasing increasing rate of change now underway in economic, social, and political matters - all triggered by now constant technological change - it will before long become at least in part out of date.

This is not an argument for accepting what is clearly unacceptable, torture, illegal imprisonment, assassination - all the horrible things represented today by the United States Torture Gulag Establishment abroad.

But it is an argument for society's coming to grips with the challenges represented by the changing nature of human society.

Developments in genetics, robotics, and computerization will challenge many of our traditional concepts.

A few examples.

Computerization should before long make genuine democracy a real, practical possibility. Should we continue to have the aging 18th century traditions of a legislature and elected representatives?

At the very least, who should decide momentous affairs in future like going to war? Likely as the possibility become a practical reality, legislators deciding such matters will become as obsolete as princes doing so.

A complete brain transplant will be possible in coming decades. The moral and aesthetic and social implications of this are horrendous. How should it be handled?

Custom-made babies, with desired characteristics engineered and other excluded, is on the horizon. How do we deal with this momentous development?