Behavioural Economics: A Virginia Political Economy Perspective


Economic Affairs, Volume 36, Issue 3

Abstract: Behavioural economics offers a critique of modern neoclassical economics by providing empirical evidence that the model of rational choice does not accurately describe human decision-making processes. The existence of cognitive biases, what we might term ‘agent failure’, becomes reason to doubt the efficacy of unhampered markets, and is seen by some as a sufficient condition for government intervention. This article offers a critique of this argument from an Austrian and public choice theory comparative institutions perspective. Agent failure arguments are analogous to market failure arguments of the mid-twentieth century and the same kinds of responses made against the latter are applied to the former. Behavioural economics arguments for intervention ignore the cognitive biases of political actors, neglect the comparative perspective that results from such biases, and do not examine the ways in which markets are superior to politics in providing the information and incentives actors need to become aware of their errors and correct them. The existence of imperfectly rational agents, like the existence of imperfect markets, is therefore not a sufficient condition for government intervention into the market.

Why Behavioural Policy Needs Mechanistic Evidence


ECONOMICS &  PHILOSOPHY, Volume 32, Issue 3

Abstract: Proponents of behavioural policies seek to justify them as ‘evidence-based’. Yet they typically fail to show through which mechanisms these policies operate. This paper shows – at the hand of examples from economics and psychology – that without sufficient mechanistic evidence, one often cannot determine whether a given policy in its target environment will be effective, robust, persistent or welfare-improving. Because these properties are important for justification, policies that lack sufficient support from mechanistic evidence should not be called ‘evidence-based’.

Pufendorf on Passions and Sociability



Abstract: Samuel Pufendorf is known for his normative natural law philosophy, and particularly for his theory of sociability. This article concentrates on a topic that has received very little attention – his theory of the motivating character of passions in social life. It will demonstrate that individually and politically governed passions play a central role in Pufendorf’s description of the structure of human societies. I argue that for Pufendorf the norms of sociability are effective in social life because social interaction, guided by political governance, enables people to moderate their antisocial passions and habituate themselves to sociable passions.

The Influence of Patents on Science



Abstract: This paper is a critique of the current US patent system along general consequentialist lines. I present a pro tanto case against it because of its effects on scientific inquiry. The patent system is often thought to be justified (or necessary) because it provides incentives to innovate. I challenge this concern. Economists and legal scholars have spent a good portion of time analyzing particular aspects of the patent system. I here synthesize their work, showing how it amounts to a pro tanto moral case against patents. This is the case even though patents are said to incentivize innovation, its disclosure, and its transfer to interested parties. I explore all of these possibilities, finding them to only weakly (at best) support the institution of patent rights. Juxtaposing this weak case for patents along with various problems that patents cause for science, we find a pro tanto case against our current patent system. To my knowledge, no one has tried to synthesize the various concerns I raise, with particular attention to not only the patent’s system purported ability to incentivize innovation, but also to disclose and transfer technology.

Kant and Classical Liberalism: Friends or Foes?



Abstract: This paper explicates and defends Immanuel Kant’s claims that respect for individual freedom justifies taxation to support the poor only to the extent that individuals receiving assistance are brought up to the level of subsistence and nothing more. I show that the promotion of individual autonomy lies at the center of Kant’s moral theory and that his political philosophy aims to establish and secure the external conditions that make individual freedom possible. Although Kant argues that one way of securing these external conditions legitimately is through coercion, he also claims that coercion is justified only in the limited cases where it is used to hinder hindrances to freedom.

Elbow Room for Self-Defense


SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY AND POLICY, Volume 32, Issue 2, pp. 18-39

Abstract: This essay contrasts two approaches to permissible self-defensive killing. The first is the forfeiture approach; the second is the elbow room for self-defense approach. The forfeiture approach comes in many versions — not all of which make prominent use of the word “forfeiture.” However, all versions presume that the permissibility of X killing Y (when X must kill Y in order to prevent herself from being unjustly killed) depends entirely on there being some feature of Y in virtue of which Y has become liable to be killed, that is, in virtue of which Y has forfeited or lost or been stripped of his right not to be killed. Different versions of the forfeiture approach advance different claims about what feature of Y will render Y liable to being killed by X. I criticize versions of this approach offered by Thomson, Otsuka, and McMahan and argue that the shared deep error is the presumption that the permissibility of X’s action turns entirely on some feature of Y. In focusing entirely on Y, the forfeiture approach fails to take seriously X’s right of self-defense. In contrast, the elbow room for self-defense approach starts with an explication of a plausible right of self-defense and maintains that a proper explication of Y’s right not to be killed must make moral elbow room from X’s exercise of this right. Within the elbow room approach, Y’s liability to being killed is based upon X’s right of self-defense rather than the permissibility of X’s killing Y being based upon Y’s forfeiture.

Two Concepts of Religious Liberty: The Natural Rights and Moral Autonomy Approaches to the Free Exercise of Religion


Abstract: Due in part to the influence of Michael McConnell, free exercise exemptionism is generally thought to be compatible with, if not dictated by, the founders’ church-state political philosophy. This article rejects that position, arguing instead that America’s constitutional tradition offers two distinct conceptions of religious liberty: the founders’ natural rights free exercise and modern moral autonomy exemptionism. The article aims to distinguish these two approaches by clarifying how they are grounded upon divergent philosophical understandings of human freedom and by explaining how they advance different views of what religious liberty is, how it is threatened, and, accordingly, how it is best protected. The article also attempts to demonstrate how our modern approach expands the protection for religious liberty in some ways but limits it in others.