Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Abortion is not Euvoluntary

Few topics generate as much heat and as little light as abortion. I've found it interesting that it seems to come up relatively infrequently among those libertarians whose company I frequent. Something tells me that there's not a salience problem. Indeed, I imagine that almost every liberty-minded person out there has spent time mulling this thorny issue, wrestling with its complexity, weighing implicit, stochasic agency against predictable regret, noting likely BATNA scenarios. Giving the topic its due, as it were.

So it's particularly interesting for me to see a libertarian heavyweight tangle with arguably one of the most deservedly important living economists in the world. Bryan Caplan engages Richard Thaler.

Apart from Mario Rizzo's ongoing campaign against the camel's nose in the tent, the idea of soft or "libertarian" paternalism flared up again right here on EE with a post I wrote about the British Parliament's efforts to make salacious materials on the Web available to homes on an opt-in basis. Way off down under in the Land of the Kiwi, crazy Canuck Eric Crampton had similar thoughts at Offsetting Behavio[u]r. Professor Thaler emphatically denied the Nudge link on Twitter, even though "choice architecture" and his work was directly referenced by the politicians designing the scheme.

That's the funny thing about ideas. They're a common pool resource. It'd be nice if there were a lifeguard on duty, making sure nobody's running and that the splashing and horseplay is kept to a minimum, but sure as the day is long, that old burrito is bound to catch up with Smalls and he'll crap right in that pool. That's the nature of politics: it encourages, nay, demands that someone take a dump in the ol' swimmin' hole sooner or later. Virginia Political Economy details this mechanism with sufficient clarity and detail that James Buchanan won a Nobel Memorial Prize for it. I don't think he ever used any pool-pooping metaphors though. That undignified nonsense is 100% Sam. Point is, the originator loses control of an idea once ceded to a legislative authority. Perhaps this is obvious to me only because I'm a public choice student, and expecting others to share my esoteric knowledge is excessive. I should temper my expectations.

The conversation continues with Caplan posing a pointed question to Nudge Paternalists: why not nudge expectant parents away from the decision to abort a fetus? Included in the terms is what seems like a reasonable proposal, regardless of your stance on choice architecture: end government subsidies. After all, to get more of something, subsidize it, and I don't think that even the most staunchly pro-choice left liberal actively seeks more abortions, unless perhaps they subscribe to eugenic or NPG philosophies. Which they might. I know such people. Here's how Thaler responds: "what do you think the ban on government money does? Medicaid=poor. yikes!" Bryan follows up here.

I think Thaler's making a claim underpinned by EE conditions! One of the strongest arguments for keeping abortion legal is founded in BATNA considerations: one alternative to safe, legal abortion is dangerous, black market ("back-alley") abortion, which is riskier for the mother. Of course, that's an assumption. Elsewhere, JR has proposed a new logical fallacy: "I proclaim a new rhetological fallacy: the error of assumed opportunity, e.g. pursuit of leisure costs productivity, instead of leisure." It works well here, since the Right assumes that the alternative is childbirth and the Left assumes that the alternative is the medical equivalent of Jesse Pinkman in season 1 with a surgical mask... okay, let's leave the rest of that alone. More sophisticated arguments on both sides acknowledge multiple margins or a continuum, but most of what we hear are simplified platitudes. Hence the "much heat", "little light" above.

As the novelty account based on Dr. Phil lower in the Tweet thread notes, the median price for an abortion is around $470, and I checked about the Medicaid thing. Only 15 states allow Medicaid to help with the out-of-pocket cost of abortions. I can imagine how I would set up the econometric strategy to find out where the substitution margins actually are (it's not an easy specification, in case you were wondering), but something tells me that even carefully conducted empirical studies are unlikely to cause a whole lot of people to change their minds on this particular subject. It's pretty likely that this is based on strong moral considerations, not on dispassionate utilitarian evidence.

Maybe the reason libertarians don't like talking too much about this subject is because of the problem I'm having right now. I can't write a snappy concluding paragraph. I can't even beg you to consider the issue in a new light. You've heard the arguments, you know the positions. I have nothing new to add to the conversation. All I can say from an EE point of view is that in the exchange of services between a pregnant woman and a physician, the potential future human whose life is at stake gets no say in the transaction. That's it. I can make no further positive claims than that. This observation does not imply in any way any sort of policy position one way or the other and principled people can have legitimate disagreement over what to do next. This is a clash of values, not of beliefs. Our deontology here includes consequences, but the actual moral calculus is not ours to solve on your behalf.

Best wishes everyone, and sorry about the poop jokes. I get nervous when I tackle difficult subjects and it sometimes manifests poorly.

Update: another take here from Joe Colucci. I think he makes an excellent point when he notices that the nudge camp wants to quietly alter knife-edge behavior. Abortion is anything but. The decision to abort is fraught with distress, moral panic, and deep consideration. This is another reason why disinterested third parties have a very difficult case to make for interfering.


  1. I don't understand what your argument is supposed to be. Your only positive claim is that "in the exchange of services between a pregnant woman and a physician, the potential future human whose life is at stake gets no say in the transaction. That's it. I can make no further positive claims than that."

    Did anyone ever claim otherwise? And is this obvious fact supposed to have implications about the permissibility of the transaction between a doctor and a pregnant woman? Your title seems to suggest that it does. Apparently the fact that a potential future person doesn't have any say in this transaction implies that it's not euvoluntary. But I don't see why that's supposed to follow at all. Is this supposed to hinge on the transaction involving uncompensated externalities (i.e. to your potential future person)? I doubt it matters that the fetus has no say in the abortion because given the nature of the fetus (as a potential person rather than an actual one) it CANNOT have any say. Even if you were to consult it, you would get no answer.

    Moreover, no fetuses have any say in whether they get born (as opposed to their having a say in whether or not they get aborted). If "not having a say" is the morally relevant feature of this case, both giving birth to a child and aborting a future child are BOTH impermissible. No one asked to be born; no one asked to be aborted. But surely that cannot be your view.

    So what am I misunderstanding?

    1. Good questions.

      "Did anyone ever claim otherwise?"
      No, but it's interesting that people take this minimal claim and use it to build relatively strong policy positions. It's weak analytical scaffolding.

      "is this obvious fact supposed to have implications about the permissibility of the transaction between a doctor and a pregnant woman?"
      No, and that's exactly my point. It doesn't. It can't, yet folks act as if it does. It's a leap too far.

      I perhaps failed to point out yet again that "non-euvoluntary" is not a synonym for "impermissible". Exchanges can be welfare enhancing even if they're not strictly euvoluntary. In this case, it's impossible to judge from the sterile facts.

      The conclusion is that there is no conclusion. Not from first moral principles anyway, and probably not from Kaldor-Hicks reasoning given the severe heterogeneity of discount rates. Or perhaps more accurately, there is a conclusion, but it's not one that can be calculated by anyone but the parties involved. Armchair theorizing is futile.

      Anyway, according to Caplan, the EE condition most likely to be violated is non-regret.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?