Re: Coase's Theorem and Intellectual Property

Robin Hanson (
Wed, 30 Dec 1998 10:37:35 -0800

Peter McCluskey responds to me:
>>I think the key problem is that most "libertarians" don't like simple
>>consequential analyses of legal & political questions, preferring
>>axiomatic analyses instead. If they can get someone to accept
>>a "no coercion" axiom, then given enough time they expect to be able to
>>convince them of the "right" libertarian views on things. If they
>>engage in a consequentialist debate, however, talking about what
>>policies lead to death, poverty, illness, etc., libertarians fear they
>>may have to admit that in some situations the "wrong" policies may lead
>>to better consequences. Or they may be forced to invoke an usual
>>consequence like "reduces liberty".
>>Ideologues of other political views also fear simple consequential
>>analyses. They want to invoke axioms like "everyone has a right to
>>health care" or unusual consequences like "commodification" to avoid
>>possible unpleasant outcomes of simple consequential analysis.
>>I embrace simple consequential analysis as a basis for policy
>>discussions. I accept that it may sometimes favor anti-libertarian
>>views. I also accept that simple consequential analysis may sometimes
>>mislead us either because it neglects unusual consequences or because
>>there really are some axioms we do not want to violate.
> Is this consequential analysis versus axiomatic principle dispute anything
>more than a debate over the granularity at which to apply the analysis?
> Your paper seems to be a clear argument
>against applying consequentialist analysis at the level of "should product
>X be banned?", and instead applying consequentialist analysis to the
>axiom that regulators should not be allowed to ban products. Is this
>any different from what the ideologues you complain of here are doing?

I'm not sure what you mean. Yes, the conclusions of overly narrow consequentialist analyses can be overcome by broader analyses, which consider more actors, factors, or choices, or which look further in time. So one could say that most "axioms" are heuristic summaries indicating that a broader consequential analysis would likely overturn a narrow analysis. "Sure, it looks like intervention helps if you just look at the immediate consequences," one might say, "but it usually hurts once one considers all the distant consequences."

Those who take this view in debates, however, should be prepared to engage in consequential analysis. They should be able to describe those distant consequences, and to show in some detail how their consideration overturns simpler analyses.

Robin Hanson   
RWJF Health Policy Scholar             FAX: 510-643-8614 
140 Warren Hall, UC Berkeley, CA 94720-7360 510-643-1884