30 June 2011

operator== must be defined

EconLog | David Henderson | Is Equality Before the Law Always Good?

In an article today in The Freeman on-line, economist Steven Horwitz makes a case for allowing same-sex marriage. In doing so he makes the following statement:
Government must treat all its citizens equally, and nothing paid for with tax dollars may involve invidious discrimination.
I hasten to point out that I agree with his bottom line about allowing same-sex marriage. What I'm not sure of is his general principle quoted above. What one person regards as "invidious discrimination," another will regard as justified discrimination.

Consider an example that my co-blogger Bryan Caplan and I have argued about and that he has convinced me on: means testing for government benefits. [...]

Means testing means explicitly violating equality before the law. Equality before the law is not as straightforward a principle as Steve seems to think.
(1) "Discrimination" is a fancy way of saying a decision is being made. What people complain about when they say they object to discrimination is a decision being made based on dimensions they think are inappropriate. What we argue about when we argue about discrimination is actually what dimensions we think are legitimate to include in a decision making process.  We can change what dimensions are used, but it is impossible to eliminate the decision all together.

(2) "Equality before the law" requires us to define what equality is. This is not always straightforward, as anyone who has done enough programming could tell you.

Say you're writing an equality operator for vehicles. You could decide two vehicles are equal if
  • they have an identical VIN
  • they have the make, model, year, trim, and color
  • they have the same make, model, year, and trim
  • they have the same make, model, and year
  • ...
  • they are in the same class of vehicle (eg trucks under 3 ton GSW with engines less than 4 liters)
  • ...
  • they have the same make, model and year, and are driven the same distance each year in roughly the same ways by the same types of people
  • ...
None of those is the "right" or "wrong" way to define vehicle equality, so it's wrong to make a blanket assertion that treating a 2008 Honda CR-V SE differently than a 2008 Honda CR-V EX is unjust discrimination. Similar the entire argument about whether it is unjust discrimination to treat two retirees with different incomes differently is useless unless you've defined an equality operator for retiree finances.


  1. It's pretty clear from Steve's article that when he was talking about equality under the law, it was in the context of rather permanent attributes -- e.g., race and gender -- that means testing doesn't touch.

  2. Also, Steve posted a comment to that article addressing the means testing issue that Henderson raised. Says Steve:

    "Yeah, the world of the second best is a very messy place.

    I will have to look at the exchange you had with Bryan, which I only vaguely recall. My gut reaction is that a debate over means testing invokes two different notions of what the relevant criterion is by which people are thought to be equal: is it simply having reached age X or is it their need for the program in question? Both could be relevant depending on how the program is intended. In other words, I might be convinced either way on that one and I'm not sure that either direction is necessarily in violation of equality before the law. That said, Bryan has a way of persuading people, so let me read it. :)

    I think in many other cases, where the reason for inclusion or exclusion is far less relevant to what the policy/benefit is trying to accomplish, it's easier to articulate what makes it discriminatory."

  3. I'm not trying to criticize Horwitz. My point (not very clearly made) was that making assertions like "government must treat all its citizens equally" or asking questions like "Is Equality Before the Law Always Good?" are useless unless you can articulate what "equals" means.

    Maybe Horwitz did a good job of that in this particular context. Maybe Henderson does in the posts he links to to. But since "equals" means different things in different contexts, it's not much use making claims about whether treating people equally "always."

  4. Fair enough. (And extra points for the programming analogy.)