In an apparent case of libertarianism run amok, two cognitive scientists and one economist have declared (in effect) that proponents of income redistribution are always and everywhere motivated by exactly the same psychopathic impulses that lead people to scratch other people’s cars, break streetlamps, and engage in other forms of senseless destruction.
That’s not a conclusion; it’s their starting assumption. Then they do an experiment in which some subjects choose to engage in a mild form of income redistribution — and conclude that psychopathic behavior is frighteningly widespread.
Now I too am generally skeptical of the impulse to redistribute other people’s income, but even I concede that redistribution is rarely entirely senseless and pretty much never entirely destructive. In particular, the experimenters consider a case where money has just been redistributed and subjects are given the opportunity to (partly or fully) reverse that redistribution. Those who exercise that opportunity are labeled “destructive”. So apparently, in order to avoid the “destructive” label, you must passively accept any arbitrary redistributions imposed by authority figures without ever feeling any impulse to redistribute in the opposite direction.
In the experiment, each subject is initially awarded 1000 tokens. The paper is so poorly written that it’s hard to be sure, but I think these tokens are ultimately exchangeable for money; it’s mentioned that the average subject earns the equivalent of nine British pounds. One subject is then given the opportunity to destroy some of the other subject’s tokens, thereby returning some funds to the experimenters or to the taxpayers who are funding this experiment.
Rather shockingly (to me) only about 15.5% of the subjects exercised this option; given the presumption of public funding, I’d have hoped for a higher number. The experimenters, however, want to conclude that these 15.5% are the sorts who are likely to key your car.
This stuff is infuriatingly stupid. Even more distressingly, Robin Hanson, who is much much much too smart for this, seems to have fallen for it.
Let’s be clear on this: Destroying claims on wealth (thereby transferring or perhaps returning those claims to someone else) is not the same thing as destroying wealth. The right experiment would invite subjects to destroy not tokens but, say, candy bars. Why do the wrong experiment when you can just as easily do the right one? Maybe because you’re afraid the right experiment won’t yield the results you’re looking for.