The Core Goods Model

by Benjamin Studebaker

There is a wide spectrum of disagreement on political and ethical questions. It is often wondered how it is possible for so many people to have so very widely divergent conceptions of what it means to do good politically. In an attempt to answer this and similar questions, I have developed a mathematical model to roughly estimate the ethical rightness or wrongness of a given government policy that illuminates where these differences come from. Today, I would like to share it. It’s called “The Core Goods Model”.

The Core Goods Model proposes that there are six core goods–six things that, in general, everyone in society would like to maximise. These include:

  • Liberty–the freedom for people to do whatever it is they desire to do without state interference
  • Equality–a distribution of resources that rewards citizens equally for equal contributions
  • Knowledge–the level of education, wisdom, and technological ability of society
  • Health–the longevity and quality of life of the population physically and mentally
  • Security–safety from physical or mental attack, both bodily and in terms of property
  • Pleasure–the amount of raw enjoyment and contentment obtained by the population

It is important to note that this is a model, not a perfect metaphysical representation of absolutely everything which one might consider part of the good. Many of the core goods reinforce one another–a high level of knowledge leads to technological improvements that boost our health and make our lives more pleasurable, for instance. A society in which any one of these core goods were completely absent would also be deeply unpleasant, not just because of the absence of the good in question, but because of the negative impact its absence would have on the other goods. For instance, a society totally without equality would likely see higher crime rates (ergo less security), less access to education (ergo less knowledge), alienation of the poor and reduced purchasing power of the poor (ergo less pleasure), less access to health care and high quality nutrition (ergo less health), and less opportunity for parts of the population to fulfil their desires (ergo less liberty). Removing any one of the six pleasures is catastrophic for the other five.

However, at the same time, the core goods are often in contradiction. For example, Obamacare introduces an individual mandate that people buy health insurance, which is liberty reducing, while at the same time improving equal access to health care, which boosts both equality and health. Indeed the maximisation of any of the core goods at the expense of the rest also proves catastrophic. A society that only cared about equality and nothing else would see the absence of incentive result in a more lethargic population that does not produce up to its potential. There would be no freedom to attempt to compete with other people, reducing liberty, there would be less incentive to put forth effort, reducing the rate at which knowledge would be gained, the bored population would likely turn to unhealthy habits and the quality of services provided by doctors would likely decline, resulting in reduced health, bored people with competitive impulses might turn to crime, reducing security, and pleasure would be reduced directly through lower output of things people enjoy.

This brings us to the first reason we have political disagreement: Problem of Prioritisation.

Imagine if you will that any given policy can be rated on a 10 point scale in both positive and negative directions across all six core goods. So, for instance, let’s say that Obamacare produces -4 Liberty, +6 equality, 0 knowledge, +5 health, 0 security, -3 pleasure. If we were to consider all six goods as equal in value, the net total would be +5, and we would consider Obamacare to be a net positive. However, in practise, people have differing sets of priorities. Let’s imagine that each priority can be rated on a scale from 1 to 10, with a maximum of 30 points available for use (so that one could pick a “true neutral” priority set where all priorities are rated at 5). Let us imagine two policy evaluators, Left Wing Leonard and Right Wing Richard.

Leonard might choose the following priority set: 2 liberty, 8 equality, 5 knowledge, 6 health, 3 security, 6 pleasure

Richard might choose this contrasting set: 8 liberty, 2 equality, 5 knowledge, 3 health, 8 security, 4 pleasure

If we were to calculate Leonard and Richard’s beliefs by multiplying their priority numbers by the policy impact numbers, we would get two different views on the outcome.

Leonard’s numbers would multiply out to -8 liberty, +48 equality, 0 knowledge, +30 health, 0 security, -18 pleasure, for a total score of +52.

Richard’s numbers would multiply out to -32 liberty, +12 equality, 0 knowledge, +18 health, 0 security, -12 pleasure, for a total score of -14.

This would mean that, for Leonard, Obamacare would appear to be a good policy, while for Richard it would appear to be a bad policy.  However, if Richard were a little more centrist with his priorities, he could easily come out with a positive on Obamacare, albeit a lower positive score than Leonard would offer. In reality, the level of polarisation seems much higher. How can that be? This brings us to our second reason for political disagreement: Problem of Mistaken Analysis.

Initially, I just put out an arbitrary estimate for what the policy impacts of Obamacare were. It is entirely possible that the set of impacts I offered does not reflect reality.  Leonard and Richard could have different understandings of what Obamacare’s policy impact is, and that these differences could widen the scope for their disagreement. For instance, the right does not agree that Obamacare will improve the quality of our health care, but instead contends that it produces “death panels” that will greatly diminish our health care. In light of this, the default impact I provided will not give us the true scope of the difference between the left and right on the issue. We must instead consider some estimate of what each side thinks Obamacare does, and then multiply these different figures by the prioritisations.

So let’s say that Leonard thinks that Obamacare will provide -1 liberty, +10 equality, +1 knowledge, +8 health, +1 security, and +6 pleasure.

At the same time, let’s say Richard thinks it will provide -10 liberty, +1 equality, -1 knowledge, -8 health, -1 security, and -6 pleasure.

These impacts are extremely different from one another, and both cannot be accurate. When we multiply these impacts by Leonard and Richard’s respective priority values, we get an overall score for Leonard of +170 while Richard would find -139.

This gives us scope for two different sources of disagreement, prioritisation and analysis. On prioritisation, we simply deal with the fact that not everyone wants the same things for themselves or for society at large. On analysis, we often have mistakes in our understanding that cause us to skew our beliefs one way or another. For instance, Obamacare does not create death panels as many people on the right understand them, and consequently some element of the right wing policy analysis of Obamacare is likely mistaken.

Politics is as often arguing for a set of priorities as it is advocating what a given policy will do. If a person with a low priority on equality and a high priority on liberty hears that the government is going to redistribute wealth to boost the economy, it does not matter whether or not the person believes the policy will do as intended (and very often such people do not even believe that the policy will do as intended)–the goal violates that person’s sense of priorities. How might someone with such priorities be convinced to support redistribution? Perhaps this person also places a high priority on knowledge or health, and it can be argued that the redistribution will lead to positive results in those areas.

Now, there’s one more thing I would like to address to close this post–how do we explain opposition to something like say, gay marriage with this model? Gay marriage does not create negatives in any of the six core goods. The only possible argument would be that it reduces pleasure, but it only does that so long as a majority of the population finds allowing gay marriage unpleasant, and recent polls over the last few years suggest that this is no longer the case. In any event, it is likely that improvements in other categories (such as say, liberty) would outweigh it easily. So why do people still oppose gay marriage? The Core Goods Model only takes into account political positions that are based on societal consequences. It does not take into consideration positions based on arbitrary deontological dogmas, such as “homosexuality is bad because rule/book/person/diety X says so”.  While individuals should be free not to be homosexual or to like homosexuality in order to promote liberty, trying to forbid homosexuality or gay marriage across a society has no positive consequences aside from a sense on the part of those disapproving of homosexuality that they are successfully adhering to the deontological code in question. The applications of such codes across society is deemed by this model to be irrational and illogical, and those reasons for supporting or opposing a policy deemed invalid.