BHL readers might enjoy two things of mine that came out today.

The first is my monthly column “The Calling” at the Future of Freedom Foundation that addresses the ways in which crony capitalism might increase inequality.

When we put all three of these truths together, we get a story about the way in which those who already have wealth and power can and do make use of the state to block the upward mobility of their poorer, less-powerful potential competitors. Small-business owners, Uber and Lyft drivers, and African-American women who want to open hair-braiding businesses are trying to grab on to the bottom rungs of the income ladder and work their way up. These are the very people — start-up entrepreneurs and the working poor — that those critical of the market claim to care about.

In a world where government has all of these powers to intervene in markets, rent-seeking and cronyism are inevitable. Regulation will ensure that those who know the right people can tilt the regulatory playing field in their favor. The result will be a worsening of the income inequality that concerns so many. The rich will get richer through rent-seeking and cronyism, and they will do so at the expense of the poor and relatively powerless.

In addition, I was interviewed for this week’s episode of Freakonomics Radio about my contribution to The Economics of the Undead (co-authored with fellow BHLer Sarah Skwire), which deals with the relationship  between the broken window fallacy and the zombie apocalypse.  My segment begins about the 6 minute mark.  Happy Halloween all!

Print Friendly
Tagged with:

UPDATE: I had Reich’s nickname wrong in the original post–please note that this is about the Robert Reich at Berkeley, not the Rob Reich at Stanford.

Here’s Robert Reich, former secretary of labor and now a professor at Berkeley, asserting a common trope:


I could write three whole books on what’s wrong with this kind of thinking; in fact, by the end of this calendar year, I will have done so.

Reich is repeating a common idea: you don’t have the right to complain unless you vote. I assume here Reich means you forfeit your liberty or permission right to complain, not your claim right. That is, he’s asserting that if you don’t vote, you should not complain, not that if you don’t vote, then it would be permissible for the government to stop you from complaining.

But why would you forfeit your right to complain if you don’t vote?

The most obvious explanation is that if you don’t vote, you didn’t do something that could influence government in the way you want it to go. You didn’t put in even minimal effort into making  a change. If you can’t be bothered to act on your discomfort with politics, then you should shut up.

By analogy, suppose I complain to my wife: “It’s too damn cold in this house. Damn, I hate how cold it is.” She asks, “Well, did you turn the heat on?” I respond, “No, I can’t be bothered to get up, walk over to the hall, and turn up the thermostat.” She asks, “Did you at least put on a sweater?” I respond, “No, I can’t be bothered to go to my closet and fetch a sweater.” She would justifiably respond, “If you can’t be bothered to put in this minimal effort, you shouldn’t complain. I don’t want to hear any more out of you.”

But voting isn’t like that! The problem is that individual votes don’t make any difference. On the most optimistic assessment of the efficacy of individual votes, votes in, say, the US presidential election can have as high as a 1 in 10 million chance of breaking a tie, but only if you vote in a swing state and vote for one of the two major candidates. Otherwise, the chances of breaking a tie or having any impact are vanishingly small. (Reich votes in California, and even on the Edlin-Gelman-Kaplan model, his vote doesn’t matter.) On less optimistic  but more widely accepted estimates of the efficacy of individual votes, individual votes have a snowball’s chance in hell of making a difference in any major election. (Even then, keep in mind: This applies only to voting for candidates from the two major parties, candidates who appeal to the mass of ignorant and irrational voters. If you’re voting third party, your vote generally matters even less than that.*)

So, the analogy of a person complaining about the cold but being unwilling to turn on the heat or put on a sweater doesn’t apply. Reich is really saying something like this:

Robert Reich
October 27

I ran into someone this morning who complained about how poor he is. I told him, “If you’re not playing the lottery everyday, you forfeit your right to complain about being poor.” The problem with poor people is that they don’t buy enough Powerball tickets.

Perhaps Reich instead means something like this:

  1. Citizens have a duty to vote.
  2. If a citizen doesn’t discharge this duty to vote, she loses her (permission) right to complain.

But why accept either of these claims? Let’s start with claim 2. Even if we accept for the sake of argument that citizens have a duty to vote, why hold that failing to discharge this duty would somehow deprive them specifically a permission right to complain? (Keep in mind, you can’t use the argument I just refuted above.) Why not instead hold that they lose their permission right to listen to Taylor Swift, or their permission right to watch his movie?

But the more pressing problem is the view that citizens have a duty to vote. In The Ethics of Voting, I systematically refute all of the best arguments on behalf of a duty to vote. The very best arguments on behalf of a duty to vote hold that you have a duty to vote because you 1) should contribute to the common good, 2) shouldn’t free ride on the provision of public goods provided for you by your fellow citizens, or 3) have a duty to promote your fellow citizens’ welfare. But, as I point out in that book, if any of these duties exist, these are all very general duties that can be discharged any number of ways besides voting. Voting isn’t necessary; it’s just one of many possible ways to promote the common good, avoid free riding, or promote citizens’ welfare. Further, voting isn’t sufficient to discharge those duties, because many people vote badly, in ways that on a collective level tend to undermine the common good and harm their fellow citizens. Reich shouldn’t advocating that people vote. He should instead advocate that most of them abstain.

*P.S. Don’t talk about “changing the mandates”. Mandates don’t exist; they’re just a popular myth.



Print Friendly

Just a quick reminder to submit abstracts for BGSU’s conference on the scope of religious exemptions. Our deadline in November 15th, 2014.


The Bowling Green Workshop in Applied Ethics and Public Policy

The Scope of Religious Exemptions

April 17th-18th, 2015 

The Bowling Green Workshop in Applied Ethics and Public Policy will take place in Bowling Green, Ohio, April 17th-18th, 2015. The keynote speakers are Robert Audi (University of Notre Dame) and Andrew Koppelman (Northwestern University).

Those interested in presenting a paper are invited to submit a 2-3 page abstract (double-spaced) by November 15th, 2014. We welcome submissions in all areas in applied ethics and philosophical issues relevant to this year’s conference theme: the scope of religious exemptions. We are especially focused on papers that address normative questions about religious exemptions, including the moral-philosophical justifications for religious exemptions and how often and to whom religious exemptions should be granted. We will consider multiple approaches to the topic, not merely in political philosophy and political theory, but normative ethics, metaethics and applied ethics.

Only one submission per person is permitted. Abstracts will be evaluated by a program committee and decisions made in December 2014. Please direct all abstracts and queries to:

Further information about the Workshop and previous workshops are available on the workshop website (under construction):

Print Friendly
Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.