Economics – Bleeding Heart Libertarians http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com Free Markets and Social Justice Wed, 15 Nov 2017 17:16:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.3 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/cropped-site-icon-BHL-32x32.png Economics – Bleeding Heart Libertarians http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com 32 32 22756168 Anderson V. Munger Cage Match!!! http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/11/anderson-v-munger-cage-match/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/11/anderson-v-munger-cage-match/#comments Mon, 06 Nov 2017 18:29:04 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=12068 Okay, no. It was orderly and respectful. And she’s probably right. But Liz Anderson WAS kind enough to have a discussion/debate about her new book, Private Government. The video is...

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Okay, no. It was orderly and respectful. And she’s probably right.

But Liz Anderson WAS kind enough to have a discussion/debate about her new book, Private Government.

The video is here. Thanks to Bookmarks/Public Square for the opportunity!

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Immigration Points and the Fatal Conceit of Central Planning http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/08/immigration-points-fatal-conceit-central-planning/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/08/immigration-points-fatal-conceit-central-planning/#comments Thu, 10 Aug 2017 15:02:50 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11991 (Please excuse the improper spacing in this piece. Weird glitch. Don’t know how to fix it.) If you think Trump’s (or Canada’s or whatnot’s) points system for immigration is a...

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(Please excuse the improper spacing in this piece. Weird glitch. Don’t know how to fix it.)

If you think Trump’s (or Canada’s or whatnot’s) points system for immigration is a good idea, you seem awfully confident in the government’s ability to engage in central planning.

 

Now, Trump is a mercantilist with little understanding of economics. But to my surprise, quite a few libertarians and supposed “free market economic conservatives” seem on board with his points plan. But here’s the problem:
Most of you recognize government is too stupid to plan shoe production. You need price signals and competitive mechanisms to tell you what, where, and how to produce. You can’t make a five-year plan for the whole economy because the economic problem constantly changes.

But many people who recognize that flip around say, “Oh, but no worries. We can figure out exactly how many and what kind of laborers the economy needs for the next five years using this artificial points scale.”

 

The best way to know whether “the economy needs an immigrant” is simple: If we allow people to hire the immigrant, do they choose to do so? If we allow people to rent houses or apartments to the immigrant, do they choose to do so? Let them do it, sit back, and let the market do its thing.

Now, granted, the government may have a legitimate worry about being able to afford certain kinds of welfare programs and publicly provided goods which immigrants might consume. But if that’s a worry, then find a keyhole solution. We don’t nationalize guitar production just because we worry about affording public schools for luthiers’ kids; similarly, we shouldn’t nationalize laborer production because of that worry.
Now, if you think the system improves upon the status quo, that’s fine. That’s not an argument that the system is good, just that’s better than what we had before.

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MacLean on Nutter and Buchanan on Universal Education http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/06/maclean-nutter-buchanan-universal-education/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/06/maclean-nutter-buchanan-universal-education/#comments Wed, 28 Jun 2017 20:26:22 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11892 Finding examples of misleading, incorrect, and outright butchered quotes and citations in Nancy MacLean’s new book about James Buchanan, Democracy in Chains, has become the academic version of Pokemon Go this...

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Finding examples of misleading, incorrect, and outright butchered quotes and citations in Nancy MacLean’s new book about James Buchanan, Democracy in Chains, has become the academic version of Pokemon Go this week. I now offer one small contribution of my own, plus a few other thoughts about one piece of her argument.

For those unfamiliar, MacLean argues that Buchanan’s work, and public choice, more broadly, emerged in highly segregated Virginia in the shadow of Brown v. Board of Education as a way to attack the expansion of federal government power and defend the elitist Southern Agrarian privileges of a white plutocracy. Their program of limiting absolute democracy and majority rule through constitutional provisions (a truly bizarre and radical idea, I realize) was grown in the soil of segregation. She paints Buchanan and the whole public choice tradition as enemies of democracy who have now joined forces with the Koch brothers in a stealth, fifth column attack on American democracy in particular. Putting aside that there is no documented connection between Buchanan and the Southern Agrarians, a connection that makes no sense anyway given Buchanan’s commitment to analytical egalitarianism, is there any truth to the claim that the Brown v. Board context was even relevant?

MacLean argues there is, and bases that on a 1959 paper by G. Warren Nutter and Buchanan titled “The Economics of Universal Education” in which they lay out a number of ways that universal education could be provided, including via a Friedman-style voucher system. They describe the different characteristics of the alternative systems, and clearly conclude that “the public must choose which characteristics it prefers” (9). They add “As economists we do not presume to make a choice of one system over another…Our purpose is to lay bare the facts as we see them, so that they will receive their due weight in any decisions that will be made through the democratic process” (11).

Hardly enemies of democracy in the paper, Nutter and Buchanan see their task (as Buchanan did for his whole career) as offering analyses that could inform the deliberations of the democratic process, both at the level of the constitutional rules and the games that take place within those rules. Nutter and Buchanan also reject, as Buchanan always did, any privileged role for the economist in that process: “Each citizen speaks for himself on such matters, and each citizen’s opinion weights as heavily as any other’s, no matter what his position in society – whether farmer, lawyer, educator, or minister” (1). Hardly the words of an anti-democratic elitist plutocrat.

MacLean sees this paper as an attempt by the two scholars to undermine public education in Virginia in order to keep the effects of pre-Brown segregation while still complying with the law. That is, she sees it as evidence of the racism at the core of arguments for free markets and public choice analyses of the failures of government. This is despite the fact that Nutter and Buchanan explicitly defend a role for government in education, including “compelling attendance, fixing minimum standards, and financing cost” (3). They also never mention race in the paper, as she acknowledges, but their use of the technical language of economics and their race-neutrality is seen by her as evidence of their attempt to generate racist outcomes by stealth. (As is often the case with conspiracy theory-style thinking, the evidence against the conspiracy is actually evidence for it.)

One might also note that supporting Brown also means that one is thwarting the desires of democratic majorities, at least at the state and local level. For all of MacLean’s ringing defenses of majority rule and the importance of the democratic process, it’s fascinating that she sees the foundation of the arguments of democracy’s supposed opponents as a rejection of a Supreme Court decision that told local and state majorities that they couldn’t have the segregated schools they wanted.

One might also note that the argument Nutter and Buchanan make is nearly identical to that of J. S. Mill in On Liberty. Is Mill, who was arguably among the 19th century’s great opponents of racism and supporters of analytical egalitarianism, now also to be seen as a secret racist with a plan to subvert democracy?

Toward the end of the paper, Nutter and Buchanan respond to numerous objections to a voucher plan. One criticism at the time was that it would harm education and drive employers out of the state. In MacLean’s summary of their response, she writes (67):

Corporations would not care who ran the schools, they said, as long as good education was available. “All that matters” for the economy, the two scholars maintained, was that the state government support some school system “cheaply and efficiently.” How that schooling was provided was immaterial.

Note the way in which the quoted material makes it appear as though what Nutter and Buchanan were saying was that it would be good if governments supported school systems “cheaply and efficiently,” nicely fitting her narrative (and that of many on the left) that libertarians just want to reduce spending on education. They don’t care much about kids actually getting educated. (She says as much in the book in several places.)

Here’s the actual passage from the Nutter and Buchanan paper (17-18), which is more subtle and has a different meaning than MacLean suggests:

Other things equal, communities with good, efficiently run schools will be more attractive to employees, actual and prospective, than other communities. But we fail to see what this has to do with who runs the schools, whether a state agency or private parties. We doubt that there is a strong attachment to state schools, as such. If a mixed system of private and state schools provides universal education at least as cheaply and efficiently as a pure system of state schools, this would seem to be all that matters.

MacLean takes “cheaply and efficiently” to refer to the level of state support provided. Nutter and Buchanan clearly use that phrase to refer not to the level of state support per se, but to the ability of any system to use resources wisely to produce a given quality of education. Her reading makes it seem like Nutter and Buchanan think that “all that matters” is that state support be “cheap and efficient.” But what they are clearly arguing is “all that matters” is which system delivers the desired level of universal education using the fewest resources.

Nutter and Buchanan are using the economist’s notion of efficiency – how to generate a desired outcome at least cost – whereas MacLean can only think in terms of a supposed desire to spend a little as possible in and of itself. The “least cost” and therefore most efficient system might be one that spends more in absolute terms if it generates a higher level of a highly desired output. A system that spent twice as much on education but got three times the quality/quantity of education as the next best system might be “cheaper and more efficient” if we value education highly enough as compared to other uses of those resources. Again, Nutter and Buchanan are not saying to use as few resources as possible in and of itself; they are asking which alternative system of education gives us the most bang for the buck. And they want “the democratic process” to decide which one we should adopt. MacLean’s selective quoting does not allow the reader to see the full context of Nutter and Buchanan’s argument.

Is the idea that we should provide a given quality and quantity of a valuable good or service using the least valuable resources possible really that shocking or hard to understand?

This is an example of a running problem with the book. MacLean has, by her own admission, very little knowledge of economics. In addition, her knowledge of Buchanan’s system of thought comes mostly from his autobiography Better than Plowing, The Calculus of Consent, and two secondary sources that are highly critical and have their own problems of good faith interpretation. In the most generous reading, she is misunderstanding arguments and chopping up quotes because she simply doesn’t understand what Buchanan and his collaborators are up to. In the least generous reading, she has a theory and she’s going to cut up the evidence to fit that theory. If one believes that modern libertarians are the enemies of democracy, progress, equality, and all that’s good in the world, and MacLean clearly does, then the evidence will always be read, and sometimes constructed, in ways that support the argument on the side of the angels.

Unfortunately, anyone who takes the time to read the actual sources she’s working from, or who understands public choice theory, can see this exercise for what it is: a travesty of scholarly standards (no, Charles Dickens’ novels do not count as data about the economic conditions of the 19th century) and a smear job on one of the great minds of the 20th century.

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Democracy and Prosperity http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/05/democracy-and-prosperity/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/05/democracy-and-prosperity/#comments Wed, 24 May 2017 16:31:43 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11812 Tom Christiano, a leading theorist of democracy, has just reviewed Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy. In it, he accuses Jason of having an ill-equipped micro-theory that fails to account for the...

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Tom Christiano, a leading theorist of democracy, has just reviewed Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy. In it, he accuses Jason of having an ill-equipped micro-theory that fails to account for the phenomena Jason addresses. In particular, Tom thinks that the book cannot explain why actual democracies are as successful as they are. He doubts such success could have been led by Jason’s hobbits and hooligans. Here’s Tom:

[T]he modern democratic societies of Europe, North America, and East Asia have actually been quite successful; and the democratic element in them is a large part of what seems to explain that. First, there is a great deal of data marking out the remarkable differences between reasonably high quality democracies and other kinds of societies. Brennan mentions these but I don’t think he takes the full measure of the evidence. Democracies do not go to war with one another and respect the rules of war better than other societies.  They are responsible for the creation of the international trade system, the international environmental law system, and the human rights regime.  In fact, democracies do massively better on basic human rights than other societies, and it appears to be more their majoritarian character that explains this than their systems of checks and balances. Democracies prevent famines and, since the onset of universal suffrage, have developed powerful welfare states that have been enormously productive, have greatly reduced poverty, and have smoothed out the disastrous economic crises that occurred in their more free market ancestor societies.  Further, they have generally protected the interests of workers and lower economic classes, done a better job at producing public goods than other societies and generally have higher rates of per capita growth than their free market ancestors. Most of us hope for much more progress than this, but these achievements are extraordinary and are hard to square with the idea that hooligans and hobbits are at the helm.

 

Of course, I will let Jason defend himself. Here I want to examine the larger issue raised by Tom’s macro-theory: why are actual democracies successful?

There are reasons to doubt the accuracy of Tom’s story. Modern democracies have three components: a rights-constrained majoritarian component (universal suffrage and bill of rights), a redistributive component (the welfare state), and a capitalist component (robust markets). I do not quarrel with Tom’s observation that actual democracies do much better in terms of, well, democracy and human rights. But Tom thinks that these societies’ majoritarian and redistributive components are the key contributors to economic success, including poverty alleviation. This is entirely unclear to me and to those who have addressed the issue. For one thing, the Latin American experience shows that democracy and redistribution do not always lead to success. For another, the “free-market ancestors” managed to exclude many people from the market. So I think it is plausible (to put it mildly) that the great leap in prosperity and poverty alleviation occurred when modern democracies established secure property rights and allowed everyone the opportunity to better themselves through trade, as Deirdre McCloskey has claimed.

It may well be that, as Tom suggests, the introduction of universal suffrage is part and parcel of the ethics of equality that allowed everyone to attempt success. But it is much less clear that, with important exceptions such as publicly-funded education, redistributive institutions have contributed to the great enrichment and poverty alleviation in the modern world, and especially in successful democracies. Plausibly, these impressive achievements stem from the unprecedented opening of domestic and international markets, that is, from the capitalist component of successful democracies. Certainly, economic theory seems more congenial to this explanation (see here and here, and Lomasky’s and my discussion here.) If development economists are right, Tom’s argument sounds like a post hoc propter hoc fallacy.

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Protectionism as Cronyism http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/05/protectionism-as-cronyism/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/05/protectionism-as-cronyism/#comments Mon, 08 May 2017 18:05:17 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11780 Supporters of protectionism such as President Trump say that they are trying to save jobs in the United States. What’s wrong, they ask, with showing some solicitude and help to our...

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Supporters of protectionism such as President Trump say that they are trying to save jobs in the United States. What’s wrong, they ask, with showing some solicitude and help to our own workers hurt by foreign competition? Surely we cannot be against that.

The standard reply is that these laws help workers but hurt local consumers and foreign producers and their workers. This causes a net deadweight loss, or unrecovered loss of social welfare.

But this reply, correct as it is, does not go far enough: Protectionist laws harm workers in our own country. This is because when a government protects an industry it aborts the creation of jobs in other industries. As the economy is unable to adjust to the efficiencies of production, resources are artificially directed to the less efficient endeavors. Those resources are unavailable to the industries that need them to grow. The government assists workers in inefficient industries by erecting trade barriers, but in doing so it harms persons who are now unemployed because new industries that would have employed them have been aborted by the strangling effect of those laws. Seen in this light, workers who benefit from protection are not deserving of transfers of wealth in their favor, because protection is harming other workers in that society. Just as the firms obtaining protection get rich at the expense of foreign firms, so the workers in protected industries keep their jobs at the expense of the poor, in their own countries.

In truth, labor unions (and their management) agitating for protection are crony capitalists. A crony capitalist economy is one in which success in business depends on close relationships between business people and government officials. Success here is measured, for workers, by keeping their jobs. But success is not only success against foreign competition. Protected workers coercively achieve success at the expense of similarly situated workers who have not enlisted the coercion of the state. The public easily believes that the business owners who obtain protection are crony capitalists. The truth is that their workers are crony capitalists too.

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Buy Vlad Tarko’s New Intellectual Biography of Elinor Ostrom http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/11/buy-vlad-tarkos-new-intellectual-biography-elinor-ostrom/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/11/buy-vlad-tarkos-new-intellectual-biography-elinor-ostrom/#comments Wed, 02 Nov 2016 12:32:44 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11324 Vlad Tarko’s Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography is now available for pre-order on Amazon. This is one of those books that’s guaranteed to make you smarter. Highly recommended. Here are the endorsements, including...

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Vlad Tarko’s Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography is now available for pre-order on Amazon. This is one of those books that’s guaranteed to make you smarter. Highly recommended.

Here are the endorsements, including mine:

Tarko’s concise intellectual biography of Elinor Ostrom provides readers with an authoritative account of the Bloomington School and is a masterful work of political economy in its own right. The fields of economics, political science, and philosophy would be far better off if Ostrom’s insights were more widely understood, and this book should help to make that happen. (Jason Brennan, Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy, the McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University)

This is a masterful account of Ostrom’s work. An inspiring synthesis, of an inspiring intellectual life. (Mark Pennington, Professor of Political Economy and Public Policy, King’s College London)

Tarko does an outstanding job capturing the breadth and depth of Lin’s work to produce a course in the New Institutional Economics, as well as an intellectual history of Lin, Vincent and the many scholars associated with the Workshop in Political theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University.(Robert L. Bish, Professor Emeritus, Economics and Public Administration, University of Virginia)

Vlad Tarko has written more than an intellectual biography of one of the most influential social scientists of her generation. His book is at the same time an insightful introduction and a nuanced interpretation of a fascinating research program with significant applied-level implications. (Paul Dragos Aligica, Senior Research Fellow, George Mason University)

Vlad Tarko’s book adds a valuable perspective on the ideas and work of Elinor Ostrom plus that of Vincent Ostrom and the Bloomington Workshop they established. The extent of their influence, and the reasons for it, come through clearly in these pages. It will be useful for readers looking for an introduction to Elinor’s work, and enjoyable for readers who are already familiar with it. (William Blomquist, Professor, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis)

Vald Tarko has provided a brilliant overview of what Lin Ostrom often referred to as her and Vincent’s “polycentric journey”. Along the way she studied local public economies, the wrestling with common-pool resources throughout the world, and the complexity of economic development. Her enduring research legacy is to be found in both her multiple methodologies approach to studying institutional diversity, and the conclusions she drew on the possibility and sustainability of self-governing democratic societies. Tarko’s book is a must read not only to those who want to learn about Elinor Ostrom and her contributions, but to all students of political economy. (Peter J. Boettke, Professor, George Mason University)

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“We’re Not Privileged Enough!” Complain Selfish and Snobbish Adjuncts at Ithaca College http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/10/not-privileged-enough-complain-selfish-snobbish-adjuncts-ithaca-college/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/10/not-privileged-enough-complain-selfish-snobbish-adjuncts-ithaca-college/#comments Fri, 28 Oct 2016 03:45:26 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11270 The Washington Post recently ran a photo essay “showing what it really means to be adjunct faculty”. The essay featured various adjunct faculty members at Ithaca College standing in front...

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The Washington Post recently ran a photo essay “showing what it really means to be adjunct faculty”. The essay featured various adjunct faculty members at Ithaca College standing in front of chalkboards on which they’d written their grievances, many of which focused on their perceived low pay. In itself, this wouldn’t be worthy of note–complaints from adjuncts about their pay are nothing new.  But what was striking about the complaints voiced by the Ithaca College adjuncts was the selfishness, snobbery, and sense of entitlement that were, at times, nakedly on display.

Several of the adjuncts indignantly noted that they had to supplement their teaching pay by doing part-time manual labour on the side. But if it’s true that they earned more doing manual labour than teaching, shouldn’t this tell them that other people value their work as manual labourers more than they value them as teachers? If this is the case, then, if they truly wanted to serve others, shouldn’t they switch to the jobs where they would serve the needs and desires of others best, leaving teaching for (apparently) construction or agricultural work? That they don’t indicates that they’re not really focused on serving others, but are more focused on satisfying their vanity. And while I think that such a selfish decision is perfectly fine, they shouldn’t then complain that they should be paid more to do the jobs that they choose to do when other, better-paying, jobs are available to them.

But isn’t manual labor just below someone who has a PhD? Some of the adjuncts certainly seem to think so. Now, I’m not going to wax lyrical about the “nobility of labour”. (I perform manual labour almost every day. There’s nothing especially noble about mucking out hundreds of pounds of chicken shit, getting up at dawn in winter to dig out frozen-in coops, or dealing with birds afflicted by mudballs, sourcrop, or eggbinding–all of which are as gross as they sound.)  Yet holding that you’re too good to do the work that millions of people do every day to feed their families as you’ve had the luxury of spending several years getting up at the crack of noon to toil over poststructuralist texts is sheer snobbery.

Of course, the Ithaca adjuncts don’t see their cause in this way. They’re not really fighting to be subsidized to ply their chosen profession free from any concern about the needs and desires of others. No–they’re after “equal pay for equal work”. But, as has been said repeatedly by Philip Magness, Jason Brennan, and others, this is a red herring. Tenure-track faculty do MUCH more than just teach. They’re required to do service work, advise students, sit on committees, and publish, publish, publish. I suspect that the adjuncts are already receiving equal pay for their teaching, and just want pay that is, in Orwellian terms, “more equal” than that received by their more successful colleagues.

None of this is to deny that some adjuncts have legitimate grievances. Adjuncts hired to teach should only be expected to teach–not advise students, sit on committees, or work with administrators to satisfy accreditation requirements by doing unpaid service work. But the Ithaca College adjuncts aren’t complaining about such impositions. They’re just exhibiting some of the worst traits–selfishness, snobbery, entitlement, and a lack of awareness of how others less fortunate than them live–that the public attribute to the professoriate.

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Boudreaux vs. Konczal on California’s $15 Minimum Wage http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/09/boudreaux-vs-konczal-californias-15-minimum-wage/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/09/boudreaux-vs-konczal-californias-15-minimum-wage/#comments Fri, 23 Sep 2016 20:00:11 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11186 Earlier this year, Governor Jerry Brown signed into a law a bill that will raise California’s minimum wage to $15/hr by 2022. I wrote here at the time expressing my concerns about the...

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Earlier this year, Governor Jerry Brown signed into a law a bill that will raise California’s minimum wage to $15/hr by 2022. I wrote here at the time expressing my concerns about the effectiveness of the policy as a poverty-fighting measure. But despite the considerable skepticism of many economists, minimum wage laws are still seen by many as a powerful tool for achieving greater social justice.

To explore these issues further, my newly created center at the University of San Diego – the Center for Ethics, Economics, and Public Policy – hosted a debate on California’s minimum wage law earlier this month. The debaters were Don Boudreaux of George Mason University Economics (and Cafe Hayek!) and Mike Konczal, Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. You can watch a video of the debate below.

 

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How Can a Libertarian Say That? (On Incompetent Voters and Competent Market Agents) http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/08/can-libertarian-say-incompetent-voters-competent-market-agents/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/08/can-libertarian-say-incompetent-voters-competent-market-agents/#comments Wed, 24 Aug 2016 15:22:07 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11031 Roughly 35% of my published work responds to problems of voter ignorance and irrationality. I sometimes get pushback from both libertarians and non-libertarians that goes roughly as follows: “Wait, so...

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Roughly 35% of my published work responds to problems of voter ignorance and irrationality. I sometimes get pushback from both libertarians and non-libertarians that goes roughly as follows: “Wait, so you think average people aren’t competent to rule? How can you, a self-described bleeding heart libertarian, say that? Aren’t you libertarians committed to the view that people are smart and can run their own lives? That they don’t need government to run their lives for them? How can you say that they’re smart in the market but dumb at politics? Isn’t that a contradictory view of human nature?”

Frankly, these are softball questions.

First, let me make clear that the views I push in The Ethics of Voting, Compulsory Voting: For and AgainstAgainst Democracy, and the dozen related articles and book chapters are neither libertarian nor anti-libertarian. My arguments don’t follow from libertarian premises and don’t lead to libertarian conclusions. You can accept pretty much everything I say in those articles and remain a left-liberal, socialist, conservative American constitutionalist, or neorepublican. These books and articles are not about the issues libertarians and these other people dispute. They are just about civic virtue, voting ethics, compulsory voting, and democracy vs. epistocracy.

That said, I suppose it isn’t surprising that the new wave of democratic skepticism comes from libertarians like Ilya Somin, Bryan Caplan, or me. When you read most democratic theory, you see that most authors revere politics and democracy, viewing them as in some way sacred or majestic. Libertarians will have none of that. As a result, I think they’re able to think more clearly about the nature of democracy. For many on the Left and Right, doing democratic theory is like doing theology. For libertarians, it’s just comparative institutional analysis. Libertarians have no inherent emotional draw toward or inherent revulsion to democracy. Asking whether democracy works better than the alternatives has no more emotional resonance than asking whether a hammer works better than a screwdriver for a given purpose. For many on the Left and Right, asking whether democracy is better than the alternatives is like a Christian asking whether Jesus is God, a prophet, a fraud, or a myth.

UPDATE: Another way to put it: Let’s say that libertarians are emotional twerps and everything they write about the market is motivatived reasoning. Nevertheless, for them, there’s no particular bias for or against democracy.

Second, as to the question of voters in democracy vs actors in the market: The incentives are radically different.

When I make a market decision, I decide unilaterally. If I order a candy bar, I get a candy bar. If I order an apple, I get an apple. Further, in general, bear the consequences of my decisions. If I make a bad choice for me, I get punished. If I make a good choice, I get rewarded.

Of course, sometimes the consequences take a long time or are hard to trace. Yes, sometimes there are significant negative externalities. Still, there’s a feedback mechanism. However dumb people might be naturally, markets incentivize them to be smarter.

In politics, my decision counts for basically nothing. If I stay home, vote for X, or vote for not-X, the same thing ends up happening. We all bear the consequences of the majority’s decision, but no one bears the consequences of her individual decision. If I make a bad choice at the polls, I don’t get punished. If I make a good choice, I don’t get rewarded.

The feedback mechanism sucks. However dumb people might naturally be, politics incentivizes them to stay that way, or get dumber.

 

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Politics Is Not a Poem: Against Semiotic Arguments for Democracy http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/08/politics-is-not-a-poem-against-semiotic-arguments-for-democracy/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/08/politics-is-not-a-poem-against-semiotic-arguments-for-democracy/#comments Tue, 16 Aug 2016 12:15:15 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=10980 Excerpted from the intro of chapter 5–perhaps my favorite chapter–of Against Democracy.     “The instinct of worship is still so strong upon us that, having nearly worn out our capacity...

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Excerpted from the intro of chapter 5–perhaps my favorite chapter–of Against Democracy.

 

 

“The instinct of worship is still so strong upon us that, having nearly worn out our capacity for treating kings and such kind of persons as sacred, we are ready to invest a majority of our own selves with the same kind of reverence.”

—Auberon Herbert

 

 

Years ago, in a previous book on voting ethics, I wrote the following:

 

…the value of the right to vote consists in something [other than its instrumental value]. It is not that individual votes have much practical utility. It is, rather, that the right to vote is a badge of equal personhood. The Nazis made Jews wear the Star of David as a badge of inferiority. The right to vote is a metaphorical badge of equality.[i]

 

At that time, I accepted the common view that equal voting rights have some sort of symbolic value. Just as we might express the equal dignity of each citizen with a poem or a statue in the town square, so we might express their equal dignity by giving them each a right to vote. I now believe this way of thinking is seriously inadequate.

The previous chapter examined whether democracy empowers individuals in any significant way. I turn now to a difference class of arguments on behalf of democracy and political participation. These arguments focus broadly on the symbolic power of democracy, on what giving them equal political rights expresses, on what giving them unequal rights express, and on what effects such expressions have on people’s self-esteem and social status. These arguments are meant to show both A) the democracy and participation are good for individuals, and B) that individuals are owed the right to vote and run for office as a matter of justice.

Many people regard it as axiomatic that all people share a fundamental moral equality. At the very least, many are convinced that just governments ought to act as if everyone’s life is of equal worth. Many want to ground their arguments for democracy or arguments against epistocracy on this fundamental equality. As Elizabeth Anderson says, “Pressure toward universal inclusion [in the franchise] follows from the demands of equality…whereby each adult actively recognizes everyone else’s equal authority to make claims concerning the rules under which all shall live…”[ii]

In this chapter, I primarily attack what I will call “semiotic” arguments for democracy and against epistocracy. Semiotic arguments for democracy rely on the idea that imbuing everyone with equal fundamental power expresses, communicates, or symbolizes respect. Relatedly, semiotic objections to epistocracy rely on the idea that failing to imbue people with power (or with equal power) expresses, communicates, or symbolizes disrespect. Many philosophers and laypeople alike find it plausible that imbuing each citizen with the same fundamental political power rightly expresses the idea that each citizen has the same fundamental moral worth. Many also find it plausible that formally imbuing citizens with unequal power wrongfully expresses the idea that citizens have unequal moral worth.

Proper semiotic arguments, as I define them, are independent of other arguments for democracy or other arguments for democracy or against epistocracy. Semiotic arguments are about what democracy signals, not about whether democracy performs better than the alternatives or about whether democracy is especially fair.

To test semiotic objections, we have to put non-semiotic objections to the side. Thus, when comparing democracy to epistocracy or other forms of government on semiotic grounds, we must imagine that there are no others worries about epistocracy other than what it signals or expresses.

Suppose it turned out that some sort of epistocracy—say one in which some low information voters were excluded from voting—consistently outperformed democracy. Many democratic theorists and laypeople would be still be tempted to conclude that there is just something plain disrespectful about labeling some citizens as more politically competent than others. Epistocracy seems to express a kind of immoral elitism. This kind of worry seems to be a genuine semiotic objection to epistocracy. Something like this could be used to ground a proper semiotic argument for democracy.

As an example of a semiotic objection, consider the following passage from political theorist Pablo Gilbert. Gilbert says that non-democratic political structures by their very nature would insult the dignity of citizens.

Being rendered a second-class citizen (which is normally the case in a nondemocratic regime) is arguably injurious to an individual’s dignity, or a failure of due consideration. It is insulting to be told, or treated in a way that pragmatically implies, something like the following: “Our fundamental collective decisions are yours just as much as everyone else’s, although you deserve fewer rights to participate in shaping them than some others.” …Regardless of whether one actually takes offense, it is in fact an affront to one’s dignity to be subject to a basic political structure within which one has less than equal rights of participation.[iii]

Here, Gilbert is not talking about whether democracies do a better job protecting liberty or promoting social justice than other forms of government. Instead, he means to say that unequal political power signals inferiority and sends an offensive message.

Similarly, philosopher Christopher Griffin says that a “denial of an equal share of power in the context of disagreement about the basic ground rules of social life is a public declaration of second-class citizenry.”[iv] David Estlund complains that epistocracy involves “invidious comparisons,” as it relies upon the idea that some are more fit to rule than others.[v] Or, consider this passage from Robert Nozick, who in the middle of his philosophical career became impressed with symbolic arguments:

Democratic institutions and the liberties that coordinate with them are simply effective means toward controlling the power of government and directing these toward matters of joint concern; they themselves express and symbolize, in an pointed and official way, our equal human dignity, our autonomy and powers of self-direction. We vote…in part as an expression and symbolic affirmation of our status as autonomous and self-governing beings whose considered judgments or even opinions have to be given equal weight to those of others.[vi]

 

Though Nozick remained a libertarian throughout his career (talk of his apostasy is incorrect) one of the things he found inadequate about his earlier expressions of that philosophy was his inattention to expressive value of politics.

Political theorists, philosophers, and laypeople have adduced an impressive range of symbolic or semiotic reasons to prefer democracy to the alternatives:

  1. Democracy is necessary to express that all citizens are equal.
  2. Democracy is necessary for proper social recognition or recognition of one’s agency.
  3. Democracy is necessary as a social basis for self-respect.
  4. Democracy is necessary as a social basis for being respected by others.
  5. Democracy is necessary for proper inclusion as a full member of society.
  6. Non-democratic structures, regardless of how well governed they are, are an affront to citizens’ dignity.

In this chapter, I argue that these kinds of symbolic, semiotic, and esteem-based claims fail to show that democratic rights have any real value to us. These do not provide good reasons to choose democracy over epistocracy, or to think that democracy is more inherently just than epistocracy.

 

 

That’s the end of the excerpt.

If you’ve read Markets without Limits or “Markets without Symbolic Limits,” you’ve seen one of the moves I end up making here. We imbue the right to vote with all sorts of symbolic value–we treat it is a metaphorical badge of equality and full membership. But we don’t have to do that. The rest of you could and should think of political power the way I do, that having the right to vote has  no more inherent special status than a plumbing license. Further, I argue that we can judge semiotic/symbolic norms by their consequences. In this case, if it turns out that epistocracy produces more substantively just results than democracy, this would mean we’re obligated to change the semiotics we attach to the right to vote, not that we’re obligated to stick with democracy because the right to vote has special meaning. I push hard on the claim that it’s probably just a contingent social construction that we imbue the right to vote with symbolic value. At least, no one has successfully shown otherwise.

I don’t say it in the book, but to be frank, my real view is this: The reason we imbue political participation and the right to vote with so much status and special symbolic significance is because we’re jerks. When Rawls and others defend semiotic arguments for democracy, I see them as lionizing assholedom. From my 2012 paper “Political Liberty: Who Needs It”:

 

I’m not just saying that we have no good reason to think this way. I want to go further: I think it’s a vile, contemptible fact about human beings that we associate dignity with political power. The fact that we associate dignity with political power—even the tiny amount of power one gets with the right to vote—is a base, disgusting feature of human psychology, a feature which morally superior people would learn to overcome.

In the U.S., new parents sometimes say, “Why knows? Maybe my child will be president!” Implicit in such daydreams is the assumption that holding political power—and holding the most political power—is the most prestigious thing one can do.

Imagine a world otherwise like ours, in which people lacked these kinds of attitudes. Instead of viewing the president as majestic, or the office of presidency as deserving reverence, they just thought of the president as the chief public goods administrator. Instead of thinking of the rights to vote and run for office as possessing a lesser kind of majesty, and as signifying membership in the national club, they thought of them as licenses akin to hairdressing or plumbing licenses. Imagine if people did not associate national status with international political power, and did not associate personal status with power.

This would be a better world than ours. We tie esteem to political power. But we shouldn’t; it has a terrible track record. Just think of the abuses and injustices entire nations, kings, emperors, presidents, senators, district attorneys, police officers, and average voters have gotten away with throughout history, all because we attach standing, reverence, and status to political power, and we defer before such majestic standing. Moreover, one reason why kings, presidents, and district attorneys commit such abuses in the first place is that they associate status with power. For example, Henry VIII’s wars had no chance of increasing his (or most of his subjects’) personal wealth or comfort. He committed these atrocities in large part because he wanted the prestige and status that attach to increased political power. Most people revere power, more than they would admit to themselves. The romance of power and authority partly explains why people have so often willing to collaborate with government-sponsored injustices.

The tendency to tie status to political power has other bad effects. Because people tend to use political power—and the right to vote in particular—as a way of signifying who is a full member of the national club and who is inferior, political power has tended to be distributed for bad reasons. For example, many countries have denied voting rights to women and ethnic minorities in order to signify their lesser status. If people had divorced standing from power, perhaps they would not have denied others their political liberties on such bad grounds.

 

 

 

 

[i] Schmidtz and Brennan 2010, 189.

[ii] Anderson 2009, p. 215.

[iii] Gilbert 2012, p. 13.

[iv] Griffin, Christopher. “Democracy as a Non-Instrumentally Just Procedure,” Journal of Political Philosophy 11 (2003): 111-21, here p. 120.

[v] Estlund 2007, 37.

[vi] Nozick 1990, 286.

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