In Defense of Indirectness

Jason Brennan has written a book (The Ethics of Voting) in which he (apparently) makes the case that it is unethical for some people to vote.  I say “apparently,” because I haven’t read it, and so am working from a blog posting about the book (on the publisher’s website).  I’m also working more-or-less from memory, because this is less about his thesis and more about an idea it spurred in me.

To begin, Brennan argues that “most people have a moral duty to abstain from voting.”  Voting outcomes are imposed through coercion; if you (through incompetence, negligence, or malfeasance) contribute to a bad outcome that is imposed on others, you have acted unethically.  Thus, the “politically incompetent” should not vote.

This thought seems to spur all sorts of moral outrage.  But should it?  How many times have you watched a “reality” television program and thought, “Those people can vote–in elections” with a sudden accompanying depression?  The votes of those who decide how to vote based on coin flips, skin color, how “nice” the candidate’s name or appearance is, or even secret messages they find encoded in Oliver Stone films count the same as yours or mine.  Ever watch “Jaywalking” episodes with Jay Leno?  People who can’t identify our nation’s geographic neighbors or spell (let alone understand) “comparative advantage” cast votes that influence our foreign policy.  Two final words on the subject: Paris and Hilton.  If you’re not frightened by now, we truly are desensitized.

I should point out that we already make this decision in some cases.  We have decided that children should not vote, presumably because they lack the cognitive capacity or experience necessary to link consequences to actions or to appreciate their gravity.  We do not, to the best of my knowledge, allow the insane to vote (again, understanding and evaluating consequences), and felons are often excluded as well (presumably because they have already shown an inability to put common interests in peace and good order over their individual desires).

Of course, this is where the rubber hits the road: identifying those who shouldn’t vote.  I suspect this is the source of the moral outrage (or at the very least, discomfort).  Making the claim that some people shouldn’t vote carries with it the suggestion that the claimant already has a list in mind, whether based on skin color, ideology, or pocketbook (and before you make assumptions, folks have advocated both directions on most of those).  Perhaps we instinctively sense that no one should be entrusted with the power to decide who shouldn’t vote, because of the moral hazard (the incentive to do the wrong thing) involved.  After all, isn’t the fact that you don’t agree with me evidence of your faulty mental processes?  I’m sorry, Dave–I can’t let you vote that way.

In fairness to Mr. Brennan, he does not advocate someone else making that decision.  His quest is to educate voters to self-select, and is fully aware that those most likely to fail the self-administered exam are those least likely to administer it (or to administer it correctly).  My first thought, though, was that our Founders weren’t terribly convinced of the abilities of the common voter, either.  Granted, the Progressives were quite certain—after all, they voted for Progressives, so that proved they were able—and so they undid some of the protections the Founders built.

Take, for example, the idea of indirect election (such as we once used for the U.S. Senate, and tried to use for the U.S. President).  How does electing someone to elect someone change the political calculus?  I happened also to be reading The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith when a friend forwarded me the link to Brennan’s blog.  One of the points in the book is that leaders pay attention to those who are necessary to keep the leaders in power.  In autocracies, that group is smaller than in democracies, and that produces differences in policies.  Essentially, democratic leaders have to bribe much larger groups of people

Granted, the policies in democracies tend to be better for most of us than those in autocracies.  This need to provide favors to a wider range means we have less strip mining and more siphoning.  That is, rather than stripping assets (and liberty) to transfer to the inner circle (be it junta or politburo), we get budget deficits and a slow occluding of the arteries of freedom (that’s me, not BDM and Smith).

Is there, however, a way to do better?  Can we improve on the Progressive ideal of mass democracy?  Indirect elections may be able to help us.  Granted, I doubt they will be a panacea, and that’s assuming we tame the devils in the details.  After all, the Progressives campaigned to let the sunlight of popular democracy into smoky back room for a reason.  But let’s look at what we might gain, before we start filling it full of holes.

In essence, indirect election can change the question from “which candidate promises me the most?” to “which person do I trust to choose a candidate for me?”  Electors cannot promise favors once in office (assuming those chosen as electors cannot also be candidates), because their office is transitory, and consists of only one activity—casting a vote for a candidate

Likewise, the office holder does not know whose support they must cultivate, whose favor they must curry.  So long as electors are not continuing positions, but are chosen to cast a vote and discharged as soon as they have, there is no group whose particular support is necessary to staying in office.  The office holder must deliver (and the candidate endorse) policies with the broadest possible benefit, because this maximizes the likelihood that an elector will view them favorably.

The weaknesses of this are that, much like the Electoral College, electors must not be beholden to any interest, including parties.  As it stands with that institution, parties choose loyal members, and voters choose between parties.  Electors should not be able to promise how they will vote, otherwise we re-establish the link allowing office holders to identify narrower slices of the public to serve.  This will make electors not a screen for particular interests, but a conduit, and give them the incentive to bargain their services (to collude, as party machines).  This means, in all practicality, that electors should not be able to campaign.

So how do we elect people who cannot campaign?  One solution would be to select people by lot, as with juries.  We might then also wish to have voir dire, allowing opposing parties to object to particular selections, and a judge to arbitrate their objections.  Certainly not incorruptible, but a model with a respectable track record.

Another alternative would be to reduce the scale of voting.  Allow people to vote in much smaller groups, and allow them to list the three people they know whom they’d trust to vote on their behalf.  Then take the top finisher (or top few).  Electors would not need to campaign—the problem, though, is that they likely would, just informally.  Since they would know their intentions, they would have reason to contact parties or candidates for support, and again create narrow alliances in whose conflict the public good will be disregarded.

Obviously, the idea has limitations, but it also has some promise.  If only we can figure out how to hold it to its promises.

Golems Unleashed (or, a Postmodern Prometheus)

Citizens United remains a hot-button issue, it seems.  At least, I am still hearing a great deal about it, so the lag between its announcement and my chance to blog on it should not prove fatal.

Certainly, my objection to it has not changed since I first read (of) it.  I haven’t had time to nail down the technical details, but as this is not Olympic gymnastics or ice skating, I do not believe that will much affect the score.  The heart of the matter is that the court extended First Amendment political speech protection to fictitious legal individuals, limiting the regulation of donations corporations and other labor unions make to campaigns.

Here’s the problem: those aren’t individuals.

Incorporation was an amazing, important, even (pardon the pun) vital legal innovation.  I find the German term, Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung (GmbH), is the best way to explain the benefits of incorporation.  Literally, it is a society with limited liability.  You see, before incorporation, if you were a partner in a business, there was no separation between the business’ assets and yours.  So if the business had debts and went bankrupt, your personal assets were subject to seizure by creditors to pay those debts (and that used to include debtors’ prison, if your assets were insufficient).  In fact, this was true for small business owners until the more recent invention of the LCC (limited liability corporation) status, which allows an individual or small business the same benefits as incorporation, without the fuss of offering shares for sale.

The benefits, of course, are the limitation of liability to the business’ assets.  Incorporate, as a verb, means literally to put into a body.  So the law created the fictional legal person—a golem, an android, a Frankenstein’s monster, a soulless thing with human form—imbued it with some limited capabilities, and put that person in charge of the assets belonging to the business.  Then, a person was still liable for all of the business’ debts, up to and including all of the very real assets it held, but those wishing to invest risked only what they put into the pot, not everything they had.  The claims stopped with the assets that fictional person held.

This reduced the risk to investing and made a lot more capital available, and capital makes labor more productive, and increases in productivity make us all better off (though you may reserve the right to argue about the distribution if you wish—that is not the point here).  And we accomplished this by allowing an artificial and abstract individual the right to hold property and enter into contracts.  We allowed it these, however, because they were necessary to it performing its functions.

Of course, being an abstract individual, it requires real individuals to engage in its activities, to sign its name to deeds and contracts.  All of the investors could get together and decide every issue, but this is impractical in most situations, to say the least.  That is, think of getting all of Microsoft’s investors together to decide what avenues to pursue, what products to develop, which pestilences to inflict on the computing public.  The time and place to gather them would be expensive enough, let alone trying to get thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of individuals to usefully discuss and decide those things (or even ordering lunch).

So it has a board of directors, who represent the shareholders, and hire an executive to act in their stead on behalf of the whole body (apparently, they have day jobs).  Those actions include speaking on behalf of the whole body, including speaking politically by making campaign donations.  Theoretically, the board represents the interests of the corporation, and oversees the executive in pursuing those interests.  Unfortunately, however, the executive and the board may have interests that differ from those of the corporation, and even from those of each other.

To give an abstract an example, the executive and even the board may have a shorter time horizon than the (potentially immortal) corporation.  Thus, they may privilege immediate gains over long-term investment.  The executive may create a picture of health and prosperity by burning through resources, rather than husbanding them.  If the Potemkin village works, she is well on to her next (higher profile, higher paying) job when the hollowed-out corporation is left to collapse (or find Hercules to hold up its pillars long enough to rebuild what was consumed).

To make this more concrete, think of college football coaches who engage in recruiting violations to get a record that nets them a lucrative job elsewhere, and leaves the school (and the next coach) to clean up the debris from sanctions.  For that matter, think of Congressional representatives.  We likewise hire them to represent our interests when it is impractical for all of us to directly guard them (because we have day jobs, and what convention hall would hold a couple hundred million, or allow them to discuss reasonably?).  Once we elect them, their interest is in re-election; their time horizon shortens to the next election, whereas ours extends through our lifetime (if not to our progeny).

Would you then say that a Congressperson speaks on behalf of her district, and they should line up behind her?  If so, we no longer need the First Amendment.  The Constitution says that representatives may not be held liable for things they say in session, so all of our political debate can occur there.  After all, they are our representative, so they speak for all of us in the district.

I use this admittedly ridiculous picture to make this point: allowing corporations free political speech is really no more than allowing the executives of those corporations free political speech (which they already have as individuals), but with the co-opted (if partial) voices of all the shareholders (which the law otherwise forbids them to coerce).  Those shareholders already have the ability to speak, as does the executive.  All Citizens United does is allow some to pretend to have a much louder voice than they really do.

So, for example, union leaders get to co-opt some of their members’ voices to increase the leader’s volume, without having to adopt what the members would actually say.  It is not safe to assume that what the executive advocates is automatically in the interest of the whole group, either in labor unions or in other corporations.  If the executive is advocating the interest of the whole, she should be able to enlist the whole, and would not need the ability to force their speech.  It would be as silly as giving Elizabeth Warren or Barak Obama the right to speak on behalf of public goods like transportation networks and educational systems, to which they have no more claim than the other shareholders.

That is why the golem does not speak; pretending it can allows one person to use the power of many, separated from the will of those many.  As with Frankenstein’s monster so as with Hayek’s road, that hubris goes before destruction.

I would add that it frightens me to consider that political speech is necessary to the purpose of a corporation.  It is certainly necessary to lobbying, but hardly to limiting liability or productively using capital.  To say that it is essential to the purpose of a corporation is to admit that the line between private enterprise and public administration no longer exists.  I think that may well be true, but I find this no solution; the solution would be to make political speech (read: influence) inessential to running a business.  I could swear somebody tried that once.

You Didn’t Build That, Either

I have heard enough from Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama about the debts entrepreneurs owe to the rest of us.  The fact that we did not dismiss this nonsense out of hand says poor things about our abilities to reason and our senses of fairness.  Since the idea keeps lingering, however, my outrage has finally prompted action: venting uselessly on a blog no one reads (in fairness, because either the posting intervals are measured in parts of a year, not parts of a week, or the writing is evaluated in terms of rotten produce hurled).

Let us begin with the idea that the rest of us build transportation networks or public educational systems (I say “educational,” because the amount of education involved often varies) for the benefit of businesses.  We build them for our benefit.  There are two fallacies here: that the rest of us do not benefit from transportation networks or education, and that businesses are not part of us.

That is, the road a business ships their goods on benefits me.  In the first place, it benefits me because they ship their goods on it—and that means those goods are in markets.  Because of those roads, I can access those markets, and can get the necessities—and even the luxuries—of life with far less time, trouble, and expense.  Businesses could well decline public roads, and build their own.  The cost of that, however, would be reflected in the goods they were selling, and I would be able to afford a lot less of them, lowering my standard of living.

Moreover, I would not be able to use those private roads without paying a fee.  That is, in the second place, I benefit from roads regardless of whether businesses ever use them or not.   Public roads are paid for with compulsory fees, but I don’t have to stop and pay them every 3 miles.  (The fact that they are bundled with other services masks the cost and allows the provider to extract rents a competitive market would not, but that’s a story for a different time.)  I haven’t done the exact math, but I’m pretty sure the gain in time and efficiency to the rest of us—those of us going to work, to visit family members, to church, to shop—makes the utility of public roads to non-businesses a fairly safe assumption (or at least, not an heroic one).

The same, of course, is true of education.  Though misguided administrators have often tried to appeal to the utility to business of an educated workforce, that is far from the only justification for public education.  It has utility—or at least, offers utility—to all students, as humans and as citizens, aside from roles as workers or entrepreneurs.

Which brings us to the second fallacy.  Entrepreneurs are part of society, too.  They helped pay for those roads and teachers with their taxes, too.  Even corporations, those fictional legal individuals who are not part of society, helped pay for those goods and services with the taxes they paid.   They can hardly be said to still owe the rest of us when they were part of the “us” who paid.

In fact, let us look at this a bit closer.  If businesses have used these endowments to produce socially useful things (and if we voluntarily purchase them, we must believe they increase our well-being in some facet), what’s your excuse?  Everyone (or more than nearly enough so) has access to these endowments, on the same terms.  If these variables are so important, why haven’t more of those who enjoy them made such productive use of them?

This is what puts the lie to the “you didn’t build it” nonsense.  If these are key factors in success, they are publicly and broadly available ones. In other words, they do not vary between highly productive and less productive citizens (for example, politicians).  One need not have a great deal of instruction in methodology to understand that constants cannot explain variation.  Since the same elements are present in successful and non-successful cases, they cannot explain the variation.  So why have you, Ms. Warren and Mr. Obama, not created successful businesses?

Let us go one step further.  You did not build those roads or schools, either.  What gives you the right to then make a claim on others for their building?  You probably paid less than most of the businesses you’re attacking, but they belong equally to all citizens, including entrepreneurs.  You have no greater claim to them, or to speak for them, than any other.  In fact, there’s a good chance you have less.

In fact, let’s turn your logic on the publicly-owned resource you’ve made careers from.  Taxes are what pay for your government programs (and your government salaries).  You didn’t build that government, you didn’t fund those programs.  Businesses pay the incomes that government taxes; businesses create and sell the goods and services that government taxes.  The one thing you’d have left without businesses—property—would be worth a whole lot less without them.  Without businesses, you wouldn’t have the public treasury that fuels your activity.

So don’t you owe them something?  Let’s start with an apology.

Employer Knows Best

One of the potential benefits of the blog medium is its immediacy, that is, the ability of authors to respond quickly to current events. As you’ll have noticed (with my semi-annual posting schedule), I don’t get to take advantage of this facet very often. And this posting is no different, because the events that provoked it are no longer current.

Basically, the problem is this. As you can read here, Liverpool striker Nathan Eccleston tweeted (in rather poor English, but then, it was Twitter) to the effect that he did not believe terrorists had committed the attacks on September 11, 2001. He implied that the Illuminati were involved, and later (in a subsequent tweet) referred to the “accident” on 9/11.

His club, Liverpool, responded that “The club takes this matter extremely seriously and senior club officials have informed [him] that we are undertaking an investigation into the circumstances surrounding these postings and will decide on an appropriate course of action.” My question is: why is the club taking this seriously, let alone extremely so? Okay, so that’s just the first question, because I have more: why does this require an investigation, and why does the “appropriate course of action” seem to require one?

Let’s start with the proposition that Mr. Eccleston is wrong. I don’t think that requires any heroic assumptions. Why is it a serious matter that a footballer (as they are called in the English Premier League) said something both wrong and stupid? If he is wrong, the appropriate response is to place the evidence which falsifies his claim in public view. I would argue that it has been well and truly so placed, which makes Mr. Eccleston’s argument stupid besides. In that case, the appropriate response is to ignore it; Mr. Eccleston has provided his own punishment by making himself look stupid in public.

In other words, why does the club feel the need to take this seriously? The obvious response is, in the immortal words of Tow Mater, “to not to.” To dignify that remark with a response only provides more fodder for the conspiracy theory behind it. Evidently, the Illuminati also own Liverpool F.C., and wish to silence him before he spills any more “truth.”

Granted, John Henry owns Liverpool F.C., and he also owns the Boston Red Sox. Liverpool’s nickname is “the Reds,” making “Red” a prominent theme. Reds, of course, also refers to communists, who are renowned for their ability to conspire. So John Henry must be a member of the Illuminati…

First, if this is the plot of the next Dan Brown book, I will sue. Second, note how easy it is to select parts of a picture and spin connections between them into a pattern (that will be part of the next Dan Brown book, but then, it’s been a part of all the others, so I can hardly sue about that—except, perhaps, for intentional infliction of methodological harm). Third, it’s ridiculous, and the appropriate response to the ridiculous is…ridicule. Granted, the public will provide that, so Liverpool need only gentlemanly stand to the side and let nature (in this case, human) take its course.

After all, Liverpool does not employ Mr. Eccleston for his astute analysis of world events. They hired him to kick a ball into the back of a net, in spite of the best efforts of similarly talented people. If Mr. Eccleston purchases a Soviet automobile and proclaims to all of his friends that it is superior to all others—whether via Twitter or otherwise—it reflects on Mr. Eccleston’s good sense (or lack thereof—then again, it’s not like he bought a French car), not the club’s. It is cause to call him an idiot (or quietly let others do it), not cause for an inquest.

This reaction is disturbing. Employers seem to have come to the conclusion that all of their employees’ actions reflect on the employers, not merely the actions which the employees undertake pursuant to that employment. Mr. Eccleston has every right to believe whatever stupid thing he wishes; those offended have every right to point out how and why it is stupid (though ideally in more polite terms). If he made those comments are part of a post-match press conference, if he shouted them from the pitch during warm-ups, or pulled up his shirt after scoring and pointed to them (painted in pink body paint) on his chest, Liverpool could chastise him for dragging them down with him.

If, however, we except the claim that—because media often use employment as a descriptor, presumably to help avoid confusion with others who might share a name—people will always link the employee’s words and actions to the employer, and that the employer therefore has a right (even a duty) to control those words and actions, a responsibility for what the employee does outside of the workplace…where will we end? Certainly, we will have left freedom of speech stillborn in a public lavatory. What next, though? Employers will dictate what cars one may purchase, monitor employee driving habits—because unsafe cars and poor driving may lead to accidents, and having employees who have accidents would reflect poorly on the firm? Where or whether one may go to church, because most people find that religion of yours to be a bunch of hokum?

Everyone has an employer, one way or the other. The CEO answers to the board; the board (theoretically) answers to stockholders, who usually have different bosses all their own (with different boards). The company answers to consumers, most of whom work for some other company. The President and Congress answer (theoretically) to voters, who are those same consumers. Perhaps we will finally have reached Rousseau’s nirvana, and all be equally enslaved to each other, and thus free. To quote another Frenchman, however, “For myself, if I feel the hand of power heavy on my brow, I am little concerned to know who it is that oppresses me; I am no better inclined to pass my head under the yoke because a million men hold it for me.”

Dann Kommt der Krieg zu Dir

In a rare fit of public service—no, I haven’t been convicted of anything—I need to bring some self-awareness to the automobile drivers of America.  We all enjoy funny bumper stickers; you can laugh with them, or at them, so no matter your ideology, you get a chuckle.  Think of your own reactions to other people’s bumper stickers.  Preachy bumper stickers—ones that convey your sense of moral and intellectual superiority—tend to back-fire.  That is, you don’t end up convincing anyone, and no one’s laughing with you (though some of us will be laughing at you).

Case in point: a bumper sticker I saw recently in traffic.  It proclaimed that “You cannot simultaneously prepare for and prevent war.”  Now, to those of us who actually know something about the topic, it just makes you look stupid (much like this blog’s effect on me).  Because although this did not come from the lips of the President, it is still a progressive statement to which the most appropriate response is that progressive slogan, Yes We Can!

In those immortal words, let me explain.  In order to prevent others from attacking, one must convince them that attacking you will be more costly than beneficial.  The only ways to do this are to make yourself so wretched that the benefit is too minimal to justify any expenditure of effort—and for many years, one might have thought North Korea was pursuing this strategy—or to make the effort required to conquer you too great for any benefit to be enough.

Of course, since the greater the wretchedness of your condition, the less the effort required to beat you, the first is a difficult race to win.  Beyond that, it requires a degree of self-destructive zeal that healthy humans don’t have.  The second alternative, though, has been a constant in human history.  And the means to accomplishing it, to raising the cost of an attack, are precisely to prepare for war, whether with defensive armament (fortifications) or offensive (nuclear explosives).

In fact, the long (if nervous) peace in the last century resulted from this logic.  Mutual Assured Destruction meant that, because each side knew the other could make the consequences of an attack unbearable for the attacker, no one had any desire to attack.  Note that this required each to maintain a preparation for war.  Even in a single-power context, such as the Pax Romana, it was the overwhelming military might of Rome that preserved peace in the empire.  No one dared to poke the bear.

Nor does this come as news, to any who care to pay attention to more than the moral superiority their outrage allows them to imagine.  I may have mentioned this before, because it’s one of my favorite snarks about hippies (original and recycled).  This bumper sticker comes from the idea that it takes two to make war; if one side refuses to fight, there will be no war.  This simply isn’t so; it may be short (see France, World War II), but war there will be.  Imagine there’s a war, and no one goes, as Bertolt Brecht asks.  Brecht—hardly a part of the capitalist war machine—did not blanche from answering his request: then the war comes to you.

Another slogan with selective amnesia syndrome.

On Selective Slogan Amnesia

Well, at least I blog more often than Haley’s Comet.  Then again, he only gets Wi-Fi access like what, every 76 years?  Somewhere, there’s a graveyard containing all the brilliant blog ideas I’ve had but never got to write.  And somewhere, kids avoid it, not because it’s haunted—which would be way too cool—but because it’s completely square and boring.

One idea at least I can save from that graveyard, an idea for which I can thank our President (of the United States, not the university).  Several weeks ago—I’m guessing two—I heard our President say on television, “We cannot cut our way to prosperity.”  Being an inveterate smart aleck, my first thought was: Yes We Can!

One of the things that annoy me about politics is the propensity for people to make statements about the world with the apparent belief that their conviction necessarily makes it so.  (In fairness, it irritates me everywhere.)  I mean, I can say a lot of things with conviction that aren’t necessarily so.  And the President’s statement rests on a common delusion among politicians: if the government doesn’t spend money, it doesn’t get spent.

Perhaps this represents a disconnection of macroeconomics from microeconomics, and is evidence of over-specialization in yet another field.  Microeconomics studies individual behavior; macroeconomics looks at the aggregated results of that behavior, the big picture, so to speak.  The President is thinking in purely macroeconomic terms, and as a macro event, the national economy requires an aggregated, macro actor to influence it.  So if the government doesn’t spend the money, it has no effect.

As microeconomics reminds us, though, the economy is actually made up of lots of individual decisions.  When government does not collect and spend money, it remains in the hands of those individual deciders.  (Yes, that’s right: in the economy, we are all the deciders.)  And if recent history is any guide, those individuals have absolutely no problem spending.

Let us assume for a moment the opposite, however.  Say individuals don’t spend their money.  So long as they do not bury it in a can in the backyard, it still serves to stimulate the economy, because they put it in a bank.  The bank doesn’t bury it in the backyard either, but lends it to people who want to do something productive with it (productive enough to pay the bank and you for the use of it, and still have it be worthwhile for them).

Both of these outcomes are superior to government collecting the money and spending it (in most cases), for at least two reasons.  First, the government has a great deal more friction, or deadweight-loss; some of the money is dissipated in the paperwork and administration necessary to collect and spend it.  Second, when the government has the pooled resources at its command, it has the ability to influence behavior—to make, rather than take, prices.  That is, it can drive the market.  Although the aggregated behavior of large groups of consumers, savers, lenders, and borrowers can do the same, they are not organized.  None of the individuals in the group can wield the clout of the entire group.

Obviously, there are some exceptions.  There are times when we want the government to do that.  The independent decisions of all those individuals will not usually produce enough defense, for example, because of free-riding problems.  So we want the government to use the coerced collective clout of tax dollars to cudgel that market a little (though again, since the number of players in that market becomes small—one consumer and few producers—other problems crop up).  Consumers can display herd behavior, rushing lemming-like off the cliffs of Britney Spears albums or collectible dinner plates.

For simply increasing productivity in a market, though, government spending is inferior to private action, because less bang comes from each buck.  Again, this is in a general sense, and the size of the federal budget, deficit, and debt do not encourage the idea that we are asking too little of government.  So, to return to the rebuttal of the President’s claim (with the President’s own slogan), we can cut our way to prosperity, whether as a country or as individuals.  If individuals dispose of their resources directly, cutting out the bureaucratic middle-man as it were, the same amount of resources will usually have more effect.

Even in a macroeconomic sense, though, reducing debt would be a way of cutting ourselves to prosperity.  That is, let us assume that the government does not decrease revenues, but simply decreases expenditures.  If we cut spending to meet revenues, we stop borrowing money (which is more expensive to use than current money).  If we pay off debt, it frees up money going to service interest for other purposes (or to be left in the hands of the laborers who earn it).  Either way, we get more for the same amount of resources.

So yes, Mr. President.  Yes we can.

In Which Our Hero Continues His Pursuit of a Ph.D. in English

So long as I am offering iconoclastic interpretations of iconic literature, I thought I might make a brief series out of it. And, in so doing, radically alter the average number of posts this year. Oh, and, uh, people’s perceptions, too. Yeah, definitely those. So just post-date this one to Christmas (and remember that I have dibs on this for my English dissertation).

You have surely read or heard of Ebenezer Scrooge, from Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. Or seen one of the movie adaptations. Or heard the radio play. Or seen the musical. On ice. Ebenezer Scrooge has become a byword for the justification for wealth redistribution. The lesson, we are told, is that we should all care enough about our fellow man to support welfare programs. Only people who are as hard-hearted as Scrooge would object to welfare programs, would begrudge the honest and hard-working Bob Cratchit a living wage, or Tiny Tim the simple preventative care that will save him.

First, if this were intended as an argument for public policy, it would be the single most egregious example of stacking a deck or manipulating evidence (or for that matter, emotions). Bob Cratchit wouldn’t drink away public assistance down at the pub (and only a Scrooge would suggest the possibility), and he wouldn’t use it to purchase lottery tickets or bet on horse races, or to make food out of questionable animal organs covered in gravy of suspect provenance. (Hey, it has to go in the list of British vices.) Bob Cratchit was a paragon of virtue, unlike most of us (and yes, liberals, “us” includes you).

And therefore no one would suggest that Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit might bear some responsibility for their situation. Bob didn’t make bad career decisions, or spend his time in school vandalizing books rather than reading them. It would be heartless to suggest that perhaps they could have stopped procreating sooner—who would deny them the happiness of another child?

That is to say, if this is evidence to support a policy claim, it is a single case, and a rather exceptional one at that. However, I would argue that Bob Cratchit is not offered as evidence to advocate for a public policy. The focus is indeed on an individual case, but it is not Bob Cratchit. It is advocacy, but not for public policy.

Read the original story. Scrooge’s retort to the men soliciting on behalf of a charity is very telling. “Are there no workhouses?” he asks. For those unfamiliar with history, workhouses were the public welfare system in Victorian England. Those with no other place to stay could check themselves in and out; the workhouses provided barracks-like housing and meals, but those who stayed there were organized into work crews to maintain the grounds and prepare the meals (at least, if I remember the details correctly).

Surely the workhouses were not pleasant places, but Dickens is not making a plea for their reform; he is making a plea to make them redundant. That is, his focus is on Scrooge as an individual, not on public policy. The lesson the ghosts teach Scrooge is about him and the state of his heart. In other words, if men privately, individually, voluntarily took care of the needs of the less fortunate, they would learn to be better people, and we would not need government to coerce charity. As Hayek reminds us, forced charity has no merit.

Indeed, the only lesson Dickens seems to offer on public welfare is that it provides an excuse for the hard-hearted not to change their ways. After all, as Scrooge says, the government has already taken my money to provide for the less fortunate. They are no longer my concern. In other words, public provision of charity crowds out private provision.

That loss of fellow-feeling, that permission to withdraw from society and isolate oneself, is a phenomenon Tocqueville calls individualism. It will, he warns, cause a society to fall apart, and increasing equality only encourages it. It is to combat this that he recommends both associations and religion, which turn the attention away from the self and toward others. Or, to paraphrase Dickens, that teach us to keep Christmas—the season of considering others before ourselves—all year round.

The lesson of Scrooge is that public provision of welfare reinforces the hard-hearted, that only the change of an individual’s heart to produce voluntary action can make a difference in the world. Note that all of Scrooge’s actions, once reformed—the actions that, to borrow from Dr. Seuss, involved his heart growing three sizes—were individual, voluntary sacrifices.

And that may be the very first time Dickens has been accused of promoting classical rather than modern liberalism.

Of Revenue and Robin Hood (and Reagan and Rand)

Ah, springtime: when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love, and a middle-aged man’s to thoughts of taxes.

I was recently reading a tax advice column for professors, in which the advisor first professed his own satisfaction at knowing that the taxes he paid went to those less fortunate. At some point, of course, he trotted out the inevitable Robin Hood reference. Somehow, poor Robin has become the patron saint of socialism, enlisted in liturgy and iconography to establish the justice of wealth redistribution. I still have a paperback I bought in the German Democratic Republic: Robin Hood, the Avenger of Sherwood. Even in Communist countries, he was the believable action hero to win the hearts and minds of youth to the cause (after all, Lenin was too short and Marx too hirsute to have been credible action heroes—and most importantly, they were too academic).

This patron saint, however, turns out to have been something of a heretic. A heretic, moreover, who proves that socialists have a poor grasp of either politics, history, or literacy, but a firm one on agitprop. Everyone remembers the tagline: steal from the rich and give to the poor. Those who have bothered to read the legends, however, or who bother to think about the politics or history of the time, know that the implications socialists like to draw from this are simply untrue.

Like the best lies, it begins with a grain of truth. The people from whom Robin took money were wealthy. And the people to whom he gave it were not. What is missing from the picture, however, is how the wealthy got the money. They were not capitalists, who increased productivity so that there was more for everyone. They were aristocrats in the time of aristocracy—they were the government. And the money Robin reclaimed had been extracted in the form of taxes. That’s right: Robin stole from the government and gave to the taxpayer.

So Robin Hood was a tea partier before tea parties were cool, and one who did better than destroy a shipment of tea. He actually returned the money to those whose lives the tax burden was crushing to a fine powder. Robin Hood was…Ronald Reagan?

And Robin Hood was a visionary and rebel. He called those who would be free of the depredations of a paternalist government to form a society of their own, one outside of the boundaries of normal society, hidden to protect it, and based on rugged individualism. Robin Hood was…John Galt?

Robin Hood is a hero of the American Revolution, or should be, and not a hero of the Russian one. It is time we reclaimed this man not afraid to live outside the color of the law when the law became oppressive, who stood up through voluntary organization for self-determination, the right to keep and bear arms, and against extortionate tax rates as the libertarian hero he was, is, and always shall be.

There–you can have the soapbox back now.

Of Hockey Players and Hellstorms

It never ceases to amaze how quickly the rust accrues on the mental gears involved in writing. As you might guess from a quick look at the date of the previous posts, I find myself in such a state. And I hesitate to grind all of the rust off, knowing that the hellstorm of finals is about to descend; I would perhaps be better served to conserve the energy for dodging chunks of brimstone as they rain down on me.

Nevertheless, we must often do what is right, even when it is not expedient. And speaking of inconvenient truths and the end of the world, let’s talk global warming for a moment. Perhaps you have heard of the recent scandal involving emails from the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia University. I find this response from some of the actors involved at to be the most revealing.

The author correctly points out that the materials in question do not show a conspiracy, that give-and-take is normal in science, and that the scientific community (he may mean simply “the global warming community”) is not the monolith as which it is sometimes presented. But he misses several points. For example, just as he cites the non-monolithic nature of science, he then reverts to claims of “scientific consensus,” claiming monolithic agreement on global warming (and thus justification for marginalizing dissent—the stuff that makes monoliths into polyliths).

And this goes to the heart of the matter—what the emails and documents DO show.

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Mr. Spock and Child-Rearing

Dr. Benjamin Spock is the child-rearing expert, Mr. Spock is the Vulcan science officer from Star Trek. Regardless of how you feel about the good doctor, it appears that Vulcans make lousy sources for child-rearing principles.
I have in mind a story a student relayed to me this past spring. I must admit that I was not present during these events, so what I tell you is hearsay. A second student confirmed what the first said, and I know both to be honest, so I have no reason to doubt the story. What happened is this: in a biology class, discussion led the professor to comment on the advisability—I’d go so far as to say necessity—of regulating research involving human subjects.
I’m not sure what studies the professor discussed to demonstrate the importance of research ethics and regulatory oversight, but I imagine they had something to do with pharmaceuticals, given the response I am about to relate. It seems that a couple of students in the class challenged not the oversight of ethics in research with human subjects, but the ethic which that oversight seeks to maintain: that all participants should take part voluntarily and knowing the risks they will entertain along the way.
The students argued that researchers should be able to use homeless and incarcerated subjects without their knowledge or consent.

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