Political Order and Political Decay

That is the title of Francis Fukuyama’s latest book. I have started reading it. So far, I would summarize it as saying that government must overcome both market failure and government failure. That is, it needs to be effective at providing public goods while serving everyone equally (not succumbing to the problems of public choice). I might summarize this as follows:

Public Goods Provided Public Goods Not Provided
Treats People Equally good government weak government
Privileges Elites crony government predatory government

Think of Denmark as good government, China as crony government, Zaire under Mobutu as predatory government, and Afghanistan as weak government. I assume that “political decay” will mean the movement from good government toward either weak government or crony government.

For a review by someone who has finished the book, see Michael Barone.

“Scott Alexander” on Political Tribalism

He writes,

How did both major political tribes decide, within a month of the virus becoming widely known in the States, not only exactly what their position should be but what insults they should call the other tribe for not agreeing with their position?

Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

Of course, my answer to his question is in The Three Languages of Politics. What Alexander calls the “red tribe” narrative does indeed have a civilization-barbarism feel, and what he calls the h”blue tribe” narrative has an “oppressor-oppressed” feel.

Anyway, read the whole piece. Another excerpt:

Daily Kos or someone has a little label saying “supports liberal ideas”, but actually their incentive is to make liberals want to click on their pages and ads. If the quickest way to do that is by writing story after satisfying story of how dumb Republicans are, and what wonderful taste they have for being members of the Blue Tribe instead of evil mutants, then they’ll do that even if the effect on the entire system is to make Republicans hate them and by extension everything they stand for.

Note that on the issue of a quarantine of countries where Ebola has broken out, the three-axes model might predict that if Ebola had broken out among Jews in Israel instead of in West Africa, there might well have been a reversal in which tribe favored quarantine. The “conservative germophobia” theory would predict otherwise.

Teenagers in the Court System

Jan Hoffman’s post

What none did, however, was exercise his constitutional rights. It was not clear whether the youths even understood them.

Therefore none had a lawyer at his side. None left, though all were free to do so, and none remained silent. Some 37 percent made full confessions, and 31 percent made incriminating statements.

These were among the observations in a recent study of 57 videotaped interrogations of teenagers, ages 13 to 17, from 17 police departments around the country. The research, published in Law and Human Behavior, adds to accumulating evidence that teenagers are psychologically vulnerable at the gateway to the criminal justice system. Youths, some researchers say, merit special protections.

reminded me of a personal experience when I sat on a jury.

At a cognitive level, the video of the detective and the defendant showed an incriminating confession, obtained by the book, without threats, intimidation, or promises. At an emotional level, it showed a teenage boy, in an awful mess, with no adult there to help him. He was polite, and almost endearing. The majority of jurors had children, and the main effect of the video was to trigger our Parent Reflex. In our particular courtroom drama, the role that many of us chose was that of the defendant’s Surrogate Parents.

It was a traumatic experience, and we let a guilty young person off. Go back and read my whole essay.

Should All Public Officials Wear Cameras?

The Washington Post editorializes,

It’s not hard to think of instances in which video evidence would do much to settle or shed light on bitter disputes about the use of force by police — think of the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Mo., this summer. And while some civil liberties groups have expressed concern about intrusive filming of citizens, that worry seems a little archaic. The truth is that anyone can be filmed in public at virtually any time, without their knowledge, given the proliferation of security and phone cameras. Their use by police is overdue.

This struck me as very David-Brin like. Could we extend it to include public officials other than police? Suppose that when they meet with bankers, for example, Fed officials had to wear cameras and audio recorders, which could be obtained by FOIA requests. Or suppose that IRS officials had to wear cameras, for example, when they wrote emails or engaged in discussions about dealing with tax-exempt groups.

The intended consequences of the camera rule would be, as with having police wear cameras, to make sure that public officials remember that they are being watched and to reduce instances where they are wrongly suspected of acting against the public interest.

What might be the averse unintended consequences of forcing high-level public officials to wear cameras and recording devices when engaged in their ordinary duties?

UPDATE: This op-ed by Jason Grumet argues that transparency has adverse unintended consequences. However, I doubt that Grumet has any grasp at all on public choice theory (not that public choice theory would make one optimistic about getting good results from using cameras).

Yuval Levin’s High-Holiday Sermon

His article is behind a paywall, but worth the $2. My notes from it:

1. Progressives and Conservatives both focus on individual freedom. Progressives a bit more on equal positive liberty, conservatives more on negative liberty.

2. Both theorize as if all you need are the right social mechanisms, and free individuals will flourish.

3. But in fact, if you don’t start with responsible, virtuous individuals, social mechanisms will not work. The miracle of this country is not our institutions but that we have citizens “generally capable of using their freedom well.”

4. Liberation from outside coercion is a shortcut to liberty. The “long way,” which Levin is writing about, is what he calls “moral formation.”

5. Although our theory often points to unlimited liberty, our practice often involves traditional restraints. For example, traditional marriage remains popular, along with its constraints.

6. Religious institutions “command us to a mixture of responsibility, sympathy, lawfulness, and righteousness that align our wants with our duties.”

Ultimately, the piece is difficult to summarize. Using my own words, he seems to me to be making a case that virtue is important for the individual and for the community, and politics provides a false path to virtue. Instead, it is the individual, aided by the traditional institutions of family, work, and faith, who must struggle with the issue of virtue.

And, yes, this should provide reinforcement to those who view the world along the civilization vs. barbarism axis, without resonating so well with libertarians or progressives. But everyone should be able to appreciate the clarity of thought and the quality of writing.

Sentences that I Might Have Written, Continued

Then there are those whom Sunstein refers to as “we.” We know this, we know that, and we know better about the way ordinary people make their choices. We are the law professors and the behavioral economists who (a) understand human choosing and its foibles much better than members of the first group and (b) are in a position to design and manipulate the architecture of the choices that face ordinary folk. In other words, the members of this second group are endowed with a happy combination of power and expertise.

That is Jeremy Waldron, and I recommend the entire essay.

Still More Sentences I Might Have Written

an ideal epistocracy would know that on some issues, democracies make better decisions. On those issues, it would consult with and defer to democratic opinion. Similarly, an ideal democracy would know that on some issues, epistocracies make better decisions. On those issues, it would consult with and defer to epistocratic opinion. Accordingly, under ideal conditions, epistocracy and democracy perform equally well.

That is Jason Brennan, paraphrasing theKling indifference theorem. Both Brennan and I were responding to Helene Landemore, who claims that democratic voting should lead to better outcomes than elite decision-making. In my comment, I said that “The whole issue boils down to who is more over-confident. If the people are over-confident, then you may want decisions made by the elite. If the elite are over-confident, then you may want decisions made by the people.” I go on to raise the Hayekian point that the elite are likely to be over-confident and hence markets are to be preferred.

I found Brennan’s most devastating criticism to be this:

If one can show that citizens are systematically mistaken, this is bad news for all three a priori defenses of democracy. If citizens are systematically mistaken, then by definition their errors are not randomly distributed, and so the so-called miracle of aggregation does not occur….According to the Jury Theorem, if citizens’ mean competence is less than 0.5, the probability that democracy will get the wrong answer approaches 1…citizens so not have cognitive diversity–they instead share the same incorrect model of the world–and so the Hong-Page Theorem does not apply.

In the real world, we do not observe direct democracy. Some people think that if we did, we would like the results.

I doubt that direct democracy is feasible. For example, we know that poll results depend on how questions are worded. So who will decide how questions are worded in a direct democracy? If it is a small group of experts, then that sort of defeats the point of direct democracy. So before people vote on a question, they have to vote on the wording of the question. And before they can do that, they have to vote on the wording of the question of how to word the question. etc.

If you can think you can solve the question-wording problem, then go on to deal with the “who decides which questions get voted on” problem.

Random Reading of Pseudonymous Authors

1. A review copy of The Mystery of the Invisible Hand, by “Marshall Jevons.” A didactic novel, better than I expected, but not as good as The Price of Everything. I did finish it. My favorite passage, though, is when the author quotes Carl Christ.

Some people think that economists care only about money. I have heard an unkind critic say that an economist is someone who would sell his grandmother to the highest bidder. This is quite wrong. An economist, or at least a good economist, would not sell his grandmother to the highest bidder unless the highest bid was enough to compensate him for the loss of his grandmother.

2. How Civilizations Die, by David P. Goldman, who writes columns as “Spengler.” Very anti-Islam, very pro-Jewish and pro-Christian, very heavy on the civilization-barbarism axis. Not a book you turn to for even-handedness or diplomacy. One representative sample:

Wherever Muslim countries have invested heavily in secondary and university education, they have wrenched their young people out of the constraints of traditional society without, however, providing them with the skills to succeed in modernity. An entire generation of young Muslims has lost its traditional roots without finding new roots in the modern world. The main consequence of more education appears to be a plunge in fertility rates within a single generation, from the very large families associated with traditional society to the depopulation levels observed in Western Europe. Suspended between the traditional world and modernity, impoverished and humiliated, the mass of educated young Muslims have little to hope for and every reason to be enraged.

I think that recent events will lead people to give more consideration to such darker outlooks. If Presidents Bush and Obama had something in common, it is that they both believed that the process of political modernization among Arab Muslims would prove simpler than it has. Bush was overly optimistic about Iraq, and Obama was overly optimistic about the revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

For a different take from the civilization-barbarism axis that is too long to excerpt but interesting, see Forfare Davis.

By the way, my Facebook feed has changed radically in recent months, with much less political snark and a surfeit of cute animal videos. Part of me wonders if something like that happened in Britain when Hitler took power in 1933. Was politics just too unpleasant to contemplate at that point?

What Else I’m Trying to Read

Jeffrey Friedman’s latest essay in Critical Review. A snippet:

On a question of values, as Max Weber recognized, one’s decision is simple, for values are matters of axiomatic faith: there one stands and can do no other. Empirical issues, while not nearly as dramatic as valence issues, are much harder to decide.

Recently, I was asked to write a short piece on why it is that economists who support a welfare state tend to also support a regulatory state, and conversely. I claim that economists have common values but differ on the empirical issue of whether or not technocrats are able to improve market outcomes. I came to take this view in part because of years-ago conversations with Friedman.

The focus of the essay is on thinking about what political actors believe. One particularly interesting issue concerns when elites hold different opinions from the democratic majority. In such cases, is it best to have a political system that defers to elites or one that defers to the majority? If you need an example, think of open borders.

The issue of Critical Review is self-recommending, but I am just getting started with it.

Possibly relevant: Cass Sunstein, who writes,

It’s not easy to solve the knowledge problem, but in the modern era, regulators are in a far better position to collect dispersed information from the public. On this view, the goal of notice-and-comment rule-making is emphatically not to conduct an opinion poll, to take some kind of political temperature, to see how much applause a proposal is able to attract, to defuse public opposition, to engage in some communications strategy, or to collect the digital equivalent of postcards (even though a number of those are sometimes sent in). Instead, the goal is overwhelmingly substantive, in a sense even Hayekian—to fill gaps in knowledge and to see what might have been overlooked. In particular, the agency’s assessment of the likely consequences of regulations is subject to close scrutiny. If the agency has inaccurately assessed costs and benefits, public participation can and often will supply a corrective. Democratization of the regulatory process, through public comment, has an epistemic value. It helps to collect dispersed knowledge and to bring it to bear on official choices.

As is often the case, I do not find Sunstein persuasive.