Charles Murray is Revolting

I have just started his latest book, By the People. You may have heard that he calls for civil disobedience against excessive government. I am wondering how he would handle two objections.

1. How will the other side respond? I could see progressives engaging in civil disobedience, also. In fact, if conservatives were to win in 2016, I expect to see the emergence of a very large, and possibly violent, protest movement. If conservatives/libertarians were to set a precedent of disobeying laws, then I think this would encourage progressives to disobey laws. For example, they might decide that laws protecting property rights are unjust, and proceed to “liberate” the possessions and homes of the one percent.

2. Would civil disobedience not leave most progressive policies untouched? Social Security, Medicare, and the core of regulation surely would remain. At best, the protests would work against the silliest, least significant regulations.

3. Civil disobedience is ultimately a form of voice. Libertarians should be focusing on ways to increase the opportunity for exit.

Jonathan Rauch Hearts John Boehner

Rauch has a new e-book (free, at least as of the other day, when I downloaded it) called Political Realism. He argues that progressive political reforms have had adverse unintended consequences. In particular, they have made life more difficult for John Boehner.

Rauch relies on a distinction between professional and amateur politicians, a distinction for which he credits James John Q. Wilson. The pros just want to stay in power, and they will compromise on principles in order to keep it. The amateurs are ideologues.

Rauch argues that seemingly well-intentioned reforms have weakened political parties and thereby strengthened the amateurs. The reforms include attempts to require transparency in government, to restrict campaign finance, to curb earmarks, and to give ordinary voters more power to choose candidates via primaries.

The major unintended consequence of these reforms has been polarization and gridlock. Because the professionals are no longer free to manage the political process, government has become ineffective. Rauch argues that we should dial back the reforms that weaken the party pros and instead think in terms of reforms that strengthen them.

If you believe, as Rauch does, that the professionals would govern more effectively if given more slack, then his argument goes through. However, I am not sure that I buy into that assumption.

I can see one issue–entitlement reform–on which a compromise among professionals could have beneficial effects. But the unsustainable system of entitlements was built by those very professionals whom Rauch extols. My cynical take is that the professionals are good at compromising on the use of other people’s money, most especially when the other people are too young to vote or not even yet born.

If you ask me, the single most consequential political act of my lifetime is likely to be President Obama’s decision to throw the Bowles-Simpson recommendations under the bus. That may have destroyed the last chance to prevent a budget train wreck. Yet Rauch believes that Obama is one of the good guys, a professional able to compromise.

Obama’s professionalism, according to Rauch, is illustrated by the way that health care reform involved compromising with various interests. But if Obamacare is your poster child for professional politics, you are not going to convince me to jump on board the Rauch bandwagon.

As you can tell, my feelings about the book are mixed. I think that the main points are insightful. I see those as

1. Professional politicians are better able to compromise if amateur ideologues are less influential.

2. Progressive reforms have worked to empower amateur ideologues.

However, I do not share Rauch’s optimism for what the professionals might accomplish if they had their way.

Stability of Government

In this essay, I write,

Ultimately, it is the cultural beliefs of citizens that determines whether a limited-access order or an open-access order can remain stable. For a limited-access order, the necessity is for citizens to give enough legitimacy to the monarch to enable the monarch to rule without having to give way to an open-access order. For an open-access order the necessity is for citizens to withhold legitimacy from the government when it tries to expand too much.

Since I first composed that essay, I have come to think that open-access orders have two sources of stability. One is the fact that nearly everyone feels that they have a stake in the system. The other source is the set of norms and beliefs that had to develop to make an open-access order possible in the first place. Those layers of beliefs provide a strong counter-weight to disorderly political activism.

Michael Strong Asks a Question

He asks,

Has Romer “thought seriously” about a large scale government that can put people in jail? Not to mention ubiquitous police abuse and civil rights violations.

Apparently, Paul Romer is skeptical of private police forces.
My thoughts:

1. Suppose I were to fly to Honduras for a vacation, and I encounter individuals in uniforms who have the power to enforce laws, including putting me in jail. Would I prefer that those individuals be employed by elected officials or by a private corporation? It is not obvious to me that I should place more confidence in the former.

Actually, I think that most people are like Romer in that it does appear obvious to them that police accountable to elected officials will be more trustworthy than private police. This could be a self-fulfilling equilibrium. If people believe that their voice gives them status under a state, they may be more inclined to obey the laws of that state. When people confer legitimacy on the police and the state, the police need to employ less violence in doing their jobs. This reinforces the trust that people place in the state.

2. FOOL rules. I think that the issue of the power to put people in jail illustrates the importance of Fear Of Others’ Liberty. When one thinks of it as “the power to put me in jail,” it seems hard to trust anyone with that power. But when one thinks of it as the power to put an incorrigibly destructive person in jail, one wants someone to have that power. For example, I bet that if you took a public opinion poll after the non-stop television coverage of riots in Baltimore, the support for police incarcerating those involved would have been overwhelming.

Because of FOOL, I think that most people are willing to tolerate the existence of police and of punishment, including incarceration. I think that once you accept that those institutions will be present in a society, the best one can hope for is that laws are just and that they are justly enforced. I do not think that we can reach an ideal in practice, but I would like to see competitive forces at work. It seems to me that if we had competitive government with free movement of people and businesses, then perhaps places where laws are unjust or enforced capriciously would tend to lose population. Or perhaps one might see a pattern where different laws are considered just by different cultures.

3. If you think about how people actually choose where to live, they tend to place a high priority on avoiding areas with reputations for a lot of crime. This tends to produce a population distribution in which some areas are safe and affluent, while other areas are relatively dangerous and also poor. Police work in the former is relatively simple, and police work in the latter is relatively difficult.

4. As an aside, note that the three-axes model has predicted the reactions to the events in Baltimore among progressives, conservatives, and libertarians with uncanny accuracy.

Joseph Heath on the Roots of Conservatism

He writes,

There is of course a much-observed tension between the cultural-evolutionary and the free-market versions of conservatism, particularly since the untrammelled free market is the most effective device for destroying traditional institutions that has ever been devised by man. Most of what cultural conservatives and religious fundamentalists hate about the modern world – the rootlessness, hedonism, crass commercialism, loose sexual morality, anti-authoritarianism, and general lack of discipline – is either a direct product of the market, or is a tendency that is dramatically amplified by it. What brings the cultural and the market conservative together is the conviction that these unplanned processes are better than the alternative, which is “social engineering” in the rationalist style.

Read the whole thing. I arrived at it starting from Alex Tabarrok’s link.

Thinking about the quoted paragraph in terms of the three-axes model, I would say that there is a tension about markets in the civilization vs. barbarism axis. A conservative would view productive work as civilized, and markets encourage productive work. However, a conservative would worry that consumer tastes are barbaric, and markets work to satisfy consumer tastes.

Another way in which the market process is civilized from a conservative perspective is that businesses fail. Failure builds character because it reinforces humility. It keeps us from developing too high an opinion of ourselves as individuals or of humanity as a whole. (David Brooks’ latest book, The Road to Character, which I have started reading, seems to stress humility.) In contrast, progressives seem to see government as a tool to eliminate all forms of failure.

Yuval Levin on the Roots of Conservatism

He writes,

Conservatives tend to see the human person as an incorrigible mass of contradictions: a fallen and imperfect being created in a divine image, a creature possessed of fundamental dignity and inalienable rights but prone to excess and to sin and ever in need of self-restraint and moral formation. This elevated yet gloomy conception of man, deeply informed by the peculiar, paradoxical wisdom of the West’s great religions, sets conservatives apart from libertarians and progressives alike, and sits at the core of most conservative thinking about society and politics.

Don’t worry, he does get to civilization vs. barbarism.

A failure to initiate the next generation of children into the ways of civilization would not only delay or derail innovation but also put into question the very continuity of that civilization. This is why conservatives rarely imagine that our society is on the verge of utopia and frequently (perhaps too frequently) imagine it is on the verge of a breakdown. And it is a crucial reason why conservatives care so deeply about culture.

Another excerpt:

An enormous portion of the conservative worldview becomes clearer when we see the importance this view places on cultural continuity as a function of generational transmission—on the inescapable responsibilities human procreation imposes on each generation. An enormous portion of the progressive worldview becomes clearer when we see the degree to which it is shaped by a desire to be liberated from these obligations—and from the implications of the basic facts and character of human procreation. Many of what we loosely call the “social issues” in our politics involve debates about whether such a liberation is possible or desirable—whether the word choice can be poured like an acid over traditional social arrangements, burning all links of obligation and duty and making responsibility merely optional.

And another:

Conservatives tend not to share in the progressive confidence in technical expertise, doubting that any group of experts could ever have enough knowledge to pull off the feats of management and administration that the Left expects government to achieve.

I have not yet excerpted the parts of the essay that I like the best.

Several of the comments on the essay, many of them critical, are also worth reading. I think that these criticisms reflect the way that many on the right feel that they were “burned” by George W. Bush, who as a candidate appeared to embody many of the intentions of what Levin calls reform conservatism.

1. On domestic policy, what the Bush Administration considered to be tactical concessions turned out to be strategic defeats. No Child Left Behind is a poster child for that. This leads to a question of whether reform conservatism is feasible in practice, or whether it is doomed to founder on progressivism’s “home field advantage” in Washington.

2. Although as a candidate Mr. Bush scorned nation-building, he and other conservatives undertook a costly nation-building exercise in Iraq. Many people do not trust reform conservatives to exercise sound judgment and humility in dealing with barbarism beyond our shores.

I think that if reform conservatives want to overcome the skepticism of others on the Right, they will have to acknowledge this baggage and address these two concerns.

I Wish I Knew More About the Wisconsin John Doe Investigations

David French writes,

For dozens of conservatives, the years since Scott Walker’s first election as governor of Wisconsin transformed the state — known for pro-football championships, good cheese, and a population with a reputation for being unfailingly polite — into a place where conservatives have faced early-morning raids, multi-year secretive criminal investigations, slanderous and selective leaks to sympathetic media, and intrusive electronic snooping.

That is not the way that the story has been covered elsewhere. For example, here is Wisconsin Public Radio six months ago.

As others were charged and convicted in what eventually became known as “John Doe One,” Democrats increasingly tried to make sure Gov. Scott Walker was politically wounded, partly because the probe grew to include people who were helping Republican election efforts in 2010 while working for Milwaukee County.

The heat on the governor grew again over the past 12 months, after news of “John Doe 2” came out. That second investigation looked into alleged illegal campaign coordination in 2011 and 2012 between Walker, other Republicans and the conservative group Wisconsin Club for Growth.

Obviously, French’s account is meant to arouse libertarian ire. However, there is nothing in the WPR account that would suggest anything other than a legitimate, successful probe into political corruption.

Are there any progressives willing to believe French’s version? Are there any conservatives or libertarians willing to believe WPR’s version?

What I’m Re-reading

Violence and Social Orders, by North, Weingast, and Wallis. A major theme is that there are natural states, or limited-access orders, in which only a minority of the population enjoys political rights and economic opportunity. One quote:

One of the principal institutional issues that emerged in this chapter concerned the problems of constraining personality: putting the king under the law. At the level of societies, the head of the dominant coalition–whether the pope or the Catholic Church, the emperor of Rome, or the king of a European state–reflects the realities of these natural states: the ruler is often above the law. This allows him or her to adjust the rules, privileges, rights, and laws to suit the needs of the coalition as the fortunes of various elites rise and fall. Elites gaining power must be granted more privileges and rents while those losing power also lose privileges and rents. The rules is not free to make these decisions at his discretion, but must instead attempt to maintain a coalition to support the natural state. Failure to do so risks coups, civil war, and other forms of disorder.

In an open-access order, where essentially all adults have political rights and economic opportunity, the challenge of bringing the head of state under the law has presumably been met. Sometimes, I am not so sure.

Also, consider another quote:

Party competition forces parties to compromise and to moderate interest group and constituency demands. Rent-creation cannot be the primary product of party competition in open-access orders. . .Because parties need to gain the support of many interests, they must temper the (rent-creating) demands of each, lest the associated extreme positions hinder the party’s electoral prospects.

If the authors are not careful, they will seem to have explained why the sugar lobby and the real estate lobby are ineffective in the U.S. and why the teachers’ union is ineffective in Maryland. They will have explained why we have such a simple tax code, and why it is so easy for unlicensed health care providers and unaccredited schools to gain traction.

. . .the interests active on any issue are endogenous. If a group attempts to extract too much, then other groups who are not normally active on an issue are likely to begin paying attention and become active. . .The endogenous approach suggests that a few open access order markets might be cartelized and protected, such as agriculture, and certain markets regulated to produce rents, such as airlines in mid-century United States. However, these markets are the exception, not the rule.

They wish to claim that rent-preservation is the essence of limited-access orders, but it is incidental and held in check under open-access orders. Perhaps they could cite Uber’s so-far successful breakthrough into the transportation market as an example in which the open-access order was able to activate enough support for Uber to prevent its destruction by incumbent taxi companies.

However, reading these passages, I found myself inclined to disagree with the authors. I tend to give more credit to the power of interest groups and less credit to the ability of the open-access order to confine rent-seeking. I think of the sugar lobby, the housing lobby, the teachers’ union in Maryland, occupational licensing in health care, . . .But to the authors’ point, the size of these rents probably is dwarfed by the size of entitlements, which are policies directed at the broader public. And yes, they will make a frontal assault on the Olson-Downs view that special interests always win.

Exit, Voice, and Technocracy

Tim Harford writes,

several economists suggested structures that would put decision making at arm’s length from politicians, delegating it to technocrats with the expertise and incentives to do what is right for Britain.

He reports on interviews he had with several mainstream economists. Pointer from Mark Thoma.

What this tells you is that mainstream economists distrust voice (the political process), as I do. However, for mainstream economists, the preferred alternative is fantasy despotism, with technocrats in the role of despots. For me, the preferred alternative is exit, with people given more opportunities to choose among different governing bodies. See the widely-unread Unchecked and Unbalanced.

The Case for Taxing College Endowments

Jorge Klor de Alva and Mark Schneider make the argument.

many of the richest universities in the country–sitting on hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in tax exempt endowments, and garnering tens of millions of dollars of tax deductible gifts every year–receive government subsidies through current tax laws that dwarf anything received by public colleges and universities, institutions that educate the majority of the nation’s low- and middle-class students. For example, we estimate that in 2013, Princeton University’s tax-exempt status generated more than $100,000 per full-time equivalent student in taxpayer subsidies, compared to around $12,000 per student at Rutgers
University (the state flagship)

However, the flaw is not that rich educational institutions benefit more than other educational institutions from tax exemptions. The flaw is that our tax system has designated certain institutions as morally superior to others because they claim non-profit status.

The essay that I wrote on this topic is one of my favorites.

Other tax issues might be moot if instead of taxing income or profits we shifted to a tax on the consumption of goods and services. Such a tax system would place profit-seeking firms and nonprofits on an equal footing. It would continue to exempt donations from tax, but it would equally exempt other forms of saving and investment.