Start with the Nirvana Fallacy

Bryan Caplan writes,

The claim that “free-market dogma” is the “reigning economic policy” of the United States or any major country seems so absurd, so contrary to big blatant facts (like government spending as a share of GDP, for starters), that I’m dumb-founded. Sure, I could defend this position with demagoguery. But if I wanted to intelligently argue in favor of the claim that neoliberalism actually guides economic policy in any major country, I literally wouldn’t know where to start.

I would suggest starting with the Nirvana fallacy. That is, take the point of view that things could be almost ideal if your preferred policies were in place. Then compare reality to this ideal. When reality falls short, you can infer that your preferred policies are not in place.

This approach works equally well for people who prefer more statist policies and for people who prefer more libertarian policies. For the former, the flawed state of current outcomes are sufficient to demonstrate the futility of free-market dogma, which must be the only thing standing in the way of Nirvana. For the latter, the flawed state of current outcomes are sufficient to demonstrate the futility of government intervention, which must be the only thing standing in the way of Nirvana.

Is This Socialism?

Chris Dillow writes,

Markets, therefore, have a big place in socialism – not least because, as Adam Smith said, they are a means whereby people provide for others without caring. (The best counter-argument to this I’ve seen comes from Matthijs Krul).

This principle has another implication. Socialism should be achieved by evolution, by creating stepping stones – small institutional tweaks that create the potential for bigger ones. For example, small acts of empowering people – such as worker directors or patients’ groups – might create a demand for greater power.

Pointer from Mark Thoma. What Dillow appears to want strikes me as a form of capitalism that is tweaked to make competition less intense among low-skilled workers and more intense among employers. I can heartily endorse the thrust of what he is proposing as much better than what we have currently.

Lifted from the Comments

Handle’s take on rights and consequentialism.

One Hayekian / meta-consequentialist justification for rigid, ‘deontological’-like rights is that without them there is no good way for individuals to plan while trusting in the long-term, reliable predictability of a set of basic rules that governs the way the state and ones compatriots will treat them, and this lack of confidence reduces incentives to engage in socially beneficial activity and increases inefficient expenditures of resources on hedging, security, evasion, and rent-seeking.

What appears to be a local, short term utilitarian transfer can also be at odds with the best way we have learned from experience of how to enable and incentivize long-term growth and human flourishing, given the intractable philosophical and practical complexity of making these kinds of welfare calculations and forecasts.

And the only way to make people really believe that these rules are stable enough and will be honored and maintained despite short term political temptations is to successfully propagate a belief that these rights are near-sacred and somehow transcend the domain of what is normally up for debate and reform.

Unfortunately the political incentive to attack such sacred principles in a democracy is irresistible, and so long as influential and prestigious elites are permitted the freedom to publicly critique those principles and lower their status, then the slide toward increasing state interference is inevitable.

Gary Johnson and a Liberal Tension

He said,

But if we allow for discrimination — if we pass a law that allows for discrimination on the basis of religion — literally, we’re gonna open up a can of worms when it come stop discrimination of all forms, starting with Muslims … who knows. You’re narrowly looking at a situation where if you broaden that, I just tell you — on the basis of religious freedom, being able to discriminate — something that is currently not allowed — discrimination will exist in places we never dreamed of.

If I understand him correctly, he would be ok with prosecuting a wedding cake-baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding.

I am reminded of Jacob Levy’s thesis that rationalism and pluralism are in tension with one another. A pluralist would say that the cake-baker has a right to discriminate. The rationalist would say otherwise. For more on Levy’s thesis, see this discussion forum, listen to this podcast, or read his (very expensive) book.

I am currently reading Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community (for an obvious reason). Nisbet saw individualism and statism as going together, part of the process of “liberating” people from the oppression of traditional communal institutions. What Levy calls rationalist liberalism is consistent with that. Nisbet did not view this “liberation” as such a wonderful thing.

Does War Improve Cooperation?

I review Peter Turchin’s book from 2005. My final paragraph:

For libertarians, these are crucial questions. In order for markets to function well, they must be embedded in cultures that promote pro-social behavior and are conducive to trust. If the absence of external conflict weakens the bonds that prevent internal conflict, then the libertarian goal of peaceful cooperation in all domains will prove elusive.

Coincidentally, the Journal of Economic Perspectives that just came out has an article on this topic by Michal Bauer, Christopher Blattman, Julie Chytilová, Joseph Henrich, Edward Miguel, and Tamar Mitts. They conclude,

Most of the papers in this emerging literature agree on one central matter: that the data strongly reject the common view that communities and people exposed to war violence will inevitably be deprived of social capital, collective action, and trust. Across the 16 studies from economics, anthropology, political science, and psychology, the average effect on a summary index of cooperation is positive and statistically significant, if moderate in magnitude.

Should you vote Libertarian this year?

From a Facebook friend, not a reader of the blog, this came via email.

I’m pretty sure I remember that you are a Libertarian (or had promoted Libertarian ideas at one point). I have issues with both major candidates in this year’s election and I’ve actually been pretty intrigued by Gary Johnson’s platform (or at least what I saw on his website). However, I’m getting a lot of “don’t throw your vote away”.

What’s your thought about Johnson and voting for a “3rd Party” in general?

This year, other people who are friends outside of my political/economist/blogging circle but who are vaguely aware of my libertarian leanings have asked similar questions. My thoughts:

1. In Maryland, any vote in the Presidential election is a throw-away. We live in a state that always votes Democratic.

2. Still, I plan to vote as if my vote mattered. Although I plan to vote for Gary Johnson, his libertarianism has almost nothing to do with my preference this year.

3. I am disturbed by the temperaments of both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton. Moreover, I think that a victory by either one will lead to four years of worsening bitterness in politics in this country. A Johnson Presidency has the potential to be less divisive and make me less afraid to read the day’s news.

4. One way to think about this year is that Mr. Trump is the 3rd-party candidate, in the tradition of Ross Perot and George Wallace (with a core constituency inherited from those two), who happened to capture the Republican nomination. Johnson is a more credible major-party candidate who happens to be on the ballot as a Libertarian.

5. My first choice would have been for the Republicans to run a major-party candidate, meaning someone other than Mr. Trump or Dr. Carson. Had they done so, I would probably not be voting for Gary Johnson. So I am not such a dedicated libertarian, with either a small or capital L.

6. I sometimes say that there are philosophical libertarians and there are pragmatic libertarians. Philosophical libertarians base their views on fundamental principles. Pragmatic libertarians believe only that the libertarian approach often turns out to be correct.

7. The philosophy of libertarianism is that individuals should not be coerced into making decisions. Instead, your transactions with other people should be based on voluntary consent. They should be based on peaceful persuasion and, in the case of economic transactions, on choice and competition. This philosophy sees government programs and regulation as coercive and therefore wrong in principle.

8. I put myself in the pragmatic libertarian camp. I do not make my stand against government action on principle, but I say that in practice government can be counted on to be less effective than nongovernmental processes. For example, when markets produce bad outcomes, I expect the competitive process of private entrepreneurs to do a better job of fixing things than the political process.

9. Part of the libertarian view is anti-interventionist in foreign affairs. The philosophical libertarian says that undertaking coercive acts abroad is at least as wrong as undertaking them at home. The pragmatic libertarian notes that the government that is going to intervene abroad is the same government that is inherently clumsy, stupid, and prone to producing adverse unintended consequences at home.

10. You should note that the libertarian view is antithetical to American government support for Israel. This follows from non-interventionism.

11. Moreover, I know libertarians who go beyond non-interventionism and who personally talk about Israel the way that the far left talks about it, holding Israel unilaterally responsible for the conflict with Palestinians. To me, this comes across as denying any moral agency to Palestinians, because it treats as irrelevant the past actions and current threats made by Palestinians against Jews. I believe in treating the Palestinians as having moral agency, with the power to change their situation by changing their approach. In any case, on this issue I do not agree with rigid, high and mighty libertarians.

12. Speaking of which, libertarians are temperamentally prone to being high and mighty, contemptuous of those who disagree. I very much do not wish to be associated with that temperament. I believe that nobody is 100 percent right 100 percent of the time.

Google News Usurps Matt Drudge

Drudge is known for juxtaposing two headlines to make an ironic point. At the moment, Google News is showing me one headline about President Obama disputing as not jibing with reality Donald Trump’s dark characterization of the state of things during his acceptance speech. Higher up on Google News is a headline about the latest apparent terror attack in Munich.

People have pointed out to me that Trump came down strongly on the civilization vs. barbarism axis. My guess is that the Democrats will not end up trying to compete along that axis. I do not think that they help themselves by calling attention to the issue. In fact, no matter how much they may believe that facts and rationality are on their side, claiming that the problems of crime and terrorism are over-stated would be the most self-defeating way possible for the Democrats to call attention to those issues.

I expect that the Democrats will end up coming down strongly on the oppressor-oppressed axis. Generically, they will try to tie Mr. Trump to another headline I see on Google News, which is that ex-Klansman David Duke is seeking a Senate seat. Their message will be that “If you are an X, then a Trump Presidency will take away your rights,” where X will be alleged to include non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-Evangelical. . .

In other words, my prediction is that this election season we will see the three-axes model much in evidence, with Mr. Trump hitting the civilization-barbarism axis for all it’s worth and Mrs. Clinton hitting the oppressor-oppressed axis for all it’s worth.

The Depressing Election Year of 2016

Kevin Williamson writes,

the two presidential candidates Americans got most excited about were Donald Trump, a nationalist, and Bernie Sanders, a socialist. Between the two of them, they make a pretty good national socialist.

Jonah Goldberg says pretty much the same thing in this interview with Bill Kristol. I found the long interview worth a listen. One of Goldberg’s points is that he views support for Trump as a reaction to the discrepancy between what was promised and what was delivered by politicians, especially Republican politicians. After they were propelled to victory in the mid-term elections, they came across as losers. This opened the way for an outsider to come in and claim to be a winner.

My thoughts begin with a generalization about how different political persuasions view human nature:

–Conservatives tend to believe that we need traditional institutions and restraints to control the evil impulses that are in everyone.

–Progressives tend to believe that we just need the right leaders to bring out the good that is in everyone.

–Libertarians tend to believe that we just need smaller government to bring out the good that is in everyone.

It seems to me that news events over the past twelve months or so have put a strain on those who are inclined to view human nature as good. Racial conflict and terrorism tend to reinforce the conservative view that human nature is something that needs to be restrained.

Of course, progressives can continue to blame the racial conflict on bad leaders who are not sufficiently attuned to the oppression of black people. And they can blame terrorism on the invasion of Iraq.

And libertarians can blame the racial conflict on cruel laws and their vicious enforcement. Libertarians can blame terrorism on past American intervention.

I am finding myself drifting in a conservative direction. But I still try to keep in mind that when we seek out institutions to restrain evil impulses, we should not put all of our chips, or even very many of them, on government.

If you are worried about inequality now. . .

Noah Smith writes,

With robot armies, the few will be able to do whatever they want to the many.

…A.I.’s–if they ever exist–may or may not have any reason to dominate, marginalize, or slaughter humanity. But we know that humans often like to do those things. Humans already exist, and we know many of them are evil. It’s the Robot Lords we should be afraid of, not Skynet.

This article says,

As military research pushes robotics prices down and Pentagon policies push battlefield gear to domestic law enforcement agencies, expect to see more armed robots on American streets.

Feel free to make guesses as to how the future will play out. I would place a low probability that it turns out to be simply people who own drone armies repressing the rest of us. At the very least, things will be complicated by the phenomenon of people with drone armies fighting other people with drone armies.

Three Axes and Police

Jonah Goldberg writes,

At least for a moment, antagonists on either side of polarizing issues could see beyond the epistemic horizon of their most comfortable talking points. Black Lives Matter activists thanked the police for their protection and sacrifice. Conservative Republicans, most notably House Speaker Paul Ryan and former speaker Newt Gingrich, spoke movingly about race in America. Gun-rights activists were dismayed that Philando Castile, the man shot by a police officer in Minnesota, had followed all of the rules — he had a gun permit, cooperated with the officer, etc. — and was still killed.

So are people able to view this along one another’s axes? I doubt it.

1. Progressives, who communicate in terms of the oppressor-oppressed axis, stress entrenched racism.

2. Conservatives, who communicate in terms of the civilization-barbarism axis, stress the importance of maintaining respect for police.

3. Libertarians, who communicate in terms of the freedom-coercion axis, stress that laws from the state ultimately are backed by force, so that if you want less state violence you need fewer laws.

Judging from my facebook feed, some libertarians also seem eager to align themselves with progressives.

My own feelings are mixed. On the progressive side, it seems reasonable to me to hold police to a standard that they should respond to the same behavior in the same way, regardless of the person’s race. Shopping while black should not be presumed criminal.

On the conservative side, it seems reasonable to me to want an active and assertive police force that is treated with respect. It seems likely that an active and assertive police would be particularly beneficial to poor people living in dangerous areas.