Carlos Lozada Reviews Yuval Levin

Lozada writes,

So how do we go about strengthening families, religious organizations, schools and all those mediating institutions? Levin’s recommendations are aggressively vague, and where they get specific they seldom surprise. He calls for a “mobility agenda,” with economic growth spurred by tax and regulatory reform, a more competitive and low-cost health-care system, lower budget deficits — all part of a standard conservative recipe. He proposes education reform that includes more professional certificates, apprenticeships “and other ways of gaining the skills for well-paid employment that do not require a college degree.” He prefers to untether employees’ retirement accounts and health insurance from any particular workplace, but acknowledges that this would require “more fundamental policy innovations, and it is not yet evident just what those will be.” Okay, then. It’s nice if the things you want are all bottom-up and empowering and networked and diverse and flexible, but adjectives are not policies.

The review is more sympathetic than what I expected. In my view, Lozada makes too much of the contrast between Levin and Trump. Of course, that contrast is quite strong, but dwelling on it does not help the reader of the review understand what is distinctive about Levin’s thought. For that, you should go back to my review. And read the book when it comes out, which will be in a few days.

Martin Gurri on Elites vs. Democracy

He writes,

The elites’ loss of faith in democracy is directly proportional to their heightened loathing of the public. According to Cohen, the public is susceptible to “greed, prejudice, ignorance, domination, subservience and fear.” It worships political thugs like Donald Trump in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. It erupts into Tea Parties and Occupations that upset the steady progress of history. The elites, in brief, have come to doubt that their pet projects can be implemented democratically. They are shopping for alternatives.

Gurri ends up suggesting that Estonia and Iceland’s Pirate Party might offer workable models for the future. I think that it is fair to say that you won’t find that view widely expressed.

The Problem of Ignorance

Two recent discussions.

1. David Harsanyi wrote,

by weeding out millions of irresponsible voters who can’t be bothered to learn the rudimentary workings of the Constitution, or their preferred candidate’s proposals or even their history, we may be able to mitigate the recklessness of the electorate.

2. John Cochrane wrote,

Like most economists, I was a bit baffled by the Administration’s announcement of stricter overtime rules. The Jonathan Hartley and many others cover the obvious consequences on jobs, business formation and destruction, and so forth. A bit less mentioned, it reduces employee flexibility. If you like working more hours one week and less the next — perhaps you have child or parent care responsibilities — you’re going to be stuck working an 8 hour day. It’s part of the general regulated ossification of American employment. Or, it could be one more inducement to substitute machines for people or make people independent contractors.”>WSJ, and Jonathan Hartley and many others cover the obvious consequences on jobs, business formation and destruction, and so forth. A bit less mentioned, it reduces employee flexibility. If you like working more hours one week and less the next — perhaps you have child or parent care responsibilities — you’re going to be stuck working an 8 hour day. It’s part of the general regulated ossification of American employment. Or, it could be one more inducement to substitute machines for people or make people independent contractors.

As far as I know, the economically ignorant rules that Cochrane complains about were not demanded by the economically ignorant voters that Harsanyi complains about. So I think that the problem of ignorance is more complex than Harsanyi implies. Perhaps the elites are a bit less ignorant than the masses. Perhaps if the ignorant masses did not vote, elites would lean toward better better policies. Perhaps, but I doubt it.

My own view is that at the very highest academic levels, economics is a mess. At elite colleges, inane “sustainability initiatives” are launched without a peep of protest from the economics department. Macroeconomists still fill the air with the mumbo-jumbo of aggregate demand. There is much talk of market failure and hardly any talk of market self-repair or political failure.

I am most troubled by the bad intellectual habits of economists and other academics. My hope is that the ideas in my forthcoming book will eventually be re-discovered. Although hardly anyone is going to read the book, other authors with similar ideas may at some point prove successful. Restore sanity in the academy, and then see if the ignorance of the general public is still a large concern.

A Point for Hard-Core Libertarians

I missed this story back in November.

Between 1989 and 2010, U.S. attorneys seized an estimated $12.6 billion in asset forfeiture cases. The growth rate during that time averaged +19.4% annually. In 2010 alone, the value of assets seized grew by +52.8% from 2009 and was six times greater than the total for 1989. Then by 2014, that number had ballooned to roughly $4.5 billion for the year, making this 35% of the entire number of assets collected from 1989 to 2010 in a single year. According to the FBI, the total amount of goods stolen by criminals in 2014 burglary offenses suffered an estimated $3.9 billion in property losses. This means that the police are now taking more assets than the criminals.

It was picked up by the WaPo wonkblog and more recently by the AEI blog, where I finally saw it.

My general outlook on libertarianism is that on a case-by-case basis, I generally agree with libertarian inclinations. However, I try to push back as much as I reasonably can against the unrelenting anti-government line taken by hard-core libertarians.

But the data point quoted above fits awfully well with the hard-core libertarian narrative, which is to model government as a gangster organization. In addition, I would point out that the asset-seizure is really penny-ante stuff compared with the “settlements” that attorneys general and regulatory agencies reach with corporations that they shake down. (Oh, and speaking of shakedowns, there is this). And, of course, even those are penny-ante stuff compared with tax collections, so if you think that taxation equals theft. . .

I like to use the “bake sale” thought experiment. You may have seen the bumper sticker that says “it will be a great day when the Pentagon has to hold a bake sale to fund a bomber.” In fact, I think it will be a great day when all government agencies have to rely entirely on voluntary contributions. That would make each government agency just another form of non-profit organization. So go ahead and make the Pentagon fund itself with bake sales–but do the same thing with the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, the EPA, etc. My guess is that if government agencies had to compete for funds with other non-profits, the agencies would learn to be a lot more effective and a lot more customer-oriented.

Roger Simon on Moral Narcissism and Libertarians

He writes,

If your intentions are good, if they conform to the general received values of your friends, family, and co-workers, what a person of your class and social milieu is supposed to think, everything is fine. You are that “good” person. You are ratified. You can do anything you wish. It doesn’t matter in the slightest what the results of those ideas and beliefs are, or how society, the country, and in some cases, the world suffers from them. It doesn’t matter that they misfire completely, cause terror attacks, illness, death, riots in the inner city, or national bankruptcy. You will be applauded and approved of.

…Moral narcissism is the ultimate “Get out of jail free” card in a real-life Monopoly game. No matter what you do, if you have the right opinions, if you say the right things to the right people, you’re exempt from punishment. People will remember your pronouncements, not your actions.

This is from a forthcoming book.

He attempts to rope social conservatives and libertarians into his thesis. I am not sure that this works so well. Social conservatives may be wrong-headed, and some turn out to be hypocritical, but I do not see them as trying to use political posturing in order to avoid accountability for the consequences of their actions. Perhaps you can come up with enough examples to prove me wrong on that.

I think that the charge sticks better with some libertarians. When they agree with progressives, libertarians can be as preening and morally narcissistic as, well, progressives.

Also, I think that libertarians share with progressives a certain adolescent inability to admit the benefits of an institution they dislike. In the case of progressives, the difficulty is with admitting the benefits of free markets. In the case of libertarians, the difficulty is with admitting the benefits of government. For all the misguided actions that government takes, you should not take it for granted that you will have internal peace or effective urban sanitation without it.

Moral narcissism allows one to disengage from reality. Paradoxically, the moral narcissist tends to deny that humans have a propensity to be evil while believing in the evil of one’s political opponents.

Three Axes and Communism

A reader asks,

how does conservative opposition to Communism (in the second half of the 20th century) fit on the civilization-barbarianism axis? I’m not sure that the Soviet Union or communist China are really thought of as “barbarians”. It seems weird that the main competitor in a space race can be a “barbarian”.

Put yourself in the mindset of 1950. In America, religion is still sacred, so to speak. Recall that Churchill described Lenin as a bacillus sent on a train from Germany into Russia. There was a fear that Communism was like a spreading infection, with many in the west having succumbed to the disease. There was some awareness of Stalin’s butchery of his own people (although this awareness increased considerably a few years later). There was much awareness that Communist “show trials” had mocked the rule of law.

Communists were not primitive in the sense that many environmentalists today are primitivists at heart. The were not medieval like Islamists. But they were against religion, family, and freedom, and they appeared to be willing to use any means, including lies and violence, to spread their ideology. That was sufficient for conservatives to view Communism as barbaric. In fact, conservatives’ characterization of Communists as barbaric greatly disturbed Americans on the left, who saw anti-Communism as extreme and irrational.

Among libertarians, Rand was very anti-Communist, but Rothbard was inclined to blame America for the Cold War. Thus, there was no consensus libertarian position on Communism.

Progressives, like Galbraith and Samuelson, admired the Soviet Union for its engineering achievements. Conservatives thought that Soviet engineering prowess made them more threatening, not less so.


Martin Gurri Watch

Forfare Davis writes,

Whereas conventional forms of collective action, they argue, are reasonably predictable based on demographic information, the hyper interactivity of social media amplifies the role of individual personality as a dominant variable in outcomes that resemble viral outbreaks of collective action of a very unpredictable kind.

He refers to a book by Helen Margetts and others.

The fading of the Constitution means that the political vehicle has lost its brakes. Davis argues that social media have put the mob in the driver’s seat. He does not think it will end well.

You may find the entire essay interesting.

Three Sources of Limits on Liberty

Going back to Handle’s comment on problems for libertarian thought, he writes,

obsession with explicit state / government action and insouciant attitude regarding social pressures, when, in the modern era, the latter may have emerged as an even worse threat to the exercise of traditional liberties.

The ‘local freedom to coerce’ problem. If we are trying to increase welfare by giving people what they desire, we have to recognize that one of the things people desire is ‘a community’ and for their communities to have particular characters and sets of norms. There are certain forms of social experience or community life which are impossible to coordinate if the overall enterprise is deprived of some of the core, and at least mildly coercive, attributes of sovereignty.

On the first point, John Stuart Mill also worried about social pressure as a restriction on liberty. And on the second point, Barry Goldwater and Milton Friedman (at least if I remember correctly the relevant passages in Capitalism and Freedom) were against Federal intervention to protect African-Americans from segregation, even segregation imposed by state and local governments.

So these are longstanding problems for libertarians. My own position is that the best way to deal with social opprobrium or discrimination is to give the people who are hurt by those phenomena as much opportunity to exit as possible. I think that once you construe it as a problem that government must solve (by passing Civil Rights laws or regulating organizations) the overall consequences are likely to be worse than letting the problem be resolved through exit.

I hasten to add that exit is not a solution to every problem. Cities, in particular, are bundles of externalities. For any individual, some of these externalities are positive, and some of them are negative. If the positive externalities are strong enough, you will stay in a city and put up with major negative externalities. In theory, using government to get rid of those negative externalities would be an improvement. In practice, I have to say that it is the local government that is the negative externality where I live. That is, if you ask me what would motivate me to move, the first thing that comes to mind is the local government, which increasingly is going to collect taxes to pay for union pensions, not to provide actual services.

Kling vs. Haidt

A commenter asks,

Could you do a post comparing and contrasting your three-axis model with Haidt’s five-or-six parts of mortality? (Care/Harm, Liberty/Oppression, etc.)

The main contrast is in terms of purpose. With the three-axis model, I do not propose to explain why people differ in their political views. I think of someone’s preferred axis as the easiest way to communicate with them about an issue. When you hear an issue described in terms of your preferred axis, it resonates with you. When you hear it described on someone else’s axis, it does not resonate with you so well.

Haidt’s moral foundations are supposed to explain political views. He describes them as six dials that are set to different levels. The idea is that if you measure each person’s moral dial settings, you can predict their political leanings. There is an implication that there is a causal relationship between the dial settings and political views.

I do not think of the causality as running from the three axes to political views. It might very well be the other way around–once you choose your political tribe, your preferred axis follows from that. I am agnostic about causality.