Category Archive: Government

  1. Expert Answers on the Drug War: Highlights from Prof. Jeff Miron’s AMA

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    Last week, Professor Jeffrey Miron joined us on Reddit for an “Ask Me Anything” conversation as part of the Learn Liberty Reddit AMA Series.

    The conversation focused on Dr. Miron’s 30+ years of study on the effects of drug criminalization. Check out some of the highlights below.



    While there seems to be an emerging consensus on legalization of marijuana in the US, pot specific policies might not be completely applicable to other, harder drugs, especially in light of the ongoing opioid crisis. Do you have thoughts on opinions on the efficacy of blanket legalization and/or decriminalization vs. piecemeal changes?


    My first choice is full legalization of all drugs: the negatives from prohibition relate mainly to the adverse incentives and effects caused by prohibition, not the specific effects of one drug versus another.

    That said, partial measures are generally better than nothing.


    Are there currently any countries in the world that have a decent drug policy in your mind? Can be in both directions I suppose, either a more successful ‘war on drugs’ or a sensible policy of tolerance.


    Essentially all countries prohibit most / all drugs; but many enforce to a far lesser degree than the U.S. (e.g., Netherlands, Portugal, and to varying degrees, much of Europe and elsewhere). Changing the formal laws is important; but the harms from prohibition do decline as enforcement declines.


    Hi Dr. Miron, thanks for the AMA.

    Do you think there’s a good model the US can move towards? I’ve always though of Portugal as a good example.

    How do you think the recent legalization of recreational marijuana will go in MA? My town decided to moronically pass up on the tax revenue, so I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the rest of the state.


    The best model is the U.S. before 1914: no prohibition of any drug or alcohol. As a second best, Portugal is a quite good.

    MA’s legalization seems likely to be somewhat tortured; the public health community is trying hard to undo the ballot initiative.


    Prof, thoughts on Portugal’s drug decriminalization in 2001? (go Crimson)


    A huge step in right direction. Ideally would go farther: full legalization. But current UN treaties make that awkward.


    In your opinion would legalizing drugs lead to fewer overdoes because purity is more manageable or would we see more because of increased access?


    Exactly. Most of the overdoses come from non-medical use that arises when people are cut off from medical or other legal supply (e.g., methadone maintenance). Use of almost anything is much riskier in a black market because quality control is worse.


    I live in San Francisco. What the hell is going on with people doing heroin? There are needles in the streets, and there doesn’t seem to be a way out for most addicts. I’ve seen 2 people shoot up heroin in public. That’s apparently a low number in this city.

    What are the current “ways out” of heroin addiction, and what programs could I donate to to help?


    The way out of the heroin problem is heroin legalization: it would be cheaper, so far fewer people would inject; and people would know the dosage, so far fewer would OD.

    Realistically, the best path is to support Medication Assisted Treatment, i.e., methadone and buprenorphine.


    Dr. Miron, first off, thank you for doing an AMA. Looking forward to reading all the responses.

    Second, how do we draw the line today and in the future between ‘harmless’ drugs and ‘harmful’ drugs, especially when new variants or types of drugs pop up all the time? How do we create a robust system to differentiate drugs?


    I don’t think we can differentiate in a meaningful way, because the main negatives come from prohibition, independent of the properties of the prohibited good. If we outlawed caffeine, we would have a violent black market with poor quality control in which people suffered far more adverse effects from caffeine than now.


    I heard someone talking about this on NPR a few days ago. He brought up an aspect I hadn’t thought of–that organized criminals in states with more medical/recreational cannabis have shifted their black market endeavors to things like identity theft, manufacture of counterfeit IDs, human trafficking, etc.

    He wasn’t making an argument for continued prohibition, rather that the underlying social issues of poverty cycles, gangs, low-education, and recidivism need to be addressed if we want to reduce criminal activity.

    Lifting prohibition isn’t a panacea. If drugs are legalized, what solutions do you propose to address those social issues that incubate and perpetuate criminal activity?

    The war on drugs has destroyed countless lives. Thank you for your time.


    [I] agree that legalization is not a panacea. To some degree, the other policies we need to reduce crime are also reductions or eliminations of prohibitions, however. For example, manufacture of counterfeit IDs is a big deal because we restrict immigration; human trafficking is a problem in part because we outlaw [prostitution].

    Nevertheless, policies that improve education, e.g., are also important.


    Hi, Jeff! What’s your favorite song off of Lost in the Dream? “Red Eyes”? “An Ocean in Between the Waves”?

    I kid, of course-you’re asking about the other War on Drugs. Do you think that public opinion will shift to the point where opposing the War on Drugs isn’t a dealbreaker?


    For marijuana, has roughly shifted that much so far. For other drugs, it’s going to take a while.


    In your mind, what is the key difference between drug legalization and decriminalization?


    Legalization brings the supply side above ground. That eliminates the violence and quality control problems, and allows normal taxation.


    Given known levels of drug use, demand, and price, approximately how much tax revenue would the U.S. stand to collect if we legalized and regulated all drug use, taxing it at a similar rate as alcohol?


    ballpark $50 billion per year. google “miron waldock cato.”


    Thanks for the response! That is indeed a hell of a lot of money. Here’s the report for anyone else interested:


    On a sort of opposite note from many questions already posted: Can you describe what some of the adverse economic effects stemming from overall legalization might be, and how they might be meaningfully addressed? I understand that the potential adverse effects from legalization of a drug like heroin may be different from legalization of a drug like marijuana, but are there any unifying characteristics?

    Thanks for stopping by!


    The only real negative I can imagine is that a few people who do not currently use will perhaps try newly legalized drugs and, in some cases, have bad experiences. But evidence suggests that’s a a modest number, and of course has to be balanced against all the benefits of legalization.


    Hi Professor Miron. As a young, millennial, graduate student in government, I was wondering to what degree you feel drug policy is affected by the older generation as opposed to the younger. Further, in what ways do you expect anti-drug sentiment to shift as millennials begin to age and take more prominent roles in policy?



    Well, I am a lot older than a graduate student, and I grew up hearing that as the baby boom generation matured, legalization would occur. Happened a bit, but not to an overwhelming degree. I guess many people get more conservative, at least about drugs, as they age. So, we have to convince old folks too!

  2. Reddit AMA with Professor Jeffrey Miron of Harvard University

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    The Learn Liberty Reddit AMA Series continues on Wednesday, August 9th, with renowned economist and professor, Jeffrey Miron, senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Economics at Harvard University.

    Dr. Miron has written over 100 op-eds for publications such as the New York Times, Washington Times, Boston Herald, CNN, Time, Huffington Post, The Daily Caller, and Newsweek. He has also written several books, including Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition (2004) and Libertarianism: from A to Z (2010). You may recognize him as the star of one of Learn Liberty’s all-time fan-favorite videos: “Top Three Myths of Capitalism.”

    Mark your calendar and join us for the conversation on Reddit, Wednesday, August 9th at 3:00pm ET, where you’ll have the chance to ask him anything!

    UPDATE: The AMA is now live!

  3. Here’s the best part about the anti-Trump #resistance

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    Have you thought about what it really means to protest Donald Trump and his administration’s policies?

    Since his election, groups have cropped up to oppose his presidency, his policies, and his personality under #resist and #resistance.

    Some movements started before the electoral college vote, hoping to sway electors to vote for Hillary Clinton and threatening to undermine an important electoral norm. Others have started Twitter accounts combating Donald Trump’s policies on climate change, dropping the very small fig leaf the scientific community typically dons when it seeks to claim it is objective. And women’s groups took the opportunity to protest the day after the election as well as create another protest dubbed “a day without a woman,” making heady claims about the solidarity of women against Trump.

    While some may object to the divisive rhetoric associated with these movements — especially those who refer to Trump as #notmypresident — it is important to see that the right to resist rests at the core of American principles. The executive director of the ACLU hits the nail on the head: “Despite himself, Donald Trump has accomplished something beautiful — he’s awakened American democracy and reminded us that it’s ‘We the People’ who truly govern.” This concept reaches all the way back to the Declaration of Independence and arguably farther than that to the classical liberal par excellence, John Locke.

    The Right to Resistance

    The Founders created a document that served as more than just a declaration of war: it was also  a justification for what the British called a treasonous revolt against the crown. Where the Founders previously argued for their rights as Englishmen, given rights by the government and due to their status as members of the British Commonwealth, the Declaration marked a change. In it, they claimed natural rights, ones they should enjoy without anyone’s permission and regardless of what sovereign territory they happened to occupy.

    What was their argument? They claimed a right as a free people to stand up to an oppressive government — in their opinion, an illegitimate government. They claimed that a government is only legitimate if it secures the people’s rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” If a government “becomes destructive of these ends,” the people reserve the right to “alter or to abolish it.”

    To our modern ears, this seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to say. Of course governments exist to protect the rights of the people. Of course the people can resist or overthrow their government if it fails in this, its most fundamental task. In the 18th century, however, no one made this claim against the government. Resistance or revolt came in the pursuit of better governments, but they did not come from a natural right to resist.

    The claims of the Declaration represent a radical shift in the concept of rights, one founded in meaningful part on the philosophy of Locke.

    Locke created what is referred to as an ahistorical state of nature. In essence, he created a new origin story for human beings, claiming that prior to the creation of society, humans lived freely and equally. As we develop, there come times of scarcity or difficulties securing our property. To address such problems, people consent to create governments that provide basic necessities: the security of your person and property.

    A government’s legitimacy stems from its ability to provide those basic goods. If it fails in this respect — for whatever reason — the people reserve the right to overthrow it and create a new government. Locke claims there is no difference between an unjust king and a thief. And much like a thief is held accountable for his crimes, the people must hold the government accountable for any rights violations.

    The Responsibility to Resist

    The Declaration contains similar basic principles. In the eyes of the colonists, the British had violated their rights and refused to make amends. The Lockean understanding of natural rights facilitated the transition from British citizens seeking redress from their government to human beings overthrowing an illegitimate government.

    Our rights stem from our status as human beings, not as Americans. We need to remind ourselves that we are free and equal. With that status, we have the ability to assert our rights and hold governments accountable when they violate or threaten to violate those rights. It is, after all, our responsibility to make sure the government protects our rights rather than violating them. This is why Patrick Henry said,

    They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power.

    Americans retain the right to resist their government, thanks to efforts of the Framers to clarify what a legitimate government is and what we can do when it becomes illegitimate. More importantly, citizens have to understand what their rights are and consistently assert them against the government.

  4. The problem with Trump saying “you’re fired” to transgender military personnel

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    Did you get embroiled in all the social media debates last week about Trump’s tweets concerning transgender people in the military? I sure did. Today, I don’t want to talk about the substance of those presidential tweets, but about their authority — or lack thereof.

    Does the president even have the authority to ban transgender people from serving?

    I received some reactions along the lines of “well, Truman desegregated the military, so while I oppose anti-transgender discrimination, I guess he does have the authority” or “he’s the commander-in-chief, so he can run the military as he sees fit.” People generally disposed to support transgender equality hated the tweets, and people generally opposed to transgender equality supported them.

    I am not a lawyer, of course, so it did occur to me to ask lawyers to weigh in, and what I mostly heard was that there’s some precedent for granting the president this latitude.

    My contention is that this is all a big mistake.

    The Constitution plainly says that the president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. But it just as plainly says that the Congress is charged with making rules for the government and regulation of the armed forces (and of course, appropriating funds for them). So the Framers distinguished between commanding and constituting the military, not merely because they mention these functions separately, but because they assign one to the executive and one to the legislature.

    Who’s the boss?

    We have become used to thinking about the president as an all-purpose “leader” or “boss” (or worse, “ruler”), but this is plainly not how the federal government is meant to operate.

    Congress is tasked with deciding whether to go to war at all, raising money to support troops, and making rules for their constitution and makeup. When all that is done, and the troops are in the field, the president commands them. That is the extent of the president’s “commander” function.

    He cannot decide to “send in the troops” and he cannot decide who can and cannot serve. These are matters for the legislative branch.

    That this idea seems unfamiliar to modern audiences tells us only that we have let our representatives in the legislature act irresponsibly and contrary to constitutional mandate.

    This kind of argument may strike some as moot, because, as my lawyer friends noted, we have years of precedent for Congress acquiescing to this. But it matters, as much as the very idea of “checks and balances” matters. You may recall that expression from junior high — it’s the idea that by separating the government’s executive, legislative, and judicial functions into separate branches of equal stature, none of them can amass too much power.

    Overreach by one branch could be countered by the other two, with the result that power remains limited. The more limited the power of the government, the more securely individual rights are protected.

    Being “fussy” about separation-of-powers issues is not mere nitpicking. The alternative is Caesar, Napoleon, and every third-world dictator. Checks and balances are vital to our not becoming a society ruled by that sort of despot.

    This means there’s one other lesson to keep in mind: the ends don’t justify the means. We should be wary of endorsing a misuse of power just because we like the outcome, and should instead be sure it’s a legitimate exercise of power. The power of the president to do something I like is also the power to do something I don’t like.

    And a stronger executive is probably an even greater danger to individual rights than the legislature can be. People of all political persuasions should work together to restore respect for the separation of powers.

  5. Federalism is not unfair.

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    The United States is supposed to be a federal country, in which state governments enjoy exclusive authority to decide on policies not delegated to the central government, including policies on taxes and spending. Federalism is supposed to have many advantages: it allows state governments to experiment with policies and copy the most successful ones from each other, and it allows citizens to “vote with their feet” by moving to states whose policies they prefer.

    But critics of federalism point to one big disadvantage: federalism, they say, is unfair.

    This criticism particularly applies to the fiscal aspect of federalism — that is, the ability of states to choose their own tax burdens and spending levels. The argument runs like this: states have different tax bases per citizen (some are richer than others), so richer states can tax their citizens at lower rates than poorer states, offer more benefits and better public services, or both. In this view, federalism is unfair because it helps the residents of rich states and hurts the residents of poor ones.

    I will argue, by contrast, that fiscal federalism actually helps people living in poor states more than people living in rich states.

    Fiscal Equalization Programs

    Even some scholars sympathetic to federalism acknowledge the force of the argument about fairness. Wellesley sociologist Josh McCabe argues that fiscal equalization programs are necessary to build political support for “highly decentralized federalism,” because without them, richer states will always be able to tax at lower rates and fund public services at higher levels than poorer states.

    Now, one major disadvantage of equalization in a federal system is that it discourages states from letting their populations become rich. This is clearly true of Germany’s equalization system, which completely equalizes tax bases and even per capita spending levels across the Laender (states). As the economists Thomas Döring and Stefan Voigt put it, “The benefits and costs of political decisions no longer accrue at the same level” in Germany. So the state governments in Germany can feel free to give special interests the regulations they want without fear of deterring investment and reducing revenues.

    Equalization through Migration

    But there’s a more fundamental problem with the fairness argument for equalization: it ignores migration. Presumably, we care about the welfare of actual people, not the arbitrary geographic categories they live in. In a federal system in which people can easily move across state borders, migration accomplishes everything an equalization program might, without the negative side effects.

    Think about a positive productivity shock, like the emergence of a new, highly profitable industry, which raises real wages in one state. Workers will move from other states to the state with the higher wages. The increase in the labor supply will return real wages to their normal level, at which point the migration flow will stop. Those who have moved have become better off, and even those who have remained in the initially poorer states are, at the end of the day, earning just as much as those in the initially richer state. Being able to pay a lower tax rate in a richer state will only accelerate this process — and ultimately eliminate the rich-state tax advantage.[1]

    So why don’t wages equalize across US states today? Two reasons. First, some places are just more desirable to live in than others. These places will tend to have higher home prices and rents and lower wages. Think about it: if I take some of my compensation in the form of higher amenities, I’m willing to earn a lower real money wage. For this reason, nice places to live that don’t have a lot of industry, like New Mexico and Maine, have low real wages, while places that are less nice to live in but do have industry tend to have high real wages (see figure 1).

    But New Mexico and Maine residents surely don’t deserve to be subsidized simply because they prefer to take their compensation in a nonpecuniary form, just as North Dakotans and Bay Staters don’t deserve to be taxed for choosing to live in unpleasant places where the market demands their labor.


    Figure 1: Real Per Capita Income by State, 2015


    Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis.

    Second, some places more strictly regulate housing development than others. States with tight development rules end up with a high cost of living and high per capita income, because low- and middle-income households move away from these states, not being able to afford to live there (see figures 2 and 3).

    Figure 2: Residential Building Restrictions Raise the Cost of Living

    Sources: BEA, Wharton Residential Land Use Regulatory Index (WRLURI)

    Figure 3: Residential Building Restrictions Raise Nominal per Capita Income

    Certainly, housing regulation is disrupting equalization through migration in the United States. An equalization program that specifically punished costly states and rewarded low-cost states might discourage excessive development restrictions and get migration flowing more freely again.

    But housing regulation might end up being a self-correcting problem. As people flow from high-cost to low-cost areas, eventually the latter will enjoy more agglomeration economies that promote economic growth, and the high-cost areas will start to falter by comparison. By regulating housing so strictly, residents of coastal California, the Boston metro area, and elsewhere may be digging their own graves in the long run.

    Not so unfair after all

    So long as there’s a common market, federalism is fully consistent with converging incomes across geographies and does not benefit people living in rich places above those living in poor places. Just look at the European Union, where Ireland managed to achieve astounding growth rates beginning in the 1980s, despite initially lagging behind. The EU does have a small equalization program, but it’s not enough to significantly discourage member states from trying to attract investment. The most significant aspect of the EU is the common market that allows workers and investments to flow across borders. In a paper in Regional Studies, I found that the EU achieved even more convergence in per capita incomes after 1986 than did the United States and Canada!

    It can be difficult to explain to people how fiscal decentralization actually benefits people living in poor states, so there will always be political demands for equalization programs. But the evidence suggests that “unfairness” is an unfair reason to oppose federalism.

    [1] It wouldn’t accelerate this process if states depended primarily on taxes on investment, rather than labor, for revenue. But in fact, only Alaska derives a significant share of its state budget from taxes on capital investment.

  6. What your buying habits can tell you about big government

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    Why are so many of us unwilling to save enough for retirement or cut back on the Coke and cookies even though we really want wealth and health? A growing literature in psychology and behavioral economics indicates that we’re “predictably irrational,” as Duke professor Dan Ariely puts it. He believes that these studies show standard economic theory is false — we don’t always make rational decisions, and markets aren’t always self-correcting.

    It’s natural to conclude from these sorts of observations that we ought to turn away from the market and toward the government to help promote our best interests.

    But hold on a minute. Let’s suppose that consumers are indeed often irrational and that markets often fail to serve our long-term interests. Even so, we should resist leaping to the conclusion that alternatives to the market — specifically, political institutions — will do better.

    Why not let the government call the shots?

    To see why, remember that consumers and voters are the same people. You’re the same person at Target that you are at the polls. So if we’re irrational in the marketplace, then presumably we’re irrational at the ballot box. We should expect political behavior to be at least as short-sighted as economic behavior.

    Take a simple case. Suppose you’re selecting between two candidates in the election: Imprudent Ian and Prudent Patty. Ian promises a heap of debt-financed spending, such that you’ll receive government-supplied benefits now without having to pay for them until later. Patty pledges to keep debt-financed spending low to secure the country’s long-term economic well-being.

    All else being equal, we should expect Imprudent Ian to win, since voters will want the smaller-but-sooner payout over the greater-but-later payout. But these short-sighted decisions may work to our long-term economic disadvantage.

    Suboptimal doesn’t equal undesirable.

    The broader point is this: just because markets are suboptimal doesn’t make them undesirable. As the philosopher Henry Sidgwick puts it, “It does not of course follow that wherever laisser faire falls short governmental interference is expedient; since the inevitable drawbacks and disadvantages of the latter may, in any particular case, be worse than the shortcomings of private industry.”

    By analogy, it would be a mistake to infer that the 1929 New York Yankees should have cut Babe Ruth from their team even though he failed to get a hit nearly two-thirds of the time. Batting .345 is pretty bad in absolute terms, but Ruth was nevertheless better than virtually all other hitters in the history of baseball.

    We should judge institutions like we judge baseball players — we don’t ask how they stack up against the standard of perfection but rather how they stack up against the standard set by their feasible alternatives. Markets may turn out to be the least imperfect of our imperfect options.

  7. Highlights from our Reddit AMA with Professor Michael Munger

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    Last week, Professor Michael Munger joined us on Reddit for an “Ask Me Anything” conversation as part of the Learn Liberty Reddit AMA Series.

    Dr. Munger is an esteemed Professor of Political Science, Economics, and Public Policy at Duke University. He has authored/co-authored 7 books and over 200 scholarly articles. A long-time friend of the Learn Liberty project, he frequently contributes to our blog, and has starred in nine Learn Liberty videos.

    Check out some highlights from the AMA below.



    How much do you hate Kentucky basketball?


    More than I should say in a public setting. They are the “bad blue.” I’m really a Carolina fan (don’t tell anyone), but I’m happy to root for Duke when they play Kentucky.


    I had a political science professor tell me once that politics can be compared to a pendulum. With every movement there is a counter movement equal in momentum but in the opposite direction. Do you think that there is a possibility that a movement can be so momentous that it can actually break the pendulum mechanism?


    Absolutely! The problem is that we have to preserve a basic consensus that decisions I disagree with are somehow still legitimate. For all the problems, in 2000 Al Gore eventually accepted the Supreme Court decision and said George Bush was really the President of all Americans. If we get to the point where either side is saying, “Reject the law!” then we’re lost.


    With the ongoing shift towards polarized political parties and factions in America, I’m increasingly curious about any studies, journal articles, or historical anecdotes on how people can be compelled to change parties. In my experience, it doesn’t really happen. Do you have a take on how factionalism / tribalism plays a role in political leaning and how – if at all – a community can be compelled to change their affiliation? We surely can’t only hope for “getting out the vote”.


    I think we have become more not less tribal. The Downsian conception of parties is as an information shortcut: people “choose” the party that on average is closer to most of their policy positions. But we seem now to have gone the other way: party allegiance is stronger, and prior. And THEN I infer my policy positions from my tribal allegiance. It really does suggest some problems for traditional rational choice theory. But that’s why Public Choice, and the work Bryan Caplan (for example) is so useful: we should expect that people are stupid about politics. But they aren’t stupid because they are stupid; they are stupid because they are smart!


    Hello Dr. Munger! I’ve currently been contemplating getting my Masters (and possibly Ph.D.) in Political Science. Anyway, what are your thoughts on gerrymandering and do you think it has contributed to the polarization of politics today? Do you think changing our first-past-the-post system could also solve that problem by allowing more major parties?


    That’s a long answer! I did this 1A broadcast a while back, and it explored the issues of gerrymandering quite a bit. But we can’t focus on that too much: the Senate is not gerrymandered, and it is still a toxic cesspool. Not all of our problems are caused by gerrymandering…


    How do you feel about alternative voting systems? Specifically, how do you feel about proportional representation (multi-winner districts)? PR would make gerrymandering very difficult, increase minority representation, and encourage growth of third parties. I bring this up because there is a bill that was recently introduced in congress that would implement single transferable vote in the House. Would you welcome such electoral reform?


    I used to be opposed to reforms of this kind, because we are bad at predicting their consequences. But now I wonder if we shouldn’t at least consider them.

    PR is pretty radical. STV or Instant run-off voting systems would be easier to put in place. Maine is experimenting with something similar.


    do you foresee the creation of a new political party in the US that will challenge the current ruling parties? (ala the death of the Whig Party)


    The two state-sponsored parties have such tight control over ballot access, and access to the debates, that it’s hard to imagine a “third” party challenging in the normal way. But a third party certainly might threaten candidates enough to get them to pay attention to the long-building grievances of voters. That’s the best hope: to force change from competition. Research shows that in states with looser ballot access rules there is less corruption and more responsiveness to voter preferences.


    Do you see any hope of bridging the political strife between left and right? Right seems to want to win at all cost, while left doesn’t seem to know how to win. Then you talk to people from the right’s base and it’s sheer lunacy. You talk to the left base, and it’s nothing but GOP are evil, democrats are saviors.

    There doesn’t seem to be a middle, and there doesn’t seem to be much chance of reuniting the country.


    Strangely, in some ways libertarians are in the middle. The far left and right both have extreme visions of the use of state power. Libertarians tend to want to dial back both military power and corporate handouts. that’s looking more like centrism these days!


    Why do you think there are so few female libertarians? My wife asked me this question and there doesn’t seem to be an obvious answer to me. The best estimates for a ratio of men to women was about 60/40 although the (unfair) perception by a lot of people is that it is much worse.

    Questions: Why do you think this is and what if anything can be done to make women feel more welcome among libertarians?


    We talk about this all the time. I think the problem is that when a woman shows up, she is the only one or one of just a few. And that’s uncomfortable.

    But it’s also the fact that many libertarians are such aggressive “mansplainers.” Everything is obvious, and if you disagree you are just wrong. We are not always very good at conversation. The result is that we lose a lot of people, male and female, who are interested but have serious principled questions.


    Have you ever been so excited to be living in this political storm as an academic?


    Unfortunately it is a GREAT time to be a political scientist! It’s like being a carrion fowl after an earthquake, lots of things to pick at. But I do have a kind of sick feeling. So many of my friends on the left come into my office these days and say, “Okay, NOW I see what you mean.” Throughout the last 16 years I have been complaining about the expansion of the powers of the President. “What if we ever get an actual tyrant, someone who cares nothing for the rules?” I said. “That could never happen!” they said. Now…..not so much.


    Can you even right now?


    i can’t. Even.


    What do you think about the recent poll saying most Republicans believe college has a negative impact on our country?


    I saw that but I haven’t read it closely. My interpretation would be that they are worried that the indoctrination many students receive, in a setting where only leftist political positions are represented, is harmful, not that college itself is harmful. But I admit that there is also an anti-elitist, bordering on anti-intellectualism, in some of that Republican sentiment, which is worrisome!


    Do you think that so many college students are liberal because of a long, indirect indoctrination process, or could it be that liberals are just more likely to see the value in education and so more enroll in classes?

    Also, I love when you’re on econtalks. Great podcasts.


    My worry is that many people of the left don’t realize that there are opposing positions, and often some of those are pretty good arguments. My test is this: I ask, “what are the best arguments against your own position?” If they just stare at me, as if there ARE no arguments against their position, I know they are not very smart. Real intellectuals can argue either side, and understand that usually there is no decisive argument for, or against, the central philosophical positions. That’s why they all exist: a reasonable person could disagree with you, and still be reasonable. THAT is what is missing in many students on the left. Interestingly, a fair number of faculty on the left agree with that claim. They worry that students have just arrived at a set of conclusions that make them feel good, or that please their (almost all leftist) professors rather than having reached their views through a process of reason and argument.


    We’ve heard a lot about anti-intellectualism on the rise, but I grew up in the South and I know that it starts very young. Have you had any notable run-ins with students challenging fact or established knowledge (and hopefully getting a professorial smackdown)?


    Well, it’s a hard problem, isn’t it? You want students to question everything, including their own beliefs. And they have to challenge my beliefs. That’s why I think that universities should protect “safe spaces,” of a certain kind, as I talk about here.


    Hello Dr. Munger. What is your stance on thorough infiltration of US education structure by neo-marxists posing as liberals?


    I tend to like “real” Marxists. They are interested in economics, and in some ways they are very open to the insights of Public Choice.

    The people who call themselves marxists who are actually Marcuseans, people who want to stamp out dissent through force and public humiliation, those people are a problem. They are anti-intellectual and anti-education.


    Hasn’t the Buchanan school gone the way of the Austrians?


    Not sure what that means. The Austrians are now a much larger and more interesting group than they have ever been. And the “Buchanan School” is called “Public Choice.” It dominates Political Science in many ways. If you study Political Science at Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Duke, UCLA, or many other places you will be studying Public Choice.


    The Austrians are now a much larger and more interesting group than they have ever been.

    What? There are no major economic departments that have a significant number of Austrians. Even George Mason shed them.

    And the “Buchanan School” is called “Public Choice.”

    I know, that’s why I brought it up. I don’t know about poli sci, but public choice is not the big idea school it was back in the 70s and 80s.


    Well, there have NEVER been departments with lots of Austrians. There are now many people who consider themselves Austrians at college econ departments. Maybe we disagree about the baseline: in the 1970s it looked like Austrian economics would disappear. Now there are some.

    And you may be right that Public Choice is no longer controversial in Poli Sci. But that’s because it won. We are ALL Buchananites now! And you may mean that Public Choice is not having much influence in Econ, and that may be true in direct terms. But lots of the work by Acemoglu and Robinson and by models that build on Barro’s work and Ferejohn’s work on interest groups is mainstream.


    Professor Munger –

    Graduate of UNC with the PPE Minor. I loved the program and appreciate your hard work in making it a reality.

    I remember reading Nozick’s Anarchy State & Utopia in 2007, and finding the work compelling as an explanation for current social movements focusing on the minimal state (i.e. Tea party activists post 2008).

    To me, the hardest part of reconciling Nozick’s Utopia with modern liberalism rests on Nozick’s inability to provide an explanation for how modern US distributions of wealth come from a starting point of justice and have come about from Just exchanges. While first reading Nozick, it was personally hard to imagine the current distribution of wealth in the USA as emanating from a just starting point, when my dorm at UNC was literally built by slaves.

    Are there any works within Libertarian movements to reconcile Nozick’s project of the minimal state with rectifying past injustice to get to a baseline of fair exchanges?

    Best of luck in your project —


    You are right, it really is a problem. I myself have come to think that we should follow Hayek’s (and Friedman’s, and Murray’s) suggestion and have something like a universal basic income. Here is some of my thought on that.


    What do you think of the current political situation in North Carolina? Are you more sympathetic to Governor Cooper or the North Carolina legislature?


    I have a lot of friends in the NCGA, on both sides. But some of the bills they are considering are hard to explain rationally. I guess I’m glad overall that there is divided government, with a Democrat Governor, if only because it is a check on the whims of the Republicans. And I have to admit a secret admiration for Roy Cooper because of his brave handling of the Duke Lacrosse case.


    How compatible is the slowness of the democratic process especially in the US with the agility of technological advances? What country is doing well in terms of matching the speed of scientific discovery and industry innovation and evidence based policy making?


    I think that’s the wrong way to think about it. Government by its nature can never be nimble, because it has to follow laws that apply to everyone. But it could do a better job of getting out of the way. I did this video for Learn Liberty on pretty much this subject.

  8. Rebellion or stability: Which makes a healthier nation?

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    As the American Revolution began, Americans threw off the rule of a tyrannical king but in their enthusiasm for their newfound freedom, they set up ineffective governments. For instance, they denied the federal government the power to tax, trusting the state legislatures to pay their share of the war costs.

    Americans gave their state legislatures too much power and the governors too little. In turn, the people voted irresponsible legislators into office. The result: legislatures started gobbling up executive power, further concentrating it in their hands.

    These imbalances made it onerous to fight the British and became even more problematic after the existential crisis of the war had passed. Many states suffered through economic stagnation. Legislatures enacted a litany of new regulations, only to change them soon after, creating chaos and confusion. The federal government could not pay its debts or its armed forces, leaving natives and the British in Canada free to accost settlers on the frontier. And states made conflicting treaties with European powers, increasing an already tense relationship among the newly formed union.

    James Madison: Not so quick to ditch the British way

    James Madison thought something radical had to change in order to save the fledging nation. He saw the need to reach back to British roots and create institutions that strengthened the federal government and weakened the state governments. This reflected his Burkean understanding of constitutionalism: old laws have a power that constantly changing laws cannot.

    While Madison knew the institutions had to be republican, that did not stop him. He simply changed the definition of republicanism. Previously, many would have said that the people have to participate in legislating as they did in ancient Athens or ancient Rome (what we now call direct democracy). Madison claimed that any representative government and any level of suffrage counted as a republic in the modern age.

    Opposing Madison’s approach, Thomas Jefferson embraced the political turmoil of the early USA. He was a strict Lockean contractarian who thought that the people are the “only legitimate fountain of power,” so the people’s representatives should have a great deal of power to change laws — including the power to call a constitutional convention.

    Madison wrote Federalist 49 in an attempt to convince Jeffersonians of the value of stability. For Madison, laws had to endure in order to have full effect:

    It may be considered as an objection inherent in the principle that as every appeal to the people would carry an implication of some defect in the government, frequent appeals would, in great measure, deprive the government of that veneration which time bestows on everything, and without which perhaps the wisest and freest governments would not possess the requisite stability.

    Madison endorsed an enduring Constitution over the volatility associated with a more purely contractarian form of democracy that would require a constant recurrence to the people. He followed Burke’s rationale to a certain extent, seeing a need to maintain stability, forsaking some liberty.

    Jefferson: Throwing shade at Shays

    From Jefferson’s perspective, however, rebellions and tensions demonstrated the health of a nation. He scoffed at the alarm caused by a small uprising in Massachusetts, Shays’s Rebellion, claiming: “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

    Jefferson took a more Lockean view, seeing the social contract as the only legitimate source of power for the government. He even went further than Locke, saying that “the dead have no rights” over the living. For that reason, every 20 years — which was a generation in the 1800s — the nation should have a constitutional convention allowing the “right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness.”

    We see in these radically differing opinions the two constitutional paths the United States had laid before it: one Burkean and one Lockean. The ultimate decision to take the Burkean path provided the United States with long-term stability. It did, however, come at the cost of a more Lockean version of liberty. Considering the result of the French Revolution, due to Madison’s steady hand, American likely avoided what sometimes comes with more liberty: chaos.

  9. Did big government make us rich?

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    Why are Western countries like the United States and Germany so much richer today than other countries around the world? We desperately need an answer to this question — both to help us understand the human condition and to help us find practical steps we can take to alleviate global poverty.

    One explanation for the success of the West is, in a word, liberty. Over the last few hundred years, classical liberal ideas such as the rights of man and the rule of law put constraints on European governments’ power, which resulted in a strong protection of private property rights. This resulted in meteoric economic growth, which delivered the modern cornucopia of wealth.

    But classical liberalism itself had roots in earlier social structures. A school of thought that was prominent in the 1970s and 1980s held that classical liberalism could be viewed as the ideological formulation of living arrangements that the West had already enjoyed for centuries.

    In particular, political authority in Europe dating back to the fall of the Roman Empire was fractured, overlapping, and concurrent. Europe in the middle ages and early modernity was characterized by a large number of competing polities with multiple sources of law. In a real sense, lawmakers and lawgivers had to “compete” for the right to adjudicate disputes. The multiplicity of legal codes and polities resulted in a wide “social space” in which de facto individual rights flourished. Classical liberalism, as a system of ideas, developed as intellectuals began to reflect on this lived experience.

    It’s obvious why those who are predisposed to liberty would enjoy this explanation. Free countries get rich; unfree countries stay poor. But is it the right explanation?

    Government Power and Economic Growth

    The European liberalism hypothesis has recently been supplanted by another explanation — state capacity. In brief, this is the idea that economic development requires strong, centralized states to uphold the rule of law and provide crucial public goods.

    “State capacity” thus means the ability to govern: to enforce, and perhaps create as well, the rules of the social game. The state capacity literature in economics, as advanced by prominent scholars such as Daron Acemoglu, Timothy Besley, and Torsten Persson, places heavy emphasis on a single, strong, central legal authority. In this framework, the fractured and decentralized legal authorities in medieval and early modern Europe are now seen as antithetical to economic development.

    Now, it is undeniable that economic growth in the West did not take off until the rise of modern nation-states. But this stylized fact cannot bear the load the state capacity theorists place upon it. State capacity, as an explanation for development, is actually a black box.

    The Black Box of State Capacity

    To see why, consider the standard explanation for why private property and markets create wealth: Private property and markets are necessary for the market price system to exist, which coordinates the plans of consumers with the plans of producers. Market prices give producers the knowledge necessary to act in the interests of consumers in the form of profit and loss calculations. Market prices also generate good incentives: everyone prefers making more money to less, all else being equal.

    This dual information-incentives argument is the kind of explanation the social sciences require, because it answers the question of how acting individuals can promote ends that none of them intended separately, such as economic efficiency and growth.

    State capacity, by itself, addresses neither the information issue nor the incentive issue. While governance institutions obviously began centralizing at the beginning of the modern era, this is just a morphological description of what happened to institutions. On it’s own, that’s insufficient as a causal explanation.

    Furthermore, the state capacity literature has a hard time dealing with a very troubling counterexample: the totalitarian states of the 20th century: like the USSR and China. These states had plenty of capacity, as evidenced by their ability to murder millions of their own citizens in acts of slaughter on a scale previously unimaginable. Needless to say, these kinds of things aren’t conducive to economic development.

    So if modern nation-states are conducive to economic growth, it must be in conjunction with some other mechanism or group of mechanisms. This implies that whatever is “doing the work” of promoting economic growth, it is upstream of the creation of states.

    If we want to understand the wealth and poverty of nations, we must find this elusive “something” and specify how it generates the incentives for those with political power to wield it in the broader social interest, and how they had the information to know whether what they were doing was working.

    At its core, development economics is the search for these kinds of explanations. State capacity may or may not be a valuable steppingstone to an explanation, but it is not itself an explanation that social scientists should accept.

    So it seems the old hypothesis — that the big ideas of classical liberalism created Western economic growth — is worth another look!