Learn Liberty

Category Archive: Political Science

  1. Bootleggers and Baptists

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    Have you ever wondered why it is illegal to purchase alcohol in many U.S. cities, states, and counties on Sunday? It is not illegal to drink alcohol on Sunday. Professor Bruce Yandle explains that such laws benefit two distinct groups: bootleggers and Baptists. The Baptists benefit because they have seen to it that alcohol sales are nonexistent on Sundays. In their view, this means a reduction in the alcohol available. Bootleggers also like these laws. Sunday is the day they can sell alcohol—often purchased from legitimate stores on Saturday—for a handsome profit.

    The bootleggers and Baptist theory of regulation can be extrapolated to other types of regulation, and helps explain characteristics of government regulation. It has to do with coalitions of people who do not necessarily meet and organize but who want the same outcome. In the case of bootleggers and Baptists, both groups like to see liquor stores closed, albeit for completely different reasons.

    Prof. Yandle explains how the theory applies to environmental regulations. When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency creates new standards that do not apply to existing organizations, two groups benefit: environmentalists and owners of existing plants not subject to the new standards. Environmentalists lobby for the stricter standards and are pleased when the standards become law. Existing plant owners benefit because the new regulations will make it more difficult for new competitors to enter the market. The bootlegger and Baptist theory applies to many regulations. When you hear of new regulations, try to see which groups benefit.

  2. Debate: Is War Ever Justified?

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    In this debate, Jan Ting, professor of law at Temple University, and Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, discuss whether war is ever justified. Prof. Ting argues that while war should be a last resort, there are occasions where the consequences of not going to war outweigh the costs of war. He uses World War II as an example in which war prevented great evil. Prof. Caplan argues for strict pacifism, saying it is highly unlikely that any benefits of war would outweigh the horrific costs.

    They address a number of topics related to war. Prof. Caplan points out that experts’ recommendations about war perform barely better than chance, indicating that the issues involved are too complicated to know for sure. The short-run costs of war are grisly and involve losses of innocent lives. Because of this, Prof. Caplan argues, war should be justified only when the long-run benefits will certainly outweigh these short-run costs. As it is almost impossible to predict the long-run benefits or short-run costs with any certainty, he suggests war should not be a viable option in most cases. He even suggests that it may be wise to eliminate the U.S. military altogether.

    Prof. Ting argues that war should not be a first, second, or even third choice, but that it may be necessary, especially in cases where we are up against ideology or religious perspectives that deny reasoning. He uses Nazism and Japanese imperialism in World War II as examples highlighting the need for military intervention. While he does not advocate a hawkish policy, he suggests that we need to be ready and willing to intervene if circumstances require it. Watch the debate and let us know what you think.

  3. Debate: Does a Stronger Military Make Us Safer?

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    In this debate, Jan Ting, professor of law at Temple University, and Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, discuss whether war is ever justified. Prof. Ting argues that while war should be a last resort, there are occasions where the consequences of not going to war outweigh the costs of war. He uses World War II as an example in which war prevented great evil. Prof. Caplan argues for strict pacifism, saying it is highly unlikely that any benefits of war would outweigh the horrific costs.

    In this clip, Prof. Caplan argues that perhaps we should consider abolishing the U.S. military. When the Soviet Union’s Red Army collapsed, the U.S.S.R. ceased to pose any real threat to the world and no one attacked. He argues that having an army can anger or provoke other countries who feel threatened by a military. While he would not go as far as to say that the U.S. military should absolutely be dismantled, he did suggest that military spending could be cut dramatically without posing any great threat to the United States. What do you think about this topic?

  4. How to Rig a Majority Vote

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    Do you think that a majority vote is always the fairest way to reach a consensus? Think again! In this Learn Liberty video, Professor Diana Thomas illustrates a paradoxical outcome that arises when people vote on three or more items – known as Condorcet’s Paradox – and proves that it is quite easy to manipulate the voting process in this scenario.

    Condorcet’s paradox occurs when a vote is taken on a set of three options that nobody ranks in the same order. Even though a vote of two of the options may yield a consistent winner, it’s impossible to achieve a consistent outcome between all three choices. Usually, a majority vote is taken on only two options, so whoever gets to choose which two options are on the table (known as the agenda setter) has the power to dictate the winner of the vote.

  5. Why Do Politicians All Sound the Same?

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    Have you ever wondered why politicians seem to all say the same thing, especially during presidential elections? According to Professor Diana Thomas, this is due to the median voter theorem. To guarantee victory, a candidate has to earn just over 50 percent of the vote. Even if a candidate starts out on an extreme end of the political spectrum, he ultimately will aim for the middle to convince the “median voter” to vote for him.

    For example, a Democrat running for office may start out expressing ideas that fit well on the far Left side of the political spectrum. To earn the votes of more mainstream Democrats, he will then begin to stand for more mainstream policies. To then earn the votes of the most conservative Democrats or Independents, he will move his platform even more toward the center, in an attempt to win over just more than 50 percent of voters. A Republican candidate goes through the same process in reverse, until both have essentially met in the middle.

    In a two-party, majority rule system, moving toward the center is not likely to alienate the voters on the ends because they feel there is not another viable candidate to vote for instead.  This means, there really isn’t any penalty for a candidate chooses to move toward the middle. And it explains why all politicians end up sounding the same.

  6. Why Is the NRA So Powerful?

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    Why is it that organized interest groups such as the National Rifle Association wield such powerful influence in policy discussions? According to Professor Mike Munger, the reason is simple. In politics, small but organized groups win.

    Politics is sometimes more complicated than simply having the majority of voters on your side. Prof. Munger explains the three main factors that can allow a smaller interest group to succeed in implementing a policy that may be opposed by a larger (but unorganized) group. First, an interest group’s members receive individual benefits from the group’s success, which encourages them to act. Second, smaller groups will find it easier overcome the “Free-Rider Problem” since each member’s contribution is more visible. Finally, interest groups frequently offer selective incentives that reward people who help support their cause.

    This economic concept applies to issues far beyond gun rights. Interest groups ranging from environmental activists to rent-seeking corporate lobbyists all understand that Prof. Munger is correct when he says, “Politics in Washington is about concentrating and focusing power.”

     

  7. Should You Be Forced to Vote?

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    In an effort to increase voter turnout, some countries have laws requiring citizens to vote or face a penalty. Should the United States adopt such a practice? Professor Jason Brennan offers several reasons for not making voting mandatory.

    • Political scientists find that most citizens are badly informed.
    • Citizens appear to make systematic mistakes about the most basic issues in economics, political science, and sociology. People who would fail econ 101 should not be required to make decisions about economic policy.
    • People who tend to abstain from voting are more ignorant than people who vote. Forcing them to vote would lead to a more ignorant pool of voters, which leads to political candidates who reflect voters’ misperceptions. The end result is bad public policy.

    One objection to this argument is that the disadvantaged, the poor, the unemployed, and the uneducated are less likely to vote than other groups. Some argue that people should be forced to vote so the disadvantaged won’t be taken advantage of. Professor Brennan says this objection relies upon the false assumption that people vote for their own interests. In contrast, political scientists have found over and again that people tend to vote for what they believe to be the national interest. We don’t need to worry about protecting nonvoters from selfish voters. Instead, we should worry about whether voters will invest the time to learn which policies really serve the public good.

    According to Brennan, bad decisions in the voting booth contribute to bad government; needless wars; homophobic, sexist, and racist legislation; lost prosperity; and more. While all citizens should have an equal right to vote, someone who wants to abstain from voting because he doesn’t feel he knows the right answers—or for any other reason—should be allowed to do so. Brennan concludes that mandatory voting guarantees high turnout but not better government.

  8. How to Vote Well

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    To vote well, we need more than just information. We also need to process information in an open-minded and reliable way. Unfortunately, research shows that individuals aren’t very good at doing that. Professor Jason Brennan outlines four important biases citizens need to overcome in order to vote well: optimism bias, confirmation bias, in-group bias, and action bias. These biases come naturally to most people. How can we prevent them from affecting our votes?

    Professor Brennan makes several suggestions to help us become better voters:

    1. Don’t label yourself. Stay independent.
    2. Listen to the other side and challenge your own views. Take a break from reading things that support your current opinions.
    3. Stop and think. Step back and carefully analyze options before making an opinion.
    4. Avoid the news and focus on the social sciences. To be a good voter, invest in learning the basics of economics, sociology, and political science.
    5. Assume things will go worse than expected. Double the expected costs and halve the benefits; if a program doesn’t seem worth it after that, don’t vote for it.

    Voting irresponsibly doesn’t help anyone. We’re all capable of voting well, Professor Brennan says—if we’re willing to do a little work.

  9. Money in Politics

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    People worry whenever money and politics mix – but should they? Common wisdom suggests that large campaign contributions can corrupt politicians and disenfranchise regular voters. If this is true, then regulations that limit the role of money in politics should lead to better governance. However, this hasn’t been the case.

    Professor Bradley Smith explains why attempts to separate money from politics have failed. As regulations surrounding political contributions have expanded, the edge that incumbent politicians enjoy over challengers has intensified. The real result of these regulations, Prof. Smith argues, is that politics has become “a specialized game for an elite group of people who know the ropes and can manipulate them to their advantage.”

    What do you think? Watch the video and share your opinion in the comments!

  10. What You Probably Haven’t Heard About Citizens United

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    In early 2008, a group called Citizens United sought to air commercials for their documentary that was highly critical of then-Senator Hillary Clinton. This appeared to violate federal election rules that prohibited corporations and unions from broadcasting “electioneering communications” within 60 days of an election. Citizens United sued the Federal Election Commission and ultimately won a landmark Supreme Court case that expanded corporations’ right to political speech.

    The issue of campaign finance is hotly contested. Many argue that Citizens United has opened up a floodgate of corporate spending that threatens to erode American democracy. They also argue that a corporations should not have the same rights as individuals. In this video, Learn Liberty sought out the opposing view, in order to have a more robust conversation on the topic of corporations and politics. Professor Bradley Smith explains why he believes the Supreme Court made the correct decision in Citizens United. He argues that restrictions on corporate speech violate our Constitutional right to free speech.

    This is a controversial issue, and we want to know your opinion. Should corporations have the same rights that people do? Should businesses and unions be allowed to influence voters? Share your thoughts in the comments.

    For a good overview of arguments against Citizens United, check out the Story of Citizens United v. FEC: http://www.storyofstuff.org/movies-all/story-of-citizens-united-v-fec/

  11. Are Super PACs Good for Democracy?

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    What exactly is a Super PAC? Professor Bradley Smith, the former Commissioner of the Federal Election Commission, brings some clarity to these controversial groups by taking a close look at Super PACs: what they do and how they impact elections. In the video, Professor Smith asserts that many of the alleged harms caused by Super PACs are based on misconceptions. According to Smith: “far from being the death knell for democracy, Super PACs have been a positive development.” Do you agree? Are Super PACs really good for democracy? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

  12. Is Money Speech?

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    The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Does that freedom extend to the way people spend their money? Is money a form of speech? Professor Bradley Smith shows how money is needed to communicate ideas and to establish organizations. For example, what if citizens are allowed to have newspapers or radio stations but the government says they cannot spend any money, or can spend only a limited amount of money, to run them? Such a restriction would seem to limit citizens’ freedom of the press.

    It would be difficult to be elected in a political campaign without spending any money to reach out to voters. If the government controls the money spent in political campaigns, it also controls the speech. So is spending money on a campaign speech? What do you think? Please leave your answers in the comments.