Category Archive: Political Science
Comments Off on Life isn’t fair, but can government help that?
Luck egalitarianism is, roughly, the view that inequalities in life prospects resulting from luck are unjust. (There’s a lot to nit pick about that characterization, but it’s a start.) If Amy has better job opportunities than Bob because she happened to have parents who could afford to send her to a fancy private school, that’s unfair.
You might even think it’s unfair that Rob Gronkowski makes so much more money than, say, me simply because he was gifted with 6’6” height and fast-twitch muscle fibers that enable him to run a 4.68 40 yard dash. Even if we both work equally hard at our crafts, Gronk will earn more than me because his natural talents are more marketable than mine. But it’s not like Gronk earned those talents; he just got lucky and won the genetic lottery. So it’s wrong for him to make so much more money than I do.
Suppose, for argument’s sake, this account of distributive justice is correct. What institutional conclusions follow? Luck egalitarians suggest that the income disparities between people like me and Gronk show that free markets are unjust. It’s the job of the state to correct for these kinds of market-generated inequalities via regulation and redistribution.
As I detail in my book, luck egalitarians (and fellow travelers who might not apply the label to themselves) are nearly unanimous in their rejection of free market regimes. Here’s a small sample:
- “Laissez-faire capitalism (the system of natural liberty) secures only formal equality and rejects both the fair value of the equal political liberties and fair equality of opportunity.” (John Rawls)
- “Market allocations must be corrected in order to bring some people closer to the share of resources they would have had but for these various differences of initial advantage, luck and inherent capacity.” (Ronald Dworkin)
- “Desert as a principle of justice, then, rather than justifying the distributional consequences of free market choices, requires precisely the elimination, or at least the minimization, of the differential brute luck that characterizes the free market […]. The adoption of desert as a principle of justice seems to result in a much more demanding requirement, as far as its implications for the regulation of the market are concerned, than a commitment to voluntariness as a legitimating condition for the imposition of obligations, even when this is suitably revised so as to square up with a defensible account of voluntariness and force.” (Serena Olsaretti)
I could go on, but you get the point: the market generates luck-based inequalities and the state reduces them.
One problem with this argument is that you don’t clinch the luck egalitarian case against free markets by simply showing that they create luck-based inequalities. What you need to do is show that the alternative is better. To use an old analogy of mine, showing that Steph Curry misses over half of his three point shot attempts doesn’t justify benching Steph Curry. To justifiably bench Steph Curry, you’d need to show that his replacement would do better. Similarly, luck egalitarians need to show that a highly regulated market with extensive redistribution will have less luck-based inequality than a libertarian regime.
Here’s a reason for doubting that claim: those who benefit from inherited wealth, elite education, and natural talent in the market also benefit from those factors in politics. Put very roughly, political power will concentrate in the hands of the rich—the very people the political power was created to regulate and restrain. Thus, we might naturally expect such power to be used to increase rather than decrease the advantages of the rich.
Interestingly, this is Rawls’s own view. He says that a
“reason for controlling economic and social inequalities is to prevent one part of society from dominating the rest. When those two kinds of inequalities are large, they tend to support political inequality. As Mill said, the bases of political power are (educated) intelligence, property, and the power of combination, by which he meant the power to cooperate in pursuing one’s political interests. This power allows a few, in virtue of their control over the machinery of state, to enact a system of law and property that ensures their dominant position in the economy as a whole.”
By Rawls’s own lights, the rich will use their “(educated) intelligence, property, and the power of combination” to acquire political power and “enact a system of law and property that ensures their dominant position in the economy as a whole.” But now we can see a problem for Rawls’s view. The people that Rawls wants the state to control (those with property, education, and so on) are the same people that Rawls thinks control the state itself. So how can the state control the rich if the rich control the state? Shouldn’t we instead expect state intervention into the economy to favor the rich? Indeed, this is exactly what we see in many cases: subsidies, licensing, trade restrictions, housing regulations, and so on tend to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.
Of course, we cannot definitively establish a conclusion about the effects of regulation and redistribution on luck-based inequalities by doing a priori institutional analysis. But at a minimum, luck egalitarians shouldn’t rule out libertarianism as a viable institutional option at the level of philosophical theory. Perhaps libertarianism and luck egalitarianism are compatible after all.
Originally published at Bleeding Heart Libertarians.
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Governments don’t work the way most people think they do. Public choice theory explores how voters, politicians, and bureaucrats actually make decisions. Prof. Antony Davies explains.
Comments Off on Why a Canadian city tore down the staircase its residents had always wanted to build
Toronto city officials recently threatened a man with fines for building an unlicensed staircase in a local park. Then they tore down his staircase, which had cost him $550 to build, and replaced it with one that cost $15,000.
Now, there’s a lot going on in the world. So you’ll be forgiven if you missed these events in Canada. But there’s a lesson to be gained here about why government workers do the seemingly strange things they do.
The brief version of the story goes like this. A lovely section of wooded Tom Riley Park, right along Mimico Creek in Toronto, had a steep, rocky, muddy slope. But it was the shortest path from the parking lot down to the community garden lot and soccer fields, saving at least 100 yards of walking. For more than a few elderly guests, or women wearing fashionable shoes, this path was treacherous, and folks fell or slid down the slope. One garden club member recently broke her wrist.
Apparently Toronto had studied the slope as a candidate for a staircase, but determined that it would cost $65,000 (CAN) to build. That’s a lot for a staircase, so the plan was shelved.
Don’t you dare do it yourself.
But the residents of Toronto are civilized. It’s not some redneck hangout like Mississauga, where sliding around in mud is date night. An elderly gentleman, Adi Astl, a retired mechanic, decided to take matters into his own hands. Enlisting the aid of a local homeless man, Mr. Astl built a stairway, with sturdy 4×4 timbers and a handrail. It wasn’t a perfect stairway, but it worked and it was much safer than the muddy slope it replaced. The whole thing appears to have been less than six vertical feet, just eight stairs.And then all heck — it’s Canada — broke loose. The city blocked the stairs, and hung yellow CAUTION tape, because “the railing is unsafe, the incline is uneven and there is no foundation.” They also threatened Mr. Astl with thousands of dollars in fines for “building without a permit.” All this even though the stairs seem to have made the spot less dangerous than before.
Some days later, the city tore up Astl’s wooden stairs, and put in some poured, reinforced concrete stairs with metal railings. And they did it for $15,000. You can see it here.
Now, you may think that the city’s inspectors or bylaw officers or the parks department in general behaved badly here, because (1) they didn’t act until they were embarrassed, (2) they threatened Mr. Astl and destroyed the useful stairs he built, and (3) their replacement stairs cost 27 times more than his did. Why couldn’t the city officials just use some common sense, leave Mr. Astl alone, and let park users enjoy his donated staircase?
Public officials are no worse, but also no better, than the rest of us.
Well, here’s the problem. Officers of the government don’t have discretion in these matters, and in fact they shouldn’t. Some folks probably just think, “That’s petty. They should have left the stairs up.” But that’s wrong: if we give discretion to bureaucrats and the police, they will impose their own biases and sympathies. They’re just human, after all. And that is one of the key insights of public choice: the recognition that public officials are no worse, but also no better, than the rest of us because they are us, just human.
The rule of law requires that the law applies to everyone, equally. Discretion allows the representatives of the government to indulge their racism, their sexism, or to give privilege to those they favor. So, we’re stuck. We’re stuck with rules that seem blunt and clumsy and we have to enforce those rules without discretion or exception. That is the very nature of the state, to restrict the discretion of bureaucrats and law enforcement. They have to enforce the law. And the law is cumbersome and inefficient.
Here’s the bad news.
The people who work in Toronto’s parks department may actually do a pretty spectacular job, given the restrictions on the ways bids can be taken, plans drawn up, and work executed. But if they don’t follow the rules about railings and foundations and the intricacies of the bid-procurement process, they get fired.
The problem, in short, is not that those funny bureaucrats are lazy, or dumb. In fact, pretty much the opposite is true. Many of them are well-educated and actually dedicated to public service. But don’t you see? That’s the bad news, right there: even good people can’t fix a bad system. And centralized state provision of goods like parks and staircases is often a bad system. There are too many rules, and control is too far removed from the citizens who, like Mr. Astl, have exactly the right local knowledge to do what needs to be done.
Edmund Burke had it right, then, when he said, “In vain you tell me that Artificial Government is good, but that I fall out only with the Abuse. The Thing! the Thing itself is the Abuse!”
Blaming people is a mistake. The system is the problem. If you want things provided by the state, you can’t complain when that provision is slow, expensive, and hard to manage.
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What if the government can’t solve our problems because the government doesn’t really exist? Prof. Mike Munger explains his “unicorn” theory of the state.
Comments Off on Breaking the wheel of Westeros: why heroes aren’t enough
In a famous scene in Season 5 of Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen compares the struggle for power in Westeros to a spinning wheel that elevates one great noble house and then another. She vows that she does not merely intend to turn the wheel in her own favor: “I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”
In the world of the show, Daenerys’s statement resonates because the rulers of Westeros have made a terrible mess of the continent. Even those who are not sadistic (like King Joffrey), or venal (like many of the leaders of the great houses) do little to benefit the common people, and often end up making their lot even worse than before. Their conflicts have left Westeros devastated and poorly prepared to face the menace of the undead White Walkers, who are about to invade from the north. Even such seemingly idealistic leaders as Ned and Robb Stark and Stannis Baratheon end up exacerbating the carnage rather than improving things.
Even in earlier, more peaceful times, the ruling class mostly preyed on the people rather than provide useful public goods. Both George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire book series and the HBO series based on it drive home the point that Westeros’s political system is dysfunctional and that its problems go beyond the flaws of any one ruler.
Daenerys’s desire to “break the wheel” suggests the possibility of a better approach. But, what exactly, does breaking the wheel entail?
Good Intentions and Flawed Execution
Even in the late stages of the still-ongoing Season 7, Daenerys seems to have little notion of what it means beyond defeating her enemies and installing herself as Queen on Westeros’s Iron Throne. She recognizes that Westeros’s previous rulers — including her father, the “Mad King” Aerys – committed grave injustices. But it is not clear how she intends to avoid a repetition of them.
Even if Daenerys herself can be trusted to rule justly and wisely as an absolute monarch, what will happen after she is gone? Recent occupants of the Iron Throne have had a short life expectancy. None of the last five have died a natural death. In a recent episode, Daenerys’s chief adviser, Tyrion Lannister, asked: “After you break the wheel, how do you make sure it stays broken?” Daenerys has no good answer to this important question.
Unlike most of the other rulers we see in the series, Daenerys has at least some genuine interest in improving the lot of ordinary people. Before coming to Westeros, she and her army freed tens of thousands of slaves on the continent of Essos. She delayed her departure from Essos long enough to try to establish a new government in the liberated areas that would — hopefully — prevent backsliding into slavery.
Nonetheless, it is not clear whether Daenerys has any plan to prevent future oppression and injustice other than to replace the current set of evil rulers with a better one: herself. The idea of “breaking the wheel” implies systemic institutional reform, not just replacing the person who has the dubious honor of planting his or her rear end on the Iron Throne in King’s Landing. If Daenerys has any such reforms in mind, it is hard to say what they are.
Daenerys most recently restated her desire to break the wheel in episode 4 of season 7, when she announced it to a group of captured enemy soldiers. Immediately afterwards, she proceeded to execute two of the prisoners, Lord Randyll Tarly and his son Dickon, because they refused to swear allegiance to her. Daenerys orders one of her dragons to burn them to death.
Lord Tarly is a far from sympathetic character, one who has committed significant injustices. Dickon was, arguably, complicit in some of them. Nonetheless, this is an example of Daenerys ordering a brutal execution of prisoners without any due process, primarily because they refused to “bend the knee” to her.
It is not a massive injustice on the scale of those committed by her enemies and predecessors. But it also does little to reassure the people that the new regime will be fundamentally different from the old. Life and death are still decided by the word of the king or queen, with no institutional safeguard against the abuse of such arbitrary power.
The King in the North
Daenerys’s failure to give serious consideration to institutional problems is shared by the other great leader beloved by fans of the show: Jon Snow, the newly enthroned King in the North. Perhaps even more than Daenerys, Jon has a genuine concern for ordinary people. He at one point even sacrificed his life in an attempt to save them (he was later, of course, resurrected). Unlike Daenerys — to say nothing of the other contenders for the Iron Throne — Jon seems to have little in the way of lust for power. He clearly did not really want the northern lords to make him King in the North, and views the position as more a burden than a privilege.
To an even greater extent than Daenerys, however, Jon does not have any real notion of institutional reform. Almost by default, he accepts traditional institutional forms, including the kingship of the North itself. In fairness, Jon has been preoccupied first with retaking the North from the villainous Ramsay Bolton, and later with preparing for the war against the White Walkers. But there is little evidence that he even perceives the need for institutional change, much less has a plan to effectuate it.
Heroes and Villains vs. Institutions
What kind of institutional reform can realistically be achieved in Westeros? It is difficult to say with certainty. The continent is, after all, a fantasy world, and only its creators can really say what might be possible there.
But in Medieval Europe, on which Westeros is roughly based, parliaments, merchants’ guilds, autonomous cities, and other institutions eventually emerged to challenge and curb the power of kings and nobles. These developments gradually helped lead to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the economic growth that led to modern liberal democracy. Few if any such developments are in evidence in Westeros, which seems to have had thousands of years of economic, technological, and intellectual stagnation.
The characters in the books and the TV show are not the only ones who largely ignore the need for institutional change. We the fans are often guilty of the same sin. Few fans watch the show with an eye to institutional questions.
Rather, we are fascinated by the doings of the more prominent characters. Who will prevail in the struggle for power? Who will score an impressive victory in battle or single combat? Will Cersei ever completely alienate her increasingly disillusioned brother Jaime, with whom she has had a longstanding incestuous relationship? Will Daenerys and Jon finally develop the long-foreshadowed incestuous relationship of their own? Unbeknownst to either, she is likely his aunt.
These are the kinds of questions that excite many fans. Relatively few wonder whether and when Westeros will get a parliament, secure property rights, or establish some semblance of the rule of law.
All of this is entirely understandable. Most of us read fantasy literature and watch TV shows to be entertained, not to get a lesson in political theory. And it is much easier to develop an entertaining show focused on the need to replace a villainous evil ruler with a good, heroic, and virtuous one, than to produce an exciting story focused on institutional questions. Writers and showrunners tend to follow the former approach.
The Star Wars series, one of the few sci-fi/fantasy franchises even more popular than Game of Thrones, is just one of many pop culture products that exemplify the same trend. Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire is comparatively unusual in even raising the possibility that institutional reform is the real solution to its fictional world’s problems, and in making this idea one of the central themes of the story.
The Real World Has a Dangerous Wheel of Its Own
However understandable, the pop culture fixation on heroic leaders rather than institutions reinforces a dangerous tendency of real-world politics. The benighted people of Westeros are not the only ones who hope that their problems might go away if only we concentrate vast power in the hands of the right ruler. The same pathology has been exploited by dictators throughout history, both left and right.
It is also evident, in less extreme form, in many democratic societies. Donald Trump won election by promising that he could solve the nation’s problems through his brilliant leadership if only we gave him enough power: “I alone can do it,” he famously avowed at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Before him, Barack Obama promised that he could transcend the ordinary limitations of politics and bring “change we can believe in.”
More generally, voters are prone to support charismatic leaders who promise to change the flawed status quo, without giving much thought to the possibility that the new policies may be as bad or worse than the old. They also rarely consider the likelihood that real improvements require institutional reform, not merely a new leader. The spinning wheel of Westeros has its counterpart in the wheel of American politics, where one set of dubious politicians replaces another, each promising that they are the only ones who can give us the “change” we crave.
For all its serious flaws, our situation is not as bad as that of Westeros. But we too could benefit from more serious consideration of ways to break the wheel, as opposed to merely spin it in another direction. And our popular culture could benefit from having more stories that highlight the value of institutions, as well as heroic leaders. However much we love Daenerys and Jon, they and their real-world counterparts are unlikely to give us a better wheel on their own.
Comments Off on Why you vote for corn syrup even though it might be killing you
The US government spends billions of dollars a year subsidizing American farms, providing massive benefits for some farmers and dispersing the costs among millions of taxpayers. Once all the costs and benefits of lobbying and paying for the subsidies are tallied up, it turns out that they make the country worse off. One tangible result seems to be that these subsidies increase the prevalence of certain sorts of unhealthy foods, like soybean oil and corn syrup, in our diets.
So why do we have them?
It’s because the farmers who receive thousands — and sometimes millions — of dollars in subsidies have a huge incentive to lobby for the subsidies, while individual taxpayers have little incentive to actively oppose the subsidies, which only cost them a few dollars each. Politicians favoring the subsidies win the support of “Big Ag” without losing the support of anyone else.
Agricultural subsidies might not seem like a big deal in themselves, but the problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs applies to countless other programs, causing economic inefficiencies to pile up quickly. Public choice theory can help us understand why.
What is public choice theory?
Public choice theory is, roughly, the economic analysis of politics. Anthony Downs, a forefather of public choice, worried that economists had a tendency to “treat government as a machine” designed to maximize social welfare rather than as an institution run by flesh-and-blood human beings. Downs thought this traditional approach was flawed since “there is little point in advising governments to [maximize social welfare], or forming recommendations of action based on the supposition that they might, unless there is some reason to believe that they will.” We should therefore study the incentives facing real-world politicians, bureaucrats, and voters to see whether a given government program is likely to promote the common good.One lesson of public choice theory is that real-world government programs often fail to promote the common good because of the problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. That is, the benefits of many programs accrue to a few people, while the costs are spread out among the rest of us. Agricultural subsidies are a case in point.
It’s sometimes claimed that public choice worries about government failure assume that political actors are selfish. Politicians care only about enriching their campaign coffers, and voters care too little about the common good to hold them accountable at the ballot box. Indeed, this view has sometimes been fostered by public choice theorists themselves. For instance, Downs claims that rational behavior is “directed primarily toward selfish ends.”
However, it’s a mistake to think that the public choice theory of government failure rests on the assumption that political actors are largely selfish.
Even when most people are public-spirited, governments can fail.
To see why, consider Stanley Kelly’s remark from his introduction to Downs’s book, An Economic Theory of Democracy: “Just as firms that do not engage in the rational pursuit of profit are apt to cease to be firms, so politicians who do not pursue votes in a rational manner are apt to cease to be politicians.” Democracies select for politicians that win votes, regardless of whether that’s the politicians’ explicit aim. The trouble is, the problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs implies that the strategy that gets a politician the most votes will often be bad for the public.
Think back to farm subsidies. A typical voter won’t track politicians’ positions on all of the issues and vote them out for supporting bad policies. Why not? Because a single vote won’t change the outcome of the election. Casting your one vote for the best candidate for the country won’t result in the election of that candidate. For this reason, citizens may remain “rationally ignorant” of policy, not because they’re selfish, but because voting isn’t an effective means of serving the common good. So a candidate’s support for farm subsidies is unlikely to cost them the support of even altruistic voters because most of them won’t even know that the candidate supports the subsidies.Farmers, by contrast, are more likely than typical voters to be attentive to a politician’s stance on farm subsidies because it directly affects their livelihood. And they may support farm subsidies not on selfish grounds, but because they sincerely think that the subsidies are good for the country. Perhaps they believe that “government subsidies help keep farming profitable and stable, allowing for the commercial finance of modern agriculture, the development of products and technologies that help farmers produce more food at a lower cost, and the preservation of production resources in case of future need,” as retired agricultural economist and Auburn University associate professor W. Robert Goodman argues in the Wall Street Journal.
The key point is this: endorsing farm subsidies will probably win a candidate some votes and lose them none. Thus, endorsing the subsidies is a vote-maximizing strategy. All else equal, then, a candidate that endorses the farm subsidies (perhaps with perfectly good intentions) will defeat a candidate that does not. In this way, even democracies populated by well-meaning people will select for policies that concentrate their benefits and disperse their costs, often to the detriment of the public good.
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Prof. Mike Munger supports safe spaces on campus — but no one should be “safe” from hearing ideas they disagree with across the whole school.
Comments Off on Here’s the best part about the anti-Trump #resistance
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.
Comments Off on Most social scientists can’t predict the future. But this philosopher did.
When social scientists predict the future, they almost always get it wrong. Human behavior and social phenomena are just too complex to be predictable. But Alexis de Tocqueville was, to some degree, an exception. Besides being a great political philosopher, he was also a political prophet.
Discussions of Tocqueville’s prophetic prowess usually begin with his remarkable prediction in Democracy in America, more than 100 years before the Cold War, that “there are two great peoples on the earth today who, starting from different points, seem to advance toward the same goal: these are the Russians and the Anglo-Americans.… each of them seems called by a secret design of Providence to hold the destinies of half the world in its hands one day.” Though the Cold War is over, continuing tensions between Russia and the United States show that Tocqueville’s prediction remains all-too-relevant.
What allowed Tocqueville to make such an impressive prediction, given that predicting social phenomena is notoriously difficult? An answer to this question may be in view if we consider a less well-known prediction that Tocqueville recorded in his Recollections.
The “Gloomy Prediction” of 1848
Tocqueville served as a legislator in France’s Chamber of Deputies prior to the Revolution of 1848. From this post, he observed an ominous decline in public morality and a corresponding increase in the number of fellow legislators who cared only to enjoy the emoluments of public office. From this, he concluded that “the time will come when the country will find itself once again divided between two great parties.”
He told his colleagues in the Chamber of Deputies that another revolution was brewing. What’s more, he said that they would be to blame if it happened. In an uncommonly courageous speech in the chamber on January 29, 1848, Tocqueville explained that the first, great French Revolution of 1789 happened fundamentally because France’s political leaders had become unworthy of holding power, and the leaders of 1848 were at risk of allowing another revolution to happen because they, too, were unworthy of their office.
On the one hand, the “public morality” of the French people had declined such that a severe bias against private property was now common. Later, when the revolution got underway, these embers of bias would be fanned into flames by socialist ideologues who took advantage of the growing envy of the masses. On the other hand, French politicians ignored this growing antipathy to private property and instead selfishly enjoyed the posh benefits of public office.
Tocqueville presented them with a clear warning: “My firm and profound conviction is this: that public morality is being degraded, and that the degradation of public morality will shortly, very shortly perhaps, bring down upon you new revolutions.… Will you allow it to take you by surprise?”
He called for the Chamber of Deputies to take action before a new revolution was upon them. But rather than taking preventative action, the legislators offered only platitudinous applause: “These gloomy predictions were received with ironical cheers from the majority.… The truth is that no one as yet believed seriously in the danger which I was prophesying, although we were so near the catastrophe.” The assembly did nothing. One legislator in the assembly remarked privately after Tocqueville’s speech that he was “a nasty little man” for trying to frighten the assembly with his disrespectful rhetoric.
Tocqueville as Political Prophet
Tocqueville was, of course, correct in his prediction. 1848 was the year of revolution in Europe, and about a month after Tocqueville’s speech, revolution came to France. To Tocqueville’s reputation as a great writer was added a reputation for political prognostication.
What allowed him to be, as he called himself, a “political prophet”? The answer seems to lie in the most distinctive feature of Tocqueville’s political philosophy: his emphasis on the habits of the mind and heart of a culture. By observing the “morals and opinions” of the French people of 1848, he was able to sense the drift of the country’s political life. As he said to his colleagues in his speech of January 1848, even though there were no tangible signs of revolution or riots, the spirit of revolution had “entered deeply into men’s minds.” The French people were “gradually forming opinions and ideas which are destined not only to upset this or that law, ministry, or even form of government but society itself.”
An Invitation to Consider Tocqueville’s Thought
There is a habit of dismissing Tocqueville’s wisdom as a political philosopher and poo-pooing his predictions as being unimpressive or wrong. But one wonders if this habit stems in part from a distaste for the gloominess of some of Tocqueville’s ideas, not unlike the distaste for Tocqueville’s gloomy prediction in the Chamber of Deputies.
The late 19th-century historian James Bryce, for example, asserted that Tocqueville’s “descriptions of democracy as displayed in America” were “no longer true” and in fact, in some respects, “they were never true.” Bryce regarded one of Tocqueville’s incorrect observations to be the threat of majority tyranny, which, he incorrectly said, “does not strike one as a serious evil in … America.” Theodore Roosevelt later cited Bryce approvingly on this topic, saying that Tocqueville’s warning about majority tyranny “may have been true then, although certainly not to the degree he insisted, but it is not true now.”
Tocqueville’s predictions should provoke us to consider his writing further. Yet the reader of his works needs to consider the possibility that Tocqueville may at times be right when we do not want him to be. Even Tocqueville himself seems to have a hard time believing his own prediction of the Revolution of 1848, but eventually the evidence drove him to deliver his warning to the Chamber of Deputies.
If the dangers to democracy that Tocqueville writes about are true, the natural response ought not to be to ignore them but instead to study them and to be wiser for it.
 See, for example, Joseph Epstein, Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide (Eminent Lives, 2006), 4–5.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (University of Chicago Press, 2000), 395–396.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville (The Harvill Press, 1948), 10-14; ibid., 33.
 Ibid., 10.
 For more historical context surrounding this prediction, see Epstein, Tocqueville, chap. 8, and Hugh Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life (Yale University Press, 2006), chap. 17.
 Tocqueville, Recollections, 67–69, 79–85.
 Ibid., 14.
 Epstein, Democracy’s Guide, 125.
 Tocqueville, Recollections, 16.
 Ibid., 10.
 Ibid., 12.
 James Bryce, The Predictions of Hamilton and Tocqueville (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1887).
 Theodore Roosevelt, “Introduction,” in Majority Rule and the Judiciary: An Examination of Current Proposals for Constitutional Change Affecting the Reflections of Courts to Legislation (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 21-22.
 Tocqueville, Recollections, 16.
Comments Off on Highlights from our Reddit AMA with Professor Michael Munger
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.
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!
Comments Off on Reddit AMA with Professor Michael Munger of Duke University
This Tuesday, the Learn Liberty Reddit AMA Series continues with Michael C. Munger, Professor of Political Science at Duke University.
UPDATE: The AMA is now live!
Prior to his tenure at Duke, where he chaired the Department of Political Science for 10 years before coming to serve as Director of Undergraduate Studies, Professor Munger has also taught at Dartmouth College, University of Texas—Austin, and University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, and served as a staff economist at the US Federal Trade Commission.
He is a long-time friend of the Learn Liberty project, a regular contributor to our blog, and star of a whopping nine Learn Liberty videos! Mark your calendar and join us for the conversation at Reddit.com this Tuesday, July 11th at 3:00pm ET where you’ll have the chance to ask him anything!
Comments Off on Highlights from our Reddit AMA with Professor Bryan Caplan
Last week, Professor Bryan Caplan joined us on Reddit for an “Ask Me Anything” conversation as part of the Learn Liberty Reddit AMA Series.
Dr. Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University, and a prolific author and blogger who has appeared on ABC, Fox News, MSNBC, and C-SPAN, and been featured in New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. He starred in Learn Liberty’s Econ Chronicles series of educational videos, and he recently appeared on The Rubin Report in association with Learn Liberty.
Check out some highlights from the AMA below.