Category Archive: Political Science

  1. Why a Canadian city tore down the staircase its residents had always wanted to build

    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.

  2. Breaking the wheel of Westeros: why heroes aren’t enough

    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.

  3. Why you vote for corn syrup even though it might be killing you

    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.

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

    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.

  5. Most social scientists can’t predict the future. But this philosopher did.

    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,[1] 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.”[2]  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.[3] From this, he concluded that “the time will come when the country will find itself once again divided between two great parties.”[4]

    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.[5]

    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.[6] 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?”[7]

    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.[8]

    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”?[9] 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,[10] 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.”[11]

    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.”[12]  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.”[13]

    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,[14] 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.

    [1] See, for example, Joseph Epstein, Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide (Eminent Lives, 2006), 4–5.

    [2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (University of Chicago Press, 2000), 395–396.

    [3] Alexis de Tocqueville, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville (The Harvill Press, 1948), 10-14; ibid., 33.

    [4] Ibid., 10.

    [5] 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.

    [6] Tocqueville, Recollections, 67–69, 79–85.

    [7] Ibid., 14.

    [8] Epstein, Democracy’s Guide, 125.

    [9] Tocqueville, Recollections, 16.

    [10] Ibid., 10.

    [11] Ibid., 12.

    [12] James Bryce, The Predictions of Hamilton and Tocqueville (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1887).

    [13] 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.

    [14] Tocqueville, Recollections, 16.

  6. Highlights from our Reddit AMA with Professor Michael Munger

    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.

     


    AlGoreRhythmSection

    How much do you hate Kentucky basketball?

    Michael_Munger

    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.


    sox_n_sandals

    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?

    Michael_Munger

    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.


    Factoring_Filthy

    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”.

    Michael_Munger

    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!


    typowilliams 

    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?

    Michael_Munger

    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…


    Tsalnor

    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?

    Michael_Munger

    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.


    wil541 

    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)

    Michael_Munger

    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.


    Dauntless_99

    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.

    Michael_Munger

    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!


    davemabe

    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?

    Michael_Munger

    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.


    Bischof_des_koenigs

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

    Michael_Munger

    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.


    mike_gainor

    Can you even right now?

    Michael_Munger

    i can’t. Even.


    Scoutster13

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

    Michael_Munger

    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!

    DiviFiliusAugustus

    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.

    Michael_Munger

    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.


    averykrouse

    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)?

    Michael_Munger

    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.


    SgtBrutalisk

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

    Michael_Munger

    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.


    RosneftTrump2020

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

    Michael_Munger

    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.

    RosneftTrump2020

    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.

    Michael_Munger

    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.


    elJammo

    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 —

    Michael_Munger

    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.


    CassiopeiaStillLife

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

    Michael_Munger

    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.


    vegetablestew

    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?

    Michael_Munger

    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.


  7. Reddit AMA with Professor Michael Munger of Duke University

    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!

    How to Sabotage Progress

    We Have A Serious Unicorn Problem

    Is Grad School Best For Me?

    Why Do We Exchange Things?

    Giving Away Money Costs More Than You Think

    Why Is the NRA So Powerful?

    What Do Prices “Know” That You Don’t?

    Externalities: When Is a Potato Chip Not Just a Potato Chip?

    Should Majorities Decide Everything?

     


  8. Highlights from our Reddit AMA with Professor Bryan Caplan

    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.

     


    MaggieWasAGoddess

    If you could make any of your blog posts required reading for high school students, which would it be?

    bryan_caplan 

    The Magic of Education: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/11/the_magic_of_ed.html

    Demagoguery Explained: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2014/05/demagoguery_exp.html

    Labor Econ vs. the World: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2015/12/labor_econ_vers.html


    shoesafe

    Using whatever metric you like, which of your many heterodox views would you say garners the strongest negative reaction? Do you find that the manner in which you present your viewpoint–whether you are conciliatory or blunt–is a big factor in provoking a negative reception?

    bryan_caplan 

    Open borders by a landslide. Unfortunately, when a view is that radical, almost any defense seems blunt. In my experience, keeping a sense of humor helps diffuse negativity. But as usual, that works best if people already know you personally and feel OK about you.


    Z3F 

    What do you think of the objection to open-borders that says that foreigners could bring their anti-libertarian cultures (such as those from Islamic countries) and eventually outnumber the local population or attain enough of the population to successfully overturn the libertarian status-quo?

    bryan_caplan 

    Theoretically, this is a clear argument. But empirically, I see very little evidence that this actually happens. The only cases that really concern me are when a single immigrant group with strong identity politics and bad average views quickly become a 30% or more of the population.

    I know, of course, that there’s lots of media coverage of anti-libertarian Islamists, but I see this as almost entirely fear-mongering. The terrorism that gets so much attention is, though emotionally horrifying, not a quantitatively big problem.


    huadpe

    With respect to open borders, do you think unilateral open borders are presently a viable policy for a smaller base population country such as Canada? Or would it be necessary for them to limit inflows to some level or coordinate with larger countries to prevent being overwhelmed logistically?

    bryan_caplan 

    As long as immigrants know they can’t sleep in the streets, I think real estate prices and inertia provide all the buffer a smaller country needs. Beverly Hills has open borders with Detroit, but no one’s overwhelming Beverly Hills.

    Diaspora dynamics – immigration’s tendency to gradually snowball because immigrants like to cluster around their own group – also greatly mitigates this problem.


    ktxy

    First, I just want to say that I’m a big admirer of your work. You’ve been a big influence on my own intellectual journey, thank you.

    Here’s my question: given your belief in open borders, what’s the most sound argument you’ve heard in favor of closed borders?

    bryan_caplan 

     The best argument against open borders is also the best argument against ANY radical change: The status quo is tolerable, we can’t really know with great confidence how radical changes will ultimately play out, so why risk it? You can reinforce this argument by pointing out that gradual reforms capture most of the benefits of open borders policies without the systemic risk.


    hewescrab

    I am a former student (GMU Public Finance).

    I don’t have a question but I wanted to comment that I love the concept of the Ideological Turing Test and have mentioned it often to friends of varying political persuasions. I consistently find people fail at it so spectacularly, many times because they assign devious motives to their political opponents. For example, many on the left decry libertarians as selfish and uncaring.

    bryan_caplan 

    Yes, I’m proud of that one, especially since it’s found favor far outside my personal fans.


    Waltonruler5

    What do you think are the best ways to market getting rid of Medicare and Social Security? People tend to get the idea that it’s they’re essentially ponzi schemes, but they can’t imagine not having them. Thoughts?

    bryan_caplan 

    The best way (or least-bad way) is to focus on the foolishness of taxing everyone to help everyone. Means-tested programs at least serve some useful function – helping people who need help. Universal programs don’t. I’d also try to publicize research on how unimportant health care is for life compared to lifestyle choices. Unfortunately, I doubt these arguments will persuade many people; I just don’t have anything better.


    hatethemedia

    What is your opinion on the state of the media in the United States, specifically the mainstream media?

    I believe that if the media were impartial in their reporting, Trump might not have fared so well with the election outcome. What do you think?

    bryan_caplan 

    From the evidence I’ve seen, propaganda works – though not nearly as well as the propagandists would hope. So I’m skeptical of the idea that anti-Trump media helped Trump. It seems a lot simpler to say that in a more diverse media environment, pro-Trump media partly counter-balanced anti-Trump media, rather than to claim that anti-Trump media is negatively persuasive.


    jamers89000

    Bryan,

    What are your thoughts on climate change?

    bryan_caplan 

    1. I greet all predictions of disaster with skepticism, for reasons outlined here: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2006/08/what_me_worry.html.

    2. I’m not qualified to directly assess the evidence on climate change, so it all comes down to the trustworthiness of climatologists for me.

    3. Climatologists seem moderately ideologically biased in a left- and green direction to me. But they’re still worth listening to within their areas of expertise.

    4. Most climatologists are NOT experts in cost-benefit analysis or environmental economics, so when they move from physical to social prediction, I don’t take them very seriously.

    5. Alex Epstein’s The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels seems quite good to me, though to repeat, I can’t honestly claim to be able to independently assess the science.

    6. Taking mainstream climatologists predictions as gospel, I think the best approach is to wait and see, avoid doing anything that chokes off growth in the Third World (which has dire risks of its own), and use geoengineering if anything really bad starts to happen.


    FuzzyHugMonster (the true scotsman)

    What are your thoughts on vegetarianism?

    bryan_caplan 

    I find vegetarian arguments unconvincing. Human well-being just seems vastly more valuable than non-human animal well-being to me. I had a series of blog posts on insect welfare on this issue. Even strict vegans inevitably kill vast numbers of insects, and they don’t seem to think they’re doing anything wrong.

    You could say that’s because insects don’t feel pain, but (a) that seems unlikely to me, and (b) if people did learn that insects feel pain, even ethically scrupulous people wouldn’t change their behavior much.


    panick21

    I love your work and I’m really waiting to passively aggressively give people ‘The Case against Education’.

    Can you give us an overview what fields of science you used in your argument and your impression on how good the literature on it is.

    bryan_caplan 

    I use economics, psychology (especially educational psych), sociology, and education research. As a rule, I try to read by topic, not discipline – to find out what anyone on Earth has figured out about whatever I’m writing about. How good is this research? Quality – and quantity – varies widely. But I won’t say that economists in general do a better job; we’re more methodologically clever, but often less interested in big blatant facts.

    I try to sift the piles of evidence for readers, but of course that hinges on my own credibility…

    panick21

    Are you gone write a ‘The Case against Education’ style book on Open Borders? Also, could you give some pointers on the most relevant economics literature for the Open Borders question?

    bryan_caplan

    Right now I’m doing a non-fiction graphic novel on this topic, co-authored with Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal’s Zach Weinersmith. Title: All Roads Lead to Open Borders. Despite the entertaining format, I’m still researching it heavily. After I finish, my plan is to write a traditional tome on Poverty: Who To Blame. Immigration restrictions will be one of the three main blameworthy causes of poverty I’ll cover in the book.


  9. The Big Tent of Liberalism

    Leave a Comment

    From the beginning, classical liberalism has been a big tent with a wide diversity of ideas inside it. Watch the full interview with Dave Rubin and Brandon Turner here .

  10. The Brits are getting their freedom back. Well, some of it anyway.

    Comments Off on The Brits are getting their freedom back. Well, some of it anyway.

    When British Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election for June 8, her goal was to win a huge mandate and gain a stronger hand in the upcoming Brexit negotiations with the European Union.

    So much for that! May’s Conservative Party lost its majority in the House of Commons and has been forced into an awkward and informal governing coalition with Northern Ireland’s small Democratic Unionist Party.

    The result is likely to force May’s government to work toward a “soft” Brexit. Before the election, she seemed to be adopting a “hard” posture, preferring no deal to a bad deal and looking to make a clean break with the European Union. Now she will be steered toward an agreement that might entail continued access to the single market in return for permitting free movement of European nationals to the United Kingdom and continued contributions to the European Union’s budget.

    Putting the brakes on Brexit

    The shift is a function of an interpretation of voters’ motives, not just the election’s outcome. Younger Britons turned out on June 8 in considerably higher numbers than in recent elections, possibly to support the Labour Party’s embrace of free college tuition, but also as EU “Remainers” who, after sitting out the 2016 Brexit referendum, now want to put the brakes on any effort to repudiate the continent entirely. Half of all the seats the Conservatives lost were in London, where 60 percent of voters chose “remain” last year.

    The upstart party that pressured then-prime minister David Cameron into holding the referendum in the first place, the UK Independence Party, lost its only member of Parliament and saw its vote share decline to 1.8 percent from 11.6 percent in the last general election. Its leader, Paul Nuttall, received just 8 percent of the vote in his constituency.

    But there will be Brexit. May remains as prime minister and has always pledged to honor the results of the referendum. Besides, the formal process to withdraw from the EU has commenced, with the invocation of Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon treaty. The key for Britons who want to leave is to therefore focus on the benefits any form of departure will bring.

    British sovereignty

    Principal among these is that the United Kingdom will once again be a fully sovereign nation-state. It will control its own affairs and enter freely into agreements with other nations. Countries like the United States are restricted by their treaty obligations all the time.

    As a member of NAFTA, the United States agrees to import many types of goods from Canada and Mexico without placing tariffs on them. As a member of NATO, it agrees to protect other member nations from outside attack. But the United States entered into these agreements alone and is free to withdraw when it wishes. As a current EU member, Britain can only enter into or exit from agreements with nonmembers if the rest of the bloc agrees.

    Worse, Britons are living under laws made by the EU government in Brussels — a complex combination of the Parliament of 751 members, the council that represents the 28 member states’ governments, and the commission of independent citizens of the 28 countries. Britons have representation there, but they can only tangentially influence, and not determine, the rules they must live by.

    The United Kingdom has 72 members of the European Parliament, one commissioner, and represents only 1/28 of the council. Cultural differences, barriers to cross-national agreements between parties, and the inevitable unwillingness of participants to be lobbied by citizens of other countries mean Britons view EU lawmaking as a spectator sport. They feel powerless as Brussels passes legislation that ranges from the ridiculous — there have been rules on the amount of acceptable “bend” in a banana and the power of vacuum cleaners — to the crucial: the European Union has a $180 billion annual budget to which the United Kingdom’s net contribution is about $14 billion.

    The nation-state: protecting liberty since 1648

    The nation-state is a central organizing unit of the western liberal tradition. A nation is a group of people tied together by culture, tradition, and geography; a state is a political community residing under a recognized governing authority. The two were fused mainly by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 that ended decades of war between Catholics and Protestants in Europe. The sovereign nation-state then developed as an integral concept in Enlightenment political thought in the 17th and 18th centuries and emerged, as a result, as the most legitimate depository of political authority. It was a construct particularly adept at protecting liberty.

    Subunits of states are more capable of suppressing freedom because smaller jurisdictions are likely to have one or only a few groups that constitute a minority — blacks in the American South before the Civil War are a prime example. As James Madison noted in Federalist 10, nation-states are large enough that all discernible groups are, in isolation, a minority incapable of ruling without the help of others.

    Controlling the supranational

    In supranational organizations like the European Union, on the other hand, policymakers are so distant from their publics that they cannot be controlled effectively. There is no sense of nation to provide social cohesion. Moreover, it is adversarial sovereign states, acting either together or alone, that are most capable of defeating illiberal governments that can emerge at the national level. It wasn’t the League of Nations that defeated Hitler; it was an alliance led by the heads of sovereign democratic governments, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill.

    So Brexit was a victory for the nation-state and, in many ways, for freedom. It is a victory that will not be diminished by May’s embarrassment and a “soft” denouement. In fact, if Remainers can take solace in the election results last week, so can supporters of the 310-year-old United Kingdom, a sovereign nation-state that has played a central role in the emergence of the modern free world.