Category Archive: Political Science

  1. The politics of “The Last Jedi”

    Comments Off on The politics of “The Last Jedi”

    The Last Jedi  — the latest installment in the Star Wars series — premiered to mixed reactions from critics and fans last weekend. The film has many impressive scenes and action sequences. But critics argue that the plot is flawed in various ways.

    The movie’s treatment of political themes deserves similar mixed reviews. Unlike most previous Star Wars movies, this one at least implies that institutions matter, not just individual heroics. But it also perpetuates Star Wars’ longstanding confusion about what exactly the “good guys” are fighting for. The series may belatedly value institutions, but it still gives no indication what institutions are valuable.

    As The Last Jedi begins, the villainous First Order has almost completely vanquished the New Republic. Only a small Resistance led by Princess (now General) Leia Organa still opposes it, and even that remnant is on the verge of being wiped out.

    The situation is in many ways similar to that which existed at the start of the original Star Wars trilogy: a small band of rebels oppose an overwhelmingly powerful empire led by Dark Side Force users — with Supreme Leader Snoke and Kylo Ren seemingly assuming the roles formerly played by Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader.

    If anything, the Resistance may even be worse off than the original Rebellion was at the start of Episode IV. At that time, the rebels had a substantial fleet, and controlled a number of important star systems and planets. In The Last Jedi, they have been reduced to a much smaller force and suffer further attrition throughout the movie.

    Institutions are more important than heroes.

    Aaron Ross Powell of the Cato Institute describes this setup as a “betrayal” of the original trilogy, since all of the work of Luke, Leia, and Han Solo has effectively been undone. But it can also be seen as a lesson in the importance of institutions. Despite their courage and skill in overthrowing the Empire, our heroes failed to set up effective political institutions that could forestall the emergence of a similar menace in the future.

    The New Republic seems just as dysfunctional as the old, and it allows the First Order to amass enormous power right under its nose, just as the Old Republic failed to address the threat of the Sith.

    Despite his impressive mastery of the Force, Luke Skywalker failed to establish a new Jedi Order that can prevent powerful Force users like his nephew Ben Solo from going over to the Dark Side. His efforts to train Ben on his own end in dismal failure, as a result of which Ben defects to Snoke and becomes Kylo Ren — a development that parallels Anakin Skywalker’s becoming Darth Vader. Luke’s efforts to train Rey — the powerful new Force user introduced in The Force Awakens — are only modestly more successful.

    No amount of individual ability and heroism is an adequate substitute for good institutional design.  This message is further underscored by the chase scenes in which the remains of the Resistance fleet try to escape the First Order.

    Leia and her second-in-command Admiral Amilyn Holdo repeatedly rebuke ace pilot Poe Dameron for his reckless “flyboy” ways, and his refusal to respect the chain of command. Holdo, by contrast, is praised for being “more interested in protecting the light than she was in seeming like a hero.”

    As I have explained in earlier writings on Star Wars, earlier Star Wars films tended to neglect institutional considerations, and implicitly convey the message that we should put our faith in heroic figures like Han, Luke, and Leia, and that concentrated power is only dangerous if placed in the wrong hands. The Last Jedi at least partly corrects that tendency. It suggests that heroes aren’t enough. The Galaxy will not have peace, happiness, or freedom without a functional republic, and perhaps also a new and better Jedi Order.

    We still don’t know what the Resistance is fighting for.

    But if Episode VIII offsets the flaws of its predecessors in some ways, it perpetuates them in others. Like the rebels who opposed the Empire, the Resistance has little notion of what they are fighting for, other than simply opposing the First Order.

    One Resistance fighter says that the movement will win “not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love.” But what do they love, other than perhaps their friends and fellow fighters? Two lengthy movies into this new Star Wars trilogy, we still don’t know.

    Is it the restoration of the feckless New Republic — the same one that failed so dismally? Is it some new type of political  system? We do not know. Perhaps the Resistance members do not even know themselves.

    Similarly, Luke Skywalker ultimately promises that he will not be the last Jedi. But what does that mean? Will Rey, or some other successor, establish a new Jedi Order? If so, how will it avoid the catastrophic errors of its predecessor?

    The Resistance’s — and the filmmakers — neglect of such questions is  paralleled by all too many real-world rebels, who sought to overthrow oppressive regimes without giving sufficient thought to what might come after — or to the possibility that it could be even worse than the current tyrants. Even in established liberal democracies, voters too often react to a flawed status quo by embracing “change” candidates without sufficiently considering whether the their proposed changes are actually likely to improve the situation, rather than make it worse.

    Both many real-world rebel movements and those of the Star Wars universe also do little to question their own behavior. The Last Jedi is yet another Star Wars movie that largely ignores the glaring hypocrisy inherent in the fact that the rebels (and now the Resistance) are simultaneously freedom fighters and slave owners. They seek liberty for themselves, yet treat droids as slaves, even though the latter are as intelligent as humans, and clearly capable of feeling emotions such as hope, pain, and fear.

    Unlike George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who at least recognized that their ownership of slaves was at odds with their professed principles, the Star Wars “good guys” seem oblivious to the issue — as – it seems – are all too many of the filmmakers and viewers.

    I find your lack of continuity disturbing.

    In addition to the renewed attention to institutional issues, The Last Jedi has a number of other interesting plot twists. Both Rey and Kylo Ren’s characters develop in surprising but effective ways. On the other hand, the sprawling plot has a number of turns that seem pointless, yet take up a lot of screen time.

    In addition, there are some significant problems with world-building and continuity. For example, the first six Star Wars movies established that even highly talented Force users need extensive training to use their abilities effectively. But Rey demonstrates remarkable skill with the Force, despite having almost no training at all. Similarly, Rey, Kylo Ren, Luke Skywalker and Snoke use the Force to communicate with each other over vast interstellar distances that greatly exceed any previous such abilities that we have seen.

    There are also discontinuities in military and technological development. The bombers used by the Resistance in the opening battle are not only more primitive than the craft we see in the original trilogy (set decades earlier), but even seem slower and less sophisticated than World War II-era bombers were. Either the filmmakers laid an egg here, or they want to suggest that the galaxy has gone through a period of severe technological regression!

    And, if the Resistance seems to have no coherent agenda, neither does the First Order. Despite his pivotal role in the plot, we learn virtually nothing about Supreme Leader Snoke, his goals, or how and why he came to lead the First Order. We cannot even rule out the popular fan theory that he is really Jar Jar Binks in disguise.

    Such flaws may not bother casual viewers, but might well annoy more committed science fiction fans. They remind us that Star Wars is less committed to careful world-building than rivals such as Star Trek and Game of Thrones. This problem may be related to the failure to think carefully about what it is that the rebels are fighting for, and why it matters.

    Despite notable flaws, the Last Jedi is still an entertaining and in some ways compelling movie.  And, like much of the rest of the Star Wars franchise, it teaches us some useful lessons about what not to do.

  2. Life isn’t fair, but can government help that?

    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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.



    How much do you hate Kentucky basketball?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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


    Can you even right now?


    i can’t. Even.


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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


    Professor Munger –

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

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

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

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

    Best of luck in your project —


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


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


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


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


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