Economic and political rights first

I just finished readingThe Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor by William Easterly.

Russ Roberts interviewed Easterly in this EconTalk podcast.

I recommend reading the book and listening to the podcast.

Easterly’s key and powerful point is that the economic and political rights of humans in third world countries are often not considered by experts looking to prove out their prescribed solutions for alleviating poverty and often do so by working with the very leaders of those countries who suppress those rights.

Easterly made the excellent observation that Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t seek to alleviate poverty among African-Americans first. He understood that ensuring that they had economic and political rights came first.

The last half of the book provides a nice description of how the incentives work in a free market (or when people have economic and political rights) to be the most effective pill against poverty. Easterly, though, steers away from using terms that carry baggage in today’s political clime, like markets and capitalism, and keeps the focus on the individuals. Instead of calling it capitalism, he refers it to a people trying to solve other people’s problems.

Signals v Causes: Poverty

From the Introduction of the William Easterly’s book, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor:

The technical problems of the poor (and the absence of technical solutions for those problems) are a symptom of poverty, not a cause of poverty. This book argues that the cause of poverty is the absence of political and economic rights, the absence of a free political and economic system that would find the technical solutions to the poor’s problems. The dictator whom the experts expect will accomplish the technical fixes to the technical problems is not the solution; he is the problem.

Think of technical problems as problems like not having medicine, food or the internet and technical solutions as providing medicine, food and the internet.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book. I heard about it from this EconTalk episode with William Easterly and that discussion is worth a listen.

If you want to help the poor, you should read this

I agree with Mark Perry (an economist who has bought me a beer), of Carpe Diem, that the reduction in the world poverty rate is the most remarkable achievement in human history.

The percentage of the world population living on $1 per day or less has dropped since 1970 from around 26% to just over 5%.

It’s hard to argue with those results. They are inflation-adjusted.

I can think of a couple things that might be easier to argue about regarding those results.

1. I can imagine some folks would say that 5% isn’t good enough.

2. I can imagine that some folks would argue about the cause of those results. I agree with Perry’s explanation as provided by Arthur Brooks: “globalization, free trade and international entrepreneurship.”

I can imagine that some folks would say it was the growth in government and aid. But, for them, I’d ask, what if you’re wrong? As Brooks says:

…if you love the poor, if you are a good Samaritan, you must stand for the free enterprise system, and you must defend it, not just for ourselves but for people around the world. It is the best anti-poverty measure ever invented.

I agree. I could be wrong and I think — for the benefit of the poor — I should keep that in mind and stay open to evidence to the contrary, because whether I’m right or wrong doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

What is important it what really helps them.

I also think us supporters of free markets often forget this. The opposition paints us as the defenders of the rich, the “1%” and king-like CEOs, while we’re really advocating for the benefit of everyone, including the poor. 

Let the experiments begin

Whenever I think of Bitcoin, I can’t help to think of the Liberty Dollar, a paper-based alternative currency that the Fed shut down in 2009 after about an 11 year run.

Bitcoin has a unique value proposition in currency.

It carries cachet among techies (and maybe druggies) and is in limited supply. The former gives it collectible value. The latter gives it purpose for citizens of countries with bureaucrats who have inked their money presses. It feels better heading to the store with currency that may not lose half its value before you get there.

If allowed to continue, I think Bitcoin has the potential of spawning an evolution in alternative currency experiments that may find all different sorts of niches for value propositions and, more importantly, reduce the power the Fed has to mess up the economy.

There already is a Bitcoin cousin, Litecoin. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the likes of Starbucks, Walmart, and Google test the waters. Why just supply a wallet when you can also supply the currency?

Liberty is the Golden Rule

Why I’m Libertarian is a new Tumblr blog (via Pretense of Knowledge and EconLog blogs) where folks declare why they are libertarian. Great idea.

Here’s why I’m libertarian: Because I believe in The Golden Rule. I believe that’s the true source of liberty.

Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.

The day we talked about The Golden Rule in church when I was a kid was a clarifying moment. I remember thinking, man, that makes a lot of sense. What a fabulously easy way to test your actions. Would I want others to do that to me? If the answer is no, or even a maybe not, don’t do it.

Lots of libertarians say they are libertarian because of things like ‘limited government’, ‘individual rights’, ‘don’t believe in war’…and so forth.

But, for me the Golden Rule is why all of those things are important.

Update: In another coincidence on this blog, in this week’s episode of EconTalk, Russ Roberts interviews Nassim Taleb about an essay he wrote called, Skin the Game. He also discusses the source of the Golden Rule.

I personally believe that the Golden Rule is a social norm that is responsible for the advances in the standards of living humans have experienced over the last several hundred years. I haven’t finished listening to the EconTalk podcast yet, but I’m hoping Taleb will agree with me.


Happy Independence Day


I thought it might be good to take a portion of the Declaration of Independence each Independence day and translate it into today’s lingo. Here’s the first paragraph:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.


Dear Rulers: We don’t like the decisions you’ve been making. We’re going out on our own. But, because we are a polite sort, we’re going to let you know why we feel this way.


Good links

From Sheldon Richman’s, So What if Freedom Isn’t Free?  (Thanks to Mark Perry, Carpe Diem)

Freedom may not be free, but lots of things aren’t free. Food isn’t free, but farmers aren’t drafted. They farm voluntarily. It is true that we are taxed to support certain (but not all) farmers, but not because we wouldn’t have food if farmers weren’t subsidized — even if the farm lobby and its congressional agents have convinced most people that is the case. The fact is, we could have ample supplies of food — not free but at low cost — in a completely voluntary marketplace.

The next time someone says, “Freedom isn’t free,” you might simply respond, “What’s your point?”

Shame-less” society update from Jeff Jacoby, Is this any way to help the poor? (Thanks to Don Boudreaux, Cafe Hayek)

It wasn’t so long ago that such a degree of dependency would have been inconceivable. In 2001, according to federal data, 17.3 million people were receiving food aid. In little more than a decade, the food stamp rolls have almost tripled.

That didn’t happen by accident. Under the last two presidents, increasing food stamp enrollment became an explicit government goal. George W. Bush sharply expanded eligibility, rebranding food stamps as “nutritional assistance” instead of welfare. States were encouraged to sign up more recipients — a ball the Obama administration took and ran with. The Agriculture Department promotes food stamps through radio ads and “public service” announcements; billboard-style ads appear on city buses. To attract even more participants, the department advises local welfare agencies to “host social events where people mix and mingle” — show them a good time, and try to get them on welfare.

I forget who asked this question, but it’s a good one. If government welfare works shouldn’t we see less of it over time, not more?

Kings by committee

From Don Boudreaux’s Sunday’s Quotation of the Day

…page 123 of the 1981 Liberty Fund edition of Herbert Spencer’s important 1884 tract, The Man Versus the State:

“The great political superstition of the past was the divine right of kings.  The great political superstition of the present is the divine right of parliaments.”

Challenge accepted

I found the following comment from Gunteh on the Idiot’s Collective blog post about Michael Sandel that I linked to here (square brackets are Gunteh’s):

I recently came across a particular individual on Youtube who makes a living by debating libertarians in spontaneous and live radio format.
[He is a self-proclaimed leftist, believes that libertarians are idealistic albeit aloof, and argues on the following argument pattern]:
-There has “never” been historical context for a purely free-market system, both economically/morally.
-There are rules/interventions that are mandatory in order for society to run (laws, subsidies)
-There are always winners and losers, and whether or not government has a responsibility to that, we ourselves pick and “subsidize” businesses/moral opinions relatively. Therefore, there is no reason for government not to do that as well if human beings innately make choices.

I’m not sure who this individual is and I’m not sure I’d be willing to debate him on his home turf. I don’t have much experience with live radio. But, I would be willing to discuss his views on a blog post.

To the specific argument pattern that Gunteh lays out, I would likely respond as follows:

“There has ‘never’ been historical context for a purely free-market system, both economically/morally.”

First, I don’t think there are many libertarians who don’t think there is a role for limited government. Though, there might be some.  But, I think this person paints with too broad of stroke.

Second, and more important, there doesn’t have to be a historical context for a purely free-market system since we have plenty of historical contexts, and current contexts, for “systems” (that is, groups of people) with vibrant free markets and systems without.

Even within these “systems” there are subsystems that we can look at. Within the U.S., for example, there are other organizations of people. Cities, businesses, chess clubs, Home Owners Associations, families, charities, hospitals, states, churches, AA, AAA, crime syndicates, lobbies and so forth.

So, if we are interested, we can look at countries and subgroups and see which ones seem to do better and why. Not doing so, lacks imagination. This has been something that has interested me from an early age. For example, I wondered how two neighboring public school districts could be so different as to prompt my parents to undertake the cost of moving from one district to the other.

In my view, the case is strong that systems that allow people to make the choices that are right for them, within their set of constraints and consequences, produce better results over time.

Granted, it is hard to untangle that and we often confuse cause and effect. Folks often look at the success story of the U.S. and assume that all that government has done has been a cause for the success, rather than a result of the wealth created in the free market.

I think it’s more productive to discuss the features of these groups and subgroups and what makes them different, rather than discuss whether a pure free market system has ever existed or is desirable.

To use an old and tired quip, there was nary a historical context against slavery before that was largely abolished, either, as slavery existed in some shape or form just about every in the world up to that point. That, in itself, did not prove that abolishing slavery wouldn’t be good.

“There are rules/interventions that are mandatory in order for society to run (laws, subsidies)”

The question I would have this radio host to consider is where these rules come from. Did they evolve from emerging practice or were they conjured up by a small group of people?

I’d be looking for more specific examples here, though, before I engage beyond this.

‘There are always winners and losers, and whether or not government has a responsibility to that, we ourselves pick and “subsidize” businesses/moral opinions relatively. Therefore, there is no reason for government not to do that as well if human beings innately make choices.’

I’d argue that government is a poor mechanism for picking winners and losers because its feedback loops are less effective, and sometimes backwards, from market feedback loops.

My post, Profits and Ballot Boxes, summarizes a few key reasons why government feedback loops are bad.

There are more reasons, like the knowledge problem, that Steven Landsburg explains wellAnd, it’s important to understand the only four ways to spend money. The way government spends money (spending other people’s money on other people) ends up being the least careful way to spend it.

It’s also good to remember that government tends to reward failure. Finally, when we discuss private vs. public, it seems we often assume politicians are saints, not subject to the same incentives as other people, which is a rotten assumption.