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.

What’s wrong with liberty?

On his blog, The Pretense of Knowledge, Speedmaster points to Dr. Robert Higgs‘ acceptance speech for the Alexis de Tocqueville Award.

In it, Higgs eloquently describes the same two reasons (though only one is sufficient) why I appreciate liberty.  This is from his speech.

For one of the ways in which I have made myself obnoxious, however, I make no apology: I have forthrightly raised the banner of individual liberty again and again, even among associates and fellow citizens who esteemed other values much more than they esteemed liberty. Although few Americans openly oppose individual liberty in the abstract, it is obvious from their frequent willingness to sacrifice liberty in a quest for other goals that they do not place individual liberty very high in the rank-order of their preferences about how social life should be lived. In contrast, I unashamedly love liberty. For society as a whole, I wish nothing more fervently than I wish that it should be as free as possible. For me, freedom is not simply the highest-ranked value with regard to public affairs; it stands on a level by itself, far above all the others.

I espouse individual liberty in this “extreme” fashion for two reasons, which in my mind complement one another. The first is that freedom is the optimal condition for each individual’s engagement in society. To be driven, bullied, abused, disregarded, treated with contempt and dishonor―these are bad things in themselves, not only for me, but for every human being. We ought to recoil from them, regardless of whether the perpetrator is a local cop or the government in Washington. Yet all too many of us become accustomed to such official cruelties and take them in stride without much conscious thought that they are wrongs and ought to be stopped, regardless of their source.

Individual liberty, however, is also an instrument for the creation of many of the conditions, goods, and services that constitute material abundance and relieve many of the anxieties and pains that once accompanied social life for almost everyone. Virtually everyone favors economic development, especially inasmuch as it reduces or eliminates extreme poverty. Individual liberty is a necessary condition for sustained economic progress. The specific conditions of a free society―private property rights, secure contracts, a reliable rule of law―are prerequisites for the ongoing creation of wealth in the long run. At this late date, after we have witnessed the personal horrors and economic disasters brought about by socialist central planning, it should not be necessary to go on preaching the gospel of private property and the market economy, yet we all know that many people still do not understand these essential matters and often act politically to thwart the operation of a genuinely free society.

To summarize, liberty is good because it seems morally right and it produces the best outcomes for everyone.

It took me far too long to learn these lessons.

For me, this was the key sentence of the excerpt:

Although few Americans openly oppose individual liberty in the abstract, it is obvious from their frequent willingness to sacrifice liberty in a quest for other goals that they do not place individual liberty very high in the rank-order of their preferences about how social life should be lived.

I use to be one of these Americans.

Liberty was good, until I thought it got in the way of some desired outcome.   I’m afraid it took a good deal of life experience and thinking to overcome the reflexive reaction to get the desired outcome with waves a government wand.

It took a long time to learn that my desired outcomes maybe weren’t so desirable after all and that waving the government wand was usually not the best way to achieve better results.

And, even if my desired outcomes were desirable and we could get there with government, was it worth infringing on the liberty of others to do so?

Dr. Higgs and I might be wrong about why liberty is good. I try to keep myself open to that possibility.

I was wrong about an awful lot before I arrived at my position on liberty.  And, it took me being willing to admit I was wrong to get here.

I’ve actively sought out arguments that proved my current position wrong, but I have not encountered anything remotely persuasive yet.

So far, the arguments are the same that I held at some point previous in my life.

“Liberty prevents some desired outcome.”  “Government is required to get there.”

Double team

Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell are double teaming the electorate.

Heres’ the opener from Walter Williams’ column this week, Changing America.

Dr. Thomas Sowell, in “Dismantling America,” said in reference to President Obama, “That such an administration could be elected in the first place, headed by a man whose only qualifications to be president of the United States at a dangerous time in the history of the world were rhetoric, style and symbolism — and whose animus against the values and institutions of America had been demonstrated repeatedly over a period of decades beforehand — speaks volumes about the inadequacies of our educational system and the degeneration of our culture.” Obama is by no means unique; his characteristics are shared by other Americans, but what is unique is that no other time in our history would such a person been elected president. That says a lot about the degeneration of our culture, values, thinking abilities and acceptance of what’s no less than tyranny.

And the closer:

Fighting government intrusion into our lives is becoming increasingly difficult for at least two reasons. The first reason is that educators at the primary, secondary and university levels have been successful in teaching our youngsters to despise the values of our Constitution and the founders of our nation — “those dead, old, racist white men.” Their success in that arena might explain why educators have been unable to get our youngsters to read, write and compute on a level comparable with other developed nations; they are too busy proselytizing students.

I was disappointed with both tickets in the last presidential election. I didn’t think any of the candidates were yet qualified for the highest offices. When I pointed that out to folks, I got an assortment of non-sense responses.

One popular response: “He ran a great campaign.”  That’s a qualification for President?  Would you hire a head football coach for the NFL based solely on a good job interview?

Another popular response:  “I want an articulate President.” To which I’d respond, can you listen to his last speech and explain what he said?  I could rarely make out what he was saying. Everybody was in awe of his style, not his substance.

Maybe that ties back to Williams’ comment about our education system. We can no longer differentiate between style and substance. Don’t get me wrong, not many politicians actually deliver much substance. But that’s our fault. We have such low expectations of them.

More common responses:  “He seems like a good guy. I’d like to have a beer with him.”   That’s how you choose your President? In that case, most of my buddies should be President! Again, what are we learning in our education system?  The sad thing is that a lot of people would let that pass as an acceptable answer, when they should let that person know that he should not vote until he he becomes an adult.

Here’s a short list of what I would like to know when considering who to vote for President:

  1. What’s their view on role of government and how does that fit with the Constitution?  It’s amazing to me that we let people in office when we’re not entirely clear on this.
  2. What does freedom mean?  Of the two following statements, which best matches their view of freedom?  The ability for individuals to make decisions that suit their needs and preferences…
    • …free of coercion from others.
    • …free of negative consequences that might result from such.
  3. What do they think of the Constitution?  What is its purpose?
  4. What is the process for changing the Constitution from it’s original intent?
  5. What actions have they taken in the past that support or contradict their stated views?
  6. What makes for a good federal judge and Supreme Court justice?
  7. What does “uphold the Constitution” in their oath of office mean to them?
  8. Where does the candidate think government has overstepped it’s boundaries in the past?
  9. What do they like about the U.S. and dislike about it?
  10. Why do they think Rome fell?
  11. How have they led in the past against politically unpopular things?
  12. What do they think about capitalism?  Property rights?
  13. Why do they think the U.S. is the wealthiest country ever?

Those are a few of the questions I would like to know the answer to before casting my ballot.

Now this is enlightened thinking

I enjoyed this post from Russ Roberts at Cafe Hayek.

In it he contrasts the visions of how the world works between tea partiers and elites.

Tea partiers like freedom generally on moral grounds, principle and because it provides the most for the most.

The elites can’t see that.  They can’t see that their quality of life is dependent nearly every second of every day on someone else and, for the most part, these people provided what they needed and wanted through a decentralized system of prices. The enlightened elites can’t or don’t seem to want to fathom this.  Doing so might mean that we may not need them to tell us how to live.  Can’t have that.

A Must Read

Want to know why the nation seems to becoming more polarized?  Walter Williams hits a home run explaining it in this week’s column, Conflict or Cooperation.

The prime feature of political decision-making is that it’s a zero-sum game. One person’s gain is of necessity another person’s loss.  The greater the number of decisions made in the political arena, the greater the potential for conflict.

To illustrate:

Different Americans have different and often intense preferences for all kinds of goods and services. Some of us have strong preferences for beer and distaste for wine while others have the opposite preference — strong preferences for wine and distaste for beer.

When’s the last time you heard of beer drinkers in conflict with wine drinkers…?

It seldom if ever happens because beer…lovers get what they want.  Wine…lovers get what they want and they all can live in peace with one another.

It would be easy to create conflict among these people. Instead of free choice and private decision-making, …beverage decisions could be made in the political arena. In other words, have a democratic majority-rule process to decide what drinks…that would be allowed. Then we would see wine lovers organized against beer lovers. Conflict would emerge solely because the decision was made in the political arena.

Very true.  If we keep pushing decisions into the political arena we will see more conflict.

Not only is freedom a basic right, it also produces the best results.

Bad Socialism Comparison

A writer of a letter to the editor in a local newspaper makes a common mistake in equating our public education system with socialism and with the proposed changes in health care:

While attending parent-teacher conferences for my sons recently, I marveled at the dedication of their professionally trained teachers. I considered all that my kids had learned, amazed at their progress. I thought about how convenient it was to have a bus that picks them up in front of our house to take them to school. I pondered the school lunch program and how it also provides free and reduced-price meals for low-income children.

Having mandated free, quality public education has been key to keeping the United States a major world power. Now I understand that some school districts have had challenges. But most deliver a quality product.

I then thought about the raging health care debate going on today. If public education were just now being proposed, would it also be shouted down in defeat as a “socialist” concept?

How is education a right but health care is not? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

I’ve seen this mistake made numerous times with other services such as fire, police and sewers.  It usually goes something like this letter, “the Police in my area do a good job, socialism isn’t so bad.”

There are several problems with these comparisons.  The main problem is that none of these things – public education, fire, police and sewers – are true socialist models.   It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison.P

People putting forth such arguments assume these services are socialist because they are funded through taxes and controlled by a government.  What such people miss is that socialism is the ownership and control through a centralized government, or one government in a country- the Federal government.

That’s not true for these services.  They are owned and controlled by many, many local government-like groups that are checked and balanced by other government groups.

Consider public education.  In my home metro area, we have dozens, if not hundreds, of school districts that provide public education using the property tax-Board of Education model.  Each of these school districts, while considered a governmental body, are separate from other city, county and state governmental bodies.

So what?  Why is this important?  It’s important because this system leaves a considerable amount of important competition and checks and balances in place that a true socialist system would remove.  If I don’t think the school district that I live in is good quality, I can move to a better one.

My parents made that decision when I was in third grade.  They moved primarily to get my me and my brother into what they considered a better district.  When I purchased my home, I chose a community with a good quality school district for my children.  Good school districts attract families, bad school districts repel them.

What would it be like if we didn’t have that choice?  What if all schools were run by the Federal government?  Then, if your local schools weren’t that great, you wouldn’t have much choice.

In addition, controlling school districts bodies separate from other governments brings in another level of check and balance.  Just consider one example.  What if the police and schools were run by the same agency?  Think about the things that might happen.  In fact, we’ve seen this very thing happen on college campuses with campus police forces.  Since the same group of people control the schools and police, some crimes go unreported and unpunished.  Having police and schools controlled by separate entities reduces this risk.

So, not only are there many local school districts which keeps competition in the equation, but there are also a number of other checks and balances that could go away if a true socialist (i.e. centrally run) model were adopted.

Coercion

Here’s a good example of it:  State to mom: Stop baby-sitting neighbors’ kids

Some neighbors have a voluntary arrangement between neighbors where everyone involved comes out ahead.  One mom lets several neighbor kids in her home before the school bus arrives.  The state of Michigan says she’s violating the law and needs to stop it.

At least if you read a little further, it sounds like some common sense is prevailing in the upper echelons the state government.