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.

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?”

Shameless” 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?

Good assignment

Here’s a nice assignment (via Instapundit):

If you want to introduce someone to libertarian thinking, encourage them to try this experiment. Spend a few days reading nothing but technology news. Then spend a few days reading nothing but political news. For the first few days they’ll see an exciting world of innovation and creativity where everything is getting better all the time. In the second period they’ll see a miserable world of cynicism and treachery where everything is falling apart. Then ask them to explain the difference.

– Andrew Zalotocky

If you accept this challenge, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Liberty isn’t rugged invidualism

Advocates of liberty are often wrongly characterized as ‘rugged individualists.’ I often hear our position referred to as ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ or an ‘on-your-own’ society.

I think this straw man exists for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s an expedient portrait to paint of political opponents when you don’t wish voters to think too deeply about the issues. It turns out that Don’t vote for the mean guys is a compelling campaign message.

Second, and possibly more common, is that a great many people confound government and society as one in the same. They see society expressed through government, rather than government as having a specific and limited role to play in society, like the role a janitor or security guard has in cleaning and protecting a building.

To these folks “we”, government and society are interchangeable ideas. Whatever “we” think “we” should do, should be done through government.

In my The Government Subsidy Fallacy post from January, 2012, I reference a David Henderson Econlog blog post that referenced this quote from 1800s French economist, Frederic Bastiat:

When we oppose subsidies, we are charged with opposing the very thing that it was proposed to subsidize and of being the enemies of all kinds of activity, because we want these activities to be voluntary and to seek their proper reward in themselves.

This applies to all government activity. If you oppose a government program intended to help the poor, you are accused by the people who confound government and society for not wanting to help the poor at all.

And, if you prefer liberty to big government, then that can only mean that you are a rugged individualist — you believe only the fittest should survive and everyone should carry their own weight.

But, you don’t need to be a rugged individualist to respect that the next guy deserves a chance to decide what is right for him without you sticking your nose in, just as you expect the same respect from him (“golden rule of liberty”).  You earn your freedom by letting others have theirs’.

That may be individualism, but it is not rugged individualism. And definitely not ‘survival of the fittest’ or ‘on your own’ society.

Individuals are important. Individuals are the building block of society. Without them, there is no society. It’s as simple as that. I think this is something that most people in our country believe intuitively. That’s not an -ism. I don’t think we would take the effort to educate people or attempt to help others through government or otherwise if we didn’t believe individuals were important.

Respecting the liberty of others doesn’t mean that you want an ‘on-your-own’ society. Quite the contrary. It means that you recognize that the greater good is better served from the voluntary actions of individuals than through involuntary, even if well-intended, actions of government.

Voluntary actions work so well for the greater good that not only do the unfit survive, but they don’t even really exist. In a free society with lots of specialization, nearly everyone can usually find something with which they are fit.

But for those who confound government and society, they have trouble seeing the benefits that result from voluntary actions be it trading, charity or otherwise. Why?

Even as they personally benefit from so many things provided by profit-seeking trading including basics like indoor plumbing, bountiful food, shelter, climate control and amenities like fashion handbags, smartphones and a camera in just about everything, these people scoff at the idea that businesses do good by seeking profit for their owners. They view profit-seeking as a drain on society.

They don’t see that they are the very people who have rewarded the owners with profit. They also don’t understand why they rewarded the owners — because they too gained value (or profited) from the product. Even though they participate and benefit from this activity 24/7, it is such a part of their daily lives, it is invisible to them.

These people also discount the notion that charitable activities can ever be generous enough to meet all the needs of the poor or they have strange ideas about why they do not prefer private charity. I recall one conversation where I mentioned how well churches carry out charity. The person agreed, but said she didn’t want people in need to have to get a pitch on religion just to get help. There was so much wrong with that, I didn’t know where to begin.

So, with trade, charity and other voluntary actions discredited as a reliable and viable way to achieve the greater good, that leaves government. If they see one person who wasn’t served well by private actions (usually these are the people who are asked to stand at State of the Union addresses), that’s all the convincing they need for government intervention. Rarely do they ask, can I do something to help solve this problem? It’s far easier to support government doing it and then assume the moral high-ground for that. In fact, that requires no action beyond flapping lips.

So, as a supporter of liberty, when someone tries to pin you with the ‘on-your-own’, rugged individualist tag, don’t let them off so easy. Explain that one of the things that attracts you liberty is that it does a far better job of serving the greater good than government and why you think that. It may not lead to an immediate change in thinking, but it could plant a seed that could blossom later.

First, cause no harm

To my The golden rule of liberty post, Wally asks a great question:

Freedom to choose how we live our lives is certainly something we value as a culture with a strong individualist current. But what if we’re wrong?

It think it’s a great question because the answer is a key reason I appreciate liberty. My answer to Wally’s question is that if we’re wrong about liberty, we haven’t caused direct harm.

This point is overlooked in greater-good cost-benefit analysis. Interventionist and non-interventionist actions are both treated as causing an outcome. But, I don’t believe the liberty-minded action causes anything. We only imagine it does through a trick of the tongue.

Consider these two statements:

1. If we raise the minimum wage, that causes some folks to have a harder time finding a job and some folks to get paid more than they otherwise would.

2. If we don’t raise the minimum wage, that causes more people to be able to find jobs, but at less pay than they otherwise would.

What’s the difference? In #1, some people are made worse off for the supposed benefit of others.

What about #2? While minimum wage advocates want us to bite on the idea that we are standing in the way of some unfortunate souls making more money, the truth is we’re not leaving them any worse off than they were before. We’ve done them no harm.

In fact, we’re not even preventing unskilled workers from earning as much as minimum wage advocates want them to. After all, nothing is preventing minimum wage advocates from hiring unskilled workers at the wage they prefer, is there?

In case that example doesn’t work for you, try this one:

1. If we pass each other on the street and you give me a dollar that you took from another passerby, you make me richer and the other guy poorer.

2. If we pass each other on the street and you don’t take a dollar from another passerby to give to me, you keep me from becoming richer.

In #1, you’ve caused harm to some else, even though it was offset by the benefit to me. In #2, you did not cause harm to me by not causing harm to someone else. You caused me no direct harm.

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.”

What’s a libertarian?

In this post at Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux points us to a 1 and a half minute long video of himself describing why he is a Libertarian.

He cites two reasons:

1) The way he was raised — don’t be envious, make no excuses, be responsible for yourself.

2) His exposure to economics — Supply and demand curves showed him how the government imposition of price ceilings on oil caused him to have to wait in long lines at gas stations in the 70s.

If these two things led naturally to libertarianism, like Boudreaux indicates in the video, I would expect there to be many more libertarians out there.  I would especially expect there to be more libertarian economists.

A self-described “left-of-center” commenter made the observation that he could agree with almost everything Don said in the video, but not be libertarian.

I tend to agree with this commenter.  Maybe Don is trying to get the point across that libertarians aren’t extremist hermits.  That most anyone right of “left of center” have a great deal in common with libertarians.  Perhaps, even if they were to take a blind political challenge that many would fall out as libertarians — and they don’t now because of branding (libertarianism isn’t cool) or misunderstanding (libertarianism doesn’t mean an ‘on your own society’).

But, I do think that Don leaves out a key element of what causes one to appreciate liberty.  I think there are many good reasons for liberty.  It seems morally right.  It also generally results in better outcomes than other things.

But, the key difference I see in libertarians and others is when they feel the use of force is warranted.

Libertarians (though they come in many flavors) tend to think the use of force is warranted only to prevent someone from infringing on the liberty of others.

libertarians are made, not born

Of the very limited sample size of libertarians that I know, it seems all held some other form of ideology in the past and came to a libertarian position by way of reason.

If reason is the primary path to libertarianism, that might explain its relative obscurity (not meant to be funny).

For example, other ideologies seem to be passed down from generation to generation as effectively as religion and are intimately linked with other human associations and affinities like religion, movie stardom, status signaling (“I’m for the poor” as if others aren’t), unions and such.

I think other political ideologies are similar to religions because many that hold those ideologies seem to accept whatever it is their ideology stands for without questioning whether it actually works or not.

Libertarians have none of that going for them.

Perhaps this is what Bryan Caplan meant in this blog post on EconLog, where he ranks libertarian economists as the most productive folks to have conversations with.  Libertarian non-economists ranked third.

I think there’s a reason for this.  Of all the folks I have discussions with, libertarians are the most likely to consider that they might be wrong and are open exploring the rationale of the opposing argument for its merits or demerits.  Discussions with these types of folks can be extremely productive.

I’ve also noticed libertarians aren’t as married to their biases.  They don’t always stop when they find the answer they’re looking for.  They seem to be good at continuing to pick at something until they uncover the root-cause.

Of course, I could be wrong.

The Answers Are All Around Us

Today’s EconTalk podcast was Knowledge, Power and Unchecked and Unbalanced with guest Arnold Kling.  Like occasional EconTalk guest Mike Munger and the host Russ Roberts, Kling has a knack for discussing economic principles in common language and looking at real world examples to illustrate these principles in things that are so common that we generally take them for granted.

The entire podcast is worth a listen.  I found a few things especially blog worthy.

First, we often talk about bigger and smaller government.  Kling makes an interesting point (near 14:36 mark).  As we have grown government spending the number of governmental units, or decision-makers, has stayed the same.  We have one Congress, 50 states, 435 members of Congress, 100 Senators.  Yet, more is spent per capita than ever before and the number of people making the Continue reading