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.


If it can help just one…

A common political sales tactic is the ol’, “Even if this government action helps just one person, then it’s worth it” snow job.

It seems we are beyond that snow job now with Obamacare. Apparently, if it only hurts 5% of the population, that’s acceptable.

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.



I’m surprised we don’t hear this word more often. It came out of the discussion on my previous post. I thought it might be original because I don’t recall hearing it before.

But, it is a word and it means what I wanted it to. It means:

the tendency toward extension of the role of government

I think too often discussions in this country go off track because of the “What is it?” red herring. That is, we spend a lot of time trying to fit societies and what people believe into existing -isms like socialism, capitalism, fascism, communism, etc.

But, often these -isms don’t quite fit.

Maybe using the word governmentalism will help keep discussion on track.



Question: Why isn’t air traffic control function of the FAA fully funded by air travelers and, instead, partially funded by Federal taxes?

Answer: So the air traffic controllers can be used as political budget pawns.

Profits and Ballot Boxes

In the comments of this post, commenter Wally and I discuss the business feedback of profit and government feedback of votes.

W. E. Heasley, of The Last Embassy blog, recently posted an excellent short video from Learn Liberty that helps explain why voting isn’t a very effective feedback mechanism:


Most of us make purchasing and voting decisions. Sometimes they are a little of both, like when you vote with your family on what’s for dinner.

The following are links to and excerpts from previous posts I’ve made quoting economists Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, who do an excellent job of explaining why purchase decisions are a more effective feedback mechanism than voting.

1. From this post in 2010, I quoted from Thomas Sowell’s book, Intellectuals and Society.  He explains the difference in these feedbacks well:

The fundamental difference between decision-makers in the market and decision-makers in government is that the former are subject to continuous and consequential feedback which can force them to adjust to what others prefer and are willing to pay for, while those who make decisions in the political arena face no such inescapable feedback to force them to adjust to the reality of other people’s desires and preferences.

A business with red ink on the bottom line knows that this cannot continue indefinitely, and that they have no choice but to change whatever they are doing that produces that red ink, for which there is little tolerance even in the short run, and which will be fatal to the whole enterprise in the long run.  In short, financial losses are not merely informational feedback but consequential feedback which cannot be ignored, dismissed or spun rhetorically through verbal virtuosity.

In the political arena, however, only the most immediate and most attention-getting disasters — so obvious and unmistakable to the voting public that there is no problem of “connecting the dots” — are comparably consequential for the political decision-makers.  But laws and policies whose consequences take time to unfold are by no means as consequential for those who created those laws and policies, especially if the consequences emerge after the next election.  Moreover, there are few things in politics as unmistakable in its implications as red ink on the bottom line is in business.  In politics, no matter how disastrous a policy may turn out to be, if the causes of the disaster are not understood by the voting public, those officials responsible for the disaster may escape accountability, and of course, they have every incentive to deny having made mistakes, since admitting mistakes can jeopardize a whole career.

2. In three paragraphs that I quoted from Thomas Sowell’s book, Applied Economics, he explains the differences in our buying and voting decisions. Here are those three paragraphs:

Politics and the markets are both ways of getting people to respond to other people’s desires.  Consumers deciding which goods to spend their money on have often been analogized to voters deciding which candidates to elect to public office.  However the two processes are profoundly different.  Not only do individuals invest very different amounts of time and thought in making economic vs. political decisions, those are inherently different in themselves.  Voters decide whether to vote for one candidate or another but they decide how much of what kinds of food, clothing, shelter, etc. to purchase.  In short, political decisions tend to be categorical, while economic decisions tend to be incremental.

Incremental decisions can be more fine-tuned than deciding which candidate’s whole package of principles and practices comes closest to meeting your own desires.  Incremental decision-making also means that not every increment of even very desirable things is likewise necessarily desirable, given that there are other things that the money could be spent on after having acquired a given amount of a particular good or service. For example, although it might be worthwhile spending considerable money to live in a nice home, buying a second home in the country may or may not be worth spending money that could be used for sending a child to college or for recreational travel overseas.  One consequence of incremental decision-making is that increments of many desirable things remain unpurchased because they are almost–but not quite–worth the sacrifices required to get them.

From a political standpoint, this means that there are always numerous desirable things that government officials can offer to provide to voters who want them–either free of charge or at reduced, government-subsidized prices–even when the voters do not want these increments enough to sacrifice their own money to pay for them.  The real winners in this process are politicians whose apparent generosity and compassion gain them political support.

3. In his classic column, Conflict or Cooperation, which I linked to in this post, Walter Williams explains how to pit beer drinkers against wine drinkers. Here’s a taste:

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. Some of us hate three-piece suits and love blue jeans while others love three-piece suits and hate blue jeans. When’s the last time you heard of beer drinkers in conflict with wine drinkers, or three-piece suit lovers in conflict with lovers of blue jeans? It seldom if ever happens because beer and blue jean lovers get what they want. Wine and three-piece suit 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, clothing and beverage decisions could be made in the political arena. In other words, have a democratic majority-rule process to decide what drinks and clothing that would be allowed. Then we would see wine lovers organized against beer lovers, and blue jean lovers organized against three-piece suit lovers. Conflict would emerge solely because the decision was made in the political arena. Why? 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. That is if wine lovers won, beer lovers lose.

The differences in political and private decisions has spawned a branch of economics study called public choice economics. Here’s more.


“The worst possible thing is to have people with good motives, but bad understanding.”

The title is quoted from Bryan Caplan at about 8:30 of the Freakonomics podcast, We the Sheeple.

I recommend listening to the entire 24 minute podcast.

In one segment, Caplan addresses some Obama and Romney campaign planks and explains why they are terrible economics, but good vote-getters.

Regarding making it easier to go to college, Caplan points out that the benefits are not that clear from economic standpoint because:

We already have an enormously high drop-out rate, especially for marginal students. Most of the benefit from college is from actually finishing it.  Over the last decade we’ve seen a large rise in the number of people who start college, but the fraction that actually finishes is very flat. It seems quite likely that this is just going to encourage some people to waste a couple of years of their lives with very little to show for it.

But the reason politicians campaign on it:

And yet, what I just said is not anything you’d ever want to tell voters. You certainly don’t want to get in front of a national audience and say, ‘you know, I think too many go to college, a lot of people aren’t very serious. That’s just the fact. A lot of people aren’t meant for college.’ That sounds terrible.

[Host Dubner]: And, therefore, campaigning on the idea of sending more people to college is a great thing to campaign on.

[Caplan]: Sounds great. And, of course, we’re going to pay for all this stuff…sounds good… I mean who wants to pay for stuff?

That last question sums up politics. Who wants to pay for stuff? Nobody really. But we hope others will.

Two for those who voted today

Question 1: Was your vote influenced by concern of losing some direct benefit that you are now receiving from the government?

Maybe you believe that your vote will help preserve your Social Security check or Medicare coverage. Or perhaps you’re a teacher who thinks the Federal government will help fund your paycheck. Or you work for a Federal contractor that you expect will get more government work under one administration than the other.

Question 2: At any time recently have you grumbled or thought about ‘how broken our political system’ is because of all the special interests, lobbyists and politicians who promise one thing and do others?

If you answered yes to both questions, have you considered that you are part of the reason  the ‘system is broken’?

Anecdotes are powerful political tools — but shouldn’t be

I just had to add this passage from John Cochrane’s health care essay:

The critics adduce a hypothetical anecdote in which one person is ill served, by a straw‐man completely unregulated market, which nobody is advocating, with no charity or other care (which we’ve had for over 800 years, long before any government involvement at all).  They conclude that the anecdote justifies the thousands of pages of the ACA, tens of thousands of pages of subsidiary regulation, and the mass of additional Federal, State, and Local regulation applying to every single person in the country.

How is it that we accept this deeply illogical argument, or that anyone in making it expects it to be taken seriously? If you can find one person who falls through the cracks, the government gets to regulate the whole market, not that we craft a minimal solution to fix that person’s problem.

But wait, will not one person fall through the cracks or be ill‐served by the highly regulated system? If I find one Canadian grandma denied a hip replacement, or someone who can’t get a doctor to take her as a medicare patient, why do I not get to conclude that everyone must be left to the market?


Free Condoms

In high school, I was the campaign manager for a student council president candidate.

We weren’t all that serious. We made lots of posters with sexual innuendo and at one point promised the electorate that my candidate would look into getting free condom dispensers in the bathrooms, if elected. It was a public high school, after all.

The principal wasn’t thrilled with our behavior. In his office, he told us we ran the most asinine campaign he had seen in his 25 years in education. I was honored. Even then I wasn’t enamored with politics and politicians.

I never would have guessed that one of the campaign promises we joked about would be a serious issue in the campaign for the President of the United States. I wonder what my former principal thinks of that? We were way ahead of our time.

I also learned a good early lesson in politics. While the authority figure wasn’t pleased with our antics, the electorate got a kick out of it. My candidate won. Of course, even then, I was decent at seeing the big picture. My candidate didn’t need my help and I knew it.