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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, May 26, 2023

TGIF: The Knowledge that Only Free Markets Disclose

As a follow-up to my recent article about F. A. Hayek's classic article "The Use of Knowledge in Society" (1945), I thought it worth extending Hayek's exploration of this area of social theory. In 1968 the Nobel laureate-economist delivered a lecture in German known in English as "Competition as a Discovery Procedure." It's an alluring title, and anyone concerned with what makes for a good and prosperous society should be familiar with Hayek's basic point.

Hayek gets right to it. He notes that standard macroeconomists are guilty of having "investigated competition primarily under assumptions which, if they were actually true, would make competition completely useless and uninteresting." By that, he meant, "If anyone actually knew everything that economic theory designated as 'data,' competition would indeed be a highly wasteful method of securing adjustment to these facts."

In other words, if all the "data" were actually accessible data, solving society's scarcity problem would be a piece of cake, at least if the government's computer was powerful enough. (I'm led to understand that, fortunately, many economists have advanced since he gave this lecture, probably in part because of his challenge.)

"Hence," Hayek went on,

it is also not surprising that some authors have concluded that we can either completely renounce the market, or that its outcomes are to be considered at most a first step toward creating a social product that we can then manipulate, correct, or redistribute in any way we please.

Unfortunately, lots of such people are still around today.

Hayek (like his teacher Ludwig von Mises) knew that he needed to show that Adam Smith's "system of natural liberty" performed a critical service to mankind that could not be otherwise performed: the production of knowledge that is needed in a changing world of scarcity in which each individual must make plans but also be ready to adjust his or her plans in light of what other free individuals are doing. And that's what Hayek did, building on Mises and others. Hayek made contributions to the economic, or "practical," case for freedom that have been woefully unappreciated. The Austrian school of economics that Hayek was part of needs to be discussed more than ever.

Just as any sort of contest would be pointless if we infallibly knew the outcome in advance, Hayek wrote, so would marketplace competition. He considered "competition systematically as a procedure for discovering facts which, if the procedure did not exist, would remain unknown or at least would not be used." (Emphasis added.)

(Although, Hayek's German title, Der Wettbewerb als Entdeckungsverfahrenh, has been translated as "competition as a discovery procedure." I regard the word process as more appropriate because, unlike procedure, it suggests improvisation, spontaneity, and serendipity. Hayek's work overflows with an understanding of what he called spontaneous, or unplanned, order.)

Hayek reiterated his theme from "The Use of Knowledge in Society" even as he extended it. He wanted to know how can we even identify goods apart from what the market discloses over time through free producer and consumer action.

Which goods are scarce, however, or which things are goods, or how scarce or valuable they are, is precisely one of the conditions that competition should discover: in each case it is the preliminary outcomes of the market process that inform individuals where it is worthwhile to search. Utilizing the widely diffused knowledge in a society with an advanced division of labor cannot be based on the condition that individuals know all the concrete uses that can be made of the objects in their environment. Their attention will be directed by the prices the market offers for various goods and services.

Bottom line: government administrators may be able to give orders, but they cannot benefit the population. The Soviet Union no doubt used up resources making things that few people wanted. Hayek went on:

This means, among other things, that each individual’s particular combination of skills and abilities—which in many regards is always unique—will not only (and not even primarily) be skills that the person in question can recite in detail or report to a government agency. Rather, the knowledge of which I am speaking consists to a great extent of the ability to detect certain conditions—an ability that individuals can use effectively only when the market tells them what kinds of goods and services are demanded, and how urgently.

It's not magic that produces the knowledge that makes abundance possible for everyone. It's freedom of action, contract, and private property in a legal-political environment in which people peacefully and cooperatively pursue their happiness. The discoveries Hayek was talking about can take place only when people can 1) freely produce and offer products and services to others and 2) freely buy or not buy according to their own judgment. This includes labor services. Without that freedom, which is limited if not precluded by central planning and less-comprehensive regulation, an economy cannot be expected to benefit a large population.

The full case for a free society obviously has a rights-based, or justice-based, component, We are reasoning social beings who seek happiness. And the also has an important epistemic component, which Mises, Hayek, and others have laid out. We want justice for all individuals, and we want them to flourish. In a world of scarcity and dispersed and tacit knowledge, the free market is required. The moral is also practical.

Friday, May 19, 2023

TGIF: No One Has a Right to Make Immigration Policy

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says "no one has a right to immigrate" to the United States. "We determine as Americans," he says, "what type of immigration system benefits our country. When you're doing immigration, it's not for their benefit as foreigners. It's for your benefit as Americans. So if there's legal immigration that's harming America, we shouldn't do that either."

I'd turn that around and say that no one, including a state legislature, has a right to forbid or restrict immigration, the peaceful movement of individuals from outside to inside America. That doesn't mean that landowners cannot set rules for who enters their own property. That is not immigration policy.

We're talking about a political concept. You can see this in DeSantis's words "We determine as Americans." Apart from immigration, "we" do not "determine as Americans" who can and cannot come to my home. I do that as the owner. Normally I need no one's permission to invite or exclude. (It's more complicated in the business context, where association can be legally required rather than forbidden.) But if the person I wish to invite lacks the government's permission to be in the country, then it's a different story. That's not a natural limitation on a normal and natural right. It's the result of a decision by a group of politicians, a decision that may well conflict with what many people want to do. How dare the politicians interfere?

DeSantis says that a good immigration policy should benefit the country, or "Americans." It's hard to miss the conservative collectivism in theory and elitism in practice. The collectivism lies in what appears to be decision-making not by individuals, but by a purported entity, namely, the "country." What about dissenters? They don't matter. What counts, presumably, is the Rousseauian general will. Dissenters must be forced to be "free" by going along with the majority. In theory the majority rules.

But the elitism lies in the fact that majorities don't really rule. They pick the officeholders (although not the bureaucrats), but what happens next can hardly be called rule by the majority because what the majority may want on a given issue must pass through a very thick filter before it becomes enacted. That filter is administered by special interests inside and outside of the government that typically have preferences that can differ vastly from the majority of voters. To keep the people in the dark about this, those interests not only lie and propagandize, but they also obfuscate and use other tactics to make it difficult for the people to know what the government is really doing or to change it if they find out. (Charlotte Twight's Dependent on D.C.: The Rise of Federal Control over the Lives of Ordinary Americans spells out the theory and history of this.)

The upshot is that DeSantis's position -- which is widely shared on the right and left-- is incoherent. "America" does not and could not make immigration policy. Democracy is a facade that blocks our view of reality.

But even if "America" could make the policy, it would be unjust, not to mention self-defeating, to block or restrict immigration. No one, not even a majority of congressmen backed by a president, has the right to tell individuals, wherever they were born, that they cannot consensually enter other people's property to live, rent, buy, work, or otherwise associate peacefully. Even if a lot of people band together, they can have no right to block free exchanges between Americans and foreigners. A group cannot have any rights that its individual members do not have. Zero multiplied by any number is still zero. So "America" has no right to keep immigrants out. The right to move about while respecting other people's rights is universal, and anyone is innocent until charged and proven guilty. The Declaration of Independence speaks of rights that precede government as belonging not only to Americans but to all people. Those rights include the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What's so hard to understand about that?

The idea that the country ought to control immigration should disturb advocates of individual liberty. According to classical liberal principles, a country is not a country club with a membership committee. Rather, it's a free association where individuals and their associates may live and prosper in peace. And they are left in peace unless they harm other people's bodies or steal or damage their belongings. If one of them wants to sell to, rent to, employ, or befriend someone whom others regard as an outsider, no one has a right to interfere.

If anyone does interfere, he's not only interfering with the "outsider", he's also interfering with "insiders." It can't be otherwise, as political scientist Chandran Kukathas points out. Kukathas "put[s] freedom at the centre of the immigration question. At stake are the liberty of citizens and other residents of the free society and therefore the free society itself. To put it simply, immigration controls are controls on people. and it is not possible to control some people without controlling others. More to the point, it is not possible to control outsiders (aliens, foreigners, would-be immigrants) without controlling insiders as well…. The conclusion ... is that if we value freedom–as we should–we ought to be wary of immigration control."

Going further, Kukathas challenges the view that society is “made up of members“ and that it's “some kind of unit comprised largely of people who belong together in some way, and whose belonging entitles them to determine who may or may not become a part of that unit, or indeed even enter the geographic space or territory it occupies.”

"The thought running through this book [Immigration and Freedom]," he writes, "is that membership is an ideal that is not only overrated but also dangerous from the perspective of freedom. It is at odds with the idea of people living together freely, for it subordinates that freedom to an altogether different ideal–one that elevates conformity and control over other, freer, ways of being. If we are to live freely, we must be able to relate to one another not as members but as humans."

Where there are members, there must be nonmembers -- which licenses the politicians to do unlimited mischief. The young century has taught this lesson well.

DeSantis and all others who think "America" can forbid or restrict immigration without violating the natural rights of both foreigners and Americans, or without reducing all our own well-being, are knowingly or unknowingly mistaken. Once again we're being ruled by presumptuous social engineers, cheered on by unreflective supporters.

Friday, May 12, 2023

TGIF: Ducking Hayek

May 8 marked the 124th anniversary of the birth of F. A. Hayek, the 1974 Nobel-winning economist of the Austrian school. (He died in 1992.) That makes it a good time to acknowledge one of his many contributions, his epistemic case for the free and competitive market order. It's well-suited to the information age.

One of Hayek's best-known articles was published in 1945 in the American Economic Review: "The Use of Knowledge in Society" (reprinted in Individualism and Economic Order). He got right to the point:

What is the problem we wish to solve when we try to construct a rational economic order? On certain familiar assumptions the answer is simple enough. If we possess all the relevant information, if we can start out from a given system of preferences, and if we command complete knowledge of available means, the problem which remains is purely one of logic. That is, the answer to the question of what is the best use of the available means is implicit in our assumptions....

This, however, is emphatically not the economic problem which society faces.... The reason for this is that the “data” from which the economic calculus starts are never for the whole society “given” to a single mind ... and can never be so given.

The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is ... a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know.

This is an important matter of course. In a world of scarcity and incomplete knowledge, where much vital information is not "data" at all but unarticulated "knowing how," we don't want resources and labor services used in just any old way. Rather, we want them put to the best use in the eyes of diverse and fickle consumers -- and at the lowest cost possible so can we have more goods and more choices. We also want inevitable errors in production to be readily discovered and corrected. Finally, in a division of labor we want coordination to be as easy as possible.

Can we have all that? Fortunately a solution is available.

Thus Hayek wrote:

Fundamentally, in a system in which the knowledge of the relevant facts is dispersed among many people, prices can act to coördinate the separate actions of different people in the same way as subjective values help the individual to coördinate the parts of his plan....

We must look at the price system as such a mechanism for communicating information if we want to understand its real function....  The most significant fact about this system is the economy of knowledge with which it operates, or how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the right action.... It is more than a metaphor to describe the price system as a kind of machinery for registering change, or a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers to watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might watch the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust their activities to changes of which they may never know more than is reflected in the price movement.

He illustrated the point by describing how consumers and producers tend to economize on a material (he used tin) when the price goes up, even though only a few people know why the price has gone up. The price rise will encourage people to use less and or to use known substitutes and even discover substitutes. Others will be induced to search for new supplies of that material using new technology. Innovation will result. An economy run by politicians cannot approach this process.

What the price system accomplishes when left free is no mean feat. It makes longer and more prosperous lives possible for everyone. In a world of eight billion people, the unsexy price system is literally a lifesaver on a mass scale. Keep that in mind when politicians and activists call for interference with production and commerce.

We can't acknowledge Hayek's contribution without also paying tribute to his teacher Ludwig von Mises, which Hayek indeed did in other articles. For example, "Professor Mises' [1920s critique of socialism] represents the starting point from which all the discussions of the economic problems of socialism, whether constructive or critical, which aspire to be taken seriously, must necessarily proceed." Hayek, who had favored socialism before he met Mises, also wrote that Mises's "central thesis could not be refuted." (Hayek, "Socialist Calculation I: The Nature and History of the Problem," in Individualism and Economic Order.)

Hayek was referring to Mises's 1920 pathbreaking paper, "Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth," and his 1922 book, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Mises's fundamental point, which logically precedes Hayek's later addition, was that without real, honest market prices for all inputs, the economic calculation required for rational and efficient mass production would be impossible. And, he went on, you can't have honest market prices without private ownership and markets in resources and producer goods. (The Marxists sought the abolition of private property.) Flourishing and even life itself thus depend on prices and their prerequisites -- prices that cannot be ascertained or even generated except in the market, where producers and consumers act according to their personal and often improvised preferences, make unpredictable discoveries about what circumstances they prefer, and choose among real, not hypothetical alternatives. Bureaucrats and economists cannot simulate this process, no matter how powerful their supercomputers are.

This critique was devasting to all forms of socialism (including fascism), and history has proved Mises and Hayek correct. Remember, socialism was supposed to be the all-around better way to deliver prosperity to all.

Many people who should know better pretend that Mises and Hayek never found these flaws in socialism. Shame on them. As for others who say they favor socialism, what's concerning is not that they've heard Mises's and Hayek's critiques and answered them, but that they have never heard them at all! Enter the libertarians.

Friday, May 05, 2023

TGIF: Abolish Billionaires?

Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to abolish billionaires. You read that right. He says he'd confiscate 100 percent of people's money above the $999 million mark -- as if that would cover a significant portion of the nearly $7 trillion the feds will spend in the next fiscal year. Even if the government stole everything over $1 million, the money wouldn't go very far. The rich don't have enough money to finance the profligate state, and they wouldn't submit to the tax collector even if they did: incentives matter.

But no matter -- raising revenue is not Sanders's goal. He just wants to deprive people of money he thinks they do not deserve. Why don't they deserve it? Because it's so much more than most people have. So there.

Sanders, who has long favored a wealth tax on top of the income tax, says, "I think people can make it on $999 million”  -- as though it's for him and his colleagues in power to tell people how much they are allowed to want or need.

Don't bother to point out that most billionaires -- over 70 percent -- are self-made (not that inherited money should be confiscated either). Sanders won't care. For him, a person who makes a fabulous fortune or builds on inherited wealth by providing valued goods and services better than competitors is no different from one who gets money by stealing it or, what is the same thing, having good connections with politicians. It would be a different matter if Sanders paid attention to the myriad ways the politicians help some people gain wealth at the expense of others, but that's not what he does. His target is wealth per se.

He just doesn't like wealth inequality, and right now he's drawing the line at billionaires. Later on he'll probably be willing to lower the threshold further. Do you think he'll be content with almost-billionaires on the loose? Presumably the new level will be above his own millionaire status. “I wrote a best-selling book," he said. "If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too." However, he apparently was being modest about his wealth.

Who really epitomizes "greed," as people typically define it? Value-creating entrepreneurs who engage strictly in voluntary exchange? Or Sanders, who covets other people's money for his own purposes and is ready to call on armed agents to seize it? Don't be fooled because he says it wants to benefit other people with that money. In fact, he wants to expropriate the money of creators so he can live his chosen life as a savior. Beware humanitarians with guns.

We're talking about envy and bitter ignorance. Why should anyone take seriously a plan to confiscate wealth? It can't be because the confiscators will put the money to better use. That cannot be the case because the confiscators are insulated from the signals that indicate how consumers would like scarce resources to be used. Those signals are prices, the spontaneous result of suppliers and demanders interacting -- cooperating -- in competitive markets.

Governments, as we all too well know, squander unbelievable amounts of wealth on overt and covert wars, subsidies to the well-connected, politically favored infrastructure boondoggles, and the like. And there is the disappearing money, which audits constantly show. The pro-confiscation lobby seems to delight in transferring wealth from where it is subject to market forces generated by regular people and giving it to politicians who only have to pretend to care about the people. If they really cared, they let people keep their money and make their own decisions.

But is it their money? A couple of Sanders supporters say on YouTube that the money doesn't actually belong to wealthy people. How do they know? Do you see any business person's name on the money? they ask. It's the government's money, and the government is just taking it back. (Watch this.) They don't seem to realize that their astounding claim would apply to low-income people too. Have they never wondered where the government gets the money? It's not through production.

It's true that the government operates the monetary system, but that's only because it won't let a competitive free-banking system operate. Such a system would have no need for the government's printing press or the Federal Reserve's magical money machine. Stable free banking and market-based money, without government involvement, is as old as ancient Greece.

But don't expect Sanders and his ilk to know that. They are a resentful group that disguises its envy in deceptive blather about equality. The kind of equality they want ignores the vast differences in people's capacity to satisfy consumers in the marketplace. It also assumes that one person's gain in what Adam Smith called the "natural system of liberty" is another's person's loss -- which is demonstrably false. Unlike political relations, market transactions tend to be win-win in the eyes of the participants. The only equality worth struggling for is "equality of authority," in which no one has the power to aggress against anyone else. 

The bottom line is that no one has the right to take anyone's honestly acquired possessions -- including money -- from anyone else.

Friday, April 28, 2023

TGIF: Markets and the Pursuit of Happiness

For some time now I've thought that many people's antagonism to the market is motivated not by moral or economic objections but by aesthetic criteria. (I discuss this in What Social Animals Owe to Each Other and here.)

By that I mean they simply find market relations -- involving private property, contracts, profit, competition, and "impersonal forces" such as supply and demand -- unattractive, even ugly. They wish society had nothing to do with such relations, which they (mistakenly) believe have displaced the cozy cooperation and communalism that marked an earlier golden age. They long to return to the beautiful but lost Garden of Eden, where markets don't exist and people can be human again. They make just two errors. First, they misunderstand the market. For example, competition and cooperation go together. And second, the longed-for Eden never existed. Before human beings transformed the earth, nature was a cruel master. People weren't always so nice either.

The aesthetic rejection of markets could explain why we libertarians have made little progress in persuading people that crony capitalism is significantly different from the free market. The people who find markets ugly don't care whether businesses get favors from the government or not. That's not what matters to them.

Something underlies this revulsion at the market and the freedom it entails: self-interest, or what the critics would call selfishness. It's also been called the pursuit of happiness. (Of course, Ayn Rand, who held that the pursuit of self-interest is entirely proper embraced the word selfishness at least for the shock value. See her book The Virtue of Selfishness.) The aesthetic rejection of markets may rest on an aesthetic reaction to self-interest. The line between ethics and aesthetics can be blurry.

So we must ask, with Ayn Rand, what's wrong with self-interest? It is not a good answer to say that self-interest means exploiting other people, defrauding them, and even physically hurting them. But this assumes that self-interest is entirely subjective or actually requires the domination of others. That's nothing more than a confession. It's not proof. Because someone says something is good doesn't make it so. And why would self-interest require domination? (For Rand it emphatically did not.)

Like the boy in "The Emperor's New Clothes," we can ask in all innocence, What's wrong with self-interest? It doesn't seem a priori bad. On the contrary, you get only one life. Why not make the most of it in all sorts of ways? Put that way, most people would agree.

It will not help the critic's case to equate self-interest with greed, which is never defined. It's just a lazy slur.

Rand's Objectivism justified rational egoism and political economy from a metaphysics and an epistemology of reason. She did not think that people could be won over to freedom and free markets if they were hostile to reason and egoism, that is, the principle that one's own life is one's highest value, the value on which all others depend. That makes sense to me.

And that raises a question: if the pursuit of self-interest (happiness) were to lose its stigma, which it has at least part-time for many people, would opposition to the freedom and free market disappear? And if so, how can we remove the stigma?

It won't be enough to argue, as many market advocates do, that in markets people altruistically service one another. It's true that in voluntary transactions both parties. benefit But market opponents will scoff that since the motive for this "service" is self-interest, not self-sacrifice, it doesn't count.

Fortunately, we can try to destigmatize self-interest by invoking a pillar of Western civilization that for centuries was held in high esteem. I mean more than using Jefferson's great term in the Declaration of Independence the pursuit of happiness. I have mind the ethics of personal flourishing, or eudemonia, bequeathed by the ancient Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle. The work of Benedict Spinoza in the 1600s inherited many of its virtues.

For Aristotle, the path to happiness in the sense of the good life is to live according to one's nature as a rational/social being. Reason is in the driver's seat in individual and social matters. This suggests a society based on individualism, persuasion, and trade rather than collectivism, force, and domination. (The Greek philosophers' politics, however, left much to be desired.) The virtues we associate with the ancient Greeks -- such as justice, prudence, moderation, and courage -- described this way of living intelligently.

Reason and cooperation don't just get rational people what they want; those things are what rational people want because that's the human way of living. (I'm taking guidance here from philosopher Henry B. Veatch's Aristotle: A Contemporary Interpretation and Rational Man: A Modern Interpretation of Aristotelian Ethics and from philosopher Roderick T. Long's Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand and "Economics and Its Ethical Assumptions.")

Here is a common-sense ethics of rational self-interest that most people could sign on to. It might erode the stigma of selfishness. It's worth noting that In his Nicomachean Ethics, book 9, chapter 8, Aristotle defended -- of all things -- "self-love." He wanted to show that, contrary to popular opinion, the person who most loves himself is the one who lives intelligently in pursuit of happiness, which Aristotle regards as noble. He wrote:

We blame, it is said, those who love themselves most, and apply the term self-loving to them as a term of reproach: and, again, he who is not good is thought to have regard to himself in everything that he does, and the more so the worse he is; and so we accuse him of doing nothing disinterestedly. The good man on the other hand, it is thought, takes what is noble as his motive, and the better he is the more is he guided by this motive, and by regard for his friend, neglecting his own interest.

But this theory disagrees with facts, nor is it surprising that it should. For it is allowed that we ought to love him most who is most truly a friend, and that he is most truly a friend who, in wishing well to another, wishes well to him for his (the other’s) sake, and even though no one should ever know. But all these characteristics, and all the others which go to make up the definition of a friend, are found in the highest degree in a man’s relations to himself; for we have already seen how it is from our relations to ourselves that all our friendly relations to others are derived....

Those who use self-loving as a term of reproach apply the name to those who take more than their due of money, and honour, and bodily pleasures; for the generality of men desire these things, and set their hearts upon them as the best things in the world, so that they are keenly competed for. Those, then, who grasp at more than their share of these things indulge their animal appetites and their passions generally—in a word, the irrational part of their nature. But this is the character of the generality of men; and hence the term self-loving has come to be used in this bad sense from the fact that the greater part of mankind are not good. It is with justice, then, that we reproach those who are self-loving in this sense.

That it really is to those who take more than their due of these things that the term is usually applied by the generality of men, may easily be shown; for if what a man always set his heart upon were that he, rather than another, should do what is just or temperate, or in any other way virtuous—if, in a word, he were always claiming the noble course of conduct, no one would call him self-loving and no one would reproach him.

And yet such a man would seem to be more truly self-loving. At least, he takes for himself that which is noblest and most truly good, and gratifies the ruling power in himself [reason], and in all things obeys it. But just as the ruling part in a state or in any other system seems, more than any other part, to be the state or the system, so also the ruling part of a man seems to be most truly the man’s self. He therefore who loves and gratifies this part of himself is most truly self-loving.

Again, we call a man continent or incontinent, according as his reason has or has not the mastery, implying that his reason is his self; and when a man has acted under the guidance of his reason he is thought, in the fullest sense, to have done the deed himself, and of his own will.

It is plain, then, that this part of us is our self, or is most truly our self, and that the good man more than any other loves this part of himself. He, then, more than any other, will be self-loving....

The good man, therefore, ought to be self-loving; for by doing what is noble he will at once benefit himself and assist others: but the bad man ought not; for he will injure both himself and his neighbours by following passions that are not good.

Note that Aristotle says that living rationally (nobly, egoistically) --  -- "assists others" as well as himself. Think about the producer and merchant who do so much good for others. But that obviously is not the reason to live that way. The reason is that it is the human way to live and therefore the way to flourish.

I'm not saying this will persuade anyone with an aesthetic aversion to the market. It certainly won't persuade one who lusts for power over others. But we've got to do something to remove the stigma from self-interest. Otherwise, we'll never see a truly free society.

Friday, April 21, 2023

TGIF: Politics Corrupts Money

Money does not corrupt politics. Politics corrupts money. Politics as we know it is inherently corrupt; it's the way to select government officials,  who then use the legalized threat of physical force, and force itself, to make peaceful people do or not do things against their will. Since that's so, public problems cannot be solved by yet another measure to restrict people from spending their own money to support candidates for office or lobby elected officials. At most, it will drive any influence to less-visible forms.

Money in politics is a favorite complaint of populists across the political spectrum. Superficially it seems to be a problem. No one likes that money might count most in determining who is elected and what policies are enacted. Candidates and policies ought to be judged on merit. The popular solution is to strictly limit spending on campaigns, even by independent political-action committees, and to somehow limit lobbying by (some) interest groups and individuals after the campaigns. But those touted reforms seem undemocratic on their face. If in theory democracy is the rule by the people, why can't the people spend their money to influence "their" government? Sure, some people have more money than other people, and strongly motivated concentrated groups have an advantage over the unorganized masses, but how can that be changed without violating liberty? Maybe the focus ought to be on what government has the power to do.

Campaign and lobby finance is not as simple as the advocates of control insist it is. This is not to say that money has no relevance ever. Let's remember that the essence of government is to dispense wealth taken under threat of force from its producers. Voluntary exchange is not its modus operandi. This is so even when the government does what might be construed as generally welfare-enhancing, such as building roads or defense. As H. L. Mencken wrote in A Carnival of Buncombe, “[G]overnment is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.” Any power the politicians have to help their friends at the expense of others rests entirely on the power to tax.

On the other hand, the influence of money on politics is a complicated matter and easily overestimated. Considering the size of government largesse -- the federal government will spend $5.8 trillion this fiscal year -- economists have wondered why so little money is "invested" in politics. "The discrepancy between the value of policy and the amounts contributed strains basic economic intuitions. Given the value of policy at stake, firms and other interest groups should give more," write Stephen Ansolabehere, John M. de Figueiredo, and James M. Snyder Jr., drawing on research by Gordon Tullock. (This is also helpful.) Campaign-finance restrictions don't solve the puzzle.

The reason interest groups and wealthy individuals do not give more could be that too many other things garble the connection between cost and benefit. The joints are loose. Safer investments are available. Ask some wealthy aspirants to the White House, such as former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and former Texas Gov. and Treasury Secretary John Connally, who in 1980 famously spent $500,000 of his own money in his quest for the Republican nomination and bagged one delegate.

Outspending an opponent, or having wealthy supporters, is no guarantee of success. Hillary Clinton knows. A candidate still has to appeal to inscrutable voters in the center under shifting circumstances, and that process has many moving parts. The same goes for lobbying. Money can get someone access, but before a measure is enacted, Its potential sponsors will need confidence it won't backfire at the next election.

We should also ask whether people with money corrupt politicians or do people with money donate to politicians who already agree with them. The deep pockets might put money into primary candidates, but there's no guarantee of success. Small donations can add up and free media can make a difference.

It's easy to fool the voters, to be sure, but there are limits, especially when countervailing winds blow. Rich individuals and organizations on the other side of an issue are also free to spend their money on candidates and lobbying -- and they do. The progressives' "good guys" can outspend the so-called "bad guys." Alex Epstein, author of Fossil Future, notes for example that the anti-fossil-fuel lobby, which includes oil companies that are hedging their bets, far outspends the few defenders of fossil fuels. Moreover, bashing big business (with justification or not) can get politicians grass-roots donations that make up for the lack of interest-group donations.

The much-hated 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling empowered unions and other incorporated nonbusiness organizations, as well as for-profit corporations, to spend money independently in support of candidates. A ban on political spending, the Supreme Court, said, is an unconstitutional ban on speech, which it certainly is. Critics of this ruling often say that corporations should not be regarded as persons. That's sophistry. Corporations are associations of persons with free speech rights.

Then there's the problem that politicians have the power to extort donations from the so-called privileged. Some years ago a book called Money for Nothing: Politicians, Rent Extraction, and Political Extortion, by Fred McChesney, showed how politicians can attract support from businesses merely by publicly talking about the need for new regulations. In effect, the politicians say: "Support me or I'll ruin your business." How much money do businesses donate in self-defense? Departures from the free market harm consumers too, so this is hardly something to welcome.

Another consideration is that even though Congress has repeatedly passed restrictions on campaign finance, many people think it has not been enough. This is despite the obvious point that limits protect incumbents since challengers are often less well-known. I suspect that the futile restrictions are intended to pave the road to exclusively tax-financed campaigns. Wouldn't forcing people to pay for campaigns violates freedom of conscience?

But the deepest problem of all is that the advocates of stricter controls want to eat their cake and have it too. They say they want democracy but not rule by the people. These advocates say they trust the voters to elect the right politicians but really think the voters are simpletons who vote according to how many times they've seen an ad on television.

Here's the knockout punch to the money critics: if they really don't want money to influence politics, they should favor prohibiting the government from dispensing favors of any kind, full stop. No one takes their money to a boarded-up shop.

If voters are merely puppets of big spenders, then maybe democracy isn't all it's cracked up to be. In fact, people face perverse incentives in the political arena (stemming from the impotence of any one vote and the dispersion of costs) that they don't face anywhere where an individual's decisions are decisive and costs are fully borne. Thus we'd be better off shrinking the political arena as much as possible.

Friday, April 14, 2023

TGIF: Has Libertarianism Passed Its Sell-By Date?

Ron DeSantis, who could be the next president of the United States, made his views frighteningly clear: "We understand that freedom is not just about the absence of restrictions.... I think we have to understand that the threats to freedom are not simply as a result of what happens in legislatures. Yes, you've got to win those fights. The left is trying to impose its agenda through a wide range of arteries in our society, including corporate America."

On another occasion he said, "Fighting for freedom is not easy because the threats to freedom are more complex and more widespread than in the past. The threats can come from entrenched bureaucrats in D.C., jet-setters in Davos, and corporations wielding public power."

Why do I call this frightening? Because DeSantis, although he started his political career as a limited-government advocate, has abandoned that position for an activist conservatism that is becoming more prominent. He has gone from budget hawk to culture warrior. (He has long been a war hawk, though lately he's voiced doubts about the U.S. proxy war against Russia.)

He is especially eager to use the power of the government, as he has shown in Florida, to fight woke cultural positions from public schools to private corporations like Disney. I raise this not because I think the champions of woke culture are right -- far from it -- but because DeSantis is perfectly willing to build up the government to face down forces that themselves have looked to government to impose their preferences on people. He's done it as governor of Florida (often ineffectively), and we have every reason to think he'd do it as president.

Whether he knows it or not, DeSantis is voicing an old and mistaken objection to the laissez-faire libertarian philosophy. It's an objection I'm hearing more frequently from right and left. It is that the philosophy of indivdiudal liberty and constrained government -- the original liberal project -- has become irrelevant. There's some dishonesty here because it implies that the critics once found that philosophy relevant. But never mind that.

Why isn't it relevant? Because, they say or imply, it does not address new threats to freedom. Here's why that's an old complaint: for decades people who opposed free markets but remained attached to other parts of classical liberalism (freedom of conscience and toleration) liked to say that Adam Smith made his case for the "system of natural liberty" back when the government was the only threat to the individual and the separation of economy and state was the only answer. But now things have changed, those critics continued, because the new threat is no longer the government but the corporations. Today's right has broadened the list of threats to include academia, the old mass media, the new digital-age media, and other institutions. (I've critiqued that old case before.)

What both forms of that objection miss is that the new threats are derived from the old one. It's "the dangerous derivative." Just as "corporate power" would be impossible without government power (see Adam Smith's view), so those other forms of power would be impossible -- or certainly much less formidable -- without government power. If you look closely, you can see this principle in horrifying action with the housing bust and financial fiasco of 2008. (See my "Wall Street Couldn't Have Done It Alone.")

What explains this principle of derivation? It is the government's exclusive "legitimated" power to initiate force: the assumed authority to give orders compelling people who have violated no rights to do some things and not do other things. Only individuals who hold certain positions in government use compulsion legally. Try collecting charitable donations by force from your neighbors or preventing them from drinking alcohol or using heroin. You'll soon see the police, which of course are personnel of the government.

In those circumstances the people with the power -- of taxation most prominently but hardly exclusively -- inevitably will use it to subsidize some members of society and impede others. For libertarians and classical liberals, this is the root of class conflict. (Marx's version was a distortion of the liberal insight.) This will happen in a representative democracy, where providing goodies is crucial to assembling voter blocs, but it also happens in autocracies, because autocrats cannot go it alone.

Without secondary access to government power, private crusaders would be unable to impose their preferences on society. Conservatives miss this point and do not see the government as fundamentally flawed. They see something they don't like and immediately look to the government to stop it. In the process, they enable their opponents to use power against them later.

Why can't the conservatives see that without such access, those who aspire to force their dubious preferences would have to resort to persuasion, which apparently is what they don't want to do? If the government could not finance education, social and hard science, and other influential stations in society -- money that always comes with strings -- the link between opinion shapers and power would be broken. Those institutions would change from state-succored monopolies or oligopolies to competitive enterprises that would have to prove their worth every day because people would be free to take their money elsewhere. The revolving door between those institutions and government agencies would be blocked, preventing the rotation of activists from nongovernment institutions to bureaucracies where they can shower benefits on their pet causes.

Taxation is merely one way that this perverse situation comes about. The power to regulate peaceful conduct is key. When the social networks complied with "suggestions" from government personnel about deleting or suppressing inconvenient posts, the network executives knew they were at the mercy of the regulatory state. Social networks were not the only sort of firm that thought it prudent to comply with government requests.

Since government power remains the exclusive source of private institutional power, the government still should be the target of those who champion liberty. It is just wrong to think, as DeSantis and others do, that we need to increase the government's power to protect liberty. Even seemingly innocuous measures, such as the legislative prohibition of wierd subjects in schools, will necessarily be vaguely written and precedent-setting for causes that conservatives oppose. (Decentralized control of schools, if we can't have a separation of school and state immediately, would be better.) We should never forget Robert Higgs's lesson about the "ratchet effect": government easily grows, but it is tough to shrink it.