Available Now!

Available Now!
What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, February 23, 2024

TGIF: What Should I Do on Election Day?

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard. --H. L. Mencken

This column was prompted by a conversation I had with a few neighbors, whom I do not know, over the Nextdoor.com platform. I thank them for being unwitting grist for my mill. Of course, the names are withheld to protect the innocent.

A woman was upset about something the state government had done. She took to social media to say that this shows that we all need to vote. Always up to a challenge, I decided to weigh in. I asked what good would her plea do considering that one vote almost never decides an election. The chance of any given voter making a difference is virtually nil. How many tied elections have you heard about? In my longish lifetime, no election would have turned out differently had I acted other than I did. Not one.

Did the Nextdoor.com participants not think about the arithmetic? Why agonize over the "choice" they will face on election day? Why lose a wink of sleep?

You might think that since the woman was addressing an audience larger than one, she might respond that this is about more than one vote. I don't think that works because her audience was too small to make a difference, even assuming everyone she reached votes the way she wants them to -- which is unlikely. 

That aside, you'd have thought I had insulted the participants' religion -- which in a way I did. Democracy is a religion.

My neighbors' responses were predictable. What if everyone felt the same way as you? they asked. One person said that if everyone agreed with me, "nothing would get done." I might have responded, "If I thought everyone was going to stay home, then I might vote if a worthy person were on the ballot. (Not likely.) My candidate would win 1-0. Whoopee! Or: considering what governments do to us, getting nothing done would be a feature, not a bug.

Instead, I asked them: why is voting the only matter about which you ask, "What if everyone thought that way?" The world would be in a sad state if everyone had done what any given person had done over the years. Does an aspiring doctor, lawyer, or plumber ask, "What if everyone chooses what I've chosen"? It's a paralyzing question.

How is the question even relevant? We're not doing philosophy here. It's a practical question. No matter what I do on election day, everyone else is going to do what he or she is going to do. They won't consult me. I guarantee it. So the outcome is going to be the same no matter what I do. In that case, why not do something that makes a difference, like play with the kids, have a conversation, read an article, watch a movie, donate blood, or make some money? In those cases, the means will almost certainly produce the end sought. That's not the case with voting.

Since my neighbors didn't want to face the math, I found little interest in the related point that they had no incentive to become truly informed voters. But this is like ignoring the 800-pound gorilla over there in the corner. One person thought it was enough to get the candidates' position papers and to look at Ballotpedia.com. I said that was hardly adequate. Everything that governments do affects the economy, which means us and our everyday lives. Wouldn't voters need to study economics before properly judging the candidates? I posed a thought experiment: candidate A favors the minimum wage. Candidate B opposes it. Other things equal, whom do you choose and why? No one answered. Someone said that's not what matters.

In fairness, I should concede that people have reasons to vote other than to influence the result. People vote because they see it as a sign of good citizenship, even if few people observe it. I suppose people vote simply to express support for a candidate or cause. It's like applauding at a major league baseball game. Your joining in (or not) doesn't make a difference. Related to this is the sense that voting is a sort of chipping in on behalf of someone you like. For these people, the point about not individually affecting the outcome won't apply. Voting makes them feel good.

I submit that all of this confirms what Bryan Caplan says about why democracies consistently choose socially destructive policies. It's not that special interests control the politicians, who then ignore the voters. That theory overlooks too much, as David Friedman shows in The Machinery of Freedom, chapter 38. (free PDF). He writes:

It seems more reasonable to suppose that there is no ruling class, that we are ruled, rather, by a myriad of quarreling gangs, constantly engaged in stealing from each other to the great impoverishment of their own members as well as the rest of us.

As Caplan argues, the public generally supports destructive policies that harm each member individually. Why? Caplan doesn't think the problem is rational ignorance that comes from the impotence of one vote. Rational ignorance ought to lead to pro-market choices about half the time and anti-market choices the other half. Instead we find systematically anti-market bias. Since you can't affect the election and acquiring information is expensive, you may as well vote according to your biases. It will feel good, and it's cheaper.

Caplan writes, "[C]ompetition impels politicians to heed what voters favor [protectionism, farm subsidies, etc.], not what is best for them." Remember, politicians want to be reelected or achieve a legacy.

I don't tell people what to do, so I don't tell them not to vote. I have no reason to think they'd listen to me anyway.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Keeping Perspective

To put things into perspective, be aware that people with advanced degrees from our best universities say things like, "Since no one, including criminals, has free will and hence is morally responsible for his or her actions, we ought to come up with a more appropriate criminal justice system. Therefore I propose that we hold a conference next spring to discuss this important matter and make recommendations for change. Be sure to save the date."

Friday, February 16, 2024

TGIF: Trump Loves NATO

Trump is either contentedly ignorant of the things he talks about or callously scornful of his adoring fans, whom he sees as rubes eager to swallow whatever he says. He could be both. Above all, Trump is a Trump supremacist.

Does he believe in NATO or not? (Believe in it? Hell, I've seen it!) Trump wants it both ways. He loves the response he gets at rallies when, populist-style, he seems to put NATO down as a freeloader on America. But he doesn't really put it down. He is a devout NATOist.

How can that be? Look at his record. He's called for expanding NATO to the Middle East! (He said it would allow the U.S. government to disengage, but how likely would that be?) During the Trump administration, North Macedonia joined joined the alliance. (Another country for potential American rescue, thank you very much.) And NATO members near Russia think Trump left the alliance stronger than it was before he took office. Yes, once or twice he threatened to pull the U.S. government out, but that's like the guy who starts to walk out of a car showroom in a bluff to get undercoating and rustproofing included in the price of the car.

So let's not play games. Trump loves NATO. It enables him to be a big cheese on the world stage. His fans say we should take him seriously, not literally. What does that mean? Trump is a shameless snake oil salesman. (That doesn't mean I think the alternative is better.)

Take the latest brouhaha. Trump has upset the usual suspects by saying that if a NATO member government were "delinquent" in paying "its bills," "I" -- he personally? -- would not protect it from an attack by, say, Russia. He even said he would "encourage [Russia] to do whatever the hell they want." He's rather casual about other people's lives.

The first thing to notice is that he would protect members that had paid what he calls their "bills." He believes in NATO's mutual defense commitment. QED.

Under Trump (like any other president), Americans could be forced to fight for and/or materially assist other NATO governments that came into conflict with non-NATO countries. That's the point of NATO! An attack on one is an attack on all. The collective defense commitment under Article 5 -- which has been invoked only once, by the U.S. government after 9/11 -- provides wiggle room with the phrase "such action as [each member government] deems necessary," but still it expresses an intention for mutual defense. And, most importantly, the U.S. government's nuclear arsenal is in the background.

The next thing to understand is that Trump's talk about bills and dues is balderdash. NATO members don't pay dues. What Trump must be confused about is the members' agreement to try to raise their military spending to at least 2 percent of their GDP. That money does not go to NATO; it's part of their government budgets. This agreement is understood as a guideline, not a commitment. Members have no deadline, so they can't be delinquent. According to the Washington Post, using NATO figures, 11 of the 31 members have met the guideline. (Iceland has no armed forces.)

How does Trump know that 2 percent is the magic number? He doesn't. How does he know that striving for 2 percent by raising taxes or cutting other spending wouldn't destabilize one country or another? He doesn't. But the issue gives him another chance to pretend that the United States is the aggrieved party internationally. NATO members are taking advantage of America.

That's been his shtik since he started running for president in 2015. No demagogue would get far by ranting that the United States has bullied other countries long enough and it's time to stop. No, his pitch is that the United States has been trampled on by others long enough. That's how a populist rallies support. The fact is that for decades in foreign affairs, the U.S. foreign-policy elite has called the shots and others have knuckled under or else. As President George H. W. Bush said in 1990, "What we say goes." This power has been waning recently: other people will take only so much pushing around, and other power centers rise up.

One reasonably winces at Trump's invitation to Russia, although Russia is unlikely to be interested in accepting it or even capable of doing so. We wince because when a government, any government, crosses borders, innocent people die. It's not something even to joke about.

To point out Trump's buffoonery, however, is not to defend NATO. Decades ago, libertarians started calling for the U.S. government to leave the alliance and the others. That was during the Cold War. It was motivated by, among other things, an understanding that what looks like defense to you might look like aggressiveness to him. Glancing back and pronouncing NATO a success because World War III did not happen might be a post hoc ergo proper hoc fallacy (after this, therefore because of this). We don't know what would have happened had NATO not existed or if it did, the U.S. government had not participated, especially if free entrepreneurship in security had been allowed to flourish. Maybe we were just lucky over 40-some years, especially concerning nuclear war, which would have ended the world.

Moreover, by what right does the U.S. government commit American individuals to fight or otherwise assist in another government's war? It is not an answer to say: "That's what governments do." That begs the question regarding the state's authority. I suspect Trump wouldn't understand.

Friday, February 09, 2024

TGIF: Tariffs Tax Consumers

We seem to forget that a tariff is a tax. It is formally levied on importers, not on foreigners or things, but since it can usually be passed along, it ends up as an indirect tax on consumers.

The point of tariffs is to protect certain domestic businesses and their employees from formidable foreign competitors by raising import prices and reducing consumer choices. Higher prices! Less choice! Raising import prices gives domestic businesses room to raise their prices -- that's the point. Why have a tariff otherwise? (Tariffs intended to raise revenue rather than protect domestic companies have been imposed in the past, but in those cases, the government wanted people to buy the imports or else no revenue would have been raised.)

To put it mildly, taxes are bad. They are the government's way of taking money from people by force -- stealing -- and preventing them from spending it on their own purposes, activities that would have benefited others through production and trade. In a free society individuals are supposed to be at liberty to set and pursue their own goals. A society in which the government preempts individuals' goals is not fully free.

Even if under some market circumstances importers and foreign exporters have to pay some of a tariff, it's still an indirect tax on other Americans. Diverting money from importers and exporters to the government leaves them fewer dollars to spend or invest here. That's an unseen loss. Was Trump, who promises new anti-China and universal tariffs, daydreaming when he attended the Wharton School all those years ago? What's Biden's excuse? He's left most of Trump's 2017-2020 tariffs in place.

Advocates of tariffs think the taxes will protect American businesses and jobs. But as Milton Friedman liked to remind us, there's no such thing as a free lunch. Even if some jobs are preserved or even restored, it comes at a high price. And, as the radical liberal economist Frédéric Bastiat would say, the price is imposed on a large unseen group of people. That includes people who can least afford it. That's not fair.

Because those forced to foot the bill are not readily identifiable, the overall cost of the tariffs is also unseen and hence unappreciated. Most of us have no sense of the damage the protectionists have done. One study estimated that a single round of Trump anti-China tariffs cost the "typical household" $831 a year. Even when some jobs are saved, the price per job is stupendously expensive. As Donald Boudreaux and Phil Gramm wrote in the Wall Street Journal (paywall), Trump's tariffs to "close the 'washing-machine gap' ... cost $815,000 per job saved, and ... his steel tariffs ... cost ... more than $900,00 per job saved." Think of the opportunities forgone! Think of the opportunities forgone! And remember, for semi-finished goods, some American companies' output is other American companies' input -- meaning higher production costs than foreign companies face. (See "Who Really Pays the Tariffs? U.S. Firms and Consumers, Through Higher Prices.")

Some people will argue that America's astounding economic success in the 19th century is attributable to protective tariffs. The land of the theoretically free certainly had outrageous tariffs from the start. But beware of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (after this, therefore because of this). America had something else besides tariffs: largely free enterprise and low taxes inside a large free-trade zone. That's a much better explanation; it has a solid theory behind it. (See Donald Boudreaux's "Tariffs and Freedom.") Slavery was the worst departure from classical liberal, or libertarian, principles, but there were other, though less monstrous departures. The tariff was one of them.

Slavery and the tariff had something in common. Both prevented people from freely doing what would do the most good for themselves and others. Through private property, free exchange, and the price system, unmolested markets tend to channel workers' efforts and scarce resources to the activities that best accord with consumers' and hence entrepreneurs' most intense demands. Enslaved people, forcibly and cruelly barred from free labor markets, were forbidden to choose what they would have anticipated as their most rewarding work. That was one way in which slaves suffered, but the prohibition also made almost everyone else poorer than they would have been. How so? As Adam Smith showed in 1776, specialization through the division of labor makes us richer. The bigger the market, the better.

We got rid of slavery, thank goodness. When will we finally get rid of that other mark of tyranny: the tariff and other forms of protectionism? And when will we finally stop taking protectionist demagogues seriously?

Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Weird Defenders of the Palestinians

Weird: the Palestinians' advocates who as a rule are unenthusiastic (to put it mildly) about private property rights.

Monday, February 05, 2024

An Anti-Semite's Idea?

Did anti-Semites think this up? Let's put the wretched survivors of the Nazi Judeocide where their presence will necessarily disrupt a predominantly Arab-Muslim population by 1) encroaching on land the Palestinians and their ancestors have lived on for many generations and 2) setting up a new nation-state dedicated only to the world's Jewish people and in which non-Jews at best would be second-class citizens.

That's what the Jewish anti-Zionists asked from the start.

Friday, February 02, 2024

TGIF: Autocracy -- Boo! Democracy -- Hiss!

Here's why democracy is a dubious idea. Government decisions are high stakes. It decides matters of war and peace, prosperity and poverty, freedom or oppression. Yet we let incompetent people steer the ship of state. Most voters are ignorant and process what little information they have in biased and irrational ways. They fall prey to propaganda and demagogues. They are conformists and don't even try to vote their interests. Democracy is the political equivalent of drunk driving.

--Jason Brennan, Democracy: A Guided Tour

Well, we're into another out-of-control presidential election year. I'm sure everyone is thinking what I'm thinking: someone wake me when it's over.

This will not be my idea of fun. For good political news, we'll have to look to Javier Milei in Argentina (fingers crossed), assuming dethroned cronies and so-called labor leaders don't run him out of Buenos Aires on a rail.

Unless lightning strikes, the presidential race will be dominated by the execrable Biden and Trump -- and what could be more depressing than that? Thank goodness my one vote wouldn't count. Biden has been a blowhard weathervane since he was a whiz-kid senator. (In another life I was a newspaper reporter in Delaware.) Trump won't shut up until someone gives him a shot of sodium pentothal. Both are ethically challenged, and neither understands a whit about individual freedom.

Between the tribalism of party politics and the predictably woeful condition of monopoly governance, does anyone need any further demonstration that democracy stinks? What would it take? Why do people put up with it? I know why. Because they think the only alternative to democracy is autocracy. That's drummed into them in the government schools. Everyone learned that Churchill said democracy is the worst system -- except for the rest. But he rigged the competition. "The rest" did not include the only real alternative: the system of consent, cooperation, and contract. That's the free market, rooted in individual -- not collective or national -- self-ownership,  private property, free exchange, and free enterprise. There's the winner, Winnie.

Democracy is a scam perpetuated by rulers who want to deflect blame and anger by persuading the people that since they rule, they must be at fault for any shortcomings. It long ago morphed into a cult with articles of faith like "Every vote counts." It can't withstand scrutiny.

Most people wouldn't want to live in a pure direct democracy where they voted on all legislation. For one thing, they know the time demand would drive them crazy. But just as important, most of them know that they are not qualified. The government today has its tentacles in virtually every part of life. No one can be well-informed about, much less expert in, virtually everything. But that's what would be called for. Sure, people could consult experts. Um, which experts? (Other moral and epistemological objections, such as coercion and tacit knowledge, also apply.)

Representative democracy is supposed to address that problem, but it just kicks the can down the road. Instead of knowing everything about everything (or even a lot about a lot), the people only have to know which candidate fills the bill. That theory doesn't even look good on paper. 

To make things even more absurd, legislators theoretically represent large groups of people. Does that mean they should solicit their constituents' opinions? We've already seen that the constituents are unqualified. The alternative is for representatives to act on behalf of what they believe their diverse and largely ignorant constituents should want. No problem there, right? Wrong. 

Of course, while people speak solemnly about their responsibility as citizens, everyone knows his or her single vote won't make a difference in the election outcome. So where is the incentive to educate oneself in light of the huge costs if it is to be done correctly? People don't normally perform futile acts at great expense.

Think of the most serious-minded officeholder that you know of. Do you really believe that person is qualified to fulfill the de facto job description -- to, in Jason Bennan's words, "decide matters of war and peace, prosperity and poverty, freedom or oppression"? That's why most people vote for candidates who wear the same color cap and jersey as they do. How did they choose that color? In most cases, through a collection of social and economic biases.

I know: a constitution is supposed to protect basic rights from the legislature by placing them off limits. But how has that worked out since 1789?

As for the market alternative, what about negative spillovers from market transactions, like pollution? We must always ask: compared to what? Does democracy have no spillovers? Those who vote for the winning candidates are not the only ones who bear the burdens of their choices. Others do too. Many other people who didn't vote for the winners will pay higher taxes, suffer unemployment from the minimum wage, go without unaffordable homes in desirable places because of regulation, and die or see loved ones die in foreign wars. At least the market contains powerful profit incentives to "internalize the externalities." You cannot say that about the government. (I recommend once again David Friedman's essay "Do We Need Government?" Here's my take.)