Topic: Political Philosophy

The Incredible Expanding Farm Program

The Washington Post reports that a federal program to help dairy farmers and ranchers hurt by drought has been expanded to benefit farmers untouched by drought conditions:

In all, the Livestock Compensation Program cost taxpayers $1.2 billion during its two years of existence, 2002 and 2003. Of that, $635 million went to ranchers and dairy farmers in areas where there was moderate drought or none at all, according to an analysis of government records by The Washington Post. None of the ranchers were required to prove they suffered an actual loss. The government simply sent each of them a check based on the number of cattle they owned.

It’s a typical story of government handout programs. Under “pressure from ranchers and politicians in a handful of Western states that were hit hard by drought,” the Bush administration in 2002 created a fund to compensate them. Within days members of Congress were demanding that more counties be included, and they were. But that still wasn’t enough, and in 2003 Congress expanded the program to cover any kind of weather-related disaster. And then President Bush declared that the shuttle explosion over Texas constituted a disaster, so that made more counties eligible. County USDA officials were pressured to find any kind of “disaster” that would qualify local farmers for handouts.

The Post has run other articles in this series, with titles like Farm Program Pays $1.3 Billion to People Who Don’t Farm and Growers Reap Benefits Even in Good Years. Yet even with front-page stories in Congress’s hometown newspaper, the farm program rolls merrily along, handing out more and more subsidies with less and less plausibility.

It’s enough to make you a public choice economist. So the question is, why doesn’t it make Washington Post and other mainstream-media journalists and editorial writers more skeptical about the benefits of government programs? A great deal of what we know about the failures of government, or way that politics really works, comes from mainstream journalists. Yet many journalists continue to assume that every problem in society suggests a government program to fix it.

Paternalism in Arizona

NPR reports:

In a bid to increase voter participation in Arizona, Dr. Mark Osterloh is spearheading a ballot initiative that would automatically make each person who casts a vote eligible to win a million dollars in unclaimed state lottery money.

I would ask two questions about this proposal: Will it work?  Should it be undertaken?  I think “no” should be the answer to both questions. 

Will it work? Many experts argue that it is rational not to vote. The act of voting involves costs and benefits. The costs are getting information about the candidates, going to the polling place, standing in line and so on. The benefits to the voter are the benefits a voter expects his preferred candidate or party to deliver multiplied by the probability that his vote will swing the election to his preferred party or candidate. That probability is very low, which means that the benefits a voter can expect from voting are also quite low. They are much lower, in fact, than the costs of voting. 

The lottery measure proposes to add to these benefits the expected value of a $1 million dollar payoff. However, that value is also quite low.  2,038,069 people voted in Arizona in 2004.  Each would have had an equal chance of winning the payout. Hence, the expected value of the lottery payment in 2004 would have been 49 cents. Would that additional 49 cents attract many more voters to the polls in Arizona? It seems unlikely. Imagine that every voter was promised two quarters to come to the polls and vote. Would that tip their cost-benefit calculations toward voting? 

Of course, we might say that the state of Arizona should exploit the irrationality of voters who lack information about the number of voters or the ability to calculate an expected value. States already exploit such shortcomings with state lotteries. In that regard, the proposal seems unseemly, even immoral. 

Advocates would no doubt argue that the state might exploit voter irrationality for the higher good of getting people to the polls. Is voting such a valuable activity that the state should force taxpayers to subsidize it? 

Clearly voting is not valuable for those who choose not to vote. The justification for subsidizing voting and the lottery must be that voting provides benefits to people other than the voters who choose not to vote. At one time, experts thought non-voters differed substantially in outlook from voters. If so, voters were a skewed sample of the electorate, and elections did not contain all information about the preferences of “the people.” Studies have shown, however, that non-voters do not differ substantially in ideology or in partisanship from those who do not vote. If everyone voted, the outcomes of elections would change little if at all. It is unlikely, therefore, that society would gain much new information from the electorate by subsidizing an election lottery. 

In the end, for all the appearances of incentives and rational calculation, Mark Osterloh is just another paternalist who believes that people would be morally better if they participated in politics. He enlists the greed of the gambler to serve the endless crusade to “improve” the character of other people through state action. The proponents of the lottery inhabit a world where voting has replaced prayer, and politics has taken the place of religion. What is missing from this crusade, like other crusades before, is any sense that people should be left alone to make their own decisions about whether to vote and that whatever decision they make should be respected, even by the busybodies who think politics is next to godliness. 

And the unclaimed lottery money, of course, should be sent back to the people of Arizona through a tax cut.  

More on McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues

Following up on Radley’s mention of Deirdre McCloskey’s article on bourgeois virtues, here’s what I just posted at the Guardian’s “Comment is free” site: 

At Cato Policy Report the brilliant economist Deirdre McCloskey of the University of Illinois-Chicago and Erasmus University of Amsterdam (formerly the brilliant economist Donald McCloskey) writes about “bourgeois virtues,” the subject of her new book. McCloskey says that in Western civilization we have traditionally recognized two kinds of virtues — the aristocratic virtues such as courage, and the peasant or Christian virtues such as faith, hope, and charity.

But, she argues, these virtues were developed for a pre-capitalist world of defined social classes. In the United States and an increasing part of the world, very few people are aristocrats and no one is condemned to peasant life. Rather, we are all bourgeois now. We live in commercial society, mostly in towns (the root of the word bourgeois). We’re mostly middle class and engaged in business, as entrepreneurs, investors, managers, or employees, and also as customers.

And since the beginning of bourgeois society, the vocabulary of virtues has been used to berate and denounce capitalism. We’re told that business is based on greed, not on virtue. It may be necessary to modern life, but businessmen are still expected to accept their dubious moral standing. Wouldn’t sharing be more virtuous than selling? Isn’t it better to serve society than to produce wealth?

McCloskey points out that the assaults on the alleged vices of capitalism “led, in the 20th century, to some visions of Hell.” Surely capitalism has proven better than the alternative. But she wants to make a stronger case than that: “bourgeois life improves us ethically.” It has led not just to vast increases in material wellbeing but to civility, religious tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and honesty. She examines how the classical virtues apply in a commercial world. “The leading bourgeois virtue is the prudence to buy low and sell high…but it is also the prudence to trade rather than to invade, to calculate the consequences, to pursue the good with competence.”

She goes on to add temperance — to save and accumulate, but also to look for compromise. Justice is private property, along with respecting merit, not privilege, and viewing success without envy. And so on through courage, love, faith, and hope, the old virtues for the modern world.

McCloskey says that her goal is to take the word “bourgeois” back from its enemies, to make it a term of honor, by showing how the virtues inform capitalism and how capitalism encourages the virtues.

Rick Santorum: Left, Right, and Wrong

The New York Times reports that Sen. Rick Santorum…

…distributed a brochure this week as he worked a sweltering round of town hall meetings and Fourth of July parades: “Fifty Things You May Not Know About Rick Santorum.” It is filled with what he called meat and potatoes, like his work to expand colon cancer screenings for Medicare beneficiaries (No. 3), or to secure money for “America’s first ever coal to ultra-clean fuel plant” (No. 2)….

He said he wanted Pennsylvanians to think of him as a political heir to Alfonse M. D’Amato of New York, who was known as Senator Pothole for being acutely attuned to constituent needs.

So … the third-ranking Republican leader in the Senate wants to be known as a porker, an earmarker, and Senator Pothole.

Santorum had already dismissed limited government in theory. He told NPR last year:

One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a libertarianish right. You know, the left has gone so far left and the right in some respects has gone so far right that they touch each other. They come around in the circle. This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone. That there is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.

He declared himself against individualism, against libertarianism, against “this whole idea of personal autonomy, … this idea that people should be left alone.” Now he’s also against the conservative idea that taxpayers matter, that the federal government has a limited role.

No wonder Jonathan Rauch wrote last year that, “America’s Anti-Reagan Isn’t Hillary Clinton. It’s Rick Santorum.” Rauch noted:

In his book he comments, seemingly with a shrug, “Some will reject what I have to say as a kind of ‘Big Government’ conservatism.”

They sure will. A list of the government interventions that Santorum endorses includes national service, promotion of prison ministries, “individual development accounts,” publicly financed trust funds for children, community-investment incentives, strengthened obscenity enforcement, covenant marriage, assorted tax breaks, economic literacy programs in “every school in America” (his italics), and more. Lots more.

Rauch concluded,

With It Takes a Family, Rick Santorum has served notice. The bold new challenge to the Goldwater-Reagan tradition in American politics comes not from the Left, but from the Right.

At least Santorum is right about one thing: sometimes the left and the right meet in the center. In this case the big-spending, intrusive, mommy-AND-daddy-state center. But he’s wrong that we’ve never had a firmly individualist society where people are “left alone, able to do whatever they want to do.”

It’s called America.

Belated Thoughts on “Libertarian Democrats”

In early June, Markos Moulitsas roiled the political blogosphere with a provocative post prophesizing the rise of the libertarian Democrat. My Cato colleagues Gene Healy, Will Wilkinson, and Radley Balko offered replies on Cato@Liberty, and the DailyKos logged some 900 responses to the post. Clearly, Kos had struck a nerve.

After a month of ruminating and at the risk of being too late to the party, here are a few additional thoughts:

All good classical liberals would eagerly agree with Kos about the threat that “government and other individuals” pose to liberty. Good libertarians would be captivated by his paean to the Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment (and — can we hope? — the Ninth and Tenth). Classical liberals would also join him in rebuking government’s impositions in “our bedrooms and churches” and its ongoing evolution into Big Brother. And good libertarians of all political stripes (not just Blue) would agree with him about the threat that corporations pose to individual liberty, including their pushing externalities onto others. After all, my job at Cato is to manage the institute’s 64-page quarterly criticism of rent-seeking weasels.

Up to this point, all good classical liberals, libertarians, free-market liberals, et al., would be cheering Moulitsas. If there were any hesitation, it would be over his determination to promote libertarian Democrats instead of any office-seeker who is libertarian. If a voter values individual liberty, wouldn’t that person support any candidate who shares that value, and not just candidates who have an “R” or “D” after their names? I assume Kos and all lovers of liberty — and, indeed, all politically thoughtful people — would not be so base as to view candidate party affiliation as either a necessary or sufficient condition for gaining their votes.

But, as Gene and Will both point out, further reading of Kos’s post suggests that his brand of libertarianism may be quite illiberal.

Moulitsas postulates several “rights” that he claims a “Democratic libertarian” would recognize and that government should secure:

  • The right to “roads and public transportation to give people freedom to travel wherever they might want.”
  • The right to “make a living without being unduly exploited by employers.”
  • The right to “poverty prevention programs,” so that people will not be “constantly fear[ing] for their lives.”
  • The right to “social safety net programs” and health care, so people can be free of “fear for their health.”

To be sure, the freedom to travel, the freedom from employer exploitation, and the adequate provision of necessities like food, shelter, and health care (not to mention many non-necessities) are highly valued by libertarians and the rest of humankind.

But is government the right instrument with which to secure those things, and can it do so successfully? On both philosophical and empirical grounds, I believe (those are important words) that government routinely fails either the “right instrument” or “successful” test for Kos’s purported “libertarian” government duties that I list above. Concerning transportation, I can name dubious public transportation projects and successful, welfare-boosting private ones; I would also argue that much of transit is not just wasteful but also regressive and dangerous (look at the transit data). Concerning labor issues, I question whether government can successfully identify “undue exploitation” (apart from violation of contract) and whether all workers would accept that identification — what may be exploitation to one worker may just be a hard day’s work to another.

I could make similar criticisms about other government roles that Kos claims a libertarian government should fill. Moulitsas and others would likely disagree with my claims, on both philosophical and empirical grounds. And their arguments would likely have merit — as do mine. A truly impartial observer would probably conclude that both sides seem to have a point, and that neither side could be declared clearly right or clearly wrong.

And that is why real libertarianism is so valuable, and Kos’s brand (if I understand it correctly) is problematic. True libertarianism — and, I take it, the founding principle of the American experiment — holds that society should maximize individual liberty so that different people can choose for themselves what they believe is right. This freedom is granted out of respect for individuals’ right to self determination, recognition of the variation of individual preferences, and appreciation that many issues cannot be definitively decided by political process, even after considerable philosophic and empirical analysis.

If you believe a certain employer behavior is exploitative, join a union or contract with a labor provider (e.g., Kelly, Manpower) that shares your belief and that negotiates labor conditions with employers. If you believe Social Security is a bad deal and not sustainable, opt out and prepare for retirement on your own — if government would only let you.

Perhaps that latter example provides a compromise between Moulitsas libertarianism and the traditional variety: The Kos libertarians could create whatever government programs they believe are necessary to enhance liberty, but people would be free to opt out of those programs and their costs. Kos could have his strict OSHA regulations so long as I could sign a contract saying I give up those protections. He could even have single-payer health care, so long as doctors, patients, and other health care system participants could freely decide not to participate in or pay for the single-payer system.

So Kos, would that be acceptable? You can have your libertarianism, just so long as I have my liberty.

Rent-Seeking 101

Mike Munger, chair of Duke University’s political science department and a friend of Cato, has a great essay on the waste of political “rent-seeking,” the attempt to get taxpayer money channeled through government to your favored interest (whether hungry children, municipal governments, corporations, or private individuals).

Here’s an excerpt:

In my classes, I ask students to imagine an experiment that I call a Tullock lottery, after one of the inventors of the concept of rent-seeking, Gordon Tullock.

The lottery works as follows: I offer to auction off $100 to the student who bids the most. The catch is that each bidder must put the bid money in an envelope, and I keep all of the bid money no matter who wins.

So if you put $30 in an envelope and somebody else bids $31, you lose both the prize and the bid. When I run that game with students I can sometimes make $50 or more, even after paying off the prize. In politics, the secret to making money is to announce you are going to give money away.

Take a walk along K Street in Washington, DC. It is lined with tall buildings, full of fine offices and peopled by men and women with excellent educations and a real sense of ambition, a desire to make lots of money and achieve great things. What are those buildings, those people? They are nothing more than bids in the political version of a Tullock lottery. The cost of maintaining a D.C. office with a staff and lights and lobbying professionals is the offer to politicians. If someone else bids more and the firm doesn’t get that tax provision or defense bid or road system contract, it doesn’t get its bid back. The money is gone. It is thrown into the maw of bad political competition.

Who benefits from that system? Is it the contractors, all those companies and organizations with offices on K Street? Not really. Playing a rent-seeking game like that means those firms spend just about all they expect to win. It is true that some firms get large contracts and big checks, but all the players would be better off overall if they could avoid playing the game to begin with.

This is a large part of why I think Jonathan Chait is daffy for saying that Warren Buffett should dump some large fraction of his billions on “slick political operatives” on K Street. The competition for political rents is zero- and often negative-sum. The rent-seeking game has features of both a commons tragedy and an arms race — neither being a good model for a prosperous and peaceful society. But that’s what big-government types, left and right, are asking for when they insist on keeping government money and power on the table.

Chait is no doubt right that if his political tribe had more billionaire patrons, they could win more “auctions.” Unless the other tribe has even more motivated billionaire patrons, that is. He seems not to grasp that this a mug’s game — a low-grade civil war — flatly inconsistent with the general welfare. It’s a huge waste of financial and human resources. And once the game gets started, you often get sucked in, whether or not you’d like to, just to survive. Munger:

My students ask why anyone would play this sort of game. The answer is that the rules of our political system have created that destructive kind of political competition. When so much government money is available to the highest bidder, playing that lottery begins to look very enticing. The current Congress has, to say the least, failed to stem the rising tide of spending on domestic pork-barrel projects. Political competition run amok has increased spending nearly across the board. And sometimes, you have to bid just to keep from having money taken away from you through regulation.

I think once you really grasp the logic behind the tremendous loss of welfare through destructive political competition for rents, it becomes difficult to defend big, relatively unlimited government. Chait notoriously claimed that limited-government, market liberal types (i.e., Cato types) are evidence-immune ideologues, while statist liberals like him are just plain old empiricists, following the evidence where it leads. Well, Jon Chait, open-minded empiricist, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Mike Munger.

Jefferson v. Stevens

Justice John Paul Stevens recently dissented from the majority opinion in Randall v. Sorrell, the case involving campaign finance restrictions imposed by Vermont. Stevens has long argued that money is not speech, and thus restrictions on money cannot raise First Amendment issues.

Robert Bauer offers a devastating critique of Stevens’ opinion. Bauer justly says Stevens’ dissent will be “cited, for years to come, as a prime example of carelessness, close in nature to fecklessness, in treating the First Amendment issues raised by campaign finance regulation.” Bauer’s blog, his website, and his book, More Soft Money Hard Law, are essential reading for anyone who care about free speech or the future of American politics.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” It’s a pity a long-serving Supreme Court justice thinks government gaining ground in free speech is a good thing and even worse that he projects his own statist sympathies onto the Founders, who were nothing if not defenders of liberty.