Topic: Political Philosophy

Conservatives Say: Politics Above All

The Washington Times brings news this morning that conservatives are “expressing concern and outrage” about House Speaker Denny Hastert’s strong objections to the FBI’s raid on Rep. William Jefferson’s House office.

Perhaps such “conservatives” ought to recall what the real conservative libertarian who designed the U.S. Constitution once wrote:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to controul the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controuls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to controul the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to controul itself. A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary controul on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Hastert is acting in the spirit of Federalist 51. To be sure, there are other considerations in this case, but Hastert is doing what Madison expected congressional leaders to do: stand up for his branch of the government against an encroachment from an ambitious executive. Those who are criticizing Hastert are trying to make corruption a bipartisan stain or to raise public approval of Congress by a point or two. They are ignoring the constitutional dimension of all this.

I’ll take the timeless logic of Federalist 51, thanks.

Ezra Klein, Libertarian?

Since I’ve disagreed with Ezra Klein in the past, I am pleased to report that we agree on what to do about the 7,000 Americans who die every year while waiting for transplantable organs. In a recent post, Klein notes that the shortage of organs is due to a ban on payments to organ providers. Klein advocates lifting that ban.  My favorite line:

We’ve stupidly disallowed payment for organs (if money can’t buy you life, why keep it around?)…

Klein brought to mind an observation made by Prof. Richard Epstein last week in the Wall Street Journal:

Only a bioethicist could prefer a world in which we have 1,000 altruists per annum and over 6,500 excess deaths [to] one in which we have no altruists and no excess deaths.

In Healthy Competition, Mike Tanner and I argue for repeal of Sen. Orrin Hatch’s 1984 National Organ Transplant Act, which prohibits payments to organ providers. 

In a recent issue of Cato’s Regulation magazine, Prof. Lloyd Cohen throws up his hands and issues a challenge to those opposed to such payments. Cohen has re-written his will to ensure that when he dies, his organs cannot be harvested unless his estate is paid $864.27 per organ. Why? Because that requirement will create a real-life situation where paying up will generate more transplantable organs. That will force the bioethicists to explain to four, maybe five families who have their checkbooks in hand, We’re sorry, but your loved one must die for our principles. Cohen urges others to insert similar clauses into their wills, just to get the message through the bioethicists’ heads.

Cohen and other powerful presenters will speak at a June 12 conference on organ markets at the American Enterprise Institute.

Abusing the Idea of Free-Market Health Care Reform

At about 6 pm yesterday, I received an invitation to a Heritage Foundation event titled, “Another Step forward for Free-Market Health Care Reform.” The event was anything but.

Heritage hosted Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), who proposes to allow health savings accounts in Medicaid. In the book Healthy Competition and elsewhere, Cato scholars have explained that Medicaid HSAs are not a free-market health care reform and instead distract Congress from reforming Medicaid the way it reformed welfare in 1996.

In fact, Rep. Rogers proposed a number of non-free-market health reforms:

  • Expanded federal regulation of the health insurance markets (a.k.a. “association health plans”)
  • Federal health information technology reforms
  • Federal malpractice liability reform

Rep. Rogers concluded his opening remarks by saying that health care “is the one place where we know how to tinker, we know where to tinker, [and] now we just [need to] have the will to tinker.”

I demur. Free-market reforms reduce the influence of government over the economy. The proposals offered by Rep. Rogers do the opposite. Then again, I have only listened to the Heritage event. I have not seen the most recent iteration of Rep. Rogers’ legislation, which is not yet available online. I hope Rep. Rogers or someone from the Heritage Foundation will explain what makes Medicaid HSAs (or the other proposals) a free-market health care reform.

Do Libertarians Have a Prayer?

Many people think political philosophy comes in two varieties, liberal or conservative. The former values social freedoms while seeking government control over capitalist acts between consenting adults (in Robert Nozick’s wonderful phrase). Conservatives defend economic freedom but not other acts between consenting adults. As a philosophy that seeks both social and economic liberty, libertarianism has sometimes seemed at the margins of American politics. A recent poll throws doubt on that assumption.

The Pew Research Center measured political ideology based on six questions from one of their 2004 surveys. Three of the questions concerned economic liberty, the others social freedoms. Liberals scored high on social freedoms, conservatives on economic liberty, and populists had little regard for either. Libertarians, as you might expect, consistently supported liberty in both dimensions.

Pew estimates that 9 percent of Americans are libertarians. That might seem low until you realize that 18 percent are liberal, 16 percent populist, and 15 percent conservative. Pew calls the rest of the nation “ambivalents” who have no firm ideological outlook. As Scott Keeter, the author of the Pew study, concludes “libertarians, though the smallest of the ideological groups, represent a substantial percentage of the population.”

A lot of what Pew discovered about libertarians may not surprise you. They are more likely than the rest of the population to have a college degree, to be in the highest income category, and to come from the West. On the issues, libertarians are more likely to think homosexuality should be accepted, to favor stem-cell research, to believe businesses make a fair profit, and to find free trade good for the nation.

But some of Pew’s other findings about libertarians are more unexpected, at least to me. Libertarians are 50 percent more likely to declare themselves “secular” than the general population. Still, only about 12 percent of the libertarians surveyed identified themselves this way. Libertarians are also more likely than the general population to identify as a “white Catholic.” Finally, almost two-thirds of the libertarians said they go to church at least once a month. That’s a little less than the general population, but a lot more than I would have guessed.

Half of the libertarians identified with or leaned toward the Republican party. At the same time, 41 percent affiliated themselves with the Democrats. Sen. Kerry got 40 percent of the libertarian vote in 2004. President Bush did better among libertarians than you might expect given the party identification numbers. Bush got 57 percent of libertarian vote last time. But as they say, “if the election were held today….”

I have saved the best for last. One-third of Pew’s libertarians are between 18 and 29 years of age. Libertarians are thus fifty percent more likely to be found among the young than in the population as a whole. They are also much more likely to be found among the youngest cohort than are conservatives or populists.

So the present may seem bleak for libertarians. But just wait. Help is on the way.

Repeat After Me: “We Are All Individuals”

Back when Steve Martin was doing stand-up comedy (yes, I’m OLD), he had a wonderful bit in which he would get the audience to repeat a series of statements in unison, the last of which was “we are all individuals.” 

I’m sure that this bit of irony would have been lost on the editors of the Washington Post. In a May 9 feature, they asked three authors to discuss the battle between traditionalist and progressive pedagogical methods. The fatal conceit of this feature, to which all the contributors succumbed, was to ignore the most sensible approach of all: let families decide for themselves. 

If parents were free to choose the schools best suited to each of their children, and schools were forced to compete for the privilege of serving them, the most effective methods would flourish and the rest would be marginalized. We’d also likely find that certain methods work well with some children but not others. 

The sooner we overcome the Stalinesque notion that educational excellence can be pursued through more or better central planning, the better off our kids will be.

Stumbling on Paternalism?

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s new book, Stumbling on Happiness, appears to be all the rage. Cato Institute adjunct scholar Tyler Cowen thought it was the best book he had read this year, until he forgot, and nominated David Warsh’s Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations instead. In any case, Gilbert is one of the world’s experts about “affective forecasting,” i.e., our ability to predict how we will feel in the future. Generally, we overshoot the mark. Here’s a bit from Scott Stossel’s review in the NYT:

Events that we anticipate will give us joy make us less happy than we think; things that fill us with dread will make us less unhappy, for less long, than we anticipate. As evidence, Gilbert cites studies showing that a large majority of people who endure major trauma (wars, car accidents, rapes) in their lives will return successfully to their pre-trauma emotional state — and that many of them will report that they ended up happier than they were before the trauma. It’s as though we’re equipped with a hedonic thermostat that is constantly resetting us back to our emotional baseline.

Why might this be of political interest? Recall that part of J.S. Mill’s famous libertarian argument against paternalistic interference in On Liberty is based in the following claim:

… with respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by anyone else.

If we are systematically wrong in our predictions about how our circumstances will relate to our feelings, then it might seem that experts, like Daniel Gilbert, may be better placed than we are to know what is and is not going to make us happy. Some paternalism may be called for after all.

There are several things to say in response to this line of thinking. Let’s set aside the tricky moral replies, and focus on a major practical problem for teasing paternalistic implications out of our “affective ignorance.”

Even if some experts know better than we do what will make us happy, it is very unlikely that those experts will be the ones determining paternalistic policy. Consider that the very same people who make systematic mistakes about their future feelings are the voters in democratic elections. And, as Bryan Caplan’s work shows [.doc], voters are likely to be even more profoundly mistaken about politics than about their own affairs.

Successful politicians are likely to reflect the biases of the voters. Take the War on Terror, for example. Gilbert’s work implies that whatever the harm of another terrorist attack may be, it probably will not be as bad as we imagine, and we would get over the wound rather more quickly than we think (indeed, more quickly than it may be comfortable to acknowledge). But that doesn’t keep voters or politicians (who share the same psychology, after all) from being extremely anxious about another terrorist attack.

There’s a good chance that lots of people mispredict how bad things would be if drugs were legalized, or if same-sex marriages were legally recognized. The consequence is that we get politicians who appeal to us because they make the same errors—or even because they convince us that things will be even worse than we thought (which was already way worse than it would really be) if they aren’t elected. And these are the people who determine paternalistic policies, not experts like Daniel Gilbert.

Even if you ask politicians to appoint experts, they will not consult experts on expertise to determine who the real experts are. Their beliefs about who is and isn’t an expert, like their beliefs about anything else, will reflect their biases. If I were President, Leon Kass might be the last person I would think of to head my Council on Bioethics. But if you look at his bio, you can certainly see why he looks like an expert to some people. The upshot is that happiness-based paternalistic policy may be more likely to be based on the work of Dr. Rick Warren than on the work of Dr. Daniel Gilbert.

So, a realistic account of human psychology shows that we can be pretty bad at predicting what is really going to make us happy. But a similarly realistic account of actually existing political institutions shows that they are likely to be even worse than individual decision-makers. If we make systematic errors, then democracy will simply aggregate our errors. And politicians, who make the same errors we do, will reflect our errors, and will often have an incentive to reinforce them to their political benefit. Even if expert knowledge exists—even if Daniel Gilbert knows better than you do about what will and won’t make you happy—democratic institutions will not be reliable at identifying it or applying it.