Topic: Political Philosophy

Demand for Subsidies

My op-ed on National Review Online today provided new information about the increasing number of federal subsidy programs. The federal welfare state is expanding rapidly.

One friendly reader emailed me:

Ever cross your mind that there’s a reason government programs increase over time? I’ll clue you in: Programs increase because of public demand.

It’s not rocket science, people want more services. Period. Somebody’s got to pay for them. Hences taxes. Or perhaps borrowing. Or a combination of both. In any event, there’s no evidence people are willing to get along with fewer services.

The situation seems simple to me; so why can’t you ideologues on the far right understand what’s going on. Instead, you simply go on bemoaning the existence of programs and taxes you don’t like.

There are numerous problems with this reader’s views, including constitutional problems. But one thing that strikes me is the underlying assumption of the “public interest theory of government,” or the idea that democracies and bureaucracies operate to efficiently provide “services.”

In reality, there are structural problems in government that bias policymakers toward fiscal irresponsibility, as our current $1.8 trillion federal deficit indicates. The issue is not ideology, it is scientific: Does the government actually work as the optimists, like this reader, believe? I think the empirical evidence is in on that question.

Pirates as Proto-Governments? You Bet!

I have to confess I don’t understand why Roger Pilon and Ilya Shapiro are criticizing our colleagues Ben Friedman and Peter Van Doren below.  At the risk of being cast as yet another cog in the insidious piratofascist fifth column, I’d like to defend Ben and Peter.

Roger and Ilya reproach Ben and Peter for likening pirates to “pseudo-governments” and mount an impassioned defense of the nation-state as deserving a place in a different category from pirates.

On the distinction between the two, they write: “A tax, at least in principle, and most often in practice, is a charge for a service rendered –- not necessarily a wanted or an evenly distributed service, to be sure…”  To be sure, indeed!  There’s a term for charging people for an unevenly distributed and unwanted service.  It’s called racketeering.  Their description of taxation could apply quite well to a mafia.

Roger and Ilya would prefer to keep pirates and governments in two discrete categories but provide little reason why other than the above.  But if they dislike the analogy, their problem is not with Ben or Peter or Noam Chomsky or St. Augustine, but rather with a body of well-developed academic literature.  In particular, one of the preeminent scholars of the formation of national states, the late Charles Tilly, wrote a famous book titled Coercion, Capital, and European States that would help color in the gaps for them.  The short version is that European elites came to form national states as a means for protecting their fiefdoms from other proto-states, which frequently had predatory aims, and that this process sometimes had the incidental effect of protecting the populaces that lived under state jurisdiction and could be used as means for making war against the neighbors.

Tilly also wrote a well-known essay titled “War Making and State Making As Organized Crime” that makes the following claim: “Banditry, piracy, gangland rivalry, policing, and war making all belong on the same continuum.” Tilly went on:

In retrospect, the pacification, cooptation, or elimination of fractious rivals to the sovereign seems an awesome, noble, prescient enterprise, destined to bring peace to a people; yet it followed almost ineluctably from the logic of expanding power. If a power holder was to gain from the provision of protection, his competitors had to yield. As economic historian Frederic Lane put it twenty-five years ago, governments are in the business of selling protection … whether people want it or not.

Governments and pirates both “put the victim to a choice between two of his entitlements – his freedom and his property.”  In the literature on state formation, this isn’t a controversial point.  I’m really surprised to see that it is for two libertarians.

Dust Off Your Tinfoil Hats

It’s official. Everyone supportive of federalism and/or upset about taxes, etc., is now considered a potentially dangerous “rightwing extremist” by Homeland Security.

From all around the web:

A footnote attached to the report by the Homeland Security Office of Intelligence and Analysis defines “rightwing extremism in the United States” as including not just racist or hate groups, but also groups that reject federal authority in favor of state or local authority.

Not Waiting for Government

As Tad DeHaven mentioned the other day, CNN reported recently that business owners and residents on Hawaii’s Kauai island got together and made repairs to a state park – in eight days – that the state had said would cost $4 million and might not get done for months. Businesses were losing money since people couldn’t visit the park, so they decided to take matters into their own hands.

“We can wait around for the state or federal government to make this move, or we can go out and do our part,” [kayaking company owner Ivan] Slack said. “Just like everyone’s sitting around waiting for a stimulus check, we were waiting for this but decided we couldn’t wait anymore.”…

“We shouldn’t have to do this, but when it gets to a state level, it just gets so bureaucratic, something that took us eight days would have taken them years,” said Troy Martin of Martin Steel, who donated machinery and steel for the repairs. “So we got together – the community – and we got it done.”

It reminds me of the story 20 years ago of how Donald Trump got tired of watching the city of New York take six years to renovate a skating rink, so he just called up Mayor Ed Koch, offered to do it himself, and got the job done in less than four months. He got so enamored of the skating rink that he ended up getting the concession to run it.

And it also reminds me of the stories in James Tooley’s brand-new book, The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves, which talks about how poor people in China, India, and Africa have set up schools for their children because government schools were absent or of poor quality.

If government would get out of the way, businesses, churches, charities, and individuals would solve a lot more social problems.

Seasteading and Other Technologies for Liberty

I’ve been following Patri Friedman’s work on seasteading for a number of years, so I was excited to see him contribute the lead essay in this month’s Cato Unbound. I think he makes some good points about the difficulty of achieving a free society through ordinary electoral politics. As he points out, libertarians are a minority of the electorate and the political game is stacked against politicians who aren’t willing to use their power to reward special interests. So smart libertarians should be looking at options outside of campaigns and elections to make the world a freer place.

But I think it’s a huge and unwarranted leap to go from this observation about the limits of electoral politics to claim that “the advocacy approach which many libertarian individuals, groups, and think tanks follow (including me sometimes, sadly) is an utter waste of time” and that “academic research has enlarged our understanding but they have gotten us no closer to an actual libertarian state.” It’s not difficult to find examples of academic research that changed the world. One of the most important trends toward liberty in the United States during the last century, the deregulation of transportation and communication markets in the 1970s, came about because a small group of academics persuaded Washington policymakers that deregulation would benefit consumers (and, in the process, their own political prospects). It surely mattered that Margaret Thatcher was a devotee of Friedrich Hayek. And if Friedman will forgive me for personalizing the debate a little bit, he must be familiar with the role his own grandfather had in ending the draft, achieving (relatively) stable money, and inspiring the modern school choice movement.

Now, Friedman says he’s interested in living in an “actual free society.” He probably regards the above examples as merely “small incremental gains in freedom.” But if that’s his critique, he bears the burden of showing that his preferred approach, seasteading, will itself achieve an “actual free society” rather then mere “incremental gains.” I’m not so sure.

Friedman makes much of the distinction between “technology” on the one hand and “advocacy” on the other. He thinks technological approaches are better because they provide superior leverage: a group as small as a few hundred people may be able to permanently lower the barrier to entry to statehood and fundamentally transform the nation-state game.

It’s an appealing vision, but I don’t think the distinction between technology and advocacy is so stark. As my colleague Will Wilkinson has pointed out, ideology is a kind of infrastructure. The tools of persuasion — magazine columns and television specials, for example — are means of improving this infrastructure by spreading new and better ideas. Modern communications technologies offer a kind of leverage not so dissimilar to the leverage Friedman hopes to achieve through seasteading. A small group of talented people can permanently change public attitudes, thereby shifting the Overton Window and changing the constraints politicians face.

Indeed, it’s obvious that Friedman himself understands this on some level. You’ll notice that right now, he’s not spending his time at a dry dock constructing an actual seastead. Instead, he’s using the same technologies he derides in other contexts — giving talks, writing essays, giving media interviews — to spread a set of ideas that he thinks will change the world. Getting seasteading to actually happen is a collective action problem. The tools he needs to overcome that collective action problem are precisely the “folk activism” tactics that he derides in other contexts. I think he’s largely right that national elections are not an arena in which “folk activism” has much impact, but there are clearly circumstances in which those tactics do work, and blanket dismissal of those tactics is therefore misguided.

I think Friedman overestimates the extent to which successful seasteads would achieve revolutionary, rather than merely incremental, changes in the amount of freedom in the world. Friedman’s vision for the future is a floating Hong Kong surrounded by a billion-dollar breakwater. He’s not going to be satisfied with a bunch of glorified houseboats. So the society he hopes to build would be a complex system with many of the anti-libertarian tendencies that afflict today’s cities. He’s right, of course, that the power of that city’s leaders will be limited by the greater ease of exit. But a large fraction of the inhabitants of a floating Hong Kong would still be tied down by professional, family, and social ties. And as a consequence, the political leaders of such a society would still have considerable political power.

Therefore, large, permanent floating cities will only remain free if they’re built with good ideological infrastructure: with institutions and public attitudes conducive to liberty. That means that the efforts of libertarian public policy scholars is complementary to Friedman’s own organizational and engineering efforts. Their efforts can help in two ways. First, they can help to guide the founders of new seastead cities in making institutional design decisions that will maximize the likelihood that the society will remain free over the long run. Second and more importantly, the continued growth of the libertarian movement provides the seasteading movement with its most important input: “customers” who will instinctively understand the appeal of the seasteading project. Self-identified libertarians are likely to not only be the first people willing to join seasteads, but also the strongest advocates of preserving liberty within floating cities once they become firmly established.

It seems counterproductive for Friedman to spend his intellectual energies denigrating the efforts of those of us who have chosen to use communications technologies, rather than maritime technologies, to advance liberty. I predict that the technologies of persuasion we use at the Cato Institute will prove to be more important for the long-run success of liberty than the maritime technologies Friedman hopes to develop. But I’m glad that Friedman is experimenting with a different approach, and I would be thrilled to be proven wrong. If the seasteading movement does prove successful, I think it’s success will have been greatly accelerated by the existence of a large and enthusiastic audience that has been created and nurtured by the “folk activism” of the broader libertarian movement.

New at Cato Unbound

This month’s Cato Unbound continues our tradition of stirring up controversy. The lead essay is by Patri Friedman, who challenges the advocates of liberty as follows:

I deeply yearn to live in an actual free society, not just to imagine a theoretical future utopia or achieve small incremental gains in freedom. For many years, I enthusiastically advocated for liberty under the vague assumption that advocacy would help our cause. However, I recently began trying to create free societies as my full-time job, and this has given me a dramatic perspective shift from my days of armchair philosophizing. My new perspective is that the advocacy approach which many libertarian individuals, groups, and think tanks follow (including me sometimes, sadly) is an utter waste of time.

Argument has refined our principles, and academic research has enlarged our understanding, but they have gotten us no closer to an actual libertarian state. Our debating springs not from calculated strategy, but from an intuitive “folk activism”: an instinct to seek political change through personal interaction, born in our hunter-gatherer days when all politics was personal. In the modern world, however, bad policies are the result of human action, not human design. To change them we must understand how they emerge from human interaction, and then alter the web of incentives that drives behavior. Attempts to directly influence people or ideas without changing incentives, such as the U.S. Libertarian Party, the Ron Paul campaign, and academic research, are thus useless for achieving real-world liberty.

Cato isn’t called out by name, but it easily could have been. Like I said, Cato Unbound tries to be controversial.

What’s needed, Friedman claims, is not more study or advocacy, but a change in the deeper institutional structures that give rise to government policies. Competition among states (and non-state agents!), new technologies, and new intentional communities may just induce old-fashioned governments to behave a whole lot better. By contrast, just recommending somewhat better policies won’t do very much, not if all we do is write about them. (Friedman seems particularly skeptical about blogs. Ahem.)

Is this just a young person’s impatience? Or has Friedman found a serious weakness in libertarian activism? One reply I might make is that Cato scholars have researched quite a few topics that Friedman would probably find worthwhile. It’s important to document these things, and much of this work directly furthers the kind of structural reform that Friedman favors.

Consider the many Cato scholars who have heralded the rise of tax competition – in which states feel increasing pressure to deliver a low-cost product when their taxpayers can move elsewhere. Or consider Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter, a book whose conclusions inform Friedman’s own project. This book began with a series of discussions among public policy scholars (on a blog no less!). Cato actively promoted Caplan’s work, and we would hope that Friedman would find this an effort well-spent. An upcoming event with author James Tooley shows how the world’s poor are founding their own schools to educate themselves, admirably free from any state interference – a new, private social practice bests an incompetent government! These things matter, I’d say, and they matter even if we accept Friedman’s premises. (We’re also giving a platform to Friedman, both here and at an event on April 7.)

In any case, this a big and very important discussion for the libertarian movement, of which the Cato Institute is only a part. Cato Unbound will have a remarkable series of panelists commenting throughout this week and next, including Jason Sorens, founder of the Free State Project; Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and noted philanthropist; and Brian Doherty, who has researched and written about more forms of libertarian activism than most of us can even recall. Whatever side of the debate you end up taking, be sure to stop by to catch this month’s edition of Cato Unbound.

Fight Moral Panics — With Beer!

In the UK and here at home, brewers have increasingly been producing specialty beers with the alcohol content of wine. Naturally, it’s time for a moral panic:

The new breed of bitters, with their intense flavours and alcohol contents of up to 12 per cent, are the work of young brewing entrepreneurs trying capture the attention — and cash — of lager-guzzling twentysomethings.

Beer writers and aficionados have welcomed the speciality bottles, which can contain 10 times as much hops as a traditional pint, as a necessary revitalisation of a market dominated by corporate giants turning out similar 4 per cent brown bitters.

But alcohol campaigners have complained that drinkers may be unaware of the strength of the new products, a single 330ml bottle of which is enough to make an adult exceed their daily recommended alcohol intake.

In January the Portman Group, the alcohol industry watchdog, ruled the brashest exponent of the movement, BrewDog brewery in Aberdeen, had broken its code on responsible marketing for its Speed Ball beer, named after the cocktail of cocaine and heroin which killed the actor John Belushi, star of The Blues Brothers.

Despite the group rejecting complaints against three of BrewDog’s other beers, Punk IPA, Rip Tide and Hop Rocker, its managing director, James Watt, accused Portman of being “outdated” and “out of touch”. He did, however, concede that his company had been provocative. “We thought we would give them something worth banning us for,” he said.

Good for them.

Note the comically low, and comically named, “recommended daily alcohol intake,” which would apparently forbid splitting a standard bottle of wine with another drinker. (Is there any better way to drink wine?) Incidentally, today’s 750 mL bottle derives from the “fifth,” or fifth of a gallon, which in the good old barrel-chested days of yore may well have been a single-serving portion.

It’s fascinating how the narrative of moral panic just keeps getting recycled, as if journalists only ever had this one idea in their heads. Is it their fault, or is it the watchdog groups? A question worth asking.

Either way, it works like this: Someone does something faux-provocative, often as a marketing stunt (to beer connoisseurs, brews with 12% alcohol are a fine old tradition, not a terrible new menace). But a group of Very Concerned People takes it all quite seriously and issues a worried press release. An interview is set up. The young are always invoked, as are previous moral panics. Anxious stories are written. Entirely fake concerns arise. (Hops, for example, don’t intoxicate, and strong hop flavors incline one to drink less beer, not more.)

If a moral panic keeps up for long enough, the legislators will get called in, because it’s their job to protect us naive ordinary folk from the dangers of the world. Maybe something will be done about it, or maybe not. Either way, the average member of the public goes away worried, which is just what the Very Concerned People want. They feed on worry.

They hope for a perpetual climate of worry, a feeling of unease that will carry over from this issue to the next one and to the one after that. It makes what they do — taking away freedoms — that much easier. It’s our job, as freedom-loving citizens, to deny them this perpetual undercurrent of worry. And if we can do it while drinking beer, then so much the better.