Topic: Political Philosophy

The Debate Over Voting: Helping Jim Harper Count for Something

On November 2nd, Cato will host a debate over whether libertarians should vote. On the “no” side will be me and my colleague Aaron Ross Powell. On the losing side will be our colleagues Jim Harper and Michael F. Cannon. You should come, that is, of course, unless you’re sensitive to the sight of public executions.

But Jim wants to start the debate early. Yesterday, he criticized the standard economist’s argument for why people (including libertarians) shouldn’t vote. “Given the exceedingly low likelihood that one person’s vote will sway the outcome,” as Jim describes the argument, “the time and effort spent on voting is pure waste.”

This is true under most circumstances: if you’re voting solely to change an election, then your voting is irrational. If you get no pleasure out of voting, if casting a vote gives you no sense of a duty fulfilled, yet you still wake up, stand in line on a cold November morning, and cast your vote merely because you want to change the outcome of the election, then you are behaving irrationally.

In nearly every circumstance, your vote doesn’t matter. It won’t change things. Every election that you’ve ever voted in or not voted in would have come out exactly the same if you had done the opposite. This is not an opinion, it is an inescapable mathematical truth.

Jim argues that this is only half the story. What the standard, voting-is-irrational model “really fails to account for is the effect that margins of victory have on the many, many political and social actors that will consume vote information after election day.” This is still wrong, and for the same reasons.

At the risk of creating a more difficult debate opponent on November 2nd, I must inform Jim that he’s consistently equating two fundamentally different concepts: 1) the trivially true idea that voting, en masse, matters; and 2) the idea that a single vote matters. Aaron and I will not be arguing that voting, en masse, doesn’t matter in the sense that it affects the world. Of course it does. And we will not be arguing that margins of victory, which are just an emergent phenomenon of en masse voting, don’t matter. That would be silly. But, under most circumstances, a single vote doesn’t meaningfully contribute to either an electoral victory or to the margin of victory. No winning politician has ever said, “well, I won by 4.000006 percent, but if I won by 4.000007 percent, that would have really been a mandate for action.”  

Finally, I told Jim in an email that I could refute him in a single sentence. Here it is:

A single vote’s contribution to a margin of victory is nearly as infinitesimal as its contribution to a victory, and, if margins of victory have consumable value as “vote information,” then so does voter turnout, so you’re better off staying home in order to marginally contribute to that data point.

Maybe that’s all Jim needed to soothe his troubled soul: a reason to not vote that will make him feel he is contributing to the system. Apparently Jim has a deep-seated need to be a part of a percentage, to be counted by some egg-head political data consultant. So stay home Jim, but do it with gusto rather than apathy. Know that you’re making a marginal contribution to the voter turnout numbers. On November 8th, stand up—or sit down, or sleep in—and get counted!

Come to the debate, or watch it online. It’ll be fun.

Economics Will Be Our Ruination III, the Votening

(This post is an ad for the upcoming debate: Should Libertarians Vote? It’s sure to rock the world of liberty. Sign up at the link.)

The first and second parts of my “Economics Will Be Our Ruination” series highlighted how putatively neutral economic analysis often subtly embeds non-neutral values. Economists tend to prefer human activity that’s measurable using dollars over non-monetary trade or leisure, for example. An economic model of the Fourth Amendment can easily place group interests ahead of individual rights. In this installment I’ll highlight weaknesses in the practice of economic modeling, using the example of voting.

Creating a theoretical construct to depict common transactions or interactions, then assessing such activity as abstracted, is essential to economics. But it is also a profound weakness of that form of analysis, because failing to model accurately will send one’s economic assessment off the rails.

An example of this is economic assessment of voting. Many economists, both professional and amateur, are ineluctably drawn to modeling voting as a process solely for selecting the officials that will serve in a representative government. Given the exceedingly low likelihood that one person’s vote will sway the outcome, the time and effort spent on voting is pure waste. So economists conclude that voting is irrational.

That model of voting is hugely over-simplified, omitting even down-ballot electoral and initiative races, which somewhat increase the still-small odds of casting a decisive vote. But what the model really fails to account for is the effect that margins of victory have on the many, many political and social actors that will consume vote information after election day. As I wrote a few months ago in a piece called Don’t Not Vote, “Votes are a dazzling roman candle of information supplied to elected officials, their staffs, political parties, journalists, opinion leaders, and future candidates, to name a few. All these witnesses to elections incorporate vote information—not just outcome, but win/loss margins—into their actions and assessments well beyond election and inauguration day.”

From Utopia to Animal Farm

In a society such as ours … is appears crazy at first to want revolution.  For we have whatever we want.  But the aim here is to transform the will itself so that people no longer want what they now want… .The question with which we had to deal … amounts to the question of whether … in order to set free these needs, a dictatorship appears necessary…

–Herbert Marcuse, “The End of Utopia” (1967)

All ‘favourable’ Utopias seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness.  . .  The inhabitants of various [Utopias] are chiefly concerned with avoiding fuss. They live uneventful, subdued, ‘reasonable’ lives, free not only from quarrels, disorder or insecurity of any kind, but also from passion … .  Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache. They wanted to produce a perfect society by an endless continuation of something that had only been valuable because it was temporary. The wiser course would be to say that there are certain lines along which humanity must move, the grand strategy is mapped out, but detailed prophecy is not our business. Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness.

–George Orwell, “Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun” (1943)

If another group tie takes the place of the religious one – and the socialistic tie seems to be succeeding in doing so – then there will be the same intolerance towards outsiders as in the age of the Wars of Religion.

–Sigmund Freud, “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” (1921).

The actual distribution of income or wealth has often been compared with a hypothetical ideal (Utopia) rather than actual experience in any country at any time. 

Many Westerners once believed incomes were nearly equal in the former Soviet Union, for example, but we now know that substantial privileges did exist for a select few – based on political power rather than economic contribution.[i] Even aside from bribery and corruption, special access to health care, education, housing and special shops was often granted to the Communist Party hierarchy and the bureaucratic elite.  Urban people in general were subsidized at the expense of rural areas.

By the late seventies, only a handful of Western leftists continued  to defend such dictatorships as Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, or North Korea’s Kim Jong-il/Kim Jong-un feudal dynasty.  

In recent years, the left’s previous romanticism of communism has sometimes been briefly salavaged by relabeling similar authoritarian regimes as “socialist” (Chavez in Venezuela), which sounds nicer but isn’t. Others have switched to romanticizing some golden age of the past.  In the U.S., for example, the Golden Age of greater equality was said to have occurred between 1930 and 1973. Yet the realtively egalitarian (“fair”?) suffering of 1930-39 is difficult to romaticize, for obvious reasons, as is the post-1973 stagflationary collapse of Nixon’s authoritatian price controls.

Vague allusions to social justice are often employed to suggest that a larger fraction of the economy’s benefits (food, housing, health care, etc.) could and should be distributed by government rather than by markets.  In theory, we could turn over all of our income to democratically elected officials and let them decide who gets what. But distribution on the basis of political criteria is not necessarily fairer than distribution on the basis of economic criteria.  Political markets also tend toward one-size-fits-all solutions, with less variety and innovation than in economic markets.

Those currrently expecting politicians to make various goods or services “affordable” or “free” are really just asking government officials to force someone else to pay.  But artificially low prices (e.g., for colleges or physicians) inflate demand and discourage supply, requiring some bureaucrat to use nonprice rationing such as waiting lists, lotteries or preferential treatment for those with the most political clout.

The only alternative to a free market is a politically rigged market, and that invariably turns out to be neither fair nor pleasant. 

The only way to ban markets is to beat them down with force. And since markets are abstractions, the force is used against people. So the alternative to a market-oriented society in which everyone is required to respect everyone else’s rights is a society in which those in power use force on whomever they can get away with using it on.”

–David R. Henderson, The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (1997)

[i] David R. Henderson, Robert M. McNab & Tamás Rózsás, “The Hidden Inequality in Socialism,” The Independent Review (Winter 2005)

Free Speech and the University of Cape Town

Cato adjunct scholar Flemming Rose who recently won the 2016 Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty has been disinvited from speaking at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. The academic freedom committee of the university had asked Rose to give the annual TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture. The Vice Chancellor of the university rescinded the invitation. He argued that Rose’s lecture might divide the campus leading to protests and even violence. He also said having Rose “might retard rather than advance academic freedom on campus”. The last statement will remind many people of Doublespeak.

Fortunately, this injustice has prompted several principled defenses of free speech.

Kenan Malik, an English writer and broadcaster, who gave the TB Davie lecture last year, makes the case for open debate and defends Rose.

Nadine Strossen, a former ACLU president and current law professor at New York University, quickly provided a comprehensive critique of the decision. Professor Strossen adds her comments about Flemming Rose that she gave at the Friedman Prize dinner.

Ronald K.L. Collins, a law professor at the University of Washington who runs the First Amendment News blog, has challenged an administrator at the University of Cape Town to reply to these critiques. Collins has done the right thing: a bad decision has led to critical speech which now invites a response.

Finally, Flemming Rose himself has replied, citing his recent defense of free speech for radical imams: “A more diverse society needs more free speech, not less.” He continues:

It’s really a sign of poor judgment and bad academic standards to disinvite me on the basis of what other people say about me, when I have published a book that covers my own story, which tells how my views on politics were formed and analyses the history of tolerance and free speech. The book is not only focusing on Islam. I write about the Russian Orthodox’ Church silencing of criticism, Hindu-nationalists attacks on an Indian Muslim artist and so on and so forth. Why use second-hand sources when you can read the primary source in English and make up your mind?

Why not indeed? Rose’s book, The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech published by Cato in 2014 may be found here or at your local bookseller.


Happy Second of July

As Americans enjoy the Fourth of July holiday, I hope we take a few minutes to remember what the Fourth of July is: America’s Independence Day, celebrating our Declaration of Independence, in which we declared ourselves, in Lincoln’s words, “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

The fireworks would be today if John Adams had his way. It was on July 2, 1776, that the Continental Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain. On July 4 Congress approved the final text of the Declaration. As Adams predicted in a letter to his wife Abigail:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, is the most eloquent libertarian essay in history, especially its philosophical core:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Jefferson moved smoothly from our natural rights to the right of revolution:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. 

The ideas of the Declaration, given legal form in the Constitution, took the United States of America from a small frontier outpost on the edge of the developed world to the richest country in the world in scarcely a century. The country failed in many ways to live up to the vision of the Declaration, notably in the institution of chattel slavery. But over the next two centuries that vision inspired Americans to extend the promises of the Declaration — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — to more and more people. That process continues to the present day, as with the Supreme Court’s ruling for equal marriage freedom last year.

At the very least this weekend, if you’ve never seen the wonderful film 1776, watch it late on July 4 (actually 1:00 am EDT on July 5) on TCM.

How People Abroad Viewed Our Declaration of Independence

How did people around the world react to the American Declaration of Independence?

On Tuesday, July 9, 1776, the German printer Henrich Miller published the first translation of the Declaration, just four days after the English text was first published by John Dunlop whose printing shop was a few doors away in Philadelphia.

Many French people were eager to see the Declaration, but until 1778, when the French government announced its alliance with the rebels, producing a translation was a dangerous thing to do in France. Alleged translations were anonymous. The earliest-known French translation was published in the Netherlands.

Abroad, the Declaration had the greatest impact on debates leading up to the French Revolution (1789). The French referred frequently not only to the Declaration but also to the Virginia Bill of Rights, state constitutions and bills of rights and the U.S. Constitution. These documents, scholars Elise Marienstras and Naomi Wulf wrote, “acted as an indispensable guide or foil in the conception of their own principles.”

In London, the Russian chargé d’affairs Vasilii Grigor’evich Lizakevich learned the news about the Declaration and on August 13 wrote a dispatch to the first minister of the College of Foreign Affairs, Count Nikita Ivanovich Panin, making clear the significance of the Declaration: “The publication of this document as well as the proclamation of a formal declaration of war against Great Britain offer evidence of the courage of the leadership there.”

About Those One Sentence Free Trade Agreements

I sometimes hear it said that today’s lengthy trade agreements are about “managed trade,” and that a true free trade agreement would only have to be one sentence (or perhaps one paragraph.) Well, maybe, but it depends on what that sentence or paragraph says. Here’s a suggestion someone made on a trade policy blog I run:

A true free trade agreement would be one sentence. Any good that can be sold legally in a country can be sold legally by a seller from any other country that is a party to this agreement. The agreements are long because they are negotiating winners and losers. That is crony capitalism.

The problem with this proposed sentence is that it would be under-inclusive: It would not achieve free trade, in several respects.

First, the primary barrier to free trade is still tariffs, which are taxes imposed on imports. Tariffs don’t make trade illegal, they just tax it, and a rule that goods which can legally be sold in a country can also be sold by foreign sellers would not eliminate tariffs. And, by the way, that’s a big reason why trade agreements are so long – they list all traded products and place limits on the tariff level for each product. Many of the pages are taken up by these detailed tariff reduction schedules.

Now, you could have a one sentence trade agreement that said something along the lines of, “All tariffs are hereby abolished.” That would be a pretty good sentence in a trade agreement. So far, we haven’t seen a sentence like that, unfortunately.

In addition, there are some complex protectionist measures out there, not all of which ban the sale of foreign goods.  For example, you could have a tax measure which applies higher taxes to foreign goods than domestic goods. This would mean that foreign goods could still legally be sold in the country, and thus the free trade sentence quoted above would not address such a measure.

Along the same lines, some trade agreements impose constraints on the use of anti-dumping measures.  There might be an ideal sentence here (“anti-dumping measures are hereby abolished”), but that is not politically achievable right now, so we end up with many pages of rules that put limits on anti-dumping measures. It’s not perfect, but it helps.

To sum up, I agree with critics who say there are lots of problems with today’s trade agreements, as various interest groups have lobbied succesfully for specific regulations to be included in them.  We can definitely scale back from the 5,000 or so pages in the Trans Pacific Partnership. In the end, though, any free trade agreement is likely to take quite a few pages to set out all the various constraints on protectionism.