externalities

Obesity and Statism

Richard Posner, a leader of the law and economics movement, exposes himself as an out-and-out statist:

I am not particularly interested in saving the obese from themselves. I am concerned about the negative externalities of obesity—the costs that the obese impose on others. Some of the others are the purchasers of health insurance and the taxpayers who pay for Medicaid and Medicare and social security disability benefits…. Obesity kills, but slowly, and en route to dying the obese run up heavy bills that, to a great extent, others pay.

Even more serious are the harmful effects of obesity, and of the food habits that contribute to it, on children…. Children who grow up in a household of obese parents (often there is just one parent, and she is obese) very often acquire the same bad habits.

One might think that since most parents are altruistic toward their children, parents would strive to prevent their children from acquiring their bad habits. But if they don’t know how to avoid becoming obese themselves, it is unlikely that they know how to prevent their children from becoming obese.

Then too, the more people in one’s family or circle of friends or coworkers who are obese, the more obesity seems normal. This is an implication of the fact that homo sapiens is a social animal. We want to blend in with our social peers….

Bloomberg’s proposal is widely criticized, not only on the shallow ground that it interferes with freedom of choice, but on the more substantial ground that it can’t have much effect, since the same sugared drinks can be sold in smaller containers…. [I]f the sale of sugared drinks in big containers is forbidden, there will be at least a slight drop in the purchase of those drinks and hence in their consumption….

More important is the symbolic significance of Bloomberg’s proposal (if it is adopted and enforced). It is an attention getter! It tells New Yorkers that obesity is a social problem warranting government intervention, and not just a personal choice.

Think of the history of cigarette regulation…. Cigarette smoking fell, from an average of 40 percent of the adult population in the 1970s to 19 percent today. There is some grumbling about this massive governmental intrusion into consumer choice, but very little. I certainly am not grumbling about it.

If there is to be a parallel movement to reduce obesity, it has to start somewhere. Maybe it will start with Bloomberg’s container proposal—an attention getter. Maybe it will grow. Maybe someday it will be as effective, and receive as much public approbation, as the anti-smoking movement. [From Posner's post about "Bloomberg, Sugar, and Obesity," at The Becker-Posner Blog, June 18, 2012.]

There you have a reputedly keen “legal mind” in the throes of economistic thinking. It perfectly illustrates a phenomenon about which I write in “A Man for No Seasons“:

[T]oo many economists justify free markets on utilitarian grounds, that is, because free markets produce more (i.e., are more efficient) than regulated markets. This happens to be true, but free markets can and should be justified mainly because they are free, that is, because they allow individuals to pursue otherwise lawful aims through voluntary, mutually beneficial exchanges of products and services. Liberty is a principle, a deep value; economic efficiency is merely a byproduct of adherence to that value.

It is evident that Posner cares not a jot about liberty; efficiency is his god.

Posner’s facile analysis of the costs of obesity is obviously grounded in an aversion to obese persons. He gives his game away by lauding the anti-cigarette campaign, which is really based on two things:

  • an esthetic revulsion
  • the snobbishness of the middle and upper-middle classes toward their “inferiors.”

The parallels to the anti-obesity campaign are so evident that I need say nothing more on this point.

In any event, the real problem is not obesity. It is that Americans have been forced to accept responsibility for other persons’ health. Posner almost grasps this when he writes about “the purchasers of health insurance and the taxpayers who pay for Medicaid and Medicare and social security disability benefits.” These problems would largely disappear if government did not distort the cost of health insurance through mandates and barriers to entry, and did not force some Americans to subsidize the health care of others through Medicare, Medicaid, and various State and local programs. The consumption of junk food, which Posner correctly indicts as a cause of obesity, is undoubtedly subsidized (indirectly) by welfare payments and food stamps.

The growing fraction of Americans who are considered obese is, in fact, a symptom of the ability of competitive markets to deliver more nourishment at a lower real cost. If obesity is concentrated among low-income groups — and I believe that it is — it means that low-income groups, on the whole, are better nourished than they were in the past. But, in typical fashion, paternalists like Posner focus on the aspects of progress that they find distasteful, while ignoring the larger picture.

If Posner were really serious about saving Americans from the consequences of their own behavior, he would be agitating for a ban on automobiles and the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. Oh, prohibition was tried and it failed because of its unintended consequences? My, my, what a surprise.

The unintended consequences of a war on obesity should be obvious to Posner — or would be if he were not blinded by paternalism. Regulators, armed with the power to limit what Americans can consume, would inevitably do great mischief to the health and enjoyment that Americans derive from the preparation and consumption of foodstuffs. Regulators love to impose one-size-fits all restrictions on everyone, instead of allowing individuals and firms to choose those courses of action that best suit them. And so — in the name of health and under the influence of various food-Nazis — regulators would move beyond Bloomberg’s simplistic “solution” to truly draconian measures. Almost anything that is believed to be harmful to some persons (e.g., salt, fat, nuts) would be strictly metered if not banned for all persons. (I have no taste for raw fish, but I would be aghast if those who like sashimi were unable to buy it because of the health risk that accompanies its consumption.) Then there are the opportunities for various interest groups (e.g., American cheese manufacturers) to rig the regulatory game in their favor. In short, it is not far down the regulatory slope from a ban on super-size drinks to a ban on foods that most of us find enjoyable, and even healthful.

But Mrs. Grundy — er, Judge Posner and his ilk — will not be deterred. And if the Grundy-Posners succeed in their paternalistic crusade, they will have turned America into a land of grim, granola-crunching Zombies. For that is liberty, Posner-style.

Related posts:
How to Combat Beauty-ism
The Mind of a Paternalist, Revisited
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Externalities and Statism

Not-So-Random Thoughts (III)

Apropos Science

In the vein of “Something from Nothing?” there is this:

[Stephen] Meyer also argued [in a a recent talk at the University Club in D.C.] that biological evolutionary theory, which “attempts to explain how new forms of life evolved from simpler pre-existing forms,” faces formidable difficulties. In particular, the modern version of Darwin’s theory, neo-Darwinism, also has an information problem.

Mutations, or copying errors in the DNA, are analogous to copying errors in digital code, and they supposedly provide the grist for natural selection. But, Meyer said: “What we know from all codes and languages is that when specificity of sequence is a condition of function, random changes degrade function much faster than they come up with something new.”…

The problem is comparable to opening a big combination lock. He asked the audience to imagine a bike lock with ten dials and ten digits per dial. Such a lock would have 10 billion possibilities with only one that works. But the protein alphabet has 20 possibilities at each site, and the average protein has about 300 amino acids in sequence….

Remember: Not just any old jumble of amino acids makes a protein. Chimps typing at keyboards will have to type for a very long time before they get an error-free, meaningful sentence of 150 characters. “We have a small needle in a huge haystack.” Neo-Darwinism has not solved this problem, Meyer said. “There’s a mathematical rigor to this which has not been a part of the so-called evolution-creation debate.”…

“[L]eading U.S. biologists, including evolutionary biologists, are saying we need a new theory of evolution,” Meyer said. Many increasingly criticize Darwinism, even if they don’t accept design. One is the cell biologist James Shapiro of the University of Chicago. His new book is Evolution: A View From the 21st Century. He’s “looking for a new evolutionary theory.” David Depew (Iowa) and Bruce Weber (Cal State) recently wrote in Biological Theory that Darwinism “can no longer serve as a general framework for evolutionary theory.” Such criticisms have mounted in the technical literature. (Tom Bethell, “Intelligent Design at the University Club,” American Spectator, May 2012)

And this:

[I]t is startling to realize that the entire brief for demoting human beings, and organisms in general, to meaningless scraps of molecular machinery — a demotion that fuels the long-running science-religion wars and that, as “shocking” revelation, supposedly stands on a par with Copernicus’s heliocentric proposal — rests on the vague conjunction of two scarcely creditable concepts: the randomness of mutations and the fitness of organisms. And, strangely, this shocking revelation has been sold to us in the context of a descriptive biological literature that, from the molecular level on up, remains almost nothing buta documentation of the meaningfully organized, goal-directed stories of living creatures.

Here, then, is what the advocates of evolutionary mindlessness and meaninglessness would have us overlook. We must overlook, first of all, the fact that organisms are masterful participants in, and revisers of, their own genomes, taking a leading position in the most intricate, subtle, and intentional genomic “dance” one could possibly imagine. And then we must overlook the way the organism responds intelligently, and in accord with its own purposes, to whatever it encounters in its environment, including the environment of its own body, and including what we may prefer to view as “accidents.” Then, too, we are asked to ignore not only the living, reproducing creatures whose intensely directed lives provide the only basis we have ever known for the dynamic processes of evolution, but also all the meaning of the larger environment in which these creatures participate — an environment compounded of all the infinitely complex ecological interactions that play out in significant balances, imbalances, competition, cooperation, symbioses, and all the rest, yielding the marvelously varied and interwoven living communities we find in savannah and rainforest, desert and meadow, stream and ocean, mountain and valley. And then, finally, we must be sure to pay no heed to the fact that the fitness, against which we have assumed our notion of randomness could be defined, is one of the most obscure, ill-formed concepts in all of science.

Overlooking all this, we are supposed to see — somewhere — blind, mindless, random, purposeless automatisms at the ultimate explanatory root of all genetic variation leading to evolutionary change. (Stephen L. Talbott, “Evolution and the Illusion of Randomness,” The New Atlantis, Fall 2011)

My point is not to suggest that that the writers are correct in their conjectures. Rather, the force of their conjectures shows that supposedly “settled” science is (a) always far from settled (on big questions, at least) and (b) necessarily incomplete because it can never reach ultimate truths.

Trayvon, George, and Barack

Recent revelations about the case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman suggest the following:

  • Martin was acting suspiciously and smelled of marijuana.
  • Zimmerman was rightly concerned about Martin’s behavior, given the history of break-ins in Zimmerman’s neighborhood.
  • Martin attacked Zimmerman, had him on the ground, was punching his face, and had broken his nose.
  • Zimmerman shot Martin in self-defense.

Whether the encounter was “ultimately avoidable,” as a police report asserts, is beside the point.  Zimmerman acted in self-defense, and the case against him should be dismissed. The special prosecutor should be admonished by the court for having succumbed to media and mob pressure in bringing a charge of second-degree murder against Zimmerman.

What we have here is the same old story: Black “victim”–>media frenzy to blame whites (or a “white Hispanic”), without benefit of all relevant facts–>facts exonerate whites. To paraphrase Shakespeare: The first thing we should do after the revolution is kill all the pundits (along with the lawyers).

Obama famously said, “”If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” Given the thuggish similarity between Trayvon and Obama (small sample here), it is more accurate to say that if Obama had a son, he would be like Trayvon.

Creepy People

Exhibit A is Richard Thaler, a self-proclaimed libertarian who is nothing of the kind. Thaler defends the individual mandate that is at the heart of Obamacare (by implication, at least), when he attacks the “slippery slope” argument against it. Annon Simon nails Thaler:

Richard Thaler’s NYT piece from a few days ago, Slippery-Slope Logic, Applied to Health Care, takes conservatives to task for relying on a “slippery slope” fallacy to argue that Obamacare’s individual mandate should be invalidated. Thaler believes that the hypothetical broccoli mandate — used by opponents of Obamacare to show that upholding the mandate would require the Court to acknowledge congressional authority to do all sorts of other things — would never be adopted by Congress or upheld by a federal court. This simplistic view of the Obamacare litigation obscures legitimate concerns over the amount of power that the Obama administration is claiming for the federal government. It also ignores the way creative judges can use previous cases as building blocks to justify outcomes that were perhaps unimaginable when those building blocks were initially formed….

[N]ot all slippery-slope claims are fallacious. The Supreme Court’s decisions are often informed by precedent, and, as every law student learned when studying the Court’s privacy cases, a decision today could be used by a judge ten years from now to justify outcomes no one had in mind.

In 1965, the Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut, referencing penumbras and emanations, recognized a right to privacy in marriage that mandated striking down an anti-contraception law.

Seven years later, in Eisenstadt v. Baird, this right expanded to individual privacy, because after all, a marriage is made of individuals, and “[i]f the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual . . . to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.”

By 1973 in Roe v. Wade, this precedent, which had started out as a right recognized in marriage, had mutated into a right to abortion that no one could really trace to any specific textual provision in the Constitution. Slippery slope anyone?

This also happened in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, where the Supreme Court struck down an anti-sodomy law. The Court explained that the case did not involve gay marriage, and Justice O’Connor’s concurrence went further, distinguishing gay marriage from the case at hand. Despite those pronouncements, later decisions enshrining gay marriage as a constitutionally protected right have relied upon Lawrence. For instance, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health (Mass. 2003) cited Lawrence 9 times, Varnum v. Brien (Iowa 2009) cited Lawrence 4 times, and Perry v. Brown (N.D. Cal, 2010) cited Lawrence 9 times.

However the Court ultimately rules, there is no question that this case will serve as a major inflection point in our nation’s debate about the size and scope of the federal government. I hope it serves to clarify the limits on congressional power, and not as another stepping stone on the path away from limited, constitutional government. (“The Supreme Court’s Slippery Slope,” National Review Online, May 17, 2012)

Simon could have mentioned Wickard v. Filburn (1942), in which the Supreme Court brought purely private, intrastate activity within the reach of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. The downward slope from Wickard v. Filburn to today’s intrusive regulatory regime has been been not merely slippery but precipitous.

Then there is Brian Leiter, some of whose statist musings I have addressed in the past. It seems that Leiter has taken to defending the idiotic Elizabeth Warren for her convenient adoption of a Native American identity. Todd Zywicki tears a new one for Leiter:

I was out of town most of last week and I wasn’t planning on blogging any more on the increasingly bizarre saga of Elizabeth Warren’s claim to Native American ancestry, which as of the current moment appears to be entirely unsubstantiated.  But I was surprised to see Brian Leiter’s post doubling-down in his defense of Warren–and calling me a “Stalinist” to boot (although I confess it is not clear why or how he is using that term).  So I hope you will indulge me while I respond.

First, let me say again what I expressed at the outset–I have known from highly-credible sources for a decade that in the past Warren identified herself as a Native American in order to put herself in a position to benefit from hiring preferences (I am certain that Brian knows this now too).  She was quite outspoken about it at times in the past and, as her current defenses have suggested, she believed that she was entitled to claim it.  So there would have been no reason for her to not identify as such and in fact she was apparently quite unapologetic about it at the time….

Second, Brian seems to believe for some reason that the issue here is whether Warren actually benefited from a hiring preference.  Of course it is not (as my post makes eminently clear).  The issue I raised is whether Warren made assertions as part of the law school hiring process in order to put herself in a position to benefit from a hiring preference for which she had no foundation….

Third, regardless of why she did it, Warren herself actually had no verifiable basis for her self-identification as Native American.  At the very least her initial claim was grossly reckless and with no objective foundation–it appears that she herself has never had any foundation for the claim beyond “family lore” and her “high cheekbones.”… Now it turns out that the New England Historical Genealogical Society, which had been the source for the widely-reported claim that she might be 1/32 Cherokee, has rescinded its earlier conclusion and now says “We have no proof that Elizabeth Warren’s great great great grandmother O.C. Sarah Smith either is or is not of Cherokee descent.”  The story adds, “Their announcement came in the wake of an official report from an Oklahoma county clerk that said a document purporting to prove Warren’s Cherokee roots — her great great great grandmother’s marriage license application — does not exist.”  A Cherokee genealogist has similarly stated that she can find no evidence to support Warren’s claim.  At this point her claim appears to be entirely unsupported as an objective matter and it appears that she herself had no basis for it originally.

Fourth, Brian’s post also states the obvious–that there is plenty of bad blood between Elizabeth and myself.  But, of course, the only reason that this issue is interesting and relevant today is because Warren is running for the U.S. Senate and is the most prominent law professor in America at this moment.

So, I guess I’ll conclude by asking the obvious question: if a very prominent conservative law professor (say, for example, John Yoo) had misrepresented himself throughout his professorial career in the manner that Elizabeth Warren has would Brian still consider it to be “the non-issue du jour“?  Really?

I’m not sure what a “Stalinist” is.  But I would think that ignoring a prominent person’s misdeeds just because you like her politics, and attacking the messenger instead, just might fit the bill. (“New England Genealogical Historical Society Rescinds Conclusion that Elizabeth Warren Might Be Cherokee,” The Volokh Conspiracy, May 17, 2012)

For another insight into Leiter’s character, read this and weep not for him.

Tea Party Sell-Outs

Business as usual in Washington:

This week the Club for Growth released a study of votes cast in 2011 by the 87 Republicans elected to the House in November 2010. The Club found that “In many cases, the rhetoric of the so-called “Tea Party” freshmen simply didn’t match their records.” Particularly disconcerting is the fact that so many GOP newcomers cast votes against spending cuts.

The study comes on the heels of three telling votes taken last week in the House that should have been slam-dunks for members who possess the slightest regard for limited government and free markets. Alas, only 26 of the 87 members of the “Tea Party class” voted to defund both the Economic Development Administration and the president’s new Advanced Manufacturing Technology Consortia program (see my previous discussion of these votes here) and against reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank (see my colleague Sallie James’s excoriation of that vote here).

I assembled the following table, which shows how each of the 87 freshman voted. The 26 who voted for liberty in all three cases are highlighted. Only 49 percent voted to defund the EDA. Only 56 percent voted to defund a new corporate welfare program requested by the Obama administration. And only a dismal 44 percent voted against reauthorizing “Boeing’s bank.” That’s pathetic. (Tad DeHaven, “Freshman Republicans Switch from Tea to Kool-Aid,” Cato@Liberty, May 17, 2012)

Lesson: Never trust a politician who seeks a position of power, unless that person earns trust by divesting the position of power.

PCness

Just a few of the recent outbreaks of PCness that enraged me:

Michigan Mayor Calls Pro-Lifers ‘Forces of Darkness’” (reported by LifeNews.com on May 11, 2012)

US Class Suspended for Its View on Islam” (reported by CourierMail.com.au, May 11, 2012)

House Democrats Politicize Trayvon Martin” (posted at Powerline, May 8, 2012)

Chronicle of Higher Education Fires Blogger for Questioning Seriousness of Black Studies Depts.” (posted at Reason.com/hit & run, May 8, 2012)

Technocracy, Externalities, and Statism

From a review of Robert Frank’s The Darwin Economy:

In many ways, economics is the discipline best suited to the technocratic mindset. This has nothing to do with its traditional subject matter. It is not about debating how to produce goods and services or how to distribute them. Instead, it relates to how economics has emerged as an approach that distances itself from democratic politics and provides little room for human agency.

Anyone who has done a high-school course in economics is likely to have learned the basics of its technocratic approach from the start. Students have long been taught that economics is a ‘positive science’ – one based on facts rather than values. Politicians are entitled to their preferences, so the argument went, but economists are supposed to give them impartial advice based on an objective examination of the facts.

More recently this approach has been taken even further. The supposedly objective role of the technocrat-economist has become supreme, while the role of politics has been sidelined….

The starting point of The Darwin Economy is what economists call the collective action problem: the divergence between individual and collective interests. A simple example is a fishermen fishing in a lake. For each individual, it might be rational to catch as many fish as possible, but if all fishermen follow the same path the lake will eventually be empty. It is therefore deemed necessary to find ways to negotiate this tension between individual and group interests.

Those who have followed the discussion of behavioural economics will recognise that this is an alternative way of viewing humans as irrational. Behavioural economists focus on individuals behaving in supposedly irrational ways. For example, they argue that people often do not invest enough to secure themselves a reasonable pension. For Frank, in contrast, individuals may behave rationally but the net result of group behaviour can still be irrational….

…From Frank’s premises, any activity considered harmful by experts could be deemed illegitimate and subjected to punitive measures….

…[I]t is … wrong to assume that there is no more scope for economic growth to be beneficial. Even in the West, there is a long way to go before scarcity is limited. This is not just a question of individuals having as many consumer goods as they desire – although that has a role. It also means having the resources to provide as many airports, art galleries, hospitals, power stations, roads, schools, universities and other facilities as are needed. There is still ample scope for absolute improvements in living standards…. (Daniel Ben-ami, “Delving into the Mind of the Technocrat,” The Spiked Review of Books, February 2012)

There is much to disagree with in the review, but the quoted material is right on. It leads me to quote myself:

…[L]ife is full of externalities — positive and negative. They often emanate from the same event, and cannot be separated. State action that attempts to undo negative externalities usually results in the negation or curtailment of positive ones. In terms of the preceding example, state action often is aimed at forcing the attractive woman to be less attractive, thus depriving quietly appreciative men of a positive externality, rather than penalizing the crude man if his actions cross the line from mere rudeness to assault.

The main argument against externalities is that they somehow result in something other than a “social optimum.” This argument is pure, economistic hokum. It rests on the unsupportable belief in a social-welfare function, which requires the balancing (by an omniscient being, I suppose) of the happiness and unhappiness that results from every action that affects another person, either directly or indirectly….

A believer in externalities might respond by saying that they are of “economic” importance only as they are imposed on bystanders as a spillover from economic transactions, as in the case of emissions from a power plant that can cause lung damage in susceptible persons. Such a reply is of a kind that only an omniscient being could make with impunity. What privileges an economistic thinker to say that the line of demarcation between relevant and irrelevant acts should be drawn in a certain place? The authors of campus speech codes evidently prefer to draw the line in such a way as to penalize the behavior of the crude man in the above example. Who is the economistic thinker to say that the authors of campus speech codes have it wrong? And who is the legalistic thinker to say that speech should be regulated by deferring to the “feelings” that it arouses in persons who may hear or read it?

Despite the intricacies that I have sketched, negative externalities are singled out for attention and rectification, to the detriment of social and economic intercourse. Remove the negative externalities of electric-power generation and you make more costly (and even inaccessible) a (perhaps the) key factor in America’s economic growth in the past century. Try to limit the supposed negative externality of human activity known as “greenhouse gases” and you limit the ability of humans to cope with that externality (if it exists) through invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Limit the supposed negative externality of “offensive” speech and you quickly limit the range of ideas that may be expressed in political discourse. Limit the supposed externalities of suburban sprawl and you, in effect, sentence people to suffer the crime, filth, crowding, contentiousness, heat-island effects, and other externalities of urban living.

The real problem is not externalities but economistic and legalistic reactions to them….

The main result of rationalistic thinking — because it yields vote-worthy slogans and empty promises to fix this and that “problem” — is the aggrandizement of the state, to the detriment of civil society.

The fundamental error of rationalists is to believe that “problems” call for collective action, and to identify collective action with state action. They lack the insight and imagination to understand that the social beings whose voluntary, cooperative efforts are responsible for mankind’s vast material progress are perfectly capable of adapting to and solving “problems,” and that the intrusions of the state simply complicate matters, when not making them worse. True collective action is found in voluntary social and economic intercourse, the complex, information-rich content of which rationalists cannot fathom. They are as useless as a blind man who is shouting directions to an Indy 500 driver….

Theodore Dalrymple

If you do not know of Theodore Dalrymple, you should. His book, In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, inspired  “On Liberty,” the first post at this blog. Without further ado, I commend these recent items by and about Dalrymple:

Rotting from the Head Down” (an article by Dalrymple about the social collapse of Britain, City Journal, March 8, 2012)

Symposium: Why Do Progressives Love Criminals?” (Dalrymple and others, FrontPageMag.com, March 9, 2012)

Doctors Should Not Vote for Industrial Action,” a strike, in American parlance (a post by Dalrymple, The Social Affairs Unit, March 22, 2012)

The third item ends with this:

The fact is that there has never been, is never, and never will be any industrial action over the manifold failures of the public service to provide what it is supposed to provide. Whoever heard of teachers going on strike because a fifth of our children emerge from 11 years of compulsory education unable to read fluently, despite large increases in expenditure on education?

If the doctors vote for industrial action, they will enter a downward spiral of public mistrust of their motives. They should think twice before doing so.

Amen.

The Higher-Eduction Bubble

The title of a post at The Right Coast tells the tale: “Under 25 College Educated More Unemployed than Non-college Educated for First Time.” As I wrote here,

When I entered college [in 1958], I was among the 28 percent of high-school graduates then attending college. It was evident to me that about half of my college classmates didn’t belong in an institution of higher learning. Despite that, the college-enrollment rate among high-school graduates has since doubled.

(Also see this.)

American taxpayers should be up in arms over the subsidization of an industry that wastes their money on the useless education of masses of indeducable persons. Then there is the fact that taxpayers are forced to subsidize the enemies of liberty who populate university faculties.

The news about unemployment among college grads may hasten the bursting of the higher-ed bubble. It cannot happen too soon.

More about Merit Goods

This is a follow-up to “Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice.” That post was inspired by a post at Austin Frakt’s blog, The Incidental Economist, about which John Goodman had this to say:

Austin, on first reading, I thought you were saying that I (as a taxpayer) should help pay for your daughter’s asthma medication — even though you agree that you can afford to pay for it yourself. Disbelief overcame me, so I read your post a second time. Then I read it a third. Each time, the message was as incomprehensible as on the previous reading.

Is there a persuasive reason why I owe the Frakt household something? If so, it’s not in this post.

Frakt’s response to Goodman:

You owe me nothing. Follow the link to value-based insurance design or find the V-BID center at U Mich. I think you’re looking for trouble where none should exist.

Well, I followed the link, and came away unconvinced that Frakt wants nothing from Goodman or anyone else. Accordingly, I posted this comment (paragraph breaks and emphasis added):

Your post about value-based insurance — to which you refer John Goodman — suggests that by reducing the co-pay on asthma drugs, trips to the ER would be averted, thus reducing the insurance company’s total costs and (possibly) the premiums it must charge its policy holders. If I have that right, it explains your reply to Goodman that “You owe me nothing.” I suspect that what he reacted to — and I would have reacted to similarly — is your assertion that “breathing [is] a merit good, something we all have a right to enjoy.” That assertion is unnecessary to the discussion of value-based insurance. And your use of the term “merit good” strongly suggests that your statement “Asthma medication is exactly the type of health product that should be free, or nearly so, especially for low-income families” is not just a statement about the presumed efficacy of value-based insurance, but advocacy for income redistribution.

In that case, a modified version of Goodman’s reaction is entirely in order, and I subscribe to it: “Is there a persuasive reason why I owe other households something, and what qualifies you (or anyone else) to make that judgment?” The excuse that I might otherwise end up paying for ER services through my taxes or insurance premiums relies on the assumption that ER services are a merit good that ought to be covered by tax subsidies and/or mandated insurance coverage. There is no end to the number of things that can be called merit goods, but calling them merit goods does not disguise the fact that doing so is an excuse for imposing one person’s or group’s preferences and burdens on others.

Those impositions have led to the present state of affairs, in which myriad interest groups pick each others’ pockets — and the pockets of the unfortunate who are not well-represented by an interest group. One truly unfortunate result of that state of affairs — aside from the gross diminution of liberty — is the diversion of resources from uses that would foster greater economic growth and alleviate much of the poverty that provides an excuse, in the first place, for special pleading about merit goods.

Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice

A merit good is said to be something that

an individual or society should have on the basis of some concept of need, rather than ability and willingness to pay…. [T]he concept … lies behind many economic actions by governments…. Examples include the provision of food stamps to support nutrition, the delivery of health services to improve quality of life and reduce morbidity, subsidized housing and arguably education….

Sometimes, merit … goods are simply seen as an extension of the idea of externalities. A merit good may be described as a good that has positive externalities associated with it. Thus, an inoculation against a contagious disease may be seen as a merit good. This is because others who may not now catch the disease from the inoculated person also benefit.

[M]erit … goods can be defined in a different way…. The essence of merit … goods is [has] do with … information failure…. This arises because consumer[s] do not perceive quite how good or bad the good is for them: either they do not have the right information or lack relevant information…. [A]merit good is [a] good that is better for a person than the person … realizes.

Other possible rationales for treating some commodities as merit … goods include public-goods aspects of a commodity…

A merit good, in short, is something that someone believes that the state should cause to be given to certain individuals, as a “positive right,” for various reasons: perceived need, externalities, and market failure among them.

But the “right” to something that is not earned or freely given is not a right, as the term is properly understood. It is an extortion by force or the threat of force, either directly (as in the case of outright theft) or though the coercive power of the state. Only a fool or a dishonest person can say that something obtained through extortion is obtained by right, unless that person believes that the victims of extortion are less deserving — less human — than the intended beneficiaries of extortion.

If a right is anything, it is something that all members of a polity can enjoy equally. If some members of a polity are placed above others through force or the threat of force, then the polity has no system of rights; it has a system of arbitrary privileges, dispensed by the state according to the whims of the faction then in power.

Given that a right must be something that all can enjoy equally, a right can only be negative:

  • the right not to have one’s life taken if one is peaceful toward others
  • the right not to be deprived of liberty if one is peaceful toward others
  • the right to the peaceful enjoyment and use of one’s property in the pursuit of one’s life and livelihood.

These negative rights come down to this: the right to be left alone as one leaves others alone.

If “obligations” accompany the right to be left alone, they do so only in the context of voluntary social (and economic) relationships, wherein acts of kindness and charity flow readily among persons who trust and care for each other and do so, in good part, because they observe the right of others to be left alone. These “obligations” are incurred and honored voluntarily, not because a person or group invested with the power of the state decrees them.

Merit goods (“positive rights”), by contrast, are the products of presumption — judgments about who is “needy” and “deserving” — and they are bestowed on some by coercing others. These coercions extend not only to the seizure of income and wealth but also to denials of employment (e.g., affirmative action), free speech (e.g., campaign-finance “reform”), freedom of contract (e.g., mandatory recognition of unions), freedom of association (e.g., forced admission of certain groups to private organizations), freedom of conscience (e.g., forced participation in abortions), and on and on.

The list of “merit goods” that forms the basis for the many and various forms of state-sponsored coercion may not be infinite, but it is exceedingly long. And its length is limited only by the perverse ingenuity of the seekers of “cosmic justice.” What is cosmic justice? I like this example from Thomas Sowell’s speech, “The Quest for Cosmic Justice“:

A fight in which both boxers observe the Marquis of Queensberry rules would be a fair fight, according to traditional standards of fairness, irrespective of whether the contestants were of equal skill, strength, experience or other factors likely to affect the outcome– and irrespective of whether that outcome was a hard-fought draw or a completely one-sided beating.

This would not, however, be a fair fight within the framework of those seeking “social justice,” if the competing fighters came into the ring with very different prospects of success — especially if these differences were due to factors beyond their control….

In a sense, proponents of “social justice” are unduly modest. What they are seeking to correct are not merely the deficiencies of society, but of the cosmos. What they call social justice encompasses far more than any given society is causally responsible for. Crusaders for social justice seek to correct not merely the sins of man but the oversights of God or the accidents of history. What they are really seeking is a universe tailor-made to their vision of equality. They are seeking cosmic justice.

To be a practitioner of cosmic justice, a person must set himself up as a judge of the merit of other persons, without really possessing more than superficial information about those other persons (e.g., that they are “rich” or “poor” by some standard). As I once said of two founders of modern “liberalism,” T.H. Green and L.T. Hobhouse, they are

accountants of the soul….

…(presumably) intelligent persons who believe that their intelligence enables them to peer into the souls of others, and to raise them up [or put them down] through the blunt instrument that is the state.

This is done on in the service of concepts that do not bear close examination, such as externalities, public goods, market failure, and social justice, social welfare, and positive rights. I will not repeat my asseessments of those concepts, but refer you to some of them instead:

Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
A Short Course in Economics
Social Justice
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Externalities and Statism

Externalities and Statism

In “Regulation as Wishful Thinking,” I say negative things about the main excuse for regulation, which is the existence of so-called negative externalities. This post focuses on the concept of externality and the absurdities to which it leads.

An externality — in case the term is new to you –

is a cost or benefit … incurred by a party who did not agree to the action causing the cost or benefit. A benefit in this case is called a positive externality or external benefit, while a cost is called a negative externality or external cost.

Economists seem to believe that externalities are “bad,” even positive ones. Why? According to the Wikipedia article quoted above, “

[w]elfare economics has shown that the existence of externalities results in outcomes that are not socially optimal. Those who suffer from external costs do so involuntarily, while those who enjoy external benefits do so at no cost.

The absurdity of this economistic view of the world is demonstrated easily:

1. If an attractive woman catches my eye, should I compensate her for the enjoyment that I derive from looking at her? If not, why not? Her attractiveness undoubtedly generates a lot of positive externalities.

2. If the same physically attractive woman catches the eye of a crude man, he will leer, wink, and perhaps make suggestive motions or remarks. His actions, which are a reaction to a positive externality (the effect of the woman’s attractiveness) have the effect of offending the woman and causing her psychological discomfort. His actions, in other words, cause a negative externality that can be traced to the same source as the positive externality in 1.

In short, life is full of externalities — positive and negative. They often emanate from the same event, and cannot be separated. State action that attempts to undo negative externalities usually results in the negation or curtailment of positive ones. In terms of the preceding example, state action often is aimed at forcing the attractive woman to be less attractive, thus depriving quietly appreciative men of a positive externality, rather than penalizing the crude man if his actions cross the line from mere rudeness to assault.

The main argument against externalities is that they somehow result in something other than a “social optimum.” This argument is pure, economistic hokum. It rests on the unsupportable belief in a social-welfare function, which requires the balancing (by an omniscient being, I suppose) of the happiness and unhappiness that results from every action that affects another person, either directly or indirectly. To return to the example, forcing the woman to be less attractive may make the woman more or less happy (depending on how she weighs her allure against the unwelcome attention that it draws), but it definitely makes me less happy. And even if the woman is happier, her gain in happiness does not cancel my decrease in happiness.

A believer in externalities might respond by saying that they are of “economic” importance only as they are imposed on bystanders as a spillover from economic transactions, as in the case of emissions from a power plant that can cause lung damage in susceptible persons. Such a reply is of a kind that only an omniscient being could make with impunity. What privileges an economistic thinker to say that the line of demarcation between relevant and irrelevant acts should be drawn in a certain place? The authors of campus speech codes evidently prefer to draw the line in such a way as to penalize the behavior of the crude man in the above example. Who is the economistic thinker to say that the authors of campus speech codes have it wrong? And who is the legalistic thinker to say that speech should be regulated by deferring to the “feelings” that it arouses in persons who may hear or read it?

Despite the intricacies that I have sketched, negative externalities are singled out for attention and rectification, to the detriment of social and economic intercourse. Remove the negative externalities of electric-power generation and you make more costly (and even inaccessible) a (perhaps the) key factor in America’s economic growth in the past century. Try to limit the supposed negative externality of human activity known as “greenhouse gases” and you limit the ability of humans to cope with that externality (if it exists) through invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Limit the supposed negative externality of “offensive” speech and you quickly limit the range of ideas that may be expressed in political discourse. Limit the supposed externalities of suburban sprawl and you, in effect, sentence people to suffer the crime, filth, crowding, contentiousness, heat-island effects, and other externalities of urban living.

The real problem is not externalities but economistic and legalistic reactions to them. These reactions are manifestations of rationalism. As Michael Oakeshott explains, a rationalist

never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration….

… And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. (“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays)

The main result of rationalistic thinking — because it yields vote-worthy slogans and empty promises to fix this and that “problem” — is the aggrandizement of the state, to the detriment of civil society.

The fundamental error of rationalists is to believe that “problems” call for collective action, and to identify collective action with state action. They lack the insight and imagination to understand that the social beings whose voluntary, cooperative efforts are responsible for mankind’s vast material progress are perfectly capable of adapting to and solving “problems,” and that the intrusions of the state simply complicate matters, when not making them worse. True collective action is found in voluntary social and economic intercourse, the complex, information-rich content of which rationalists cannot fathom. They are as useless as a blind man who is shouting directions to an Indy 500 driver.

Here is a good example of that kind of backseat driving:

For the left, political objectives relate to policy ends. We want to expand access to quality health care. We want to lower carbon emissions to combat global warming. We want to reform the lending process for student loans so more young people can afford to go to college. We want to make public investments to create jobs. (Steve Benen, “They’re not parallel ideologies,” Washington Monthly, October 18, 2011)

The list could go on and on, almost without end, of course. Because there is no end of “problems” that cry out for political “solutions.” Political, in this case, refers not to the voluntary processes and organizations of civil society — which are truly political — but to state action on behalf of this and that group and “cause.” It reminds me of the management style of a former boss, whose every whim became a top priority.

In the end, if anyone is better off it is politicians and bureaucrats who rake in above-market wages and outrageously cushy pensions. It is certainly not the members of competing interest groups, each of which vies to make its “cause” the number-one priority, and all of which end up paying for every other group’s favorite “cause.”

Then, too, there is the law of unintended consequences, which ensures that every state-imposed “solution” creates a new problem (a real one) that — you guessed it — cries out for state action. For example:

Night operation of the windmills in the North Allegheny Windpower Project has been halted following discovery of a dead Indiana bat under one of the turbines, an official with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday.

A more serious example:

On the Republican campaign trail, the health care debate has focused on the mandatory coverage that Mitt Romney signed into law as governor in 2006. But back in Massachusetts the conversation has moved on, and lawmakers are now confronting the problem that Mr. Romney left unaddressed: the state’s spiraling health care costs.

After three years of study, the state’s legislative leaders appear close to producing bills that would make Massachusetts the first state — again — to radically revamp the way doctors, hospitals and other health providers are paid.

Although important details remain to be negotiated, the legislative leaders and Gov. Deval Patrick, all Democrats, are working toward a plan that would encourage flat “global payments” to networks of providers for keeping patients well, replacing the fee-for-service system that creates incentives for excessive care by paying for each visit and procedure….

And when that brainstorm fails to solve the very real problems created by Romneycare, the idiots politicians and do-gooders who dictate to the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will try to conscript doctors, hospitals, and other providers of medical care into an overtly socialized system, which will come to be known (appropriately) as Commie-care. Then, predictably, the Commonwealth will try to remedy the flight of providers by some cockamamie scheme or other, which will accomplish the two-fold feat of making Massachusetts a medical wasteland while drying up the funding for Commie-care by driving out wealth-creators.

The fundamental problem with rationalistic “solutions” to “problems” — other than the fact that they do not work — is that they have externalities that make pollution and other undesirable by-products of economic activity seem almost benign. (For an estimate of the magnitude of the externalities of statism, see this post.) It is just that statist politicians are skilled at disguising the destructiveness of statist “solutions” and turning every real problem caused by state action into an excuse for more state action. They are abetted, of course, by the economic illiterates whose votes make democracy an enemy of liberty.

Civil society, left unfettered by statist decrees but protected by a minimal state, would cope very well with negative externalities, were it allowed to function. I have made that case in “Regulation and Wishful Thinking,” and will not repeat it here. (See especially the section of the post that is headed “The Alternatives to Regulation: Markets and Common Law.”) The general point is made by Oakeshott:

To some people, ‘government’ appears as a vast reservoir of power which inspires them to dream of what use might be made of it. They have favourite projects, of various dimensions, which they sincerely believe are for the benefit of mankind, and to capture this source of power, if necessary to increase it, and to use it for imposing their favourite projects upon their fellows is what they understand as the adventure of governing men. They are, thus, disposed to recognize government as an instrument of passion; the art of politics is to inflame and direct desire. In short, governing is understood to be just like any other activity — making and selling a brand of soap, exploiting the resources of a locality, or developing a housing estate — only the power here is (for the most part) already mobilized, and the enterprise is remarkable only because it aims at monopoly and because of its promise of success once the source of power has been captured….

Political conservatism is … not at all unintelligible in a people disposed to be adventurous and enterprising, a people in love with change and apt to rationalise their affections in terms of ‘progress’. And one does not need to think that the belief in ‘progress’ is the most cruel and unprofitable of all beliefs, arousing cupidity without satisfying it, in order to think it inappropriate for a government to be conspicuously ‘progressive’. Indeed, a disposition to be conservative in respect of government would seem to be pre-eminently appropriate to men who have something to do and something to think about on their own account, who have a skill to practise or an intellectual fortune to make, to people whose passions do not need to be inflamed, whose desires do not need to be provoked and whose dreams of a better world need no prompting. Such people know the value of a rule which imposes orderliness without irecting enterprise, a rule which concentrates duty so that room is left for delight…. (“On Being Conservative,” pp. 431-5, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays)

Related posts:
Fear of the Free Market — Part I
Fear of the Free Market — Part II
Fear of the Free Market — Part III
The Social Welfare Function
Risk and Regulation
A Short Course in Economics
The Interest-Group Paradox
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Accountants of the Soul
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Rahn Curve at Work
The Case of the Purblind Economist
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
More about Conservative Governance
Luck-Egalitariansim and Moral Luck
Understanding Hayek
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
What Free-Rider Problem?
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Regulation as Wishful Thinking

A Short Course in Economics

In which I begin with pithy statements of principles and work my way toward more complex (but brief) explorations of selected economic issues.

1. Self-interest drives us to do good things for others while striving to do well for ourselves.

2. Profit is good because it entices invention, innovation, and investments that yield new and better products and services.

3. Incentives matter: Just as self-interest and profit drive progress, taxation and regulation stifle it.

4. Only slaves and dupes can be exploited. (Wal-Mart employees are not exploited; they are not forced to work at Wal-Mart. Anti-Wal-Mart activists are exploited; they’re dupes of the anti-business Left.)

5. There is no free lunch, all costs (including taxes) must be covered by someone, somewhere, at some time.

6. The appearance of a free lunch (e.g., Social Security, tax-subsidized health insurance) leads individuals to make bad decisions (e.g., not saving enough for old age, overspending on health care).

7. Paternalism is for children: When adults aren’t allowed to make economic decisions for themselves they don’t learn from mistakes and can’t pass that learning on to their children.

8. All costs matter; one cannot make good economic decisions by focusing on one type of cost, such as the cost of energy.

9. The best way to deal with pollution and the “depletion” of natural resources is to assign property rights in resources now held in common. The owners of a resource have a vested interest (a) in caring for it so that it remains profitable, and (b) in raising its price as it becomes harder to obtain, thus encouraging the development of alternatives.

10. Discrimination is inevitable in a free society; to choose is to discriminate. In free and competitive markets — unfettered by Jim Crow, affirmative action, or other intrusions by the state — discrimination is most likely to be based on the value of one’s contributions.

11. Voluntary exchange is a win-win game for workers, consumers, and businesses. When exchange is distorted by taxation and constrained by regulation, the losers are workers (fewer jobs and lower wages) and consumers (higher prices and fewer choices).

12. Absent force or fraud, we earn what we deserve, and we deserve what we earn.

13. The economy isn’t a zero-sum game; for example:

Bill Gates is immensely wealthy because he took a risk to start a company that has created things that are of value to others. His creations (criticized as they may be) have led to increases in productivity. As a result, many people earn more than they would have otherwise earned; Microsoft has made profits; Microsoft’s share price rose considerably for a long time; Bill Gates became the wealthiest American (someone has to be). That’s win-win.

14. Externalities are everywhere.

Like the butterfly effect, everything we do affects everyone else. But with property rights those externalities (e.g., pollution) are compensated instead of being legislated against or fought over in courts. Relatedly . . .

15 . There is no such thing as a “public good.”

Public goods are thought to exist because certain services benefit “free riders” (persons who enjoy a service without paying for it). It is argued that, because of free riders, services like national defense be provided by government because it would be unprofitable for private firms to offer such services.

But that analysis overlooks the possibility that those who stand to gain the most from the production of a service such as defense may, in fact, value that service so highly that they would be willing to pay a price high enough to bring forth private suppliers, free riders notwithstanding. The free-rider problem isn’t really a problem unless the producer of a “public good” responds to requests for additional services from persons who don’t pay for those services. But private providers would not be obliged to respond to such requests.

Moreover, given the present arrangement of the tax burden, those who have the most to gain from defense and justice (classic examples of “public goods”) already support a lot of free riders and “cheap riders.” Given the value of defense and justice to the orderly operation of the economy, it is likely that affluent Americans and large corporations — if they weren’t already heavily taxed — would willingly form syndicates to provide defense and justice. Most of them, after all, are willing to buy private security services, despite the taxes they already pay.

I conclude that there is no “public good” case for the government provision of services. It may nevertheless be desirable to have a state monopoly on police and justice — but only on police and justice, and only because the alternatives are a private monopoly of force, on the one hand, or a clash of warlords, on the other hand. (See this post, for instance, which also links to related posts.)

You may ask: What about environmental protection? Isn’t it a public good that must be provided by government? No. Read this and this. Which leads me to “market failure.”

16. There is no such thing as “market failure.

The concept of market failure is closely related to the notion of a public good. When the market “fails” to do or prevent something that someone thinks should be done or prevented, the “failure” is invoked as an excuse for government action.

Except where there is crime (which should be treated as crime), there is no such thing as market failure. Rather, there is only the failure of the market to provide what some persons think it should provide.

Those who invoke market failure are asserting that certain social and economic outcomes should be “fixed” (as in a “fixed” boxing match) to correct the “mistakes” and “oversights” of the market. Those who seek certain outcomes then use the political process to compel those outcomes, regardless of whether those outcomes are, on the whole, beneficial. The proponents of compulsion succeed (most of the time) because the benefits of government intervention are focused and therefore garner support from organized constituencies (i.e. interest groups and voting blocs), whereas the costs of government intervention are spread among taxpayers and/or buyers of government debt.

There are so many examples of so-called public goods that arise from putative market failures that I won’t essay anything like a comprehensive list. There are, of course, protective services and environmental “protection,” both of which I mentioned in No. 15. Then there is public education, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Affirmative Action, among the myriad federal, State, and local programs that perversely make most people worse off, including their intended beneficiaries. Arnold Kling explains:

[T]he Welfare State makes losers out of people who want to get ahead through hard work, thrift, or education. Those are precisely the activities that produce economic growth and social wealth, and they are hit particularly hard by Welfare State redistribution.

The Welfare State certainly has well-organized constituencies. The winners, such as the AARP and the teachers’ unions, know who they are. The losers — the working poor, children stuck in low-quality school districts — have much less political clout. The Welfare State has friends in both parties, as evidenced by the move to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

As the Baby Boomers age, longevity increases, and new medical technology is developed, the cost of the Welfare State is going to rise. Economists agree that in another generation the share of GDP required by the Welfare State will exceed the share of GDP of total tax revenues today. The outlook for the working poor and other Welfare State losers is decidedly grim.

17. Borders are irrelevant, except for defense.

It is not “bad” or un-American to “send jobs overseas” or to buy goods and services that happen to originate in other countries. In fact, it is good to do such things because it means that available resources can be more fully employed and put to their best uses. Opponents of outsourcing and those who decry trade deficits want less to be produced; that is, they want to shelter the jobs of some Americans at the expense of making many more Americans worse off through higher prices.

For example, when Indian computer geeks operate call centers for lower salaries than the going rate for American computer geeks, it makes both Indians and Americans better off. Few Americans are computer geeks, but many Americans are computer users who benefit when they pay less for geek services (or the products with which geek services are bundled). Those who want to save the jobs of American computer geeks assume that (a) American computer geeks “deserve” their jobs (but Indians don’t) and (b) American computer geeks “deserve” their jobs at the expense of American consumers.

See also this, and this, and this.

18. Government budget deficits aren’t bad for the reason you think they’re bad.

Government spending is mostly bad (see No. 15) because it results in the misallocation of resources (and it’s inherently inflationary). Government spending — whether it is financed by taxes or borrowing — takes resources from productive uses and applies them to mostly unproductive and counterproductive uses. Government budget deficits are bad in that they reflect that misallocation — though they reflect only a portion of it. Getting hysterical about the government’s budget deficit (and the resulting pile of government debt) is like getting hysterical about a hangnail on an arm that has been amputated.

There’s no particular reason the federal government can’t keep on making the pile of debt bigger — it has been doing so continuously since 1839. As long as there are willing lenders out there, the amount the amount of debt the government can accumulate is virtually unlimited, as long as government spending does not grow to the point that its counterproductive effects bring the economy to its knees.

For more, see this, this, this, and this.

19. Monopoly (absent force, fraud, or government franchise) beats regulation, every time.

Regulators live in a dream world. They believe that they can emulate — and even improve on — the outcomes that would be produced by competitive markets. And that’s precisely where regulation fails: Bureaucratic rules cannot be devised to respond to consumers’ preferences and technological opportunities in the same ways that markets respond to those things. The main purpose of regulation (as even most regulators would admit) is to impose preferred outcomes, regardless of the immense (but mostly hidden) cost of regulation.

There should be a place of honor in regulatory hell for those who pursue “monopolists,” even though the only true monopolies are run by governments or exist with the connivance of governments (think of courts and cable franchises, for example). The opponents of “monopoly” really believe that success is bad. Those who agitate for antitrust actions against successful companies — branding them “monopolistic” — are stuck in a zero-sum view of the economic universe (see No. 13), in which “winners” must be balanced by “losers.” Antitrusters forget (if they ever knew) that (1) successful companies become successful by satisfying consumers; (2) consumers wouldn’t buy the damned stuff if they didn’t think it was worth the price; (3) “immense” profits invite competition (direct and indirect), which benefits consumers; and (4) the kind of innovation and risk-taking that (sometimes) leads to wealth for a few also benefits the many by fueling economic growth.

What about those “immense” monopoly profits? They don’t just disappear into thin air. Monopoly profits (“rent” in economists’ jargon) have to go somewhere, and so they do: into consumption, investment (which fuels economic growth), and taxes (which should make liberals happy). It’s just a question of who gets the money.

But isn’t output restricted, thus making people generally worse off? That may be what you learned in Econ 101, but that’s based on a static model which assumes that there’s a choice between monopoly and competition. I must expand on some of the points I made in the original portion of this commandment:

  • Monopoly (except when it’s gained by force, fraud, or government license) usually is a transitory state of affairs resulting from invention, innovation, and/or entrepreneurial skill.
  • Transitory? Why? Because monopoly profits invite competition — if not directly, then from substitutes.
  • Transitory monopolies arise as part of economic growth. Therefore, such monopolies exist as a “bonus” alongside competitive markets, not as alternatives to them.
  • The prospect of monopoly profits entices more invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship, which fuels more economic growth.

20. Stay tuned to this blog.