ratchet effect

The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”

Here we go again, into “all men are brothers” territory:

“Morality can do things it did not evolve (biologically) to do,” says [Joshua] Greene [author of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them]. How can it do this? By switching from the intuitive “automatic mode” that underpins our gut reactions to the calculating, rational “manual mode”. This, for Greene, means embracing utilitarianism, “the native philosophy of the manual mode”. Utilitarianism takes the idea that “happiness is what matters, and everyone’s happiness counts the same”, generating the simple three-word maxim, “maximise happiness impartially”.

Greene is not the first to think that he has found “a universal moral philosophy that members of all human tribes can share” and that those who disagree are simply not being rational enough. Many a philosopher will raise an eyebrow at his claim that “the only truly compelling objection to utilitarianism is that it gets the intuitively wrong answers in certain cases”.

At least one strong objection is suggested by what Greene himself says. He knows full well that the kind of absolutely impartial perspective demanded by utilitarianism – in which the interests of your own child, partner or friends count for no more than any others – “is simply incompatible with the life for which our brains were designed”. Greene takes this as a flaw of human beings, not his preferred moral theory. But when someone, for example, dedicates a book to his wife, as Greene does, this does not reflect a failure to be appropriately objective. A world in which people showed no such preferences would be an inhuman, not an ideal, one. A morality that values human flourishing, as Greene thinks it should, should put our particular attachments at its core, not view them as “species-typical moral limitations” to be overcome.

That’s an excerpt of Julian Baggiani’s commendable review of Greene’s book and two others (“The Social Animal,” FT.com, January 3, 2014).

Greene makes two errors. First, he assumes that it’s wrong to prefer those who are closest to one, geographically and by kinship, to those who are farther away. Second, he assumes that happiness can be added, and that what should matter to a person is not his happiness but the sum of all the happiness in the world. The errors are so obvious that I won’t dwell on them here. If you want to read more about them, start with “Liberalism and Sovereignty,” “Inside-Outside,” “Modern Utilitarianism,” “The Social Welfare Function,” and “Utilitarianism vs. Liberty.” And by all means read “The Fallacy of Human Progress,” which addresses Steven Pinker’s rationalistic thesis about overcoming human nature (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined).

Yes, human beings are social animals, but human beings are not “brothers under the skin,” and there is no use in pretending that we are. Trying to make us so, by governmental fiat, isn’t only futile but also wasteful and harmful. The futility of forced socialization is as true of the United States — a vast and varied collection of races, ethnicities, religions, and cultures — as it is of the world.

Despite the blatant reality of America’s irreconcilable diversity, American increasingly are being forced to lead their lives according to the dictates of the central government. Some apologists for this state of affairs will refer to the “common good,” which is a fiction that I address in the third, fourth, and fifth of the above-linked posts. Other apologists like to invoke the “social contract,” another fiction that Michael Huemer disposes of quite nicely:

[I]t is often said that the government derives its powers from a “social contract,” whereby the people have granted these special powers to the government. The only problem with this theory is that it is factually false—I have not in fact agreed to have a government, to pay taxes, or to obey the government’s laws.

A number of suggestions have been made as to how, despite my protestations to the contrary, I really have agreed to all those things. Here I will just mention one, because it is the one most often heard in conversation. This is the suggestion that I have “implicitly” agreed to have a government merely by residing in the government’s territory. (“If you don’t want a government, simply move to Antarctica!”) Very briefly, the problem with this suggestion is that it presupposes that the state owns all the territory over which it claims jurisdiction, or that for some other reason it has the right to exclude people from that area. But there is no way to establish such a right on the part of the state, unless one has already shown that the state has legitimate authority. This therefore cannot be presupposed in an argument designed to establish the state’s authority. In this case, the statist’s claim seems analogous to the leader of a protection racket claiming that his victims have voluntarily agreed to pay him protection money, merely by living in their own houses. There are other ways in which social contract enthusiasts claim that we have accepted the social contract, but as I explain in the book, each of them falls to equally serious objections, which show that the social contract does not come close to satisfying the generally accepted principles of real, valid contracts.

Another popular suggestion is that, in democratic nations (about half the world today), the democratic process confers authority on the government. The motivation behind this view is initially puzzling. Recall that the problem is to explain why the state may undertake actions that would be considered rights violations if anyone else were to perform them. Typically, if some type of action violates someone’s rights—for instance, theft, kidnapping, or murder—the action will not be converted into an ethically permissible, non-rights-violating one if a larger number of people support the action than oppose it. If you’re in a group of friends, and five of them decide they want to rob you, while only three oppose robbing you, this does not make it ethically permissible to rob you. Similarly, even if every law were directly authorized by a popular referendum of everyone affected by the law, it is unclear why this would render legitimate a law that would otherwise have been a rights violation. Matters are only more problematic in a society in which a minority of people vote, and they vote merely to select representatives who may or may not keep their promises, and may or may not do what their supporters wanted.

But doesn’t the government have to coerce us in the ways that it does in order to maintain itself in existence, so that it can provide law and order? And without government, wouldn’t society degenerate into a constant war of everyone against everyone? The first thing to note about this argument is that it could at most justify a tiny minority of all the powers claimed by any modern state. Perhaps the government must make laws against violence and theft and provide a court system to adjudicate disputes, in order to prevent a Hobbesian war of all against all. But why must the government control what drugs you may put into your body, what wages you may pay your employees, how much wheat you may grow on your farm, and whether you buy health insurance? Why must they subsidize agribusiness, send rockets to Mars, fund the arts, provide college loans, and run their own school system? The question is not, “Why are those programs beneficial?” The question is, “How are those programs justified by the threat of the Hobbesian war that would supposedly result from anarchy?”

Granted, sometimes it is necessary to use coercion to prevent some disaster from occurring. But having done so, one is not then ethically permitted to continue using coercion beyond the minimal amount necessary to prevent that disaster. If we really stand in danger of some sort of all-out Hobbesian war, then the state would be justified in employing the minimum coercion necessary to prevent the state of war from occurring. This would not justify their continuing to employ coercion whenever it strikes their fancy, or whenever they think they can achieve some benefit by doing so. (“The Problem of Authority,” Cato Unbound, March 4, 2013)

A point that Huemer doesn’t make in his essay is to compare Americans with the “boiling frog“:

The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to significant changes that occur gradually.

The metaphor is apt. Americans — or a very large fraction of Americans — have been “boiled” stealthily:

Power has been passing to Washington for more than 100 years, in defiance of the Constitution, because of … the Nirvana fallacy, unrepresentative government, logjams and log-rolling, fiefdoms and egos, and the ratchet effect and interest-group paradox. Thus Washington is able to exert its power on the entire country, bringing big government to places that don’t want it….

[G]overnmental acts and decrees have stealthily expanded and centralized government’s power, and in the process have usurped social norms. The expansion and centralization of power occurred in spite of the specific limits placed on the central government by the original Constitution and the Tenth Amendment. These encroachments on liberty are morally illegitimate because their piecemeal adoption has robbed Americans of voice and mooted the exit option. And so, liberty-loving Americans have discovered — too late, like the proverbial frog in the pot of water — that they are impotent captives in their own land.

Voice is now so muted by “settled law” (e.g., “entitlements,” privileged treatment for some, almost-absolute control of commerce) that there a vanishingly small possibility of restoring constitutional government without violence. Exit is now mainly an option for the extremely wealthy among us. (More power to them.) For the rest of us, there is no realistic escape from illegitimate government-made law, given that the rest of the world (with a few distant exceptions) is similarly corrupt. (“‘We the People’ and Big Government,” Politics & Prosperity, November 16, 2013)

And, no, “we” — that is all of “us” — don’t want it to be that way:

If there is an “American psyche,” it has multiple-personality disorder.

What do you think when a snobbish European generalizes about Americans — a bunch of crude, gun-toting, money-grubbers? Do you think that such generalizations are correct? You probably don’t. And if you don’t, why would you think (or speak and write) as if Americans are like ants, that is, of one mind and collectively responsible for the actions of government? …

There’s no need to look abroad for inapplicable generalizations about America…. [C]onservatives and liberals have been separating themselves from each other. Only a cock-eyed optimist — the kind of person who believes that living in the same (very large) geographic requires unity — would call this a bad thing. As if proximity yields comity. It doesn’t work for a lot of families; it doesn’t work for most blacks and whites; it doesn’t work for upper-income and lower-income groups. Why should it work for most conservatives and liberals? …

But aren’t “we all in this together,” as proponents of big and bigger government are wont to proclaim? Not at all. The notion that “we are all in this together” is just a slogan, which really means “I want big and bigger government” to “solve” this or that problem — usually at the expense of persons who have done nothing to create the “problem.” “We are all in this together” is a call for action by government, not proof of a mythical “national will.” If “we” were “all in this together,” we wouldn’t need to be reminded of it. Like a good sports team or military unit, we would simply act that way. (Op. cit.)

It’s true that most human beings crave some kind of social connection. But the gap between that craving and the faux connectedness of one-size-fits-all big government can’t be bridged by ringing phrases (“We the People”), by appeals to patriotism, or by force.

Government can take my money, and it can make me do things the way “technocrats” want them done — and it can do the same to millions of other Americans. But government can’t make me (or those other millions) love the recipients of my money or feel happier because I’m doing things the “right” way. It can only make my (and those other millions) despise the recipients and detest forced conformity. Only divisiveness can prevent the complete destruction of liberty in the name of “society.”

Social unity is found not in government but in genetic kinship:

[G]enetic kinship is indispensable to society, where society is properly understood as “an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.” (“Genetic Kinship and Society,” Politics & Prosperity, August 16, 2012)

It takes overeducated dunderheads like Joshua Greene to denigrate the bonds of genetic kinship, even while openly prizing them.

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Other related posts:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Tocqueville’s Prescience
What Is Conservatism?
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Rush to Judgment
Secession, Anyone?
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”

“We the People” and Big Government

This post incorporates three earlier installments and completes the series.

When the Framers of the Constitution began the preamble with “We the People” and spoke as if the Constitution had been submitted to “the People” for ratification, they were indulging in rhetorical flourishes (at best) and misleading collectivization (at worst). The Founders may have been brave and honorable men, and their work — as long as it lasted — served liberty-loving Americans well. But do not forget that the Framers were politicians eager to sell a new framework of government. They were not gods or even demi-gods. They served liberty ill when they invoked the idea of a national will — expressed through government. Their coinage lends undeserved credence and emotional support to the rhetoric of statist demagogues, a breed of which Barack Obama is exemplary.

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I make two basic points in this very long post:

1. It is a logical and factual error to apply the collective “we” to Americans, except when referring generally to the citizens of the United States. Other instances of “we” (e.g., “we” won World War II, “we” elected Barack Obama) are fatuous and presumptuous. In the first instance, only a small fraction of Americans still living had a hand in the winning of World War II. In the second instance, Barack Obama was elected by amassing the votes of fewer than 25 percent of the number of Americans living in 2008 and 2012. “We the People” — that stirring phrase from the Constitution’s preamble — was never more hollow than it is today.

2. Further, the logical and factual error supports the unwarranted view that the growth of government somehow reflects a “national will” or consensus of Americans. Thus, appearances to the contrary (e.g., the adoption and expansion of national “social insurance” schemes, the proliferation of cabinet departments, the growth of the administrative state) a sizable fraction of Americans (perhaps a majority) did not want government to grow to its present size and degree of intrusiveness. And a sizable fraction (perhaps a majority) would still prefer that it shrink in both dimensions. In fact, The growth of government is an artifact of formal and informal arrangements that, in effect, flout the wishes of many (most?) Americans. The growth of government was not and is not the will of “we Americans,” “Americans on the whole,” “Americans in the aggregate,” or any other mythical consensus.

Continued below the fold. (more…)

The Real Burden of Government

Drawing on estimates of GDP and its components, it is easy to quantify the share of economic output that is absorbed by government spending. (See, for example, “The Commandeered Economy.”) With a bit of interpretive license, it is even possible to assess the cumulative effects of government spending and regulation on economic output. (See, for example,  “The Price of Government.”)

But the real economy does not consist of a homogeneous output (GDP). The real burden of government therefore depends on the specific resources that government extracts from the private sector in the execution of particular government programs, and on the particular products and services that are affected by government regulations.

Each new or expanded government program raises the demand for and price of certain kinds of goods and services, and channels rewards (claims on goods and services) in the direction of the businesses and persons involved in providing goods and services to government; for example:

  • Social Security rewards individuals for not working. The service, in this case, is the “good feeling” that comes to politicians, etc., for having done something “compassionate.”  The effect is to raise the prices of the goods and services that prematurely retired individuals would otherwise produce, therefore reducing the well-being of the working public.
  • Medicare — another of many feel-good programs — rewards retirees by subsidizing their medical care and prescription drugs. The upshot of this feel-good program is to reduce the well-being of the working public, which must pay more for its medical services and prescription drugs (directly, through higher insurance premiums, or because of lower wages to offset the cost of employer-provided health insurance).
  • R&D conducted in government laboratories and under government grants absorbs the services of scientists and engineers, thus raising the compensation of many scientists and engineers who couldn’t do as well in the private sector (the reward) and reducing the numbers of scientists and engineers engaged in private-sector R&D (the cost). Remember the private-sector inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs who brought you the telephone, automobiles, radio, television, any number of “wonder drugs,” computers, online shopping, etc., etc., etc.?
  • A goodly fraction of the teachers and professors at tax-funded schools and universities are rewarded with incomes that they could not earn if they worked in the private sector. (Tax-funded education also provides feel-good rewards to the usual suspects, who worship at the altar of statist inculcation.) Given that the “educators” and administrations of tax-funded educational institutions are essentially unaccountable to their “customers,” it should go without saying that tax-funded education delivers far less than the alternative: combination of private schools (including trade schools), apprenticeships, and penal institutions. Moreover, tax-funded education deprives private-sector companies of the services of (some) teachers and professors who have the skills and ability to help those companies to offer better products and services to consumers.

That’s as far as I care to take that list. You can add to it easily, just by selecting any federal, State, or local government program at random.

All of those programs, onerous as they are, have nothing on the insidious regulatory regime that has engulfed us in the past century. Regulation often are the means by which “bootleggers and Baptists” conspire to protect their interests, on the one hand (“bootleggers”), while slaking their thirst for do-goodism, on the other hand (“Baptists”). The classic case, of course, is Prohibition, which enriched bootleggers while making Baptists (and other temperance-types) feel good about saving our souls. You know how well that worked.

Obamacare is a leading example of “bootleggers and Baptists” at work. Insurance companies and the American Medical Association, anxious to protect themselves, lent their support to a program that promises to increase the demand for prescription drugs and doctors’ services. It’s a pact with the devil, of course, because (unless, by some miracle, it is repealed or declared unconstitutional) insurance companies and doctors will find that they are nothing more than government employees, in deed if not in name. And guess who will end up paying the bill? The working public, of course.

Obamacare is not a purely regulatory regime, however, because it revolves around a feel-good giveaway program. For examples of purely regulatory regimes, I turn to the myriad mundane regulations that are imposed upon us for “our own good” and at our own expense, from make-work schemes for electricians and plumbers building codes to death-inducing delays in drug approval the Pure Food and Drug Act.

More notorious (though perhaps not more damaging to the economy) are the federal government’s misadventures in “managing” the economy. A good place to begin is with the Federal Reserve’s actions from the late 1920s to the early 1930s, which helped to bring on the stock-market bubble that led to the stock-market crash that led to a recession that (with the Fed’s help) turned into the Great Depression. A good place to end is with the recent financial crisis and deep recession — a creature of Congress, the Fed, other federal suspects too numerous to mention, plus Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae — their pseudo-private-bur-really-government co-conspirators.

Have you had enough? I certainly have.

The growth of government and its incursions into our personal and business lives during the past century has done far more than rob us of wealth and income. It has ruined our character and our society, and deprived us of liberty. What has happened to self-reliance, social networks, private charity, and civil society in general? What has happened to plain old liberty, which is a value unto itself? That they are not gone with the wind is due only to the tenacity with which (some of us) hold onto them.

Government grows in power and reach because every government program and regulation — even the most benighted of them — creates a vested interest on the part of its political sponsors (in and out of government), bureaucratic managers, and dependent constituencies. New suckers are born every minute who believe that they can join the gravy train without paying the piper (to mangle a few metaphors). And when the problems created by government become too obvious to ignore, the conditioned response on the part of politicians, bureaucrats, their dependent constituencies, and most of the public is to find governmental solutions to those problems. It is the ultimate vicious circle.

Government is the problem. And it will be the problem for as long as it does more than merely protect its citizens from domestic and foreign predators, so that they can enjoy liberty and its fruits.

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Related posts: Too numerous to mention. Begin with this list of posts at Liberty Corner, then start at the beginning of Politics & Prosperity, work your way to the present, and stay tuned.

Selection Bias and the Road to Serfdom

Office-seeking is about one thing: power. (Money is sometimes a motivator, but power is the common denominator of politics.) Selection bias, as I argue here, deters office-seeking and voting by those (relatively rare) individuals who oppose the accrual of governmental power. The inevitable result — as we have seen for decades and are seeing today — is the accrual of governmental power on a fascistic scale.

Selection bias

most often refers to the distortion of a statistical analysis, due to the method of collecting samples. If the selection bias is not taken into account then any conclusions drawn may be wrong.

Selection bias can occur in studies that are based on the behavior of participants. For example, one form of selection bias is

self-selection bias, which is possible whenever the group of people being studied has any form of control over whether to participate. Participants’ decision to participate may be correlated with traits that affect the study, making the participants a non-representative sample. For example, people who have strong opinions or substantial knowledge may be more willing to spend time answering a survey than those who do not.

I submit that the path of politics in America (and elsewhere) reflects a kind of self-selection bias: On the one hand, most politicians run for office in order to exert power. On the other hand, most voters — believing that government can “solve problems” or one kind or another — prefer politicians who promise to use their power to “solve problems.” In other words, power-seekers and their enablers select themselves into the control of government and the receipt of its (illusory) benefits.

Who is self-selected “out”? First, there are libertarian* office-seekers — a rare breed — who must first attain power in order to curb it. Self-selection, in this case, means that individuals who eschew power are unlikely to seek it in the first place, understanding the likely futility of their attempts to curb the power of the offices to which they might be elected. Thus the relative rarity of libertarian candidates.

Second, there are libertarian voters, who — when faced with an overwhelming array of power-seeking Democrats and Republicans — tend not to vote. Their non-voting enables non-libertarian voters to elect non-libertarian candidates, who then accrue more power, thus further discouraging libertarian candidacies and driving more libertarian voters away from the polls.

As the futility of libertarianism becomes increasingly evident, more voters — fearing that they won’t get their “share” of (illusory) benefits — choose to join the scramble for said benefits, further empowering anti-libertarian candidates for office. And thus we spiral into serfdom.

HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY!

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* I use “libertarian” in this post to denote office-seekers and voters who prefer a government (at all levels) whose powers are (in the main) limited to those necessary for the protection of the people from predators, foreign and domestic.

Is Statism Inevitable?

In “Parsing Political Philosophy” I suggest that our descent into statism may continue indefinitely. The suggestion is based on years of observing American politics, which have brought me to the understanding that voters are profoundly irrational. They prefer statism to liberty, regardless of what they say. They (most of them) believe statism to be benign because it often wears a friendly face. But statism is not benign; it is dehumanizing, impoverishing, and — at bottom — destructive of the social fabric upon which liberty depends.

If statism — and perhaps something worse — is an inevitable product of our representative democracy, why is that so? One explanation invokes the slippery slope, which is

an argument for the likelihood of one event or trend given another. Invoking the “slippery slope” means arguing that one action will initiate a chain of events that will lead to a (generally undesirable) event later. The argument is sometimes referred to as the thin end of the wedge or the camel’s nose.

That is to say, once a polity becomes accustomed to relying on the state for a particular thing that should be left to private action, it becomes easier to rely on the state for other things that should be left to private action.

Another metaphor for the rising path of state power is the ratchet effect,

the commonly observed phenomenon that some processes cannot go backwards once certain things have happened, by analogy with the mechanical ratchet that holds the spring tight as a clock is wound up.

As people become accustomed to a certain level of state action, they take that level as a given. Those who question it are labeled “radical thinkers” and “out of the mainstream.” The “mainstream” — having taken it for granted that the state should “do something” — argues mainly about how much more it should do and how it should do it, with cost as an afterthought.

Perhaps the best metaphor for our quandary is the death spiral. Reliance on the state creates more problems than it solves. But, having become accustomed to relying on the state, the polity relies on the state to deal with the problems caused by its previous decisions to rely on the state. That only makes matters worse, which leads to further reliance on the state, etc., etc. etc.

More specifically, unleashing the power of the state to deal with matters best left to private action diminishes the ability of private actors to deal with problems and to make progress, thereby fostering the false perception that state action is inherently superior. At the same time, the accretion of power by the state creates dependencies and constituencies, leading to support for state action in the service of particular interests. Coalitions of such interests resist efforts to diminish state action and support efforts to increase it. Thus the death spiral.

Can we pull out of the spiral? Not unless and until resistance to state action becomes much stronger than it is. Nor can can it be merely intellectual resistance; it must be conjoined to political power. The only source of political power toward which anti-statists — and disillusioned statists — can turn is the Republican Party. And if the GOP does not return to its limited-government roots, all may be lost.

How can the GOP succeed in divesting itself of more of its Specters, while adding new blood in sufficient quantity so as to become, once again, a potent political force? Fred Barnes, writing in The Weekly Standard (“Be the Party of No,” vol. 14, issue 33, 05/18/09) is on the right track:

Many Republicans recoil from being combative adversaries of a popular president. They shouldn’t. Opposing Obama across-the-board on his sweeping domestic initiatives makes sense on substance and politics. His policies–on spending, taxes, health care, energy, intervention in the economy, etc.–would change the country in ways most Americans don’t believe in. That’s the substance. And a year or 18 months from now, after those policies have been picked apart and exposed and possibly defeated, the political momentum is likely to have shifted away from Obama and Democrats.

This scenario has occurred time and again. Why do you think Democrats won the House and Senate in 2006 and bolstered their majorities in 2008? It wasn’t because they were more thoughtful, offered compelling alternatives, or had improved their brand. They won because they opposed unpopular policies of President Bush and exploited Republican scandals in Congress. They were highly partisan and not very nice about it.

If Republicans scan their history, they’ll discover unbridled opposition to bad Democratic policies pays off. Those two factors, unattractive policies plus strong opposition, were responsible for the Republican landslides in 1938, 1946, 1966, 1980, and 1994. A similar blowout may be beyond the reach of Republicans in 2010, but stranger things have happened in electoral politics. They’ll lose nothing by trying….

Republican efforts to escape being tagged the party of no are understandable…. But no matter how restrained and sensible Republicans sound or how many useful ideas they develop, they’re probably stuck with the party of no label. They have more to gain by actually accepting the role and taking on Obama vigorously. If they come to be dubbed the party of no, no, no, a thousand times no, all the better. It will mean they’re succeeding.

In other words, Republicans might make some headway against the forces of statism if they will simply live up to their reputation for “meanness,” instead of apologizing for it — as they have been doing for decades. (Here’s how not to do it.) In order for that to happen, the Cheney wing of the party must prevail over the Powell wing. The good news is that the Powell wing — as represented by RINOs like Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe — may simply choose to follow Arlen Specter’s cynical conversion to the party of statism.

If the GOP fails to revert to its small-government stance, all may be lost. Democrats will be free to spend and spend, elect and elect, until — somewhere down the road — voters finally rebel. But until that distant day, Democrats will have enacted so many more crippling laws and regulations, and appointed so many more lawless judges, that nothing short of a constitutional revolution could rescue us from our political and economic hell.

Having had one constitutional revolution, I doubt that we will be lucky enough to have another one. Only a wise (and rare) élite can establish and maintain the somewhat minarchistic state we enjoyed until the early 1900s. The existence of such an élite — and its success in establishing a lasting minarchy — depends on serendipity, determination, and (yes) even force. That we, in the United States, came close (for a time) to living in a minarchy was due to historical accident (luck). We had just about the right élite at just about the right time, and the élite’s wisdom managed to prevail for a while.

That we have moved on to something worse than minarchy does not prove the superiority of statism. It simply suggests that our luck ran out because statism was (and remains) inevitable in a representative democracy, where irrational voters fuel the power-lust of politicians, and politicians gull irrational voters.

But I have not lost all hope (because of this, in part). And so, I await with interest (and some hope) the outcome of the struggle for the Republican Party’s soul.

Related reading: Peter Ferrara’s The Strategy of Not-So-Smart Surrender

The Interest-Group Paradox

The interest-group paradox is a paradox of mass action (my own coinage). In this post, I illustrate the concept of mass-action paradox with two examples, then turn to the interest-group paradox.

The paradox of thrift is probably the best-known paradox of mass action. According to an article at Wikipedia, the paradox (propounded by John Maynard Keynes) states that if, in the face of an economic downturn, large numbers of individuals try to save more money, the attempt to do so will worsen the downturn. That, in turn, will cause reductions in the incomes of large numbers of individuals, who will then be able to save less, not more. (The article continues with an explanation of the mechanism behind the paradox. The criticisms summarized in the article are unconvincing.)

Another familiar paradox of mass action has to do with the behavior of panicked crowds. If someone shouts “fire” in a crowded theater, many members of the audience may rush madly toward the exits instead of walking calmly, in lines. The mad rush likely will cause pileups at the exits, leading to more panic and worse pileups. As a result, many (perhaps most) of the theater-goers will die, if not from fire and smoke inhalation, then from being trampled and suffocated in a pileup. The paradox here is that the (panicked) effort by members of the crowd to save themselves may well result in their deaths. I call this the paradox of panic.

The paradox of thrift and the paradox of panic are paradoxes of mass action because, in both instances, large numbers of individuals come to harm when each of them tries to do something that he believes to be in his best interest.

I now turn to the main subject of this post: the paradox of mass action that I call the interest-group paradox. Pork-barrel legislation exemplifies the interest-group paradox in action, though the paradox encompasses much more than pork-barrel legislation. There are myriad government programs that — like pork-barrel projects — are intended to favor particular classes of individuals. Here is a minute sample:

  • Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, for the benefit of the elderly (including the indigent elderly)
  • Tax credits and deductions, for the benefit of low-income families, charitable and other non-profit institutions, and home buyers (with mortgages)
  • Progressive income-tax rates, for the benefit of persons in the mid-to-low income brackets
  • Subsidies for various kinds of “essential” or “distressed” industries, such as agriculture and automobile manufacturing
  • Import quotas, tariffs, and other restrictions on trade, for the benefit of particular industries and/or labor unions
  • Pro-union laws (in many States), for the benefit of unions and unionized workers
  • Non-smoking ordinances, for the benefit of bar and restaurant employees and non-smoking patrons.

What do each of these examples have in common? Answer: Each comes with costs. There are direct costs (e.g., higher taxes for some persons, higher prices for imported goods), which the intended beneficiaries and their proponents hope to impose on non-beneficiaries. Just as importantly, there are indirect costs of various kinds (e.g., disincentives to work and save, disincentives to make investments that spur economic growth). (Exercise for the reader: Describe the indirect costs of each of the examples listed above.)

You may believe that a particular program is worth what it costs — given that you probably have little idea of its direct costs and no idea of its indirect costs. The problem is millions of your fellow Americans believe the same thing about each of their favorite programs. Because there are thousands of government programs (federal, State, and local), each intended to help a particular class of citizens at the expense of others, the net result is that almost no one in this fair land enjoys a “free lunch.” Even the relatively few persons who might seem to have obtained a “free lunch” — homeless persons taking advantage of a government-provided shelter — often are victims of the “free lunch” syndrome. Some homeless persons may be homeless because they have lost their jobs and can’t afford to own or rent housing. But they may have lost their jobs because of pro-union laws, minimum-wage laws, or progressive tax rates (which caused “the rich” to create fewer jobs through business start-ups and expansions).

The paradox that arises from the “free lunch” syndrome is much like the other two paradoxes discussed here. It is like the paradox of thrift, in that large numbers of individuals are trying to do something that makes certain classes of persons better off, but which in the final analysis makes those classes of persons worse off. It is like the paradox of panic, in that there is a  crowd of interest groups rushing toward a goal — a “pot of gold” — and (figuratively) crushing each other in the attempt to snatch the pot of gold before another group is able to grasp it. The gold that any group happens to snatch is a kind of fool’s gold: It passes from one fool to another in a game of beggar-thy-neighbor, and as it passes much of it falls into the maw of bureaucracy.

I call this third, insidious, paradox the interest-group paradox. It is the costliest of the three — by a long shot. It has dominated American politics since the advent of “progressivism” in the late 1800s. Today, most Americans are either “progressives” (whatever they may call themselves) or victims of “progressivism.” All too often they are both.

(Related concepts: tragedy of the commons, ratchet effect. Related post: “Slopes, Ratchets, and the Death Spiral of Liberty.”)