Please choose only one answer. Before answering, you might want to read these posts:
Sherwin B. Nuland, a self-described octogenarian socialist, writes in The New Republic about “Fitness and Outrage.” Nuland opens with this:
One evening a few months before my eightieth birthday, I found myself addressing an audience of approximately a hundred men and women on a topic to which I have devoted considerable study during the past decade or so. My subject was the process of aging, and the ways in which current gerontological research is teaching us to deal with it….
During the course of my talk, I focused—as does much of the recent scientific, clinical, and general literature—on the optimistic. I stressed the role of determination and conscious effort in combating certain of the ravages that nature inflicts on those of us in the latter decades of life. I spoke of the importance of physical exercise, the creativity that comes with continued intellectual exploration, the critical importance of a personal sense of closeness to family and the surrounding community. Such essential patterns of living are easily explained, and they were more or less familiar to the upper-middle-class audience of friends and benefactors of the university medical center to which I had been invited….
So far, so good. But at the end of Nuland’s talk, which is applauded by all but one member of his audience, the holdout confronts him:
But then a hand shot up, whose owner was a red-faced, chokingly angry man in the first row who appeared to be about sixty years old and to have deliberately disregarded the instructions on the event’s invitation that gentlemen wear business attire…. I cannot recall the exact outpouring of words that he more spewed than spoke, but they were very much like the following, if a bit less organized: “What you’re saying is all very well, but don’t you realize that it applies only to men and women of means and education? The vast majority of the elderly don’t know about these things, and couldn’t afford them in any event. They often live alone and friendless or in some publicly subsidized care facility. Your ideas are suitable only for the more favored of older people. Society neglects everyone else and doesn’t care about them. Maybe you don’t, either.”
This bit of whining irrelevance is followed by Nuland’s long apology that not everyone has the wherewithal — financial, emotional, and physical — to age gracefully. Nuland ends with this:
Regardless of [his] studied outrage and air of sanctimony, … the fulminating fellow who engaged me at the medical center deserve[s] the gratitude of the rest of us, who might otherwise continue in our own form of self-righteousness without stopping to consider that privilege has its responsibilities. Paramount among those responsibilities is to support the sweeping societal changes without which the bodily benefits accruing to us are unavailable to men and women who have not had our good fortune.
And thus the sense of entitlement that has swept over the land since the advent of Social Security and Medicare marches on. The fact that some persons are able to live out their years in relatively good health and sound mind is now cause for complaint that not all persons are able to do so.
It is as if everyone must be equal in all respects, and that those who fare better in some respects are guilty of something. What that something is, I don’t know. It isn’t theft. It isn’t fraud. It isn’t coercion or deception. It is nothing but good genes (a matter of luck, not theft, fraud, or deception) and the hard work that’s required to earn a decent living and stay healthy.
Why is it self-righteous to enjoy one’s old age if one can do so? Where is the privilege in taking advantage of one’s own good genes and one’s own efforts? Are we contestants in some lottery, in which the number of good genes and the amount of effort is limited, so that there are winners and losers? Is it the responsibility of the “winners” to give some of their “winnings” to the losers? This kind of fallacious, zero-sum thinking is typical of redistributionists of Nuland’s ilk.
Nuland has journeyed to the depths of envious egalitarianism. And he can stay there.
No, it isn’t. See this post.
Brian Leiter seems to have a problem with Eugene Volokh. More generally, Leiter seems to have a problem with what he terms “offensive internet speech.” I have never found Leiter to be lacking in offensiveness (see this, this, and this, for example).
My problem with Leiter disappeared when I began to ignore Leiter and things written about him. I picked up on the Leiter-Volokh contretemps only because I’m a regular reader of The Volokh Conspiracy.
UPDATE: This post was about 30 minutes old when Politics & Prosperity hosted a 55-second visit from a server at uchicago.edu. (Leiter’s present academic home, according to his CV, is the University of Chicago.) The visit included three page views, including a look at my “About” page. I’m just stating the facts as I know them, not drawing inferences.
Paul Krugman, a defunct Keynesian, certainly isn’t the first person to decry competition. Krugman’s motive is somewhat different than the motives of others who think of competition as a dirty word, so let’s get Krugman out of the way.
Krugman’s ideal world is one in which the great socialist collective operates under the guidance and tutelage of his omniscience, which extends beyond his former discipline of economics into all aspects of human endeavor and the psychological underpinnings thereof. How else could he know, for example, that Republicans are unremittingly evil and the cause of all evil, not excluding the acts of mad men. Krugman’s problem, of course, is his heavy emotional investment in statism, which leads him to respond like Pavlov’s dog (slobbering and all) whenever anyone says an unkind or even doubtful word about the state’s wisdom or beneficence.
Enough of Krugman, as I once said, prematurely. Onward to competition, that dirty word.
Why is it dirty? First, thanks to “thinkers” of Krugman’s ilk, the word has acquired an adjective, which one hears in one’s mind even when it isn’t attached to the word by the person who uses it. The adjective is cut-throat. Cut-throat competition
refers to situations when competition results in prices that do not chronically or for extended periods of time cover costs of production, particularly fixed costs. This may arise in secularly declining or “sick” industries with high levels of excess capacity or where frequent cyclical or random demand downturns are experienced.
In other words, the term cut-throat competition has nothing to do with rapacious behavior. It is simply a picturesque description of a situation in which some firms are bound to fail, leaving survivors whose behavior should be characterized as persevering, not cut-throat. “Cut-throat” has nevertheless become ineradicably associated with “competition,” which has thereby acquired a strongly negative connotation among “average” persons, defunct Keynesians, the mainstream media, and “liberals” in general.
The other negative connotation of competition is its association with zero-sum games. In the extreme, there is gladiatorial, death-to-the-loser combat. In the somewhat less violent entertainments of the present epoch there are season-ending, winner-takes-trophy events: the Stanley Cup playoffs of ice hockey, the World Series of baseball, the Super Bowl of football, and so on, unto the Little League World Series and who knows what else.
The “average” person (Average Joe) enjoys winner-takes-trophy events and movies that employ death-to-the-loser plot devices, even as he deplores economic competition. That is so because competition as entertainment reinforces the view that competition inevitably generates losers. And yet, the competition of the arena — in its modern, non-lethal incarnations — isn’t really about the winner taking all. The winner takes a trophy and some extra moolah, but the losers — even the members of the teams that finish last and never get to post-season play — don’t lose. In fact, they earn rather nice salaries (often stupendous ones), usually for many years before their declining skills cause them to yield (gracefully or otherwise) to younger players.
Average Joe — unlike the athlete, aspiring performer, or trial lawyer — doesn’t like to think that he is in some kind of competition when he goes to work every day. But he is, even if his work doesn’t involve an explicit contest with, say, a co-worker to see who can throw a football more accurately in the face of charging defensive players, write the best computer program, serve the most customers, turn out the most readable technical manuals, and so on.
The element of competition in the workaday world is unavoidable, not only for the workers on the front lines but also for those in the back room. It is also inevitable for bosses all the way up the chain of command, and for financial backers (whose ownership shares and and loans are on the line).
The element of competition arises because of consumer sovereignty. In the final analysis, it is up to producers (workers, bosses, and business owners) to satisfy consumers — who are also producers. Every instant of every day there are changes in tastes, preferences, technologies, production methods, and other factors that determine the characteristics, quantities, and prices of goods and services that are bought and sold, and thus the rewards to those who are engaged in the production and financing of those goods and services. All of that constant change takes place in an economy that is generally growing, and some sectors of which grow even as others sink into recession or depression. Growth does not eliminate or soften competition because, when the veil of money is stripped away, growth depends heavily on the addition of resources (labor and capital of various kinds), which must be rewarded in accordance with the value of their contributions to economic output. Whether or not the economy is growing, the earnings of producers (and, therefore, their opportunities to consume) depend on their ability to satisfy consumers, who have myriad choices about how to allocate their incomes. In turn, the incomes of every economic actor, from janitor to chairman of the board to multi-billionaire shareholder, are determined by their respective contributions to consumer satisfaction.
The outcome of competition, contrary to the connotations of the word, isn’t a tally of winners and losers. Every “player” is a winner because he is rewarded, to some degree, for his efforts. The notion that there are winners and losers arises, wrongly, from the assumption that everyone is entitled to the same reward, regardless of how valuable his contribution is to others. “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs” is a long-discredited economic philosophy that leads to less for everyone (politicians, bureaucrats, and their favorites excepted). A low-income wage-earner may envy a Warren Buffet or Bill Gates (though that envy seems not to extend to the wage-earner’s favorite, highly paid athletes), but envy is in such ample supply that it is worthless, except when politicians decide to reward it, in the name of (cheap) compassion.
Which brings me to the political side of the story. It is the inevitability of competition — and the unwonted fear of it — that leads individuals and groups to seek shelter from it. Moreover, the general perception of competition as “bad” makes it easier for government to usurp private functions and set up in their place nearly impregnable bureaucracies. As a result of these impulses and perceptions, almost every product and service is made more costly by regulatory restrictions, licensing laws, import restrictions, tariffs, pro-union legislation, affirmative-action laws (which raise production costs by forcing employers to hire and promote second-best employees), and so on. At the same, the ability of consumers (as voters) to remove the politicians and bureaucrats responsible for such depredations is inhibited by civil-service regulations (which protect incompetent bureaucrats from more than mere changes of administration) and campaign-finance laws (which were designed by incumbents to protect their incumbencies).
All of this comes at a high cost to those Americans who must actually compete in the real economy. Average Joe doesn’t lose because of competition, he loses because so many of his fellow Americans have succeeded in insulating themselves from it. Therein lies true greed.
In summary, competition is a great thing. By rewarding invention, innovation, risk-taking, education and training, hard work, and all of the other things that contribute to economic growth. competition enables us — all of us — to enjoy a higher standard of living. And we would be much better off they we are if there were fewer individuals sitting on the sidelines, watching the competitors and taking an unearned cut of their earnings.
There’s nothing wrong with competition but the connotations it has acquired. It shouldn’t be a dirty word.
Scott Lincicome, Don Boudreaux, and Mark Perry continue their stalwart defense of free trade (latest entries here, here, and here). The controversy revolves around the notion prevalent in “liberal” circles that exports are “good” and imports are “bad.” This is an old view, which Henry Hazlitt addressed in Economics in One Lesson:
John Goodman keeps tabs on the abomination known as Obamacare. His many post-enactment observations about Obamacare include these:
Docs Declare “No Confidence” in AMA, Exercise as Anger Management, and the Upcoming Nursing Shortage
Doctors are Leaving Medicare
Who is Going to Provide the Extra Care?
Selling Health Reform to the Victims
The Coming Doctor Shortage
Victims of Health Care Reform
None of this comes as a surprise to me. I warned against Obamacare in several pre-enactment posts:
Goodman also offers a tantalizing post about the idea of testing public policies before they are fully implemented. The idea of testing public policies is one of the arguments for true federalism, where the central government has a hands-off policy on economic and social matters (but not civil rights). Only true federalism — which this nation enjoyed (more or less) until the subversion of the Commerce Clause by the Interstate Commerce Act — will dispel the “anger” toward the central government that deeply, and justly, animates a large number of Americans.
Big-government advocate Linda Greenhouse now opposes broadly worded delegations of power to subordinate authorities, because the broadly worded power, in the present instance, would
authoriz[e] the secretary of Homeland Security to “waive all legal requirements” that the secretary, in his or her “sole discretion, determines necessary to ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads [comprising the border fence project].”
The writer of the quoted article notes the irony in Greenhouse’s present position. It puts her on the side of Judge Douglas Ginsburg, who argued against broad delegations of congressional authority in “Delegation Running Riot” (Regulation, 1995, no. 1), where he coined the term “the Constitution-in-exile”:
So for 60 years the nondelegation doctrine has existed only as part of the Constitution-in-exile, along with the doctrines of enumerated powers, unconstitutional conditions, and substantive due process, and their textual cousins, the Necessary and Proper, Contracts, Takings, and Commerce Clauses. The memory of these ancient exiles, banished for standing in opposition to unlimited government, is kept alive by a few scholars who labor on in the hope of a restoration, a second coming of the Constitution of liberty-even if perhaps not in their own lifetimes.
All of which reminds me of an old post of mine about the Constitution in exile.
DELETED 02/22/14, TO REFLECT THE VIEW OF THE CONSTITUTION TO WHICH I HAVE COME AFTER SERIOUS REFLECTION
In “Is the Constitution True?” I argued that
all Americans living at th[e] time [of the Constitution’s ratification] had the right to rely on the extant meaning of the Constitution. That meaning was therefore binding throughout their lifetimes, not only on them but, of necessity, on every American who was born during those lifetimes. Accordingly, the same meaning must have been binding on every American subsequently born, up to the present. And it must be binding on every American yet to be born. Otherwise, the Constitution’s meaning — as law — changes constantly. But the meaning of law is not supposed to change constantly, without deliberate, overt amendment through prescribed political processes. If it is allowed to change constantly, without due process, it is whim, not law. What about subsequent de facto or de jure interpretations of the Constitution that had the effect of changing the Constitution’s meaning? Didn’t Americans then have to adopt those interpretations? And didn’t the newly adopted interpretations then become binding on Americans for as long as they remained in effect? I answered those questions in the next paragraph:
A counter-argument is that law is whatever it is at a given time, as revealed in its current interpretation and enforcement (or lack thereof). That is a “realistic” description of law, but not one that lends itself to the preservation of trust in written law as a set of rules under which a sizable, disparate populace may coexist in peaceful cooperation. In fact, that kind of “realism” has fostered today’s intrusive, “living,” Constitution….
Under our system, the Supreme Court has the last word on whether a statute challenged as unconstitutionality will be upheld or nullified. But it does not have the power to change the written Constitution, which always remains there to be revived when there is a political and judicial will to do so. For example, after the Supreme Court gutted the Fourteenth Amendment during Reconstruction, it remained a part of the written Constitution for a future more enlightened Supreme Court to put to good use. By the same token, the current Supreme Court can still make serious mistakes about the Constitution. Because it is in writing there is an external “there” there by which to assess its opinions. But there is one final twist: if the Supreme Court adopts a “presumption of constitutionality” by which it defers to the Congress’s judgment of the constitutionality of its actions–as it has and as “judicial conservatives” urge–and the Congress adopts [the] view that “unconstitutionality” means whatever the Supreme Court says, then NO ONE EVER evaluates whether a act of Congress is or is not authorized by the Constitution. A pretty neat trick–and a pretty accurate description of today’s constitutional *law.* Today’s constitutional “law” is such that we Americans are captives in our own land. What do I mean by that?
Voice is now so circumscribed by “settled law” that there is a null possibility of restoring Lochner and its ilk. 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. The “real Constitution” — which libertarian purists reject because they weren’t among its ratifiers — is far more libertarian (as amended) than the one that has superseded it. Libertarians who want something like liberty — as opposed to wishing for an unattainable, anarchistic, libertopia — should be working toward the restoration of the “real Constitution,” not arguing that there is no such thing.
Substantive Due Process, Liberty of Contract, and the States’ Police Power
A New, New Constitution
A New Cold War or Secession?
The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
A Declaration of Independence
Zones of Liberty
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
A Conversation with Uncle Sam
Is the Constitution True?
Eric Posner, writing in The New Republic (“Obama’s Cost-Benefit Revolution“), comments on Obama’s new executive order about cost-benefit analysis and regulation. Posner offers some background:
Long ago, cost-benefit analysis was a rallying cry for conservatives. It was brought to government by none other than Ronald Reagan, in Executive Order 12291 of 1981. Reagan was riding the wave of the deregulatory movement, which held that regulation of industry was excessive and stunted economic growth. His order stipulated that agencies should issue regulations only after finding that the benefits exceeded the costs.
Outraged liberals charged that cost-benefit analysis was a pretext to stifle regulation, and that it was arbitrary because of the difficulty of attaching dollar values to lives, environmental goods, and other regulatory benefits. Conservatives replied that cost-benefit analysis blocks bad regulations: Why would one support a regulation that produces higher costs than benefits? At the time, the alternative was regulation that seemed to reflect no more than the instincts of bureaucrats (or the agendas of interest groups), accompanied by impenetrable bureaucratese. The debate continued in this vein for decades, but over time, positions shifted. Some liberals came to see cost-benefit analysis as a good-government tool that promotes transparency and accountability, while some conservatives began to wonder whether it confers legitimacy on the New Deal state.
Cost-benefit analysis — even when it is done well — is a sham. But Obama’s approach (an extension of Clinton’s) reveals it as a scam:
Now, the press has reported that Obama’s executive order, which explicitly renews Clinton’s, signals victory for business. But the executive order also provides plenty of wiggle room that can be exploited by pro-regulatory forces, as indeed did Clinton’s before it. Unlike Reagan’s original order, which simply asked agencies to perform cost-benefit analysis, Clinton’s allowed agencies also to take account of “equity.” Obama’s adds that agencies should take account of “human dignity” and “fairness,” values, it helpfully notes, that are “difficult or impossible to quantify.” This is problematic because quantification is the point of cost-benefit analysis. Cost-benefit analysis works in the first place only because it imposes mathematical discipline on agencies. They must supply evidence that a proposed regulation has certain benefits and costs, monetize those benefits and costs, and report a number. If the number is greater than zero, then the agency may regulate. If agencies can instead point to unquantifiable benefits such as the promotion of human dignity, they can do whatever they want, and the main selling point of cost-benefit analysis—government transparency—is eliminated.
The sham to which I refer above is this:
One person’s benefit cannot be compared with another person’s cost. Suppose, for example, the City of Los Angeles were to conduct a cost-benefit analysis that “proved” the wisdom of constructing yet another freeway through the city in order to reduce the commuting time of workers who drive into the city from the suburbs. In order to construct the freeway, the city must exercise its power of eminent domain and take residential and commercial property, paying “just compensation,” of course. But “just compensation” for a forced taking cannot be “just” — not when property is being wrenched from often-unwilling “sellers” at prices they would not accept voluntarily. Not when those “sellers” (or their lessees) must face the additional financial and psychic costs of relocating their homes and businesses, of losing (in some cases) decades-old connections with friends, neighbors, customers, and suppliers. (This is from “Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare“; see also “Modern Utilitarianism.”)
Throwing “equity,” “human dignity,” and “fairness” into the equation takes us from sham to scam. As Posner says, “[t]hese wiggle words … might be licenses to agencies to regulate however they want to.” There’s no “might” about it.
Well, there is a kind of “might” about it. The might of government regulators to force their preferences on us.
REVISED AND UPDATED, 01/29/14
Are there such things? If there are, are they the same thing?
A prominent libertarian of my acquaintance once said to me that a libertarian may be a person of conservative mien. His implication was that a libertarian — one who favors (at most) a minimal, night-watchman state — might be conservative in his personal views about, say, the kinds of behavior in which he would engage, even while “tolerating” behavior, by others, in which he would not engage. A person of such character might be considered a conservative libertarian. Such a “conservative” libertarian would not, for example, take a homosexual “marriage” partner or abet an abortion, even though he would (in all likelihood) insist that such things should be allowed by the state (as long as the state is in the business of allowing or disallowing such things).
What, then, is a libertarian conservative? Is he, in effect, the “conservative” libertarian of the preceding paragraph — unwilling to invoke the power of the state against acts in which he would not engage? Is that all there is to it?
Hardly. I have played fast and loose with the idea of conservatism by portraying it as a kind of prudishness or finickiness. Conservatism, properly understood, is not those things.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let us begin with libertarianism. It is, as I say in “Parsing Political Philosophy (II),” a “big tent” that accommodates anarchists and minarchists. Later in that post — and in many others (e.g., here) — I dismiss anarchism as a viable political philosophy. Turning to minarchism, I write:
Minarchists are united in but one respect: Government, being inevitable if not necessary, must be kept within strict bounds. Given the inevitabliity of government, it is better to control it than to be controlled by it. It is therefore better to design an accountable one that can be kept within its bounds (or so minarchists hope) than to suffer an imposed regime, most likely an oppressive one.
Why do minarchists prefer strictly limited government? There are two reasons. The first reason is a desire to be left alone, or more elegantly, a deontological belief in the natural right to be left alone. (Most anarchists are deontologists.) The second, consequentalist, reason is that voluntary social and economic transactions yield better results than government-directed ones. Friedrich Hayek makes that argument, at length and successfully, in his essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society.”…
Whether deontological or consequentialist, minarchism holds that the central role of government is to protect citizens from predators, domestic and foreign. Such protection cannot be absolute, but government’s evident ability and willingness to dispense justice and defend the nation are meant, in part, to deter predators.
More generally, the ideal government is restricted to the protection of negative rights. Such rights, as opposed to positive rights, do not involve claims against others; instead, they involve the right to be left alone by others. Negative rights include the right to conduct one’s affairs without being killed, maimed, or forced or tricked into doing something against one’s will; the right to own property, as against the right of others to abscond with property or claim it as their own; the right to work for a wage and not as a slave to an “owner” who claims the product of one’s labor; and the right to move and transact business freely within government’s sphere of sovereignty (which can include overseas movements and transactions, given a government strong enough to protect them).
To a minarchist, then, rights are limited to those that can be exercised without requiring something of others (e.g., transfers of income and property). The one necessary exception is the cost of providing a government to ensure the exercise of rights. That cost must be borne, in some arbitrary way, by citizens who, on the one hand, see no need for government (i.e., anarchists) and by citizens who, on the other hand, have differing conceptions of rights and how the cost of protecting those rights should be shared.
Does minarchism square with conservatism? It all depends on what one means by conservatism, and on the brand of minarchism one has in mind.
There is, in my view, a “core” conservatism, which Russell Kirk articulates in his six “canons” of conservatism (summarized here):
(1) …Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems… (2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equilitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems. (3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes…. Society longs for leadership…. (4) Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic levelling is not economic progress…. (5) Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters and calculators.” Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite…. Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man’s anarchic impulse. (6) Recognition that change and reform are not identical….
Kirk’s canons, at first glance, seem orthogonal to minarchism, if not opposed to it. But they are not they are compatible with right-minarchism (as defined here):
1. Political problems are moral problems. A right-minarchist would say that it is immoral to take from others what they have rightly earned. There are, of course, persons who profess to be religious and yet believe that it is right for government to take from the “rich” and give to the poor (or whatever group happens to find favor with those who control government at a particular time). But a truly conservative view of the matter is found in the Seventh Commandment: You shall not steal. A Christian is exhorted to do good with his income, sharing with others and being as open-handed as possible toward employees, while meeting his family’s needs and maintaining a viable business. The sharing of one’s income and the property that derives from it is a matter of conscience, not a matter for government to decide.
2. Right-minarchism is not in any way a “radical system.” The only kind of “equalitarianism” to be found in right-minarchism is the equality of rights, which are the same for all. Right-minarchists reject utilitarianism — the belief in a transcendent welfare function — as nothing more than an excuse for dictatorship in the name of “society.” Right-minarchists may even believe that tradition is essential to social cohesion, without which violence and suspicion would displace mutually beneficial coexistence and cooperation.
3. Orders and classes result naturally from spontaneous order,
those ‘natural processes’ which are not the product of reason or intention. The classic example is the free market economy in which the co-ordination of the aims and purposes of countless actors, who cannot know the aims and purposes of more than a handful of their fellow citizens, is achieved by the mechanism of prices. A change in the price of a commodity is simply a signal which feeds back information into the system enabling actors to ‘automatically’ produce that spontaneous co-ordination which appears to be the product of an omniscient mind. The repeated crises in dirigiste systems are in essence crises of information since the abolition of the market leaves the central planner bereft of that economic knowledge which is required for harmony. There is no greater example of the hubris of the constructivist than in this failure to envisage order in a natural process (which is not of a directly physical kind). As Hayek says in “Principles of a Liberal Social Order”:
Much of the opposition to a system of freedom under general laws arises from the inability to conceive of an effective co-ordination of human activities without deliberate organization by a commanding intelligence. One of the achievements of economic theory has been to explain how such a mutual adjustment of the spontaneous activities of individuals is brought about by the market, provided that there is a known delimitation of the sphere of control of each individual.
Right-minarchism fosters spontaneous order, which benefits not only the form of social behavior known as economic activity but all forms of social behavior. Right-minarchism, in short, enables the cream to rise to the top, as the old (pre-homgenization) saying goes. This is true in the economic sphere, where rewards are in keeping with the value that willing buyers place on the products and services of sellers. It is true, also, in the social sphere, where institutions and persons are honored and respected for the value they add to the lives they touch. There are natural “orders and classes,” and they are preferable to the hereditary ones that are imposed by dirigiste systems.
4. Right-minarchism is founded on the intimate connection of freedom and property. There is no freedom without the right to acquire property, that is, to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. Leveling amount to theft, and it removes a vital incentive to act in economically and, therefore, socially beneficial ways.
5. Right-minarchists agree that civil order is an essential condition for productive economic and social intercourse. It therefore follows that free civil institutions — family, church, club, and so on — yield traditions that conduce to civil order. Those traditions may evolve with time, but only as their evolution is found to be beneficial.
6. Right-minarchism rules out change for the sake of a politician’s perceived need for change. It allows changes only where such change is beneficial to the parties affected by it.
In sum, there is no essential conflict between Kirk’s brand of Burkean conservatism and the right-minarchistic branch of libertarianism.
This brings me to Friedrich Hayek — a right-minarchist, in my view — who argued as persuasively as anyone against an intrusive state (though he was not averse to a “social safety net”), but who seemingly rejected conservatism. The famous postscript to Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty is called “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” In the following excerpts, Hayek’s use of “liberal” should be understood as a reference to classical liberalism, the anti-statist position which is the antithesis of modern “liberalism” or “progressivism”:
Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change. It has, since the French Revolution, for a century and a half played an important role in European politics. Until the rise of socialism its opposite was liberalism. There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called “liberalism” was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense. This already existing confusion was made worse by the recent attempt [by William F. Buckley Jr. et al.] to transplant to America the European type of conservatism, which, being alien to the American tradition, has acquired a somewhat odd character….
Let me now state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving [i.e., toward socialism]. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments. But, though there is a need for a “brake on the vehicle of progress,” I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake. What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move. In fact, he differs much more from the collectivist radical of today than does the conservative. While the last generally holds merely a mild and moderate version of the prejudices of his time, the liberal today must more positively oppose some of the basic conceptions which most conservatives share with the socialists….
…Before I consider the main points on which the liberal attitude is sharply opposed to the conservative one, I ought to stress that there is much that the liberal might with advantage have learned from the work of some conservative thinkers. To their loving and reverential study of the value of grown institutions we owe (at least outside the field of economics) some profound insights which are real contributions to our understanding of a free society. However reactionary in politics such figures as Coleridge, Bonald, De Maistre, Justus Möser, or Donoso Cortès may have been, they did show an understanding of the meaning of spontaneously grown institutions such as language, law, morals, and conventions that anticipated modern scientific approaches and from which the liberals might have profited. But the admiration of the conservatives for free growth generally applies only to the past. They typically lack the courage to welcome the same undesigned change from which new tools of human endeavors will emerge….
…It is, indeed, part of the liberal attitude to assume that, especially in the economic field, the self-regulating forces of the market will somehow bring about the required adjustments to new conditions, although no one can foretell how they will do this in a particular instance. There is perhaps no single factor contributing so much to people’s frequent reluctance to let the market work as their inability to conceive how some necessary balance, between demand and supply, between exports and imports, or the like, will be brought about without deliberate control. The conservative feels safe and content only if he is assured that some higher wisdom watches and supervises change, only if he knows that some authority is charged with keeping the change “orderly.”
This fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces is closely related to two other characteristics of conservatism: its fondness for authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces. Since it distrusts both abstract theories and general principles, it neither understands those spontaneous forces on which a policy of freedom relies nor possesses a basis for formulating principles of policy. Order appears to the conservative as the result of the continuous attention of authority, which, for this purpose, must be allowed to do what is required by the particular circumstances and not be tied to rigid rule. A commitment to principles presupposes an understanding of the general forces by which the efforts of society are co-ordinated, but it is such a theory of society and especially of the economic mechanism that conservatism conspicuously lacks….
[T]he main point … is the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds. This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty. In general, it can probably be said that the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not to be too much restricted by rigid rules….
I completely agree with your rejection of conservatism. In his book Up from Liberalism, Buckley — as a person a fine and educated man — has clearly defined his standpoint: “Conservatism is the tacit acknowledgment that all that is finally important in human experience is behind us; that the crucial explorations have been undertaken and that it is given to man to know what are the great truths that emerged from them. Whatever is to come cannot outweigh the importance to man of what has gone before.” (p. 154)….
I quite agree with Hayek and Mises, to the extent that their target is Buckley and his adherents, in whose “conservatism” I could never find a coherent principle, except the one identified by Mises. Buckley’s program, it seems to me, was always one of opposition, expressed so reconditely that it almost defies analysis and refutation. For example, Buckley rightly excoriates the infantile posturing of Murray Rothbard and his anarchistic ilk (here, at “The Right Anarchists”), while at the same time demonstrating the truth of Hayek’s charge that “the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds”; thus Buckley writes:
…The American conservative believes that the state is as often as not [emphasis added] an instrument of mischief as of good….
But no, children, one does not therefore argue against the existence of the state. The conservative harbors the presumption against any growth in state power….
But apparently not a presumption for the reduction of state power.
Returning to Kirk, we find an affirmation of liberty in his essay, “The Best Form of Government,” which he penned in the year that Hayek rejected conservatism (as he understood it). Kirk applies the idea of spontaneous order, of which Hayek was a leading exponent. But Kirk’s understanding of spontaneous order goes deeper than Hayek’s:
Good government is not of uniform design. Order and justice and freedom are found in diverse ways, and any government which intends to shelter the happiness of its people must be founded upon the moral convictions, the cultural inheritance, and the historic experience of that people. Theory divorced from experience is infinitely dangerous, the plaything of the ideologue….
I am saying this: governments are the offspring of religion and morals and philosophy and social experience; governments are not the source of civilization, nor the manufacturers of happiness. As Christianity embraces no especial scheme of politics, so various forms of government are best—under certain circumstances, in certain times and certain nations. And, far from being right to revolt against small imperfections in government, a people are fortunate if their political order maintains a tolerable degree of freedom and justice for the different interests in society. We are not made for perfect things, and if ever we found ourselves under the domination of the perfect government, we would make mincemeat of it, from pure boredom.
Hayek and Mises were right enough, as far as they went, but they failed to delve human nature as deeply as Kirk did.
Where does that leave the relationship between conservatism and the right-minarchistic branch of libertarianism? It is superficial to proclaim the virtues of individualism and spontaneous order while rejecting the indispensable, civilizing role of tradition. A libertarian who is not also a Burkean conservative is on a par with his ostensible opponent, the rationalist of the left:
How deeply the rationalist disposition of mind has invaded our political thought and practice is illustrated by the extent to which traditions of behaviour have given place to ideologies, the extent to which the politics of destruction and creation have been substituted for the politics of repair, the consciously planned and deliberately executed being considered (for that reason) better than what has grown up and established itself unselfconsciously over a period of time…. This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom — not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics. And only in a society already deeply infected with Rationalism will the conversion of the traditional resources of resistance to the tyranny of Rationalism into a self-conscious ideology be considered a strengthening of those resources. (Michael Oakeshott, “Rationalism in Politics,” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, new and expanded edition, pp. 26-7)
What conclusions do I draw from the preceding tour of libertarianism and conservatism? These:
It is entirely possible to be a libertarian conservative, that is, a conservative (of Burkean stripe) who believes that humane values are most likely to survive and thrive under the aegis of a minimal state. This kind of conservative is an adherent of right-minarchism, which is a species of libertarianism. And for my money, right-minarchism is the only kind of libertarianism that is both coherent and viable.
A libertarian of conservative mien — a so-called conservative libertarian — will favor a minimal state (if any), by definition. But such a person may be “conservative” only in matters of personal taste, and not because he subscribes to the conservatism of Burke and Kirk. He may in fact be in favor of governmental efforts to demolish long-standing social norms. He will give his support to such efforts in the name of liberty and without regard for the true bulwark of liberty: the restraining influence of voluntarily evolved norms of behavior.
In short, a “conservative” libertarian may well be what I call a left-minarchist. And if he is, he will be allied with other left-minarchists who are neither “conservative” in matters of personal taste nor attuned to the indispensable role of social norms.
Perversely, left-minarchists tend to dismiss the importance of social norms in binding a people together in mutual respect, trust, and forbearance. And it is that bond — far more than the threat of state action — which allows us to go about our daily lives in the peaceful pursuit of happiness.
That said, libertarians (of all stripes) and conservatives (“conservative” yahoos excepted) have a common political enemy: the over-reaching state. Libertarians who are tempted to make cause with “liberals” because they happen to agree with “liberals” about the permissibility of certain kinds of behavior should resist the temptation. There is nothing to be gained from an alliance with “liberals,” who will only use libertarian arguments cynically to advance measures that suppress liberty.
And what is liberty? It is not “do as you will as long as you don’t harm others.” That definition, adapted from John Stuart Mill’s oft-evoked “harm principle,” is an empty concept unless it rests on a specific, agreed definition of harm. Liberty — the absence of harm — is therefore a social construct. That is to say, liberty is a modus vivendi for a group of individuals. It comes down to this:
peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.
What could be more conservative?
* * *
Carson Holloway, “Conservatism and Freedom,” Public Discourse, November 8, 2013
Jonathan Neumann, “God, Hayek, and the Conceit of Reason,” Standpoint, January/February 2014 (This is generally applicable to libertarians, though it misses Hayek’s defense of tradition; see this post, for example.)
Claude S. Fischer, “Libertarianism Is Very Strange,” Boston Review, January 27, 2014
Glenn Fairman, “Libertarianism and the Public Good,” American Thinker, January 29, 2014
* * *
Libertarianism and Conservatism
Where Conservatism and (Sensible) Libertarianism Come Together
Common Ground for Conservatives and Libertarians?
The Meaning of Liberty
A Trichotomy of American Conservatism
The Nexus of Conservatism and Libertarianism
What Is Conservatism?
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Intellectuals and Society: A Review
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
The Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Is Alive and Well
Why Conservatism Works
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Tibor Machan reminds us that, contra Paul Krugman, government is not community:
Finally Paul Krugman, Princeton University Nobel Laureate in economic science and columnist for The New York Times, has come clean about his “moral” position (TNYT, January 14, 2011). He has admitted that he doesn’t believe that when you earn something, you own it….
If my life doesn’t belong to me–if the norm the Declaration of Independence identifies as universal, namely, that every human being has a right to his or her life, is false–then what is true? Does my life belong to the government? If we recall that government is a group of individuals to whom a certain social role has been delegated–namely, the role of securing the rights of the citizenry–the claim that government owns our lives and resources means nothing else but that these individuals in government own our lives and resources.
But that is very odd–why would those people be in the privileged position of owning us and what to all appearances belongs to us while we, also human beings and with equal rights, do not own our lives and resources? This makes no sense….
The idea that we belong to government is obscene and harks back to an age when Caesars, monarchs, tsars, Pharaohs and such were believed to have been given their realm by God and everything within that realm, including all the human beings, therefore belonged to them. Later these slaves and serfs began to be called subjects, implying that they were all subject to the will of the government. This is were serfdom and even taxation have their origin….
An essential aspect of any bona fide moral position is that it must be practiced voluntarily, not because someone–e. g., government–holds a gun to one’s head and coerces one to do what is right. That doesn’t count as doing the right thing, so any such policy is literally demoralizing. It robs people of the opportunity to be morally good (or bad, of course).
A society that’s fit for human habitation must not have policies that prevent citizens from exercising moral judgment. So, OK, assume for a moment that we should devote ourselves entirely to serving other people, to serving the public good. If, however, all of this is accomplished through governmental coercion like taxation, regulation, regimentation, and so forth, there can’t be anything moral about it. So Dr. Krugman’s so called moral stance isn’t one at all. It leaves no room for morality because it makes all purportedly moral conduct involuntary, imposed by rulers and not a matter of one’s own free will.
Sharing at the point of a gun is not sharing, it is theft. When government forces “sharing,” it removes opportunities for true acts of kindness and charity. It is such acts that help to foster a sense of community. And a sense of community is essential to civility.
Government interventions in economic affairs are therefore destructive of the social bonds that inhibit anti-social and criminal conduct. It follows that government interventions in economic affairs lead to increasingly expensive and oppressive efforts by government to regulate social conduct.
That’s the question Matt Bai asks in yesterday’s NYT (“After Tuscon, Is the Anger Gone?”). His answer, if there is one in his assumption- and error-laden piece, is irrelevant. Bai’s article deserves a good “fisking,” which I may yet deliver. For now, I will content myself with the following observations.
“After Tuscon…” offers a strong (if unwitting) argument for reducing the footprint of the central government, which is a leading source of the division and anger evoked by the tragedy in Tuscon. Of course, those who favor a strong central government would then be angrier than they already are — and they are angry, as evidenced by the rhetoric of Krugman, Olbermann, and their ilk.
True federalism — where the central government has a hands-off policy on economic and social matters (but not civil rights) — would allow those who favor heavy-handed government to live in States that offer such government. The problem is that the people who would be (and are) attracted to such States aren’t content to endure heavy-handed government by themselves; they wish to bestow its “blessings” with everyone else. And they have succeeded in very great measure.
Most commentators, it seems to me, proceed from the assumption that those who oppose heavy-handed government have no rational basis for their “anger.” They do, but those who are wedded to heavy-handed government — most politicians and pundits, and the sheep-like majority of Americans — cannot see it. And, being unable to see it, they view anti-government rhetoric as a manifestation of psychological disturbance, when it should be viewed as a manifestation of righteous resentment at being over-taxed and over-regulated.
No amount of “dialogue” or “shared experience” can bridge the gap between statists and anti-statists. Thomas Sowell explains this well in A Conflict of Visions — a sometimes maddeningly balanced analysis of the contrasting world views that shape the divide between statists and anti-statists.
Libertarian-Conservatives Are from the Earth, Liberals Are from the Moon
A Dissonant Vision
Freedom of Will and Political Action
Intellectuals and Society: A Review
(Jared) Lee Harvey Loughner?
Because Dallas was, at that time, a media-designated hot-bed of right-wing extremism (anti-Catholic, anti-civil rights, pro-John Birch Society), the murder of JFK was immediately ascribed to the “climate of hate” which, one gathered, hung over Dallas like a miasma. It was ironic to learn, fairly quickly, that the apparent assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a communist who had lived in the USSR, supported Castro’s regime in Cuba, and tried to assassinate retired Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker, a noted right-winger of the time.
History repeats itself as farce. And the present farce is the rush of the usual suspects on the left to pin Jared Lee Loughner’s acts on the “hate” that oozes (so it would seem) from the pores of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and others on the right. (Whereas Paul Krugman, Keith Olbermann, and their ilk speak only sweet reason.) It is evident that Jared Lee Loughner does not possess a coherent political view of any kind, and that if he has been influenced by anyone it is extraterrestrial beings.
Even if Loughner were a certified right-winger of some kind, would that make Palin et al. accessories to his crime? And if so, wouldn’t that pin the assassination of JFK on Nikita Khrushchev and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan on Jodie Foster? Or perhaps everything is the fault of “society,” as the left likes to say when it comes to criminals.
Facts and logic will not keep the left and its allies in the media from spewing and spreading hateful rhetoric aimed at discrediting their political enemies. Nor will it keep them from trying, again, to use the power of government to disarm Americans and stifle speech of which they disapprove, speech that threatens their agenda of regimentation.
When a leftist cries “hate” and “fascism” he should be looking in a mirror.
This question appears on the website of an alumni organization to which I belong:
If the __________ were to ask all current members to give back to their community as part of their [membership] requirements, how would you like to see that play out? For example, what kind of service or citizenship activities and programs would have been useful or enriching for you, as an __________ member?
I will play the devil’s advocate by asking why a person should “give back” to his or her community. To “give back” suggests, to me, that the “giver” hasn’t been giving all along. For example, a person who earns $1 million a year (unless it’s obtained through theft, fraud, or the use of state power) hasn’t stolen anything from anyone else. Rather, that person has given $1 million worth of value to others, for which those others have paid voluntarily.
I don’t mean to disparage acts of voluntarism and charity; such acts are laudable. But they are laudable because they are voluntary, not because they signify a debt that must be repaid by “giving back.” And they are laudable only if they are undertaken in a way that doesn’t draw attention to the “giver.”
But “giving back” — in this instance, as in most others — smacks of bragging and condescension. A mind reader would find something like this among the “giver’s” thoughts:
Oh, how fortunate I am or you/we are to be blessed with brains/looks/money. It is therefore incumbent on me to make a point of my superiority by doing something gracious for less fortunate persons in whose company I otherwise wouldn’t be caught dead.
I would like not to read about a rich alumnus who has given his alma mater millions of dollars, with the understanding or in the expectation that an endowment fund or campus building will bear his name in perpetuity. I would like not to read about a movie star who has scoured third world for orphans worthy of adoption. I would like not to see TV coverage of star athletes who prance about on a field with children of many hues for the few minutes that it takes to film said coverage.
Were I not to read and see such things, I would know that voluntarism and charity don’t warrant special attention because they are unexceptional acts.
Related post: Giving Back
REVISED 02/22/14, TO REFLECT THE VIEW OF THE CONSTITUTION TO WHICH I HAVE COME AFTER SERIOUS REFLECTION
Tom W. Bell, writing at Agoraphilia, asks that question. His answer (in relevant part):
Just because the Founders ratified a Constitution as they understood it does not mean that we ratify one with the same meaning. We ratify our Constitution, as we understand it, or not. We cannot justly be bound by others’ choices….
The choice boils down to this: If you rely solely on original meaning, you will ordain and establish a Constitution that was. If you want to ordain and establish the Constitution for we, the living People, you have [to] read it through living eyes.
This is straight from the Lysander Spooner school of constitutional theory, which holds that the Constitution never was and never will be binding because it isn’t a voluntary contract entered into by those presumed to be bound by it. That view is valid only to the extent that the Constitution is viewed only as a contract (which it was),
but not as law (which it was and is). The particular error in Bell’s assessment is that he overlooks the Constitution’s continuity. It was binding on the Americans of 1790, by which time all of the original States has ratified it. As a matter of law, all Americans living at that time had the right to rely on the extant meaning of the Constitution. That meaning was therefore binding throughout their lifetimes, not only on them but, of necessity, on every American who was born during those lifetimes. Accordingly, the same meaning must have been binding on every American subsequently born, up to the present. And it must be binding on every American yet to be born. Otherwise, the Constitution’s meaning — as law — changes constantly. But the meaning of law is not supposed to change constantly, without deliberate, overt amendment through prescribed political processes. If it is allowed to change constantly, without due process, it is whim, not law. A counter-argument is that law is whatever it is at a given time, as revealed in its current interpretation and enforcement (or lack thereof). That is a “realistic” description of law, but not one that lends itself to the preservation of trust in written law as a set of rules under which a sizable, disparate populace may coexist in peaceful cooperation. In fact, that kind of “realism” has fostered today’s intrusive, “living,” Constitution that (I strongly suspect) Bell rightly abhors.
A person of Bell’s (presumably) anarchistic persuasion would welcome the prospect of the abasement of written law, for it would open the way for the voluntary institutions of civil society to reclaim their rightful place in the development and enforcement of the rules of coexistence. I, too, would welcome the abasement of written law, but for two reasons:
- The voluntary institutions of civil society have been driven into impotence by heavy-handed dominance of government over the full range of human existence, from birth to death and in between.
- As government has grown dominant, the United States and the individual States have outgrown (in size and heterogeneity) the possibility of self-governance through mutual consent.
What is needed, now, is not the repudiation of the Constitution’s original meaning but, rather, its restoration to primacy. Only in that direction lies hope for a relatively limited government, under which the voluntary institutions of civil society could enjoy a rebirth of legitimacy and influence.
Steven Landsburg, who is supposedly a “hardcore libertarian,” is on the verge of surpassing Bryan Caplan as the most wrong-headed libertarian economist on my RSS reading list. Landsburg’s upside-down view of the world has led me to issue the following posts:
- “Landsburg Is Half-Right“
- “Rawls Meets Bentham“
- “The Case of the Purblind Economist“
- “Take Landsburg’s Money“
Now comes Landsburg with yet another tour through the land of tortured logic: “Another Rationality Test.” There, Landsburg sets out the following problem:
Suppose you’ve somehow found yourself in a game of Russian Roulette. Russian roulette is not, perhaps, the most rational of games to be playing in the first place, so let’s suppose you’ve been forced to play.
Question 1: At the moment, there are two bullets in the six-shooter pointed at your head. How much would you pay to remove both bullets and play with an empty chamber?
Question 2: At the moment, there are four bullets in the six-shooter. How much would you pay to remove one of them and play with a half-full chamber?
In case it’s hard for you to come up with specific numbers, let’s ask a simpler question:
The Big Question: Which would you pay more for — the right to remove two bullets out of two, or the right to remove one bullet out of four?
The question is to be answered on the assumption that you have no heirs you care about, so money has no value to you after you’re dead.
If you think the right answer is to pay more for the right to remove two bullets out of two, you’re wrong, according to Landsburg. Why? Well, Landsburg — with a train of “logic” that reminds me of Lou Costello’s “proof” that 7 x 13 = 28 — “proves” that removing two of four bullets has the same value as removing two of two bullets. Here’s how Landsburg does it:
[T]hink about four questions:
Question A: You’re playing with a six-shooter that contains two bullets. How much would you pay to remove them both? (This is the same as Question 1.)
Question B: You’re playing with a three-shooter that contains one bullet. How much would you pay to remove that bullet?
Question C: There’s a 50% chance you’ll be summarily executed and a 50% chance you’ll be forced to play Russian roulette with a three-shooter containing one bullet. How much would you pay to remove that bullet?
Question D: You’re playing with a six-shooter that contains four bullets. How much would you pay to remove one of them? (This is the same as Question 2.)
Now here comes the argument:
- In Questions A and B you are facing a 1/3 chance of death, and in each case you are offered the opportunity to escape that chance of death completely. Therefore they’re really the same question and they should have the same answer.
- In Question C, half the time you’re dead anyway. The other half the time you’re right back in Question B. So surely questions C and B should have the same answer.
- In Question D, there are three bullets that aren’t for sale. 50% of the time, one of those bullets will come up and you’re dead. The other 50% of the time, you’re playing Russian roulette with the three remaining chambers, one of which contains a bullet. Therefore Question D is exactly like Question C, and these questions should have the same answer.
Okay, then. If Questions A and B should have the same answer, and Questions B and C should have the same answer, and Questions C and D should have the same answer — then surely Questions A and D should have the same answer! But these, of course, are exactly the two questions we started with.
In case the trick isn’t obvious on first reading — and it wasn’t to me — here’s what Landsburg does.
He starts by positing a situation in which removing two of two bullets (Question A/Question 1) and removing one of one bullet (Question B) have the same value, and therefore should be worth the same amount to the hypothetical, involuntary player of Russian Roulette. Why should they have the same value? Because, given the player’s unstated but implicit objective — which is to survive Russian Roulette, and nothing else — he stands to improve his chance of surviving by 1/3 in both cases. Probabilistically, removing two of two bullets from a six-chamber gun is the same as removing one of one bullet from a three-chamber gun. In both instances, the chance of being shot goes from one-third to zero.
The point of the preceding exercise isn’t to get the reader to think about probabilities; it’s to get the reader (a) to assume that Landsburg’s “proof” is on the up-and-up, while (b) planting the idea that removing one of one bullets from three chambers is just as good as removing two of two bullets from six chambers. The reader is being set up to fall for a real whopper, to which I’ll come.
The next step (Question C) is to juxtapose the threat of dying by three-shooter with an irrelevant but equally probable threat. The 50% probability of summary execution is irrelevant, in the context of the problem at hand, because there’s nothing the player can do about it. What the player can do is to influence his probability of surviving Russian Roulette, which increases by one-third if he buys the single bullet that’s in the three-shooter.
The point of the preceding exercise is to reinforce further the reader’s confidence in Landsburg’s “proof,” while planting the idea that it’s legitimate to ignore a 50% threat of certain extinction. I use the word “confidence” because the setup of this “proof” is like the setup of a confidence game. The reader, like the victim of a con game, is now ripe for plucking.
Landsburg’s answer to Question D (Question 2) does the trick. It parallels Question C, but it doesn’t have the same import with respect to the player’s objective: surviving a game of Russian Roulette. Landsburg waves away 50% of the threat to the player’s existence (the three bullets that the player can’t buy), even though the three bullets (one of which may come up 50% of the time) are part of the game of Russian Roulette, unlike the summary execution of Question C. Landsburg, having dismissed the threat posed by the three bullets as somehow irrelevant, then focuses on the remaining bullet. Because this bullet can be in one of three chambers (the three not occupied by the other bullets), it seems that the player can increase by one-third his chance of surviving Russian Roulette if he buys one bullet. Thus, by Landburg’s “logic,” buying one of four bullets has the same value to the player as buying two of two bullets.
If you swallow that one, I’d like to sell you a bridge.
The fact that the player can’t buy three of the four bullets posited in Question D/Question 2, has no bearing on the probability that he survives Russian Roulette, which is his objective. With four bullets in the gun, his chance of survival is one-third. If he pays to have one bullet removed, the gun still has three bullets in it. Thus his chance of survival increases by one-sixth (3/6 [1/2] – 2/6 [1/3] = 1/6). Clearly, the value of removing one of four bullets isn’t the same as the value of removing two of two bullets, which increases his chance of survival by 1/3.
If you’re not convinced, let’s return to the original problem and restate it in a way that doesn’t distort the essential question: If the player’s objective is to survive a game of Russian Roulette, would he pay more for a six-gun with no bullets in it (Question 1) or a six-gun with three bullets in it (Question 2)? If you say that he’d pay the same amount for either gun, your name is Steven Landsburg.
Michael Messner, an investment-fund manager, writes:
More than 150 years ago, America’s greatest landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, created Central Park and changed New York forever. He went on to transform dozens more cities, leaving a priceless legacy of vibrant, beautiful cityscapes. And, in the process, he increased property values.
Olmsted discovered this himself when he tracked the value of land around Central Park and found that the city’s $13 million investment had led to an astounding $209 million increase in just 17 years. The architect recognized what many planners still fail to grasp: Parks and managed green space are vital pieces of urban infrastructure that not only improve the quality of life for millions of people but also drive economic growth….
We don’t have the luxury of vacant land that Olmsted often started with, so we must bulldoze underperforming and underused property, put people to work creating parks on some of the land and “bank” the rest until the economy recovers.
Beginning with Atlanta, Georgia Tech is researching what is needed to accomplish this in 12 major cities. The project is known as Red Fields to Green Fields. Under this plan, some of the abandoned or underutilized property would be acquired by a parks agency or by public-private partnerships, which would then begin demolition, park design and construction, putting people to work immediately. More jobs would come as the improved areas attracted development….
The banking system and the federal government could play an important role in this effort. Rather than backstop bad real estate paper, the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Treasury Department could help finance the acquisition of excess commercial real estate through a land bank fund. Instead of buying mortgage-backed securities, why couldn’t the Fed buy excess developed real estate to be held as green space through “land-backed securities”? Why couldn’t the FDIC give some of the useless properties it obtains through bank closures to land banks or nonprofit organizations? With the right financing structure, philanthropic entrepreneurs could use leverage to remake America just as some of our bad developers used easy bank financing to help create the excesses. (“Olmsted’s ideas could help solve our real estate mess,” The Washington Post, January 6, 2011)
In other words, why not bestow parks and green spaces on selected urban areas at the expense of every taxpayer in the United States?
What’s wrong with that idea? Plenty. Let’s start with Messner’s financing scheme. The money for a land bank fund has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere, when you get down to it, is taxpayers’ pockets. The Fed’s purchase of “excess” real estate probably would be accomplished by, in effect, printing money, thus burdening taxpayers (and others) with the hidden tax of inflation. Regarding the idea of an FDIC giveaway, it’s evident that Messner thinks that developed properties have no market value just because they’ve been abandoned. But that’s not so, and any market value that they do have is owed to the taxpayers of the United States, for which the FDIC is merely an agent. I don’t know how the Treasury could help to finance the purchase of “excess commercial real estate” (whatever that is) without imposing a tax burden (or its Ricardian equivalent) on Americans. (Perhaps Messner believes that the money in the Treasury is a gift from the Tooth Fairy.) Finally, Messner’s superficially reasonable proposal is bound to be used as justification for efforts to spend tax dollars, at the State and local levels, if not at the federal level.
Let’s turn to the supposed benefits of Messner’s proposal. His essential claim is that the cost of beautification is returned many-fold in the form of higher property values (for the owners of neighboring properties) and vague promises of economic growth and a better quality of life. I’ve blogged elsewhere (here and here) about the fundamental flaw of cost-benefit analysis, as it is applied to government projects. The flaw is this: Most of the benefits don’t accrue to those who bear the costs. So the creation of a park causes a rise in the value of the land around it? So what? If I don’t own some of that land, all I get out of it, except for an occasional visit to the park if it’s close to me, is a higher tax bill.
Messner’s proposal, if adopted, would be a classic case of collusion between “bootleggers and Baptists.” How does that work? The bootleggers (those with a vested financial interest) are the owners of properties near the proposed site of a park or green space. The Baptists (the do-gooders) are the politicians, planners, and others who think it would be nice if the people of city X have access to a new park or green space. (Messner, in this instance, may be a bootlegger and a Baptist.)
In the case of Messner’s scheme the bootleggers and Baptists would be getting richer and feeling better about themselves, while they victimize the vast majority of individuals who would (a) pay for the creation of parks and green spaces but (b) derive little or no benefit from them. There’s an exact analogy with tax-funded venues for professional sports teams. Such venues benefit owners and bring satisfaction to “civic minded” leaders, the small minority of citizens who actually attend games, and the somewhat larger minority of citizens who gain psychic income from having (or retaining) a local team. But, as many studies have shown, tax-funded sports venues don’t create jobs or spur economic growth (for reasons I discuss below).
It may be true, as Messner asserts, that the creation of parks and green spaces would “improve the quality of life for millions.” But it would be true only for those millions who are getting more than their tax-money’s worth of enjoyment from the parks and green spaces that they helped to pay for. Many more millions would not get their tax-money’s worth of enjoyment from those parks and green spaces. Moreover, taking money from me to improve my “quality of life” signifies rank presumption about my values and preferences.
What about economic growth, which Messner also invokes? Well, the creation of parks and green spaces, in addition to requiring land, also requires the use of various types and quantities of labor and capital. If Messner is implying that economic growth would result from the use of unemployed labor and capital, he’s relying on a discredited Keynesian theory. A piece of land is removed from a potentially productive use; the associated labor and capital are devoted to the creation of something (a park or green space) that doesn’t result in greater productive capacity. And as the economy recovers while the land, labor, and capital are diverted to the creation of parks and green spaces, the land, labor, and capital are unavailable for use in the production of consumer goods and productivity-enhancing capital goods. I’m at a loss to understand how the creation of a park or green space contributes more to economic growth than the alternative uses of the same resources by the private sector. It seems to me that the tax-subsidized creation of parks and green spaces can only reduce the rate of economic growth. (Perhaps the productivity of workers is enhanced greatly, and magically, by the knowledge that there is now a part or green space to which they can repair for rest and relaxation. Hah!)
In summary, there’s no free lunch. When tax money is used to raise property values and improve the “quality of life” in one place (or a bunch of places), those higher property values and improved lives are paid for by lower property values and economic deprivations elsewhere — and by reduced economic growth for almost everyone, except the “bootleggers.”
This post can now be found here. Don’t worry, it’s a safe link. I’m not leading you to a malicious site.
This is to let you know that if you’ve read “Take Landsburg’s Money,” you should take another look at it. I’ve added some material.
That’s all I’ll say here. Go there and see for yourself.