The Bad and Good Vaccine Passports

On his blog this morning, my friend and fellow blogger Donald Boudreaux has given three cheers to Florida governor Ron DeSantis for his opposition to vaccine passports. I would give the governor at most two cheers.


Because one type of vaccine passport is horrendous and a huge violation of individual rights. Moreover, even aside from principle, it’s less and less effective as we get closer and closer to herd immunity. That type of vaccine passport is one that governments are considering requiring. That’s the issue on which I agree with DeSantis.

But the other type of vaccine passport is one that firms and businesses are thinking of requiring before letting people into their buildings. This raises no issue of individual liberty. Well, actually, it does, but not in the way that opponents of these vaccine passports argue. The issue of individual liberty is whether companies should be free to decide whom they get to deal with. I say they should. I have long been a supporter of freedom of association, even in cases where that view has been unpopular. I wouldn’t require someone to be vaccinated before dealing with that person because I had my second Moderna shot 20 days ago. But other people have different attitudes to risk. And a business needs to take into account the different attitudes people have. Some may decide that they can get more business by assuring the public that anyone who enters their business has been vaccinated. This is a great solution to a tricky problem. It also has the side benefit of giving people an incentive to be vaccinated. We still hear about people who are nervous or hesitant about, or even opposed to, getting vaccinated. They should be free not to be vaccinated. But other people should be free not to deal with them.


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Africa Tries Free Trade

Or, more accurately, a customs union.

With all the proposals for hundreds of billions of dollars in new government spending and new taxes in the United States in recent days, there hasn’t been much good economic news.

Alexander C. R. Hammond, of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and of African Liberty, writes about it in “Africa Tries Free Trade,” Reason, April 2021. He writes:

On January 1, the long-awaited African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) came into effect. Aside from the economic benefits that the arrangement will bring to the continent, Africa’s newfound support for free trade and liberalization marks a clear rejection of the socialist ideology that has tormented African politics for decades.

In recent decades Africa has been the sick puppy of the six heavily populated continents. A glance at the Economic Freedom of the World map of economic freedom shows why. Over half of the 50+ African countries are in the least-economically-free quartile of the world’s 190+ countries. Not a single African country is in the top quartile. Hammond calls Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt “regional economic powerhouses,” but of the three, only Nigeria is in the second-from-the-top quartile, South African is in the second-from-the-bottom quartile, and Egypt is in the bottom quartile.

One of the five measures of economic freedom is freedom to trade internationally. With AfCFTA, this will increase for many African countries.

This agreement is like NAFTA and its successor, USMCA: it’s a customs union. The idea is to have low or zero tariffs between and among members of the group, but a common tariff rate on imports from outside. Nevertheless it’s a big, if slow, step toward freer trade.

Hammond writes:

Within 5–10 years, the AfCFTA will ensure that 90 percent of tariffs on goods traded between member states will be abolished. Within 13 years, 97 percent of all tariffs will be removed. By 2035, the World Bank has predicted, this enormous liberalization effort will boost Africa’s gross domestic product by $450 billion, increase wages for both skilled and unskilled workers by 10 percent, and lift more than 30 million people out of extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $1.90 per day. According to the same estimates, by 2035, the AfCFTA will see more than 68 million people rise out of moderate poverty, defined as living on $1.90–$5.50 per day. The “countries with the highest initial poverty rates,” the World Bank says, will see the “biggest improvements.”

Given Africa’s flirtation with socialism and protectionism from the 1960s through at least the 1980s, this is a welcome development.

For more on Customs Unions, see Douglas A. Irwin, “International Trade Agreements,” in David R. Henderson, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.


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Charles Ball’s Humanity

I participated in a Liberty Fund colloquium on Zoom Friday and Saturday on the topic “Slavery and the New History of Capitalism.” It went very well.

One of the most interesting readings was by Charles Ball, an escaped slave. Ball’s book, published in 1837, was titled Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball. In it, he describes his experience as a young man who was moved from Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1805 to the cotton fields in South Carolina. One of the big issues in Cornell University history professor Edward E. Baptist’s work is whether the quotas of Ball and others were continuously raised by a ratcheting up of torture. Baptist claims that it was and, to back his point, quotes from Ball’s autobiography, but the striking thing about the 4-page excerpt from Ball’s autobiography is that Baptist left out passages that showed that his (Baptist’s) claim was untrue.

But I found something else striking: despite the fact that Ball was a slave, he took pride in his work. After detailing the fact that he picked “only” 38 pounds his first day on the job while two young men about his own age had picked 58 and 59 pounds, respectively, Ball writes:

I hung down my head. and felt very much ashamed of myself when I found that my cotton was so far behind that of many, even of the women, who has heretofore regarded me as the strongest and most powerful men of the whole gang.

He continues:

I had exerted myself today, to the utmost of my power; and as the picking of cotton seemed so very simple a business, I felt apprehensive that I should never be able to improve myself, so far as to becoming even a second rate hand. In this posture of affairs, I looked forward to something still more painful than the loss of character which I must sustain, both with my fellows and my master; for I knew that the lash of the overseer would soon become familiar with my back, if I did not perform as much work as any of the other young men.

He goes on to say that the overseer told him that he had good hands and would “make a good picker.” Sure enough, his productivity improved to 46 pounds the second day, and 52 pounds the third day. The next week he and the others were told that if they picked more than 50 pounds in a day, they would be paid a penny for every extra pound.

Here’s what I found interesting: not the incremental incentives but my own reaction to Ball. One of the other participants said that Ball was kind of pathetic, like a child or a puppy dog, for feeling shame at not being productive enough the first day.

I responded that I thought of the situation completely differently. I thought Ball was a man I would have liked. Here he was being enslaved but he didn’t let that take away his humanity. He still had pride in his work.

Then I told the following true story. In 1968, when I was at the University of Winnipeg, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s buddy and Secretary of State (which isn’t like the position that has the same label in the United States) Gerard Pelletier had told a meeting of newspaper editors in Montreal that he was thinking of pushing for a draft in Canada. Canada has an even stronger tradition of a volunteer military than the United States has. I was 18 at the time and I wrote an angry letter to the Winnipeg Free Press, which was published in full.

I read with astonishment the article in the Free Press, October 29, entitled Non-Military Draft Plan Under Study. The only objection to the idea made by State Secretary Gerard Pelletier was that it would be difficult to put into practice. Considerations of justice do not appear to have entered his mind.

It is indicative of the temper of our times that when people propose government intervention, they do not say, “Is it right?” but only “Can we get away with it?”

In the same article Mr. Pelletier is quoted as saying that the young would like to “play their part in creating a more just society.” I am one of those young people. Because I want a just society I am taking my stand. I refuse to be coerced into serving a year for the government. Government intervention has never led to a just society and never will. (November 9, 1968.)

A week later I was thinking about the last part of my letter. I then realized who I was and said to myself, “You wouldn’t refuse. You would prefer the Army to jail. You always make the best of a bad situation. You would probably resist for a few hours at most and then would try to figure out what you could learn from the Canadian Army during this period of short-term slavery.” That’s why Ball’s first paragraph quoted above resonated with me. He made the best of a bad situation and didn’t let the fact that he was a slave  take away his humanity or his pride in his work.

This morning I woke up with a further thought. I remembered a 1957 movie titled Bridge on the River Kwai. SPOILERS AHEAD. Colonel Saito, the sadistic commandant of a Japanese POW camp in Burma, insists that the mainly British prisoners, including officers, build a bridge over the River Kwai. This, by the way, violated the Geneva Conventions. Work is not going well and there’s a lot of sabotage. But then Colonel Nicholson, played by Alec Guinness, takes over and persuades the men to take pride in their work and build a first-class bridge.

When I watched the movie, I was torn between wanting Nicholson to fail and wanting him to succeed. But the point is that he and many of his men took pride in their work. And this was a more difficult dilemma than Charles Ball had. To the extent they succeeded in building the bridge, it would help the Japanese war effort. But to the extent Charles Ball succeeded, he would help buyers of cotton.

By the way, I read a few years ago that some of the people who were actually prisoners in that prison camp were furious at the movie. They felt pride in sabotaging. Here’s Wikipedia:

Ernest Gordon, a survivor of the railway construction and POW camps described in the novel/film, stated in a 1962 book, Through the Valley of the Kwai: “In Pierre Boulle’s book The Bridge over the River Kwai and the film which was based on it, the impression was given that British officers not only took part in building the bridge willingly, but finished in record time to demonstrate to the enemy their superior efficiency. This was an entertaining story. But I am writing a factual account, and in justice to these men—living and dead—who worked on that bridge, I must make it clear that we never did so willingly. We worked at bayonet point and under bamboo lash, taking any risk to sabotage the operation whenever the opportunity arose.”[26]

I get that too. One could take pride in the work or take pride in the sabotage.


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Whose Body Is It Anyway?

When I taught benefit‐​cost analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, one of the first principles I explained was that, to do a good analysis, you need to consider the costs and benefits to the various people affected rather than taking as gospel the desires of policymakers. We studied both good and bad examples of benefit‐​cost analyses. In the bad ones, a common error was to leave out the gains to consumers when they consumed items that policymakers did not want them to. A typical case was alcoholic beverages; policymakers kept overlooking the enjoyment that consumers receive from a drink.

In his book The Rediscovery of Tobacco: Smoking, Vaping, and the Creative Destruction of the Cigarette, independent journalist (and one‐​time Cato staffer) Jacob Grier avoids that error. Not only does he consider the costs of cigarettes and other forms of tobacco to their users and to nonsmokers, but he also considers the benefits to users. In doing so, he makes a case for people’s freedom to smoke or inhale what they want when it does not inflict harm on non‐​users. Along the way, he details how the antismoking movement has shown its disregard for the interests of smokers. He also shows that the damage from secondhand and “thirdhand” smoke is often overstated and that the harm from e‐​cigarettes is overstated and the benefits understated. Although I am a dyed‐​in‐​the‐​wool nonsmoker and non‐​vaper and Grier did not persuade me to try these substances (nor did he attempt to change readers’ minds), I learned a lot from this book. You could say that I “rediscovered tobacco.”

This is from David R. Henderson, “Whose Body Is It Anyway?” Regulation, Spring 2021.

Another highlight:

Grier notes an interesting difference in research methodologies between studies of the health effects on smokers in the 1940s and 1950s and the later studies of researchers on secondhand smoke. The earlier researchers had noticed a huge increase in deaths from lung cancer in the first half of the 20th century and wanted to figure out why. They established a clear relationship between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer. But, notes Grier, research on secondhand smoke “reversed that approach.” He writes, “Scientists started out with a hypothesis — that secondhand smoke was causing lung cancer in nonsmokers — and took on the task of finding the bodies.”

My one criticism:

Antismoking activists, he notes, didn’t stop with secondhand smoke. They raised the ante by stirring up concern about “thirdhand smoke.” What’s that? Grier quotes a definition the New York Times posited in 2009: “the invisible yet toxic brew of gases and particles clinging to smokers’ hair and clothing, not to mention cushions and carpeting, that lingers long after secondhand smoke has cleared the room.” Grier comments that he does not know “if studies will ever successfully demonstrate that thirdhand smoke increases the risk of any particular disease, and, crucially neither do the researchers who have been promoting these fears to the public for more than a decade.” This is awkward wording. He seems to be saying that the researchers have no evidence, but I wish he had stated his point more clearly.

Read the whole thing. To do so, you need to go to the link and then download the pdf.



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Individual and Collective Choices in Cars

There appears to be something basic that most people in most of human history don’t understand. Or is it me (along with a lot of economists)? Here is the argument.

It would be better if our car were chosen democratically. A democratic referendum could ask voters to choose which car will be available to consumers. (How individual purchases would be financed, either with private money or by government, does not matter at this point.) Assume the voting system is the one you prefer and that the number of choices or write-in options is also what you think is most democratic. The voters are asked to vote for the single brand and model of car to be produced or imported. Each individual has one vote, however “one vote” is defined in your preferred voting system. The economies of scale brought about by a single model would reduce the price of cars compared to the wasteful diversity of the market—the 250 different models available on the American market, not counting the numerous options and colors for each model. Collective rationality would replace individual ignorance and market anarchy. Equality would be promoted: the times would be over when the rich could afford more luxurious and safer cars than the average American. The car manufacturer whose model has been chosen would, in a real sense, be elected democratically. A true collective choice would democratically decide which car we drive. What can be wrong with that?

Many things. In fact, this whole argument is invalid. A few reasons:

(1) Depending on the voting system (majority, plurality, ranked-choice, Borda, Hare, etc.), a different choice of car would likely prevail, so the person or group that chooses the voting system and the choices to be proposed would indirectly decide, or at least strongly influence, which car you will drive (on voting systems, see, in the forthcoming Spring issue of Regulation, my essay on William Riker’s Liberalism against Populism).

(2) Each individual’s vote has an infinitesimal chance of changing the result of the referendum, that is, of getting him the car he wants—or, for the real altruist, the car he thinks is better for the large masses.

(3) With only one producer and a lack of competition, including import competition, economies of scale would soon be overcome by reduced incentives, bureaucratic growth, and union power. In between referendums, the main incentives of the chosen producer would be to satisfy a faceless average consumer; or to swindle him if the incumbent thinks it is unlikely to be allowed to put one of its cars among the candidates next time. The consequences would be similar if, in a more complex referendum, a number of producers were chosen to offer, say, a black-made car, a white-made car, a LGBTQ+-made car, or any other stakeholder-made car. History provides us with an example of a near-collective car named Trabant, “a sparkplug with a roof.” (A Trabant model is shown on the featured image of this post.)

(4) This reminds us that political processes, even democratic ones, are very rough and imperfect. The most popular car in the American market is a pickup, Ford’s F-150, but only those who individually choose it are obliged to drive it, which is what individual choices are about.

(5) Economic efficiency, which is defined as the satisfaction of the varied preferences of different individuals, would be replaced by some common preferences of a centrist group of voters according to the median-voter theorem.

(6) Socialism and imposed uniformity in consumption are antithetical to individual dreams and their subjective utility—the sort of car you have wanted to buy for yourself since childhood, for example. I say “socialism” but it is the same in conservative collectivism or the old elitist right.

(7) Another obstacle to “collective rationality” would come from the voters’ “rational ignorance.” Since every individual voter knows that his vote has practically a zero chance of delivering the car he prefers, he would have no incentive to buy (if only with his time) information on the referendum alternatives—to subscribe to Consumer Reports, to read car magazines, to google technical terms or watch YouTube videos, to visit manufacturers online or physical showrooms, and so forth. (See also David Henderson, “The Logical Basis is a Difference in Incentives,” Econlog, March 9, 2021; and my own post “One Thing Rationally Ignorant Voters Don’t Know,” September 14, 2020) And if there are many voters whose cognitive limitations or sensibility to propaganda lead each of them to believe that he will decide the vote, how can anybody trust the rationality of such an electorate? Collective rationality amounts to voting blind or, at best, voting with one’s tribe.

(8) Market competition, not political competition, is, theoretically and historically, the way to reach economic efficiency.

(9) The equality obtained by letting every voter vote on our collective car would be illusory. Even with the ideal referendum, the real influencers would be the car manufacturers’ P.R. departments and popular pundits and media personalities (as well as perhaps QAnon-type websites).

(10) Even in this ideal democratic system, political competition would fill the void of economic competition. When economic markets are forbidden to clear, political markets will clear. Rent-seekers would try to influence which models will be put on the ballot, which producers will thus be privileged, and how long the monopoly will last.

(11) Consider the financing aspect of car purchases, ignored up to now. This issue would also need to be decided by an equally imperfect referendum. Suppose that “our national car” is to be paid by the government and financed by public debt. All the voters who think that their individual votes count and who want “social justice” hic et nunc would likely vote for Cadillacs to be paid by their descendants.

What most people do not understand, even apparently in America and in other sophisticated countries, is that individual choices are preferable to collective choices for both economic and moral reasons. This is true not only for cars but also for most other goods. Only goods or services that must be consumed simultaneously by all—what economists call “public goods”—escape this characterization but a separate argument has to be made for them.


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The Damage Yet to Come from the “Stimulus”

In my previous Defining Ideas article, “An Unnecessary ‘Stimulus’ ” (March 5), I laid out why the about-to-be-passed $1.9 trillion federal spending bill was unnecessary. I also pointed to a few major spending items in the budget that were clearly unjustified, such as the unneeded bailout of state and local governments. But I didn’t point out that the bill will also cause harm in the long run. The harm will be of two kinds. The first is in the realm of ideas: many people will learn the wrong lessons from the spending. The second is in the realm of policy and the effects of policies: dependence on government and irresponsibility will increase, and economic freedom and long-run economic growth will fall.

This is from David R. Henderson, “The ‘Stimulus’ And The Damage Yet to Come,Defining Ideas, March 18, 2021.

At a distance, the $1.9 trillion measure is awful; up close, it’s ugly.

Another segment:

A major piece of the spending bill is a $3,600 annual tax credit for each child under age six and a $3,000 tax credit for children ages six to seventeen. The credit is, in tax speak, “refundable.” Normally one can get a refund only of something one has paid. But the term “refundable” is now widely used to describe a tax credit that goes to someone who otherwise would have a tax liability that is less than the credit. For some people, these tax credits will amount to a huge increase in their income. And the tax credit is granted regardless of whether the recipients work. Thus, the measure undoes, to some extent, the highly successful welfare reform of the mid-1990s, passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton. Economist Scott Winship of the American Enterprise Institute points out that a non-working mother with three children could get $10,800 a year, as well as food stamps and Medicaid. That’s not a lot, but it would reduce her incentive to get married and/or to get a job.

Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent, in an op-ed titled “The GOP scam is getting worse—for Republican voters. A new study shows how,” March 8, 2021, finds puzzling the fact that all Republicans in Congress voted against the bill even though the tax credit would help a lot of low-income people in the states they represent. I don’t find it puzzling at all. In fact, given how dismal the performance of Republicans in Congress has been this century, it’s slightly heartening. Why would so many Republicans vote against a bill that helps so many of their constituents? Could it be that they actually believe some of their own rhetoric, the rhetoric about keeping people off welfare and not having them depend so much on the federal government? Maybe.

Read the whole thing.




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The old left and cancel culture

As far as I can tell, there are three aspects of cancel culture of concern to the old left:

1.  They recall when cancel culture was used against the left.
2. They worry that it diverts attention from achieving socialist aims, and indeed makes it more difficult to do so.
3. They believe the younger generation is too soft.

The first point is obvious. Free speech has traditionally been a liberal idea. Those of my generation will recall the Berkeley free speech movement, and those a bit older will recall the Joe McCarthy era.

The second point is less obvious. Here’s Freddie deBoer expressing frustration with defenders of cancel culture:

[C]anceling is so powerless that Bacharach feels no compulsion to discuss it in terms of power. He literally does not discuss the efficacy of canceling. I scrolled down past the bottom thinking I had missed something. He is interested in undermining canceling’s critics, but he spends no time considering the actual material value of the tactic. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: canceling is a political tactic that is most often defended with reference to its powerlessness, and this is bizarre. Bacharach defines the negative consequences of canceling as “getting nitpicked by an editor, yelled at on social media, or losing an occasional opportunity to rile up an auditorium.” Jacob: if that’s the extent of canceling’s power, why are you bothering to defend it in one of the biggest magazines in the country? “I’m defending this method to hurt political enemies by pointing out that it doesn’t actually hurt” is not compelling. On the contrary, it demonstrates just how unhealthy and bizarre our political culture has become. . . .

There is indeed a conversation to be had about canceling on the individual level and whether people deserve basic fairness when accused, what kind of fairness if so, and debates to be had about who deserved it and who didn’t. But those have nothing at all to do with politics. Politics is about power. Cancel mobs don’t have it, and they never will.

You wanted reparations; you got Dr. Seuss. Maybe time to take a hard look at why.

Many people who are on the right on economic issues (including me) are frustrated that corporations have enthusiastically embraced cancel culture.  But why shouldn’t they?  Cancel culture is a distraction for the left.  It has almost no impact on profits, whereas socialism would have a big impact.  Actual socialists like deBoer understand this, and not surprisingly are frustrated.

There’s also a reverse class warfare aspect to cancel culture.  In a Bari Weiss piece discussing the woke transformation of elite private schools, she mentions how woke culture is a tool for cool rich kids to bully less sophisticated kids:

Woe betide the working-class kid who arrives in college and uses Latino instead of “Latinx,” or who stumbles conjugating verbs because a classmate prefers to use the pronouns they/them. Fluency in woke is an effective class marker and key for these princelings to retain status in university and beyond. The parents know this, and so woke is now the lingua franca of the nation’s best prep schools. As one mother in Los Angeles puts it: “This is what all the colleges are doing, so we have to do it. The thinking is: if Harvard does it, it must be good.”

I cannot prove that old leftists believe the younger generation is too soft, but reading between the lines I suspect this is the case.  In my view, modern cancel culture excesses often rely on a misapplication of utilitarian theory.

Older cancel cultures focused on “dangerous” ideas, such as atheism or communism.  As the modern world has shifted in a more utilitarian direction, there is less interest in burning people at the stake for being atheists.  Instead, the focus has shifted from dangerous speech to “offensive speech”. Utilitarians worry that if we allow lots of offensive speech, it will reduce the utility of victimized groups.  While this claim seems plausible at first glance, I believe it’s too simple.

Let me use an analogy from camping.  If you are used to a soft life, then camping can initially feel rather unpleasant.  A stick might scratch your arm while you are walking through the woods.  After a few days you get toughened up, and slight injuries that used to bother you in the city are hardly even noticeable.

Before you jump all over this analogy, let me make two points.  First, one can also get serious injuries in the wild, such as a broken leg.  Indeed some campers die while out hiking.  I do realize that members of marginalized groups can be severely harmed by certain types of speech.  Second, just because being scratched by a branch tends to toughen one up, there’s no point in doing so intentionally.  Life will already throw plenty of discomfort your way, no need to go looking for it.

So the cancel culture is not completely wrong; there really are some types of behavior that deserve to be cancelled.  Rather the actual problem is that cancel culture advocates often overlook the fact that vigorous debate makes people tougher, and that if you try to protect people from ever being offended, they’ll become softer and then will end up being offended by things that a person in a previous generation would have simply brushed off.  Cancel culture advocates believe they are reducing the aggregate discomfort suffered by marginalized groups, and yet we may be approaching the point where the movement becomes counterproductive, at least the margin.  And that can be true even if most recent cultural changes discouraging hate speech have been a net gain to society.

I don’t doubt that behavior toward marginalized groups is better today than a few decades ago, but I feel we reached a sort of hedonic treadmill, where increasing wokeness reduces offensive speech at roughly the same rate that it reduces our psychological defenses against insult.  We are like a camper being too careful when walking through the woods.  For instance, does anyone seriously believe that constantly changing terms (say cripple to handicapped to disabled) affects the psychology of the disabled person who hears those terms?  Does a heavy person called obese in 2021 feel less bad than one called fat in 1971?  In the 1970s, we learned that inflation only fools workers in the short run.  The continual invention of euphemisms is sort of the verbal inflation of politeness.  It is equivalent to manipulating the Phillips Curve, and is about as likely to be effective.  In contrast, “fat-shaming” is always bad, whether you use the term ‘fat’ or the term ‘obese’.

The old left grew up in a different era and hence probably see the younger generation as being too soft—just as my parents’ generation felt that us boomers were too soft.  But they also worry that cancel culture will push blue-collar whites, as well as many Asians and Hispanics, into the Republican Party.  This is sort of the flip side of the worry within the GOP that Trumpism will push well-educated suburbanites over to the Democrats.  If both changes occur, then no single party has much of a constituency for socialism.  The old left probably senses that fact.  (BTW, the right has its own cancel culture.)

My own views are hard to explain.  I don’t have any magic formula for determining exactly what should be cancelled and what should not.  But I do believe that a few sensible reforms would improve the situation.  Thus universities could have a board with 10 members, of which at least 3 were liberal and at least 3 were conservative.  Then, before sanctioning anyone for offensive speech, demand a vote of at least 9-1 in favor of sanctions.  That would insure that the speech really was offensive, and that the person wasn’t just being sanctioned for political reasons.  It’s an example of my preference for “rules utilitarianism.”

PS.  If there are any universities that do not have at least three liberals and three conservatives, then cancel the entire university.  Shut it down.


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The Ethical and Economic Case Against Lockdowns

Last Friday, February 19, I gave about a 1.6 hour Zoom talk to Ryan Sullivan’s class at the Naval Postgraduate School.

It was titled “Don’t Forget What We Know: The Ethical and Economic Case Against Lockdowns.”

Here it is.

By the way, the most surprising thing I heard from Jeremy Horpedahl in his debate/discussion with Phil Magness is that when there’s an externality, there’s a presumption in favor of government intervention. I disagree and I say why at about the 28:50 point.

The Commissar Komisar discussion at 54:27 is based on a short blog post I did here.


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Serbians’ Freedom to Choose

Serbia has adopted an approval mechanism for vaccinations, giving citizens the option to choose which vaccine they want to get and in which location they want to get vaccinated.

This makes Serbia the only country in the world where citizens can choose the vaccine type, between shots from Pfizer-BioNTech, China’s Sinopharm or Russia’s Sputnik.

This is from Sara Mageit, “Serbia reaches one million vaccines with help of AI framework,” Healthcare IT News, February 23, 2021.

There are 6.9 million people in Serbia, of whom over one million have received their first dose of vaccine. That’s 14.5 percent of Serbia’s population.

Let’s compare that with the United States.

64 million doses have been distributed in the United States. 64 million is 19.4 percent of the U.S. population, which makes the U.S. look better than Serbia. But that would be if everyone who got a shot here got just one shot. Such a policy would be quite sensible. But it’s not the one that U.S. governments have chosen. 13.3 percent of the U.S. population have received at least one dose. 13.3 percent of 330 million is 43.9 million people.

So 20.1 million people in the United States have received 2 doses and 23.8 million have received 1 dose.

Since 2 doses isn’t much better than 1, a reasonable comparison would be between our 13.3 percent and Serbia’s 14.5 percent. In other words, almost a dead heat (because getting 2 doses is slightly better than 1 dose.)

Interestingly, 14 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia have populations in which the percent having received at least one vaccination exceeds 15 percent. 3 states (Colorado, Iowa, and Wisconsin) have exceeded 14% but not 15%.



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Jeff Hummel on Classical Liberals and Libertarians

Economist and libertarian Jeff Hummel, pictured above, sent me the following and I think it’s worth sharing:

In a Zoom session some libertarian friends and colleagues had a lively discussion of the correct usage of the term “libertarian.” Afterwards I had some additional thoughts. So I wrote this message to lay out my argument in more detail.

In the late 60s and early 70s, as the libertarian movement was just distinguishing and disentangling itself from conservatism, the terms “libertarian” and “classical liberal” had clear and relatively precise meanings, at least among the U.S. libertarians with whom I associated. These meanings were once very clearly articulated by libertarian philosopher Eric Mack at one of the IHS (or Cato?) summer seminars I attended.

He defined a classical liberal as someone who believes that maximizing individual liberty should be the highest (if not sole) goal of government (or the State). A libertarian is a classical liberal who further believes that government should have no morally privileged status with regards its powers. In other words, government and its agents could justly engage only in actions that were legitimate for individuals or groups of individuals. Thus, governments should be confined to using force (coercion) to the extent that individuals can rightfully do so for defense or restitution. Stating the libertarian constraint on government in this way gets around (or evades, if you prefer) some of the difficult problems defining the moral limits of legitimate defense and restitution, about which libertarians sometimes disagree, especially in the realm of so-called national defense. Yet nearly all moral philosophies, religious and non-religious, share certain broad outlines, disapproving of murder and theft, as much as they may differ on the borderline details of justifiable defense or restitution.

This way of putting the constraint also leaves open some room for the libertarian archipelagos of Chandran Kukathas, or for the proprietary communities that other libertarians favor. But in order to qualify as genuine libertarian social orders, such communities must be voluntary associations. The opposition to government taxation is also what distinguished libertarians from non-libertarian classical liberals, who in contrast believe that there is a difficult trade-off between liberty and coercion. In their view, government must impose taxes and perhaps exercise other coercive powers not derived from individual rights in order to effectively maximize total liberty. Libertarians, in contrast, held that government should be entirely voluntarily funded, a position that even Ayn Rand embraced at one point.

Libertarians then divided into limited-government libertarians (or to use Sam Konkin’s term, minarchists) and anarchist libertarians (or anarcho-capitalists, a term I never liked). Rand, among others, was a limited-government libertarian. Anarchist libertarians, such as myself and the younger Roy Childs, did argue that the limited-government libertarian position was inconsistent, pointing out that there is no sure way that a government (even if it eschews taxation) can maintain its monopoly without using some coercive powers that are illegitimate for individuals. But we never therefore denied that limited-government libertarians failed to qualify as libertarians, as long as they continued to believe that a voluntarily funded government was desirable and possible, no matter how mistaken we found that belief. Moreover, these distinctions were fairly widely recognized and accepted by libertarians of all varieties, whether primarily influenced by Rand or Rothbard.

I admittedly recognize two problems with maintaining these clear distinctions today. There is often a tension between prescriptive and descriptive definitions for words. I accept that the meanings of words spontaneously evolve over time. The word “libertarian” was used with a less precise meaning before the modern movement, even being embraced by some socialist libertarians. And in common usage today, the terms libertarian and classical liberal have become virtually synonymous. I attribute that evolution to two developments. (1) As some (many?) of the young libertarians of the 60s and 70s matured and aged, having to deal with real-world problems and issues, their views became less consistent or more nuanced and subtle, depending on your point of view. For particularly extreme cases of this intellectual evolution, I like Jeffrey Friedman’s term of “post-libertarian.” (2) The newer generation of libertarians is much more focused on current government policies, and has little interest in the fundamental but thorny philosophical and ideological foundations of their views. Even some of us in the older generation have gotten tired of those endless debates. So in casual conversation, I have to go along with current usage. Yet I still think the greater clarity of the original meanings should sometimes be maintained and specified for more serious discussions.

A second problem with a strict definition for the term “libertarian” is that in the past it led to endless internecine squabbles about who was a “genuine” libertarian, almost like the hair-splitting divisions and deviations that arose among early Marxists. I certainly have no interest in bringing back these counter-productive excommunications and denunciations. If someone wants to claim the label “libertarian,” there is not much to be gained from arguing about that, unless the self-identification is particularly outlandish. I’d rather focus on specific and concrete differences of opinion.

Some contend that one consideration should be whether people self-identify as libertarians, as Rand did not. For labels that describe people’s ideas there is a smidgen of validity to his claim. With respect to religion, we usually accept as definitive people’s self-identification as Christian, Muslim, atheist, etc. But that is simply a courteous and usually reliable rule of thumb. Lurking behind it is still some objective notion of what, for instance, a Christian believes. If, on questioning someone who claims to be a Christian, you discover that he or she does not believe in the historical existence of Jesus or in the existence of God, and also thinks the New Testament has less religious relevance than the Koran, you would be justified in doubting his or her self-identification.

By the way, by the strict standard that Jeff lays out for libertarians, I am not quite a libertarian.




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