The Self-Interest Voter Hypothesis, or SIVH, claims that individuals’ political views are closely based on their objective self-interest.  Despite its popularity, the evidence is strongly against it.  If the SIVH were true, for example, income would be an excellent predictor of party identification.  In reality, the correlation between the two is near-zero.  People don’t vote for the party that gives them a better balance sheet; they vote for the party that speaks to their ideals.

Still, you may ask, what happens if the stakes are life and death?  The whole COVID debacle provides an elegant illustration.  If people’s views on COVID were largely based on objective self-interest, we would see the following patterns.

1. Support for strict COVID policies would be near-zero for the young, then rise very rapidly with age, because the risk of death roughly triples as your age rises by a decade.  The inconvenience of policy, in contrast, varies little by age.

2. People with underlying conditions would be vastly more supportive of strict policies, because risk is again sharply higher for such people.  Indeed, support by people with no such conditions would be very low, because such people make up less than 10% of the victims even though they are a majority of the population.

3. Males, blacks, and Hispanics would be modestly more supportive of strict COVID policies, because their risks are slightly higher.

4. Yes, you can tweak the SIVH so people care about the well-being of their families.  But again, this implies that people who happen to have many high-risk family members would be much more supportive of strict measures than loners.

5. Support Human Challenge Trials would be virtually unanimous.  Why?  Because human experimentation would dramatically improve the quality of prevention policy and speed the arrival of safe, effective vaccines.  No one would worry about the risk to the participants, except the participants themselves: “If you’re worried, don’t volunteer.  End of story.”


On reflection, support for these SIVH predictions is weak at best.  While demographic breakdowns of public opinion on COVID policy are strangely scarce, Democrats clearly favor stricter policies than Republicans.  But it is Republicans who receive markedly more support from the elderly.*  Since COVID risk increases very rapidly with age, this is a shocking result.  Other demographic patterns are mixed: Males, blacks and Hispanics are all higher-risk, but males are more Republican while blacks and Hispanics are more Democratic.  It’s hard to tell if risk to relatives has any effect on desired COVID policies, but remember: If the (tweaked) SIVH were right, this effect would be too big to miss.

Most strikingly, other than a few Effective Altruists, economists, statisticians, and other exemplars of numeracy, virtually no one supports Human Challenge Trials!  Why not?  Because almost everyone is morally horrified by the very idea.  Rationally speaking, the underlying moral principle is hard to fathom: Why shouldn’t you let a thousand heroes voluntarily take a minor risk to their own lives to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of strangers?  Is low-risk heroism immoral?  But that’s small comfort to the politician who goes against the public’s atavism.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I would much rather live in a world of rational, selfish voters.  Yes, such people can be callous.  They would be deaf to the grand arguments of The Problem of Political Authority.  Yet they would favor much better policies than the irrational, unselfish voters whose dominate actual polities.  Unselfishness may lead you to “Do your part.”  What good is “doing your part,” though, if you refuse to think straight about what to do?


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The President and the Good King Dagobert

It is suggested that the good President Biden called off one air strike in Syria after being told in extremis that a woman and a couple of children were near the planned impact (Gordon Lubold et al., “Biden Called Off Strike on a Second Military Target in Syria Last Week,” Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2021), just the opposite of what happened in the movie Eye in the Sky. I suspect that Joe Biden is, in private life, a decent human being. But he has some potential, prefigured in his previous politician’s life, to be a monster in politics. Jason Brennan argues in Against Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2016) that “politics makes us worse.”

But there are two related lessons of the aborted Syria strike that are perhaps less immediately obvious.

The first one is that simple people like to think that their ruler is good. “If only the king (or the Party) knew what’s happening, he would stop it.” Biden didn’t let it happen because he is a good ruler. That may bring to mind—or at least to the mind of a critical Frenchman—the French nursery rhyme “Le bon roi Dagobert” (The Good King Dagobert), in reference to the 7th-century monarch. Interestingly enough, though, the song was composed to mock royalty a few decades before the French Revolution of 1789, that is, before the French replaced a weak king with a series of strong dictators—what frequently happens in revolutions.

Trusting the rulers is an old habit of mankind, probably deeply embedded in our brains by evolution just like, according to Nobel economist Friedrich Hayek, tribal instincts are. In this perspective, the “Great Society” (to use Hayek’s formula) requires that we reject our tribal instincts in favor of an abstract and impersonal order based on individual liberty.

Despite the glitch of 1789, we can view the Enlightenment—including the Scottish Enlightenment of David Hume and Adam Smith—as a major step towards Hayek’s Great Society. The American Revolution was another step. But can mankind stop trusting its supposedly benevolent rulers? This is a crucial question, especially pressing in our troubled times. James Buchanan, the Nobel economist whose work in “constitutional political economy” was devoted to the liberal ideal although in another perspective than Hayek’s, ended up sharing the latter’s pessimism. In a Public Choice article published a few years before his death, Buchanan wrote:

The thirst or desire for freedom, and responsibility, is perhaps not nearly so universal as so many post-Enlightenment philosophers have assumed.

Perhaps many people do want their security guaranteed and their lives ruled by a good king Dagobert?

The second lesson illustrated by the cancelled strike is that it is in the state’s interest to have its subjects believe that the king or democratic ruler is good and benevolent. (In a state that is not perfectly autocratic, “the state’s interest” means the result of the interactions between politicians, courtiers, and government bureaucrats.) It is thus in the state’s interest to reveal, embellish, or leak instances of the rulers’ goodness. Isn’t there a good chance that the Syria incident was leaked under orders from our good king Dagobert?

Even under a constitutional—that is, limited—government, the belief in a good ruler is dangerous because it can disarm essential mistrust. As often, Anthony de Jasay found the way to put a related but more general problem in a few unforgettable words:

Self-imposed limits on sovereign power can disarm mistrust, but provide no guarantee of liberty and property beyond those afforded by the balance between state and private force.

This suggests many other questions. Stay tuned.


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The Office of Free Speech: A Not-So-Modest Proposal for Academia

Here’s a third post from an anonymous professor here at the University of Texas, printed with his permission.  The proposal is intended in all seriousness.

We are now unquestionably at a crisis point for free speech, academic freedom, and intellectual diversity in higher education.  Ritualistic denunciations of faculty who dissent from consensus, under the thin veneer of combating “misinformation,” are now practiced by prominent universities and broadly accepted within higher education.  Political tests requiring support for prioritizing racial balance over other considerations are increasingly applied for hiring and promotion.  Academic departments, universities, and administrators acting in their official capacity feel free to commit institutions to advocacy for particular policies.  Prominent people of the left are actively promoting blacklists to stop hiring of people who took a particular side in politics, and this practice that will no doubt quickly find its way into academia, or would if such people were not already effectively excluded.  These events are taking place at private universities that should be committed to open inquiry, but also at public universities that are legally committed to provide an environment where free speech and dissent are possible.

Small groups of faculty have begun to push back in very mild ways, but such push back is entirely defensive and almost doomed to fail.  Once a dissenter is identified, there are many formal and informal institutions that can be brought to bear against such a person and anyone who supports him.  Title IX investigations are a classic approach, along with “inquiries” into research misconduct.  At my own school, our Dean sought a precedent to claim that using a classic example from a movie to illustrate Nash equilibrium (a clip praised as a pedagogical tool by the New York Times) counts as sexual harassment, apparently to punish the faculty member for an insufficiently contrite apology for the use of the example.    Whenever someone is attacked in this way, faculty who tend to support academic freedom act as if it is a victory when nothing is ultimately done to the faculty member.  This purely defensive stance is a recipe for failure; the process is the punishment, and the people who sought to limit free speech or impose political hiring criteria are free to keep trying until they succeed.  Knowing this, few faculty chose to fight back, and almost all attacks on academic freedom, free speech, and intellectual diversity succeed without the aggressors even having to truly fight.

Existing institutions and norms are thus insufficient to address the problems of the current moment.  What is required is administrative reform, where attacks on academic freedom, free speech, and intellectual diversity are treated with at least the same degree of seriousness as other offenses at universities.  Specifically, every university should have an “Office of Free Speech” where faculty can lodge complaints when their academic freedom or free speech rights are violated, or when policies are put in place to limit the possibilities for intellectual diversity.  This office must have adequate funding to complete independent investigations of such allegations, and it should report directly to the highest authority governing the university, either the board of trustees or regents for most private universities or the regents or state legislature for public universities.  These investigations must have teeth; attacking academic freedom (not simply criticizing speech with speech) cannot be allowed to stand as acceptable behavior for administrators, faculty, or students.  The same sorts of consequences available for other offenses should be applied to those who use their position at the university to deprive others of their institutional or constitutional rights.  The office should not go as far as hounding people to suicide through punitive investigations and promotion of angry mobs, but those who weaponize university processes against innocent faculty should bear some costs for their actions.

Crucially, this office must be independent of even the highest level administrators of the university, who are often responsible for the greatest threats to academic freedom.  For example, the top administration at my university publicly plays lip service to the importance of free inquiry while at the same time supporting policies that serve as a political test to prevent hiring of faculty who dissent from campus orthodoxy on “diversity and inclusion” matters.  And, faculty can certainly not be trusted with a role in the oversight of these issues; having served on certain faculty bodies designed to protect academic freedom, it is abundantly clear that most university faculty, even those who would go as far as to join such bodies, view academic freedom exclusively as a collective right of the faculty as a whole and not an individual right of faculty members.  That is, the consensus view of academic freedom is that the faculty as a whole should be free to decide what ideas should be allowed to be expressed on campus, and protecting academic freedom consists of preventing outside interference with this process, even when that outside interference is intended to protect the individual rights of faculty members.

Notably, this arrogation of power is outside of any reasonable interpretation of the charter of a university; when faculty were granted academic freedom in running universities, this was done under the assumption that faculty were best able to judge work in their areas and that external influence would potentially corrupt academic inquiry.  Founders of universities undoubtedly did not anticipate that faculty would instead turn against the very idea of free inquiry and use the trust placed in them to shift the mission of institutions away from inquiry and toward pure advocacy.  Thus, having external, responsible parties ultimately judge the cases brought to the Office of Free Speech is entirely appropriate.  At some point, the answer to “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” cannot simply be that we trust faculty to protect the rights of those they despise, particularly in light of behavior observed recently.  Ultimately, universities, particularly those funded by taxpayers, must answer to a broader set of constituents than simply the faculty themselves; such accountability will certainly be treated as an attack on free inquiry, but in fact it is absolutely necessary to restore any semblance of such a concept at modern universities.


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COVID’s effects on Europe

This article by Wolfgang Streeck for the New Left Review will be disturbing to many. But it is an interesting article, and well worth reading. I would take issue with one claim Streeck makes: that the “supranational extension of the debt state” he rightly considers the Corona Recovery Fund to be, does not entail a change in European institutions toward more “solidarity”. These transfers are financed by issuing European debt, but the way in which member states will have to contribute to their repayment will make a difference. Perhaps Brussels would claim some more tax base for itself (a European tax, or similar?).

Streeck has a few interesting points. He deems “imperial systems”, as he considers the European Union to be, to be dependent “on a successful management of peripheral by central elites. In the EU, peripheral elites must be staunchly ‘pro-European’, meaning in favor of the ‘ever closer union of the peoples of Europe’ as governed by Germany with France through the Brussels bureaucracy.” If they are not, they become worrisome and have to be punished one way or another, even by twisting the letter of extant treaties.

Streeck is critical of the way in which the Polish and Hungarian governments are being “nudged” by Brussels to exhibit some more respect for the rule of law. He writes:

Under the Treaties, member countries, all of them, including Hungary and Poland, remain sovereign, and their domestic institutions and policies, for example, family and immigration policies, are for their electorates to decide, not for Brussels or Berlin. When it comes to a country’s legal institutions, the only legitimate concern of the EU is whether EU funds are properly spent and accounted for. Here, however, Poland has an immaculate record, and Hungary seems still on or above the level of ‘pro-European’ Bulgaria and Romania, not to mention Malta. So what to do?

In Brussels there is always a way. The Commission has for some time tried to punish Poland and Hungary under a different provision in the Treaties that forbids member countries interfering with the independence of their judiciary. But this is such a big bazooka that member states hesitate to let the Commission activate it. (It also raises uncomfortable questions on the political independence of, say, the French Conseil d’Etat.) Now, however, comes the Corona Fund, and with it the idea of a so-called ‘Rule-of-Law Mechanism’ (ROLM) attached to it, on the premise that if you don’t have an independent judiciary, including a liberal constitutional court, and perhaps also if you don’t admit refugees as a matter of human rights and in obedience to EU distribution quotas, there is no assurance that your accounting for your use of European money will be accurate.

I am not a fan of either the Polish or the Hungarian government but I think this year has been terrible for the rule of law all through Europe. Due to the pandemic, constitutional rights have been dismissed, and very often the judiciary seemed silent or inert. Freedom of movement, a pillar of the European project we purportedly have to defend against populist rulers, was suspended everywhere. I am afraid this will constitute a precedent that will be hard to dismantle. Streeck suggests there is little concern with the rule of law in Brussels and more interest in power games. I hope he is wrong, but the point can hardly be dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic.


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Similarity Between Socialism and Fascism: An Illustration

Fortunately, socialism and fascism are not the only two political alternatives, for neither is attractive. Moreover, a well-kept secret is how similar the two ideologies are. Substituting socialism for fascism in many statements from fascists would bring instant approval from socialists. Many antifa agitators would be surprised to realize that they are doing fascism unknowingly, just as Mr. Jourdain was doing prose without being aware of it.

The following quotes come from The Coming American Fascism (Harper & Brothers, 1936) by Lawrence Dennis, a well-know American fascist of the time:

Fascism does not accept the liberal dogmas as to sovereignty of the consumer or trader in the free market. It does not admit that the market ever can or should be entirely free. (p. 299)

Social planning is the outstanding imperative of public order and material abundance in the present day and in the near future. (104)

Fascism assumes that individual welfare and protection is mainly secured by the strength, efficiency, and success of the State in the realization of the national plan. (p. 160)

Under fascism, private property, private enterprise, and private choice in the market, have no rights as ends in themselves. They have different measures of social usefulness subject to proper public control. (p. 180)

Light and power, transportation, and basic foods and textiles in given but limited quantities, can be assumed necessary at an arbitrarily fixed price, and State intervention can insure the production of an adequate supply of these goods within an arbitrarily fixed price range for the common good. (p. 180)

The source of the similarity between the two ideologies is that both want to impose politically-chosen ends on everybody. The main source of difference is that each system coercively favors and harms different groups of individuals in society.

Comparing moderate fascism to communism (which is extreme socialism), Dennis chooses the former. Somewhat surprisingly, he refers to Ludwig von Mises’s and F.A. Hayek’s arguments about the impossibility of calculation under communism:

In so far as property rights and private enterprise are concerned, however, the strongest argument for fascism instead of communism may be found in the regulatory functions of an open market. The strongest criticism of any socialism of complete expropriation is that it leaves no free market, no pricing mechanism and no valid basis for economic calculation. Pure socialism is collective ownership and unified central direction of material instruments of production which, sooner or later, must leave little or no freedom of choice for the individual as to consumption or occupation. These criticisms may be brought up to date and made relevant to communism in operation in Russia in the symposium of Professors Hayek, Pierson, Barone, Halm and von Mises entitled Collectivist Economic Planning, and the work of Professor Boris Brutzkus entitled Economic Planning in Soviet Russia. (pp. 177-178)

Dennis exaggerates the place of markets—of free markets—under fascism. In “Why Hayek Was Right about Nazis Being Socialists” (AIER, December 8, 2020), Richard Ebeling mentions many similarities between socialism and the Nazi brand of fascism. He is responding to Ronald Granieri who, in a Washington Post article, objected to the argument that the National Socialists were indeed socialists “The Right Needs to Stop Falsely Claiming that the Nazis Were Socialists,” February 5, 2020).

Given the logic of state power, fascism is likely to steamroll obstacles in the path of the state and thus economic freedom. Moreover, fascism’s heightened nationalism is likely to lead to war against foreign or internal scapegoats. Fascists hate different minorities (the Jews, for example) than socialists hate (the merchants and the rich). Dennis naïvely dismisses these dangers:

It is easy to draw alarming pictures of a powerful State against which the individual would have the resource of no judicial veto on government acts. Conceivable, of course, a State and government might fall under the hands of a few individuals whose every act would be an abuse. But such an eventuality seems most improbable in any modern State, least of all in the United States. (P. 160)

The other alternative besides the different forms of socialism and the different forms of fascism lies, of course, on the continuum of classical liberalism and libertarianism.


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The Populists and Napoléon

One of the many fascinating observations in Charles Postel’s The Populist Vision (Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 164) is the sweet spot that American populists of the late 19th century generally had for emperor Napoléon Bonaparte, the French dictator at the beginning of the century:

In the 1890s, a Napoleon revival spread in the United States, as many Americans hoped for a strong man to deliver the nation from its multiple ills. Reporting on the so-called “Napoleon craze,” Century magazine reported that “the interest in Napoleon has recently had a revival that is phenomenal in its extent and intensity.” Muckraking journalist Ida M. Tarbell and Princeton Professor William Milligan Sloane contributed serialized Napoleon biographies in the Century and McClure’s Magazine. Politicians preened themselves in Napoleon’s image. Harper’s Weekly reported that then Ohio governor William McKinley, known as “the Napoleon of Protection,” also “looks like Napoleon and knows it.” The fascination with the French emperor corresponded to a broad discontent with corrupt and impotent political institutions, as well as strong currents of militarism and nationalism in American public life. The Populists were not immune to these currents. Tom Watson [a politician and writer of the times] and the Populists, however, were drawn less to military valor and patriotic glory than to the example of Napoleon’s administrative systems and energized state power. … In Watson’s treatment, Napoleon towers as “the peerless developer, organizer, [and] administrator,” who had applied the science of government to build a centralized and rational system of law and education, the Bank of France, and a strong state. … The general, Watson noted, was a “master builder” with “modern tone.”

Contrary to today’s populists in America and in other countries, the American populists of the late 19th century believed in science and experts as Enlightenment people did in the previous century. Yet, both kinds of populism–the old one and the new one–are similar in favoring state intervention. In the old American populism, authoritarian experts and science represented rationality, hence the reverence for Napoleon; today’s populists prefer authoritarian politicians and their intuitions.

Library of Congress,

In its military version, the American infatuation with Napoleon appears to go back at least to the Civil War as illustrated above by the picture of General George B. McClellan in a typical Napoleonic pose. The Library of Congress says that McClellan was popularly known as the “little Napoleon.” General Ulysses S. Grant stroke the same pose. Craig Walenta, a frequent commenter on this blog, brought these pictures and others to my attention.

A Napoleonic infatuation is not surprising. Since the “will of the people” does not exist and is unknowable, populists have to find a dear leader to incarnate it. (See “What Is Populism? The People V. the People,” Econlog, September 11, 2020.)


PS: I owe the Postel book reference to Jeff Hummel who, besides being a scholarly economist, is a walking encyclopedia on American history.


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188 Years After the Death of Jean-Baptiste Say

Sunday November 15 will mark the 188th anniversary of the death of Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832), author of the Traité d’économie politique, whose first edition appeared in 1803. The 4th edition (1819) was translated in English and published as A Treatise on Political Economy (1821). I recently directed a Liberty Fund conference of this great economist, mainly known as the discoverer of Say’s Law (supply creates its own demand), against which John Maynard Keynes more or less conceived his 1936 General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

Among his many ideas that preceded today’s economics by one or two centuries, Say explained that the middlemen between the producer and the final consumer play an efficient role by moving goods to where the consumer can purchase them. The middlemen create value too. Say also developed an idea that many of our contemporaries—think of the defenders of “price-gouging” laws—still do not grasp. He explained how the speculators and hoarders benefit the consumer:

There is a further branch of commerce, called the trade of speculation, which consists in the purchase of goods at one time, to be re-sold in the same place and condition at another time, when they are expected to be dearer. Even this trade is productive; its utility consists in the employment of capital, warehouses, care in the preservation, in short, human industry in the withdrawing from circulation a commodity depressed in value by temporary superabundance, and thereby reduced in price below the charges of production, so as to discourage its production, with the design and purpose of restoring it to circulation when it shall become more scarce, and when its price shall be raised above the natural price, the charges of production, so as to throw a loss upon the consumers. The evident operation of this kind of trade is to transport commodities in respect of time, instead of locality.

The last sentence is the crux of the matter. Let me also quote these lines in their original French, as they appeared in the 6th edition of the Treatise, the last one in Say’s lifetime. The text is much clearer than the previous translation:

Il y a un commerce qu’on appelle de spéculation, et qui consiste à acheter des marchandises dans un temps pour les revendre au même lieu et intactes, à une époque où l’on suppose qu’elles se vendront plus cher. Ce commerce lui-même est productif ; son utilité consiste à employer des capitaux, des magasins, des soins de conservation, une industrie enfin, pour retirer de la circulation une marchandise lorsque sa surabondance l’avilirait, en ferait tomber le prix au-dessous de ses frais de production, et découragerait par conséquent sa production, pour la revendre lorsqu’elle deviendra trop rare, et que, son prix étant porté au-dessus de son taux naturel des frais de production, elle causerait de la perte à ses consommateurs. Ce commerce tend, comme on voit à transporter, pour ainsi dire, la marchandise d’un temps à un autre, au lieu de la transporter, d’un endroit dans un autre.

The formulation could perhaps have been more general—for the same speculation happens when, say, facemasks are not produced under their cost of production but the speculator foresees that their demand will jump over the current quantity supplied. But remember that Say wrote in the early 19th century, just a quarter of a century after Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, at a time when the first conceptualization of this sort of economic problems was attempted. In fact, such issues are so difficult to understand that many among our intelligent contemporaries still don’t.

On Sunday, raise your glass to Say.

Yet, a historical mystery remains. Why was classical liberalism, which was then on its rise, so rapidly restrained by reactionary opinions? Is the classical-liberal or libertarian ideal a mirage? Jean-Baptiste Say foresaw an explanation:

To speak the truth, it is because the first principles of political economy are as yet but little known; because ingenious systems and reasonings have been built upon hollow foundations, and taken advantage of, on the one hand, by interested rulers, who employ prohibition as a weapon of offence or as an instrument of revenue; and, on the other, by the personal avarice of merchants and manufacturers, who have a private interest in exclusive measures, and take but little pains to inquire, whether their profits arise from actual production, or from a simultaneous loss thrown upon other classes of the community.

A good explanation, no doubt, and which was much improved by the public-choice school of economics that developed a century or more after the Treatise. But is it sufficient?


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The Freedom to Do What Sounds Wrong

Friends of freedom routinely defend the right to do wrong.  “If you’re only free to do good things, what freedom do you really have?”  Yet on reflection, this sorely underrates the value of freedom.  Yes, the freedom to do bad things is important.  Much more important, though, is the freedom to do good things that sound bad.

Why is this so important?  Because Social Desirability Bias is ubiquitous; that’s why.   Long psych story short: When the truth sounds bad, human beings deceive and self-deceive.  This deceit in turn routinely rationalizes bad policies.  Example: Convenience and fun are often better than health and safety.  That’s what your actions declare whenever you drive to a restaurant instead of hunkering down in your home.  But almost no one wants to give a public speech where they say, “Convenience and fun are often better than health and safety.”  Policymakers, in turn, largely ignore the value of convenience and fun.  Abandoning your dysfunctional country is often better than “staying to fix it.” But no one wants to openly declare, “I decided my country was a lost cause, so I got out of Dodge.”  Policymakers, in turn, vigorously spurn mere “economic migrants.”  Breaking inconvenient laws is often the best move, but few scofflaws will ever call a press conference to defend their behavior.  Policymakers, in turn, enforce phonebooks’ worth of inane rules.  Working hard to get rich yields wonderful social benefits, but hardly anyone on Earth will even admit to being rich.  Policymakers, in turn, treat the rich as cattle or leeches.

The rhetoric of “freedom” is a great way to neutralize this poison of Social Desirability Bias.  Indeed, there is probably no better antidote in the universe.  When busybodies try to use government to force everyone to sacrifice tons of convenience and fun for vestigial doses of health and safety, shouting, “I spurn safety for convenience” will get you nowhere.  But shouting, “Freedom!” like you’re in Braveheart just might foil the busybodies’ nefarious efforts.  People won’t welcome an immigrant who says he hated his country of birth.  But they will smile upon an immigrant who earnestly avows that he came for “freedom. If you’re caught breaking a stupid law, you won’t escape a guilty verdict by conclusively showing that the law is stupid.  You might, though, if you stand up for your “freedom.” A rich man who wants to keep what he’s earned won’t win much sympathy by lecturing the world about economics.  His better bet, rather, is to raise the banner of “Freedom!”

None of this means that appeals to freedom are – or should be – insincere.  Pursuit of convenience and fun, fleeing your hellhole of birth, breaking stupid laws, and working your way to wealth are all bona fide expressions of freedom.  My point, rather, is about marketing.  Directly defying Social Desirability Bias is ever-tempting, but usually fruitless.  If you want to defend good things that sound bad, your best bet is to reframe the debate.  Want to stand up for business and the rich?  Your best bet is to change the subject.  What were we talking about again?  Oh, that’s right: Freedom!

Isn’t this precisely what critics accuse libertarians of doing all the time?  Pretty much.  What I’m saying is that their accusations are unfair, but we should strive to make them true.  Mainstream political thinkers are too wrapped up in their own irrational demagoguery to even acknowledge the existence of Social Desirability Bias.  Once you fully absorb the distinction between what sounds good and what is good, however, the implied political danger will weigh upon your mind.  What can rational human beings do in the face of such mindless emotionalism?  Wave the flag of freedom.  Wave it habitually.  Wave it proudly.  Even then, you’ll probably lose the war of words, but at least you’ll have a fighting chance.


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Do politicians listen to economists?

Congratulations to Paul Milgram and Robert Wilson for their recent award. Tyler Cowen noted that Milgram was a coauthor of this essay:

That’s an impressive group of economists.  And here’s the abstract:

The ability of groups of people to make predictions is a potent research tool that should be freed of unnecessary government restrictions.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that this will happen, despite that powerhouse line-up of expert opinion.  Nor is it likely that the government will remove rent controls, or allow the sale of kidneys, or legalize drugs, or eliminate tax loopholes, or impose a “Cadillac tax” on health insurance, or enact a carbon tax, or eliminate tariffs on imports, or open up the aviation market to foreign competition, or let car companies sell directly to customers, or eliminate most occupational licenses, or get rid of taxi medallions, or eliminate farm subsidies, or eliminate multifamily zoning restrictions in residential areas, or do hundreds of other things that economists recommend.

That’s not to say that governments always oppose the recommendations of economists.  If they are already favorably inclined toward a policy, then they will listen to economists.  But I shake my head whenever I read articles suggesting that the economic problems we face “show that orthodox economics is wrong”.  When was orthodox economics ever tried?


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Governing the Prisons

David Skarbek’s provocative new book The Puzzle of Prison Order could just as easily have been named Governing the Prisons after Elinor Ostrom’s classic book Governing the Commons.  In the introduction, Skarbek states that his work is based on Ostrom’s own lifelong obsession with comparative institutional analysis, and that he seeks to emulate her approach.  The book is a success on that front.  Drawing on case studies throughout the world and from the past, Skarbek presents a remarkable variety of ways in which order has been achieved within prisons.  It’s a fascinating book to read for the cases themselves, the range of alternatives in governance that exist, and how different prison orders emerge depending on the context.


Much like Ostrom, Skarbek makes a much broader case for the amazing frequency with which humans solve collective action problems.  Ostrom was interested in testing Garrett Hardin’s claim about the “tragedy of the commons” – that common pool resources would inevitably be over-exploited without central control.  She showed convincingly this didn’t have to be the case.  Skarbek’s target seems to be Thomas Hobbes who famously said in Leviathan that life without strong central authority was “cruel, nasty, brutish and short”.  Yet in this book we see several astonishing examples of self organization without central authority even among a group of individuals who have much higher costs to establish order – criminals.


To summarize Skarbek’s argument, he argues that the form of order in a prison depends first and foremost on how much oversight and administration the prison authorities provide to the inmates.  When an effective order is provided by the staff and guards, prisoners themselves have no reason to establish self-governance.  However, in prisons where the administration is either limited or incompetent/non-existent, the prisoners can develop institutions to govern themselves rather than live in the anarchy, violence, and uncertainty that Hobbes predicts.


Prisoner-run orders of self-governance emerge much more easily and effectively when there are pre-existing social networks that the prisoners can draw upon for information about their fellow inmates.  Additionally, the prisons need to be small enough to be self-governed.  Therefore, Skarbek recommends that prisons be kept smaller and they be filled with prisoners from the local area so that the “costs” of establishing trust and social networks are lower since the prisoners can more easily get information about their fellow inmates.


So what do prisons look like when the inmates run things?  Surprisingly better than the old joke suggests.  In two Brazilian prisons Skarbek studied  prisoners, selected by the staff and the inmates, helped to coordinate administration and even security.  They distributed goods to those in need and helped set rules and practices along with enforcement of those rules.  At one prison these so-called “trustees”, not prison guards, did nighttime head counts, cell checks and lock-ups.  The trustees were actually in charge of the prison when the prison director wasn’t onsite.


The most interesting example of self-governance he documents is that of San Pedro prison in Bolivia.  Here the guards only monitor the entrance to maintain a separation between the inside and outside.  The prisoners have developed an amazing variety of institutions to manage life on the inside.  First off, the prisoners “own” their cells.  There is a robust market, with a tracking system of property rights for cells.  Prices vary based on size, amenities, and location.  How do the prisoners afford cells?  There are markets in food production, retail sales, services, as well as things like illegal drugs, alcohol, and prostitutes.  The basic food provided by the prison authorities is a foul gruel that virtually none of the population eats, so there are grocery stores and various eating options, but again all require money.  Surprisingly, the population is partially composed of families.  Some of the inmates are husbands and providers, and their families can choose to live with the prisoners rather than on the streets.  This obviously creates some potential for problems, but the prison even has a self-organizing group who look after the children, albeit imperfectly, as some of the girls and boys get caught up in criminal activities and sex trafficking.


In contrast are prisons in Nordic countries, which have high levels of very competent, professionally trained staff.  In these prisons, where the staff can outnumber prisoners, inmates rarely self-organize because the authorities do it for them.  There is no need to spend time or effort self-governing.  However, even in these “efficiently” run prisons, inmates develop mechanisms for obtaining drugs.  Since developing and enforcing property rights is too costly, instead the prisoners engage in what Skarbek calls “sharing,” where those prisoners who are administered narcotics share them with others and develop a network of expectations to share back during times of scarcity.  While not as robust as property rights, the emergence of this practice is still notable.


Two other cases are worth mentioning, although more for the questions they raise.  The first is the horrendous and tragic example of the Andersonville prisoner of war camp during the American Civil War.  This is an example where only after tremendous suffering and loss of life did the prisoners self organize to ward off bands of secretive killers and thieves who were ravaging the prison population at night.  Skarbek struggles to clearly explain this lack of self organization, particularly since the prisoners were soldiers, who in theory would have been more likely than criminals to create an order.  Finally, one prisoner goes to the Confederate warden and asks permission to organize a group of inmates to catch and subdue the gangs.  The warden agrees, and the group is eliminated.  But this raises the question of entrepreneurship.  It would have been interesting if Skarbek had explored this topic in the other cases and incorporated it into his theory.


The second case  is a special wing of the Los Angeles County jail dedicated to gay and transgender prisoners.  Here Skarbek discusses how the group has a particularly strong social network because they interact in and out of prison, but also because many return to the system frequently.  Recidivism is another factor that could merit more attention.  While I find it compelling that placing prisoners in smaller prisons near their homes helps to lower the costs for self-governance, and probably makes prison life more bearable, it seems to me equally likely that high rates of recidivism also would have an impact on the ability of prisoners to organize, not only with personal ties, but also a knowledge of the rules and norms or prison life.


But these are small complaints.  Skarbek has written an elegant and interesting book about the various ways prisons are organized and self-govern.  The range of institutional diversity is very interesting, and his conclusions are useful in many areas of the social sciences.  Even for those of us who, hopefully, never spend real time in a prison, the book is an interesting addition to our understanding of incarceration specifically and political economy generally.


G. Patrick Lynch is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund.

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