Sorry, Innocent Bystanders

The world is full of problems, and most people want government to solve these problems.  When government solves problems, however, they usually create some new ones.  If you’re lucky, the victims of the new problems are the very bad guys who created the original problems.  Serves them right!  Yet more often, the victims of the new problems are innocent bystanders.  They’ve done nothing wrong; they’re just caught in the crossfire.

Like who?  Let’s start with babies in Nazi Germany.  The babies didn’t start the war.  They’ve never hurt a fly.  But it’s hard to kill the Nazis without putting the babies’ lives in grave danger.

You don’t have to be a pacifist to realize that this is a tragic situation.  Imagine trying to justify it to the babies: “You’re totally innocent.  I get that.  But Nazism is so horrible that I’m going to put your lives in grave danger anyway.  I’m so sorry.  I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”  This is an intellectually honest position, but oh so bitter.  It’s far sweeter to invoke collective guilt, say “They had it coming,” and kill indiscriminately.

You might reply, “Well, the intellectually honest position is demotivating.”  But that’s not quite true.  Yes, acknowledging innocent bystanders demotivates indiscriminate killing.  But it strongly motivates the search for an approach with lower collateral damage.  Given humans’ ubiquitous in-group bias, this is a feature, not a bug.

Wartime naturally highlights the most gruesome abuse of innocent bystanders.  But many peacetime policies have the same structure.

Take gun control.  Suppose strict gun control would eliminate all mass shootings.  Who could oppose such a policy?  Most obviously, the vast majority of gun owners who never have and never will murder anyone.  Gun control supporters will naturally be tempted to demonize them.  The intellectually honest thing to say, however, is: “99.99% of you gun owners are perfectly innocent.  I get that.  But mass shootings are so horrible than I’m still going to take your guns away.  I’m so sorry.  I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”  Demotivating?  Well, it demotivates the promotion of strict gun control, but motivates the search for ways to reduce violence with lower collateral damage.

Or take refugee policy.  Suppose banning all refugees would eliminate all terrorism.  Who could oppose such a policy?  Most obviously, the vast majority of refugees who are not and never have been terrorists.  Opponents of asylum will naturally be tempted to demonize them (remember “rapefugees”?).  The intellectually honest thing to say, however, is: “99.9999% of you refugees are totally innocent.  I get that.  But terrorism is so horrible that I’m going to refuse asylum anyway.  I’m so sorry.  I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”  Intellectually honest?  Check.  Demotivating?  Well, it demotivates indiscriminate rejection of refugees, but motivates the search for anti-terrorism tactics with lower collateral damage.

War, gun control, and refugees.  I deliberately chose three radically different illustrations.  I suspect that readers will angrily object to at least one of them.  But I really don’t see how.  Denying the existence of innocent bystanders is convenient; if they don’t exist, we don’t have to fret about them.  Denying the existence of innocent bystanders is also pleasurable; what fun it is to unequivocally unleash your full arsenal against the forces of evil.  Yet denying the existence of innocent bystanders is, above all, blind.  Innocent bystanders exist.  They have rights.  You should think long and hard before violating them.  And if you find no alternative, at least have the decency to tell them, “I’m so sorry.”

Continue Reading

A Short Hop from Bleeding Heart to Mailed Fist

When Hugo Chavez began ruling Venezuela, he sounded like a classic bleeding-heart – full of pity for the poor and downtrodden.  Plenty of people took him at his words – not just Venezuelans, but much of the international bleeding-heart community.  By the time Chavez died, however, many admirers were already having second thoughts about his dictatorial tendencies.  Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, amply confirmed these fears.  Almost everyone now plainly sees the mailed fist of the brutal dictator Chavez II.

Which brings us to two facts about the political world.  Let’s call them Strange and Meta-Strange.

The Strange Fact: This transition from bleeding heart to mailed fist is common.  Almost every Communist dictatorship launches with mountains of humanitarian propaganda.  Yet ultimately, almost everyone who doesn’t fear for his life wakes up and smells the tyranny.

The Meta-Strange Fact: People rarely describe the Strange Fact as “strange”!

What’s so strange about the Strange Fact?  Most obviously, the extreme hypocrisy.  Governments that vocally proclaim their compassion for the meek – most obviously the Soviet Union and Maoist China – commit a grossly disproportionate share of mass murder and other violations of human rights.

What’s so strange about the Meta-Strange Fact?  Well, picture the most vocally compassionate person you personally know, the person who seems most obsessed with the interests and feelings of others.  Wouldn’t you be shocked to discover that they burn babies with cigarettes when you’re not looking?  It’s one thing for people to fall short of saintly ideals; it’s quite another for people who uphold saintly ideals to be downright wicked.

What’s going on?  Here are some possibilities:

1. Politics is a brutal game.  When bleeding hearts take over a government, brutal outsiders smell their weakness, force their way in, bully their way to the top, and unleash hell.

The obvious problem with this story, of course, is that the bleeding hearts and mailed fists are usually the same people, though sometimes at different stages in their political career.

2. In this wicked world, the best way to pursue bleeding-heart policies is with a mailed fist.  Sure, it would be nice if we could harmoniously adopt bleeding-heart policies.  But in the real world, the forces of reaction and selfishness will try to obstruct and reverse bleeding-heart policies with every step.  Unless, of course, you terrorize them into submission.

The obvious problem with this story, of course, is that countries that pursue bleeding-heart policies with a mailed fist look like total disasters.  Most of them face horrifying civil wars; and even when the dust settles, the common man’s quality of life remains very low.

3. Hostile foreigners force bleeding hearts to adopt the mailed fist.  When countries pursue bleeding-heart policies, evil countries like the United States try to isolate, punish, and overthrow them.  The best way to protect your noble bleeding-heart experiment, sadly, is to prioritize the military and internal security.  Then the international community has the effrontery to call these unwelcome defensive measures “the mailed fist.”

The obvious problem with this story: One of the quickest ways to anger countries like the United States is to blatantly use the mailed fist (especially if you combine your mailed fist with anti-Western rhetoric).  Furthermore, if extreme bleeding-heart policies really were prone to provoke powerful foreigners, a sincere bleeding heart would moderate enough to appease these foreigners.  “You don’t like my total war against illiteracy and disease?  Fine, I’ll just do a half-war against illiteracy and disease.”

4. The bleeding-heart rhetoric is mostly propaganda; the main goal is the mailed fist.  Even the most abusive romances usually start with a honeymoon period.  Similarly, dictators rarely gain total power by growling, “Give me total power.”  Instead, they woo the people with flowery words and symbolic gifts.  Part of the goal, of course, is to trick your victims until you get the upper hand.  But the flowery words and symbolic gifts are also effective ways to inspire gratitude in both recipients and bystanders.

This story often seems right to me, but it does implausibly downplay the bleeding hearts’ ideological fervor.

5. Bleeding-heart rhetoric is disguised hate speech.  When activists blame the bourgeoisie for causing hunger, disease, and illiteracy, perhaps their main concern isn’t actually alleviating hunger, disease, or illiteracy.  While they’d like these problems to disappear, the bleeding hearts’ top priority could be making the bourgeoisie suffer.  The mailed fist systematizes that suffering.

It’s tempting to dismiss this story as cartoonish, but it’s more plausible than you think.  Human beings often resent first – and rationalize said resentment later.  They’re also loathe to admit this ugly fact.  Actions, however, speak louder than words.  People like Chavez and Maduro can accept their failure to help the poor, but not their failure to crush their hated enemies.

6. Bleeding-heart policies work so poorly that only the mailed fist can sustain them.  In this story, the bleeding hearts are at least initially sincere.  If their policies worked well enough to inspire broad support, the bleeding hearts would play nice.  Unfortunately, bleeding-heart policies are exorbitantly expensive and often directly counter-productive.  Pursued aggressively, they predictably lead to disaster.  At this point, a saintly bleeding heart will admit error and back off.  A pragmatic bleeding heart will compromise.  The rest, however, respond to their own failures with rage and scapegoating.  Once you institutionalize that rage and scapegoating, the mailed fist has arrived.

This story also seems pretty solid.  It downplays the self-conscious Machiavellians, but only by recasting them as childish fanatics.

If you don’t know much about the actual history of radical bleeding-heart regimes, I’ll admit that stories 4-6 sound overblown and unfair.  But I’ve devoted much of my life to studying this history.  All I can say is:  If your story isn’t ugly, it isn’t true.

P.S. Hugo Chavez is a really boring speaker, so if you’re curious about the general phenomenon I’m discussing, start with this little bleeding-heart speech by the murderous Che Guevara.

Continue Reading

Government Needs No Money to Curtail Pollution

People often complain that government isn’t spending enough money fighting pollution.  Even many economists repeat this complaint.  That’s very odd, because standard market failure theory tells us that governments don’t need any money to fight pollution.

Why not?  Simple: In standard market failure theory, governments are supposed to tax pollution!  Such taxes simultaneously reduce pollution and collect revenue.  As a result, fighting pollution is one of any efficiently-managed government’s top profit centers.

If you object, “Virtually no government pays attention to standard market failure theory,” I couldn’t agree more.  But I still don’t understand why activists keep asking for taxpayer money instead of loudly advocating the negative-cost remedy that appears in every intro econ textbook.

Continue Reading

Why I’m Optimistic About Venezuela

If there were mass protests against the government of Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. decided to recognize the opposition as the legitimate government of Saudi, I would expect disaster.  Why?  Because…

1. Supporters of the Saudi monarchy remain powerful and confident enough to aggressively fight back, plunging the country into hellish civil war.

2. If the monarchy loses, it’s most likely replacement will be a revolutionary Islamist dictatorship.

3. Even if the new Saudi government sticks to democracy, the median Saudi voter probably favors even worse policies than the Saudi monarchy now imposes.  In particular, government enforcement of Islamic fundamentalism would tighten, and economic policies would move even further toward socialism and populism.

And now you know why I am optimistic about the constitutional crisis in Venezuela.

1. Supporters of Maduro are too weak and demoralized to aggressively fight back, so I put the risk of hellish civil war below 10%.  (Indeed, since there’s a high base rate for civil wars in situations this dire, it’s quite possible that the risk of civil war has actually fallen due to the crisis).

2. If the Maduro regime loses, its most likely replacement will be a moderate pro-Western democracy.

3. If the new Venezuelan government sticks to democracy, the median Venezuelan almost certainly favors better policies than Maduro now imposes.  In particular, government enforcement of socialist ideology will crumble, and economic policies will move sharply away from socialism and populism.

If you’re too young to remember the collapse of Communism, this is a tiny taste of the sweetness of 1988-1991.  When’s the last time you had reasonable hope of dramatic peaceful pro-freedom change in the world?

Continue Reading

Is “Intentions=Results” a Straw Man?

I was struck by this passage in the recent WaPo profile of the Federalist Society:

The newly solidified conservative majority on the court will inevitably decide more cases in line with the society’s ideals — which include checking federal power, protecting individual liberty and interpreting the Constitution according to its original meaning. In practice, this could mean fewer regulations of the environment and health care, more businesses allowed to refuse service to customers on religious grounds, and denial of protections claimed by newly vocal classes of minorities, such as transgender people.

Question: Given this framing, how many readers would not leap to the conclusions that due to the influence of the Federalist Society…

1. The environment and health will deteriorate.

2. A noticeable number of businesses will refuse service on religious grounds.

3. Transgender people will on balance be worse off.

After all, the laws the Federalist Society opposes intend to help the environment and health, and intend to reduce religious and trans discrimination.  And Intentions=Results, right?

You could call this a straw man, but I don’t think so.  This is how I was taught until I starting learning economics in my senior year of high school.  And until I opened those economics books, Intentions=Results was precisely how I saw the world.  It’s mind-boggling to think that there are lots of people who silently reach the economist’s epiphany that Intentions and Results are two very different things.

At least to me.

Continue Reading

Reflections from my Panama Cruise, II

Our ports were Falmouth (Jamaica), Cartagena (Colombia), Gatun Lake (Panama), Limón (Costa Rica), and Grand Cayman.  Reactions to each:

7. Falmouth had the most lavish port shopping area; I’d compare it to Reston, Virginia.  The area beyond, though thinly inhabited, was fairly poor, but with quite a few middle-class homes mixed in.  Our tour guide said that many Jamaicans spend years building their own homes so they can live rent-free (but not property-tax-free) for life.  The many promising but half-built homes I saw seemed to confirm this.  All this made me wonder: If the American poor were allowed to build rent-free shacks on public lands, how many would?

8. Cartagena’s skyline sparkles; it’s so uniformly new I’d compare it to the Gold Coast of Jersey City.  The old town, however, looks markedly worse, with more than a few people sleeping on the streets and in the parks.  A major public fountain was full of garbage.  (Trash cans were a little hard to find, but not nearly enough to explain the severity of the littering).  I was excited to see the Palace of the Inquisition, but the Naval Museum was far better.  Using my sons as translators, I asked our cabbie a lot of questions about Venezuelan refugees.  He was quite sympathetic to the incomers, and loathed Maduro.  (“Is he Satan?” I inquired.  “No, Satan is scared of Maduro!”)  My ability to distinguish Colombians from Venezuelans is near-zero, but the cabbie told us that refugees with money live in the city; the rest live on the streets or in refugee camps outside of town.

9. Panama was the highlight of our trip.  Until we sailed through, I only vaguely understood how the Canal worked.  Indeed, only after we were through did I discover that our ship was well over the old Panamax limit; we had sailed through the all-new Third Lock.  Our tour guide amusingly asked us if we’d been following all the Canal news.  When we furrowed our brows, he joked, “That’s right, you haven’t.  When the U.S. handed over the Canal, everyone predicted disaster.  So no news is good news!”  Panama City was even more eye-popping than Cartagena, and the Miraflores museum was top-shelf.  The most economically gripping display explained that the U.S. always ran the Canal on a cost basis (whatever that means for a project that opened in 1914), but Panama vowed to run it for profit.  I suspect most economists would fret over the static efficiency losses, but would the Third Lock have ever been built without the carrot of profit?  Both are state enterprises, of course, but it’s probably far easier for a state-owned firm to operate like a business when almost all of the customers are foreigners.  At the end of the day trip, we drove through the port city of Colón, where the poverty (and especially the trash) were disturbing.  In Colón, the cruise line wouldn’t even allow passengers to walk the town for fear of what might happen.

10. Jamaica’s GDP per-capita is way lower than Costa Rica’s: roughly $5,000 versus $12,000.  But Limón had the worst poverty I’ve ever witnessed; seriously, the best house I saw in Limón looked worse than the worst house I’ve seen in Fairfax.  The best building on my tour route was clearly the McDonald’s.  A tour guide later told my sons that the locals are happy to bask inside this consumerist enclave for hours – and the restaurant permits this as long as you make a small purchase.  Why the disparity between the statistics and my experience?  A little googling informed me that I was in one of the poorest regions of the country, so that fits.  In any case, our tour group drove on a dirt mountain road for about 45 minutes until we reached the Veragua Rainforest.  Aside from Americans, the eco-tourists’ most common nationality is… German.  They’re so green it’s like a religious pilgrimage for them, though I can only imagine what the fastidious Germans think about the piles of litter in town.  As an economist, my main thought was that Limón desperately needs more multinational businesses to manage the inhabitants to prosperity.  That includes agro-business; while rain forest tourism is one vital industry, they could replace 80% of it with cash crops and the tourists would hardly notice.  Last thought: Our tour guide told us that many Nicaraguans migrate to Limón in search of a better life; I shudder to think what they’re leaving behind.

11. Grand Cayman naturally looks great.  But with roughly $1T offshore accounts, I expected skyscrapers.  Instead, the island struck me as a cross between Key West and Lake Arrowhead.

12. Big Picture: Everywhere I went, the voice of Michael Clemens spoke in the background.  The world is bursting with human talent.  They’re doing great things all over the world – the Third World included.  Pre-assimilation runs rampant.  But as long as migration barriers stay in place, everyone who chose the wrong parents is working with two arms and a leg tied behind their backs.

Continue Reading