Reflections on the Leiter-Caplan Debate

It was a pleasure debating Brian Leiter last week.  The resolution, to repeat:

“Social democracy is preferable to market capitalism, but ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system.”

Here are some thoughts I failed to fully articulate at the live event.  As always, I’m happy to publish any reply my opponent wishes to compose.

1. To his credit, Leiter expressed zero sympathy for any actual socialist regime.  He even condemned Cuba; good for him.  But Leiter still insisted that the totality of these awful experiences show next to nothing about the desirability of socialism, which frankly seems crazy.  As far as I could tell, Leiter hews to the classic Marxist position that we should transition to socialism only after capitalism creates incredible abundance.  Unlike most historical Marxists, however, he doesn’t think that even the richest countries are ready yet.  My question: If we finally got rich enough for socialism, why think that a socialist regime would be able to maintain the prior level of prosperity, much less provide continued progress?

2. When I discussed the actual performance of social democracy, Leiter was surprisingly apologetic.  He conceded that we have wasteful universal redistribution, instead of well-targeted means-tested redistribution.  His only defense was to repeat the flimsy argument that it’s too hard to sustain popular support for means-tested programs.

3. On regulation, Leiter appeared to endorse open borders; good for him.  He also professed agnosticism on housing regulation.  Since these are by far the two biggest forms of regulation in modern social democracies (measured by how much regulation changes the likely market outcome), it’s hard to see why he would believe that increased regulation has, on balance, been good for humanity or the poor.

4. According to Leiter, “ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system” because automation will one day cause mass unemployment.  This position baffled me on multiple levels.  Most obviously, why not respond to automation with redistribution rather than nationalization, and thereby avoid killing the capitalist goose that has hitherto laid a mountain of golden eggs?

My fundamental objection, however, is that history teaches us that technological unemployment is only a morbid fantasy.  When firms figure out ways to get more output out of fewer workers, this may cause unemployment in the short-run.  Soon enough, however, business has repeatedly figured out new jobs for workers to perform.  Business has already accomplished the miraculous task of creating new roles for the enormous number of workers disemployed by the mechanization of agriculture.  Every future economic transformation pales by comparison.  Remember: Almost everyone was a farmer for almost all of recorded human history.  Then industrialization eliminated almost all farm jobs.  Yet today, we don’t miss these jobs.  Instead, we get fat on all the cheap food, and do jobs our agrarian ancestors would have struggled to understand.

Leiter had two responses to my reaction.  One was “maybe this time it will be different”; Leiter even appealed to David Hume’s problem of induction to downplay all prior economic history!  If you take this line, however, it would only entitle you to say “it is logically possible that America will need to move towards a socialist system” – a vacuous claim indeed.  Frankly, if you take Hume seriously, even the best empirical evidence shows nothing about the future, so why bother debating at all?

Leiter’s better argument was that capitalists are perennially trying to cut costs – and that in the long-run capitalism works.  So eventually capitalists will figure out a way to run the economy without workers – an outcome that is individually rational for a capitalist, but socially disastrous for capitalism.  My response: Yes, capitalists want to figure out how to produce a given level of output with fewer workers.  Their deeper goal, however, is to figure out the most profitable way to employ all available inputs.  As long as there are able-bodied people who want to work, there will be a capitalist brainstorming how to make money off the situation.  And to echo Leiter, in the long-run this works.

5. Leiter bizarrely insisted that “the” goal of socialism was to allow human freedom – legions of vocally authoritarian self-identified socialists notwithstanding.  He followed up with the classic socialist argument that saying “If you don’t do what I say, I won’t give you the job you need to avoid starvation” is just as much an abridgment of freedom as “If you don’t do what I say, I will shoot you.”

The standard reply, of course, is that there is a vast moral difference between getting you to do what I want by threatening to take away something to which you are morally entitled (e.g., your life) and getting you to do what I want by threatening to take away something to which you are not morally entitled (e.g. my assistance).  Thus, imagine you will be suicidally depressed unless I marry you.  Is my refusal to marry you morally equivalent to making you suicidally depressed by threatening to shoot you unless you break off your engagement to your willing fiance?  Of course not.  You aren’t entitled to marry me if I don’t approve, but you and your fiance are entitled to marry each other even if I don’t approve.

6. Moral entitlement aside, “If you don’t do what I say, I won’t give you the job you need to avoid starvation” is rarely relevant in modern labor markets.  Why not?  First, there are competing employers, so if you don’t like an offer, you can shop around for another.  (Smarter yet, take what you can get, but keep searching for a better offer).  Second, if you live frugally, even a relatively low-wage worker can save up a nest egg, making it easy to turn down unappealing offers in the future.  Naturally, you can object, “I still face the choice to either live frugally, work for some employer, or starve.”  If so, we’re back to my original reply: Complaining about being “free to starve” is the flip side of demanding that strangers support you whether they like it or not.

7. Leither took umbrage at my authoritarian interpretation of Marx.  I freely grant that Leiter’s invested more time reading Marx than I have.  However, I too have devoted long hours to Marx’s oeuvre (though I’ve spent far more reading about the actual history of socialist regimes), and I stand by my bleak assessment.

Did Marx explicitly say, “We should round up priests and execute them”?  To the best of my knowledge, no.  Yet that is the most reasonable interpretation of what Marx had planned.  What are we supposed to think when Marx makes Orwellian statements like,  “[B]ourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and that for its part [socialism] endeavors rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion” (Critique of the Gotha Program)?  It doesn’t sound like Marx plans to respect the rights of people who don’t wish to be so “liberated.”  If Leiter is right, why did so few Marxists protest Lenin’s religious persecution?  I say it’s because Marx provided the Orwellian language they needed to insist that Freedom is Slavery.  As I wrote two decades ago:

Innumerable social thinkers disagree with much of Marx’s thought, but praise his reflections upon human freedom, the depth of his insight in contrast to the shallowness of liberalism. Yet it is difficult to understand how Marx’s concept of freedom is anything more than a defense of tyranny and oppression. No dissident or non-conformist can see society as the “realization of his own liberty.” And what can the attack on “the right to do everything which does not harm others” amount to in practice, except a justification for coercing people who are not harming others? The problem with “broad” notions of freedom is that they necessarily wind up condoning the violation of “narrow” notions of freedom. Under “bourgeois” notions of religious liberty, people may practice any religion they wish (“a private whim or caprice” as Marx calls it); how could this liberty be broadened, without sanctioning the persecution of some religious views?

Listening to Leiter, a law professor at the University of Chicago, I couldn’t help but think, “Leiter is talking like Marx’s lawyer.”  When a Mafia enforcer says, “Sweet kids you got there; be a shame if anything happened to them,” a Mafia lawyer will vigorously deny that his client threatened to murder children.  Any neutral adult, however, knows that the Mafioso did exactly that.  I say the same about Marx’s writings.  “I’m going to bring you real freedom” is a classic Offer You Can’t Refuse – as Marxist revolutionaries have shown us time and again.  A skilled lawyer can obfuscate this scary truth, but a learned philosopher should not.

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The Leiter-Caplan Socialism Debate

Last night, I debated the University of Chicago’s Brian Leiter on “Capitalism, Social Democracy, and Socialism” at the University of Wisconsin. Leiter wrote the precise resolution:

“Social democracy is preferable to market capitalism, but ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system.”

Here’s my opening statement; I’ve debated Elizabeth Bruenig and John Marsh this general topic before.


All First World countries are already social democracies.  Their governments continue to allow markets to provide most goods and services, but they heavily regulate these markets, heavily subsidize favored sectors like education and health, and heavily redistribute income.  The U.S. is moderately less social democratic than France or Sweden, but the idea that we have “market capitalism” while they have “social democracy” is hyperbole.  If you favor social democracy, you should be happy because your side won long ago: free-market rhetoric notwithstanding, the U.S. has Social Security, Medicare, Medicare, and public education, and strict regulation of labor markets, construction, and other major industry.  My view, however, is that social democracy is a awful mistake.  Despite its bad press, market capitalism would be much better than what we have now.

Advocates of social democracy typically claim credit for three major improvements over market capitalism.  First, they’ve used redistribution to greatly reduce poverty.  Second, they’ve used regulation to make markets work better.  Third, they’ve used government funding to provide wonderful services that markets neglect.  I say they’ve greatly overstated their success on all three counts – while conveniently neglecting heavy collateral damage.

Let’s start with redistribution.  The rhetoric of redistribution revolves around “helping the poor.”  When you look at redistribution in the real world, however, this is grossly misleading.  The U.S. government spends far more on the elderly – most of whom aren’t poor – than it spends on actual poverty programs.  Programs like Social Security and Medicare are popular because they “help everyone.”  But “helping everyone” is extremely wasteful because most of the people government helps would have been quite able to take care of themselves.  Instead, we absurdly tax everyone to help everyone.

This humanitarian rhetoric rings even more hollow when you examine the most important forms of government regulation.  Domestically, nothing does more harm than our draconian regulation of the construction industry.  This regulation, primarily state and local, makes it very hard to build new housing, especially in high-wage places like New York City and the Bay Area.  It’s hard to build tall buildings.  It’s hard to build multi-family housing.  You have to waste a lot of valuable land; builders put houses on an acre of land because zoning laws force them to do so.  The connection between this regulation and exorbitant housing prices is almost undeniable.  In lightly-regulated areas of the country like Texas, business supplies ample cheap housing.  Anytime someone tells you regulation makes markets work better, just look at San Francisco’s housing market for a reality check.  And this hardly one tiny failure of regulation; housing absorbs about 40% of the average Americans’ budget.

Immigration regulation is an even more egregious failure.  The single best way for people around the world to escape poverty is to move to high-productivity countries like the U.S. and get a job.  This benefits not only immigrants, but us, because we’re their customers; the more they sell us, the better-off we are.  A hundred years ago, immigration to the U.S. was almost unregulated, giving people all over the world a viable way to work their way out of poverty.  Now, in contrast, immigration is very tightly regulated – especially for those most in need.  Economists’ estimates of the global harm of these regulations sum to tens of trillions of dollars a year, because each immigrant worker vastly enriches the world, and hundreds of millions of workers wish to come.  Again, this is the opposite of one tiny failure of regulation.

Finally, what about education, health care, and other sectors that government subsidizes?  I say these policies are crowd-pleasing but terribly wasteful.  Yes, more educated workers make more money, but the main reason is not that you’re learning useful skills.  Most of what you study in school is irrelevant in the real world.  Degrees mostly pay by convincing employers that you’re smarter, harder-working, and more conformist than the competition.  That’s why there’s been severe credential inflation since World War II: the more degrees workers have, the more degrees you need to convince employers not to throw your application in the trash.  Pouring money on education is an exercise in futility.

The same goes for health care.  Almost every researcher who measures the effect of health care on health agrees that this effect is much smaller than the public imagines.  Diet, exercise, substance abuse, and other lifestyle choices are much more important for health than access to medicine.  But these facts notwithstanding, the government lavishes funding on health care that barely improves our health.  If this seems implausible, just compare American life expectancy to Mexico’s.  Medicare plus Medicaid cost well over a trillion dollars a year, let we only live a year-and-a-half longer.

A reasonable social democrat could object: Fine, actual social democracies cause great harm and waste insane amounts of money.  But we can imagine a social democracy that limits itself to helping hungry kids and refugees, fighting infectious disease, and other well-targeted programs for the betterment of humanity.  Frankly, abolishing everything except these few programs sounds really close to market capitalism to me… and it also sounds like wishful thinking.  In the real world, governments with lots of power and a vague mandate to “help people” reliably do great harm.  This is true in the U.S., and it’s true in Sweden.  Yes, the Swedes strangle their housing industry too.

Given all this, I predictably deny that “ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system.”  Full-blown socialist systems make social democracy look great by comparison.  Indeed, once you draw the distinction between social democracy and socialism, it’s very hard to find to find any socialist regime that isn’t a tragic, despotic disaster.  If Sweden is the jewel of social democracy, what’s the jewel of socialism?  Cuba?  Nor is there any sign that socialism somehow becomes “more necessary” as countries progress.  The main reason governments have gotten bigger over the last thirty years is just the aging of the population.

Finally, let me underscore what I’m not saying.  I’m not saying that life in the U.S. or Sweden is terrible.  In fact, human beings in both countries enjoy close to the highest quality of life than human beings have ever achieved.  My claim, rather, is that even the most successful countries in history could do far better.  I know that social democratic policies are emotionally appealing.  That’s why they’ve won.  Yet objectively speaking, market capitalism should have won because market capitalism offers much better results.

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Six Presidents

Nobody asked but …

The Presidents of the United States are a motley crew.  So far the scorecard reads 45 attempts, 45 klunkers.  I am not saying there were no honorable persons in the group (“honorable” itself is a very iffy word).  I have the highest regard for the intellects of Jefferson and Madison.  I believe that John Adams was among the greatest lawyers (a rare occurrence).  But, to me, there is no such thing as a great President.  To have been one places a black mark on that career.  Few have risen above.

On some occasions, some wisdom has been dispensed independently of the degradation to the office.  Here are some of my favorite quotes from the first six:

It is far better to be alone than to be in bad company.

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.

I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.

Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.

It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising their sovereignty. Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and an usurper soon found. The people themselves become the willing instruments of their own debasement and ruin.

America… goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.

But every person who has served in this inauspicious capacity, in my view, has a great atrocity to their name.  Again, the list:

— Kilgore Forelle

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American Fictionalists

It is both fun and informative to consider lists.  To debate the list is a sign that you have engaged with someone who knows what she is talking about.  This morning, I asked Google to find web pages that opined as to whom might be included on a list of the greatest American fictionalists (novelists, short story writers, poets, and playwrights).  Google and I found a page at NoSweatShakespeare.com, which contained a list, 20 Best American Writers. I’ll not quibble with the score of authors enumerated, but I might have substituted others (Jack London, Robert A. Heinlein, Ayn Rand, Robert Penn Warren, Dashiell Hammett, Robert Frost, for instances).

At any rate, these scriveners became famous because they could voice the sentiment of a people at their best. My goal is to present each of the 20, along with a quote that typifies this:

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne 1804 – 1864
    Nathaniel Hawthorne was a novelist and short story writer. Hawthorne’s works have been labelled ‘dark romanticism,’ dominated as they are by cautionary tales that suggest that guilt, sin, and evil are the most inherent natural qualities of humankind. His novels and stories, set in a past New England, are versions of historical fiction used as a vehicle to express themes of ancestral sin, guilt and retribution…

    No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.

  • Edgar Allan Poe 1809 – 1849
    Edgar Allan Poe was an American writer, editor, and literary critic. He is best known for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and suspense. He is generally considered the inventor of detective ficiton. Poe’s work as an editor, a poet, and a critic had a profound impact on American and international literature. In addition to his detective stories he is one of the originators of horror and science fiction. He is often credited as the architect of the modern short story…

    All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.

  • Herman Melville 1819 – 1891
    Herman Melville was an American writer of novels, short stories and poems. He is best known for the novel Moby-Dick and a romantic account of his experiences in Polynesian life, Typee. His whaling novel, Moby-Dick is often spoken of as ‘the great American novel’ ’vying with Scott Fitgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for that title…

    It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.

  • Walt Whitman 1819 – 1892
    Walt Whitman was a poet, essayist, and journalist who transformed poetry around the world with his disregard for traditional rhyme and meter and his celebration of democracy and sensual pleasure. His masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems, is widely studied by poets, students and academics, set to music, translated into numerous languages, and is widely quoted. His influence can be found everywhere – in contemporary best seller lists to feature films and musical works, both “serious” and popular…

 … re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul …

  • Emily Dickinson 1830 – 1886
    Unknown as a poet during her lifetime, Emily Dickinson is now regarded by many as one of the most powerful voices of American culture. Her poetry has inspired many other writers, including the Brontes. In 1994 the critic, Harold Bloom, listed her among the twenty-six central writers of Western civilisation. After she died her sister found the almost two thousand poems the poet had written…

We turn not older with years but newer every day.

  • Mark Twain 1835 – 1910
    Samuel Langhorne Clemens , far better known as Mark Twain, was an American writer, businessman, publisher and lecturer. He progressed from his day job as pilot of a Mississippi riverboat to legend of American literature. His work shows a deep seriousness and at the same time, it is hilariously satirical, as seen in his many quotes on all aspects of life. His masterpiece is the novel, Huckleberry Finn, which is regularly referred to as ‘the great American novel.’…

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

  • Henry James 1843 – 1916
    Henry James is regarded as one of the key figures of 19th-century literary realism. He is noted for writing from a character’s point of view’ which allowed him to explore consciousness and perception. His imaginative use of point of view, interior monologue and unreliable narrators brought a new depth to narrative fiction, all of which were influential on the writing of the novelists who followed him. He was nominated for the Nobel prize for literature three times….

Cats and monkeys — monkeys and cats — all human life is there!

  • T.S. Eliot 1888 – 1965
    Thomas Stearns Eliot was an American-born, British, poet, essayist, playwright, critic, now regarded as one of the twentieth century’s major poets. He received more rewards than almost any other writer of the past two centuries, including the Nobel prize, the Dante Gold Medal, the Goethe prize, the US Medal of Freedom and the British Order of Merit…

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald 1896 – 1940
    Francis Scott Fitzgerald was an American novelist, widely regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, American writers of the 20th century. He is best known for his novel, The Great Gatsby, which vies for the title ‘Great American Novel’ with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Fitzgerald’s place on this list is justified by the fact that his great novel is actually about America…

Either you think — or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize, and sterilize you.

  • William Faulkner 1897 – 1962
    William Cuthbert Faulkner was a Nobel Prize laureate, awarded the literature prize in 1949. He wrote novels, short stories, poetry, and screenplays. He is known mainly for his novels and short stories set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha Country, Mississippi. Faulkner is one of the most celebrated American writers, regarded, generally as the great writer of the American South…

Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.

  • Tennessee Williams 1911 – 1983
    Thomas Lanier Williams III, known as Tennessee Williams is one of America’s most popular playwrights and now regarded as one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. He wrote more than thirty plays, some of which have become classics of Western drama. He also wrote novels and short stories but is known almost exclusively for his plays. His genius was in the honesty with which he represented society and the art of presenting that in the form of absorbing drama…

I think that hate is a thing, a feeling, that can only exist where there is no understanding.

  • Arthur Miller 1915 – 2005
    Arthur Miller was a playwright and ‘great man’ of American theatre, which he championed throughout his long life. His many dramas were among the most popular by American authors and several are considered to be among the best American plays, among them the classics, The Crucible, All My Sons, A View from the Bridge and, above all, the iconic American drama, Death of a Salesman. He also wrote film scripts, notably the classic, The Misfits…

 … life is God’s most precious gift; no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it.

  • Joseph Heller 1923 – 1999
    Joseph Heller was an American writer of satirical novels, short stories and plays. Although he wrote several acclaimed novels, his reputation rests firmly on his masterpiece, the great American anti-war satire, Catch 22. Because of the quality of the novel and the impact it has made on American culture it has catapulted Heller into the ranks of the great American writers…

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.

  • Ernest Hemingway 1899 – 1961
    Ernest Hemingway was a novelist, short story writer, and journalist. He published seven novels, six short story collections, and two non-fiction works, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. More works, including three novels, four short story collections, and three non-fiction works, were published posthumously…

Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.

  • Raymond Chandler 1888 – 1959
    Raymond Chandler was a British-American novelist who wrote several screenplays and short stories. He published seven novels during his lifetime. The first, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. An eighth, Poodle Springs, unfinished at his death, was completed by another great crime writer, Robert B Parker. Six of Chandler’s novels have been made into films, some more than once…

I knew one thing: as soon as anyone said you didn’t need a gun, you’d better take one along that worked.

  • Toni Morrison 1931 – 2019
    Toni Morrison’s novels are known for their vivid dialogue, their detailed characters and epic themes. Her most famous novel is the 1987 novel, Beloved. She was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993…

Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.

  • Vladimir Nabokov 1899 – 1977
    Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was a Russian-American novelist, and also a famous entomologist, specialising in butterflies, a topic on which he wrote several academic books. He wrote nine novels in Russian, but it was when he began writing in English that he achieved international recognition…

I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more.

  • Flannery O’Connor 1925 – 1964
    Mary Flannery O’Connor wrote two novels and thirty-two short stories, and also several reviews and commentaries. Her reputation is based mainly on her short stories. She was a Southern writer and relied heavily on regional settings and typically southern characters. She was strongly Roman Catholic, which informed her exploration of ethics and morality…

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.

  • John Steinbeck 1902 – 1968
    John Ernst Steinbeck was the author of 16 novels and various other works, including five short story collections. He is widely known for the novels, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, and particularly, the Puliter Prize winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, his masterpiece, which is one of the great American novels: it has sold more than 15 million copies so far…

All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.

  • John Updike 1923 – 2009
    John Updike was a novelist, short story writer and poet. He was also a literary and art critic. He published more than twenty novels, numerous short-story collections, eight volumes of poetry and many children’s books. He is most famous for his ‘Rabbit‘ series – novels that chronicle the life of his protagonist, Harry Angstrom – in which Updike presented his progress over the course of several decades…

They can be wonderful bastards because they have nothing to lose. The only people who can be themselves are babies and old bastards.

  • Kurt Vonnegut 1922 – 2007
    Kurt Vonnegut was an American writer who published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction. He is most famous for his novel ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ (1969) which has become an American classic. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel based on his experience as a prisoner of war who survived the allies’ bombing of Dresden…

So it goes.

 

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Scientific Consensus

Why is anthropogenic global climate change (AGCC) about the only scientific topic where the “consensus of scientists” is still supposed to be the final word, shutting down any further discussion? You don’t hear many other scientific topics described in that way.

Why is that?

I think it may relate to the worshipful way most people think of democracy. If “everyone” goes along with one way, it must be the right way.

But does that make sense?

Ninety-seven percent of doctors agree: This medicine/treatment is all you need, there is nothing more to discuss on the matter! The science is settled!” How many times in the past has this been the case, only to be dismantled by those who didn’t consider it settled?

Ninety-seven percent of physicists agree that physics is done. No need to study or look for any more forces or particles. We know all we can know. The science is settled.” And, again, how many times has this been claimed, only to be overturned by some maverick who wouldn’t go along with the consensus of the crowd?

How often did the general population just accept the “scientific consensus” at face value– to their detriment– until the consensus was disrupted?

So, if “all scientists” agree that the climate is changing, the change is due to human activity, it will be a net negative, it can be fixed, and that governments are the only thing which can “save the world”, then gullible people jump on that bandwagon. “All scientists” agree, so it must be true! Right?

Strange how this problem and their proposed solution gives power and money to those who are largely funding the research. If some other science issue could give this much power and money to States, how quickly do you think they’d discover some crisis that only governments could exploit… I mean, “solve”? Maybe if the climate change hysteria dies down, they will find another issue to exploit. Unless political government evaporates before then.

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If the Only Way You Can Get Your Great Idea Implemented…

Economics textbooks are full of clever-and-appealing policy proposals.  Proposals like: “Let’s redistribute money to the desperately poor” and “Let’s tax goods with negative externalities.”  They’re so clever and so appealing that it’s hard to understand how any smart, well-meaning person could demur.  When critics appeal to “public choice problems,” it’s tempting to tell the critics that they’re the problem.  The political system isn’t that dysfunctional, is it?  In any case, reflexively whining, “The political system will muck up your clever, appealing policy proposal,” hardly makes that system work better.  The naysayers should become part of the solution: Endorse the clever-and-appealing policy proposals – and strive to bring them to life.

When you look at the real world, though, you see something strange: Almost no one actually pushes for the textbooks’ clever-and-appealing policy proposals.  Instead, the people inspired by the textbooks routinely attach themselves to trendy-but-awful policy proposals.  If you point out the discrepancy, they’re often too annoyed to respond.  When they do, reformers shrug and say: “The clever-and-appealing policy never has – and probably never will – have much political support.  So we have to do this instead.”

Examples?  You start off by advocating high-impact redistribution to help poor children and the severely disabled… and end defending the ludicrously expensive and wasteful Social Security program.  “Unfortunately, the only politically viable way to help the poor is to help everyone.”  Or you start off advocating Pigovian taxes to clean the air, and end up defending phone books of picayune environmental regulations.  “Unfortunately, this is the way pollution policy actual works.”

Don’t believe me?  Here’s a brand-new example courtesy of Paul Krugman:

But if a nation in flames isn’t enough to produce a consensus for action — if it isn’t even enough to produce some moderation in the anti-environmentalist position — what will? The Australia experience suggests that climate denial will persist come hell or high water — that is, through devastating heat waves and catastrophic storm surges alike…

[…]

But if climate denial and opposition to action are immovable even in the face of obvious catastrophe, what hope is there for avoiding the apocalypse? Let’s be honest with ourselves: Things are looking pretty grim. However, giving up is not an option. What’s the path forward?

The answer, pretty clearly, is that scientific persuasion is running into sharply diminishing returns. Very few of the people still denying the reality of climate change or at least opposing doing anything about it will be moved by further accumulation of evidence, or even by a proliferation of new disasters. Any action that does take place will have to do so in the face of intractable right-wing opposition.

This means, in turn, that climate action will have to offer immediate benefits to large numbers of voters, because policies that seem to require widespread sacrifice — such as policies that rely mainly on carbon taxes — would be viable only with the kind of political consensus we clearly aren’t going to get.

What might an effective political strategy look like? … [O]ne way to get past the political impasse on climate might be via “an emphasis on huge infrastructural projects that created jobs” — in other words, a Green New Deal. Such a strategy could give birth to a “large climate-industrial complex,” which would actually be a good thing in terms of political sustainability.

Notice the pattern.

Step 1: Economics textbooks offer a clever-and-appealing policy proposal: Let’s tax carbon emissions to curtail the serious negative externalities of fossil fuels.  It’s cheap, it’s effective, it provides great static and dynamic incentives.  Public choice problems?  Don’t listen to those naysayers.

Step 2: Argh, Pigovian taxes are going nowhere.

Step 3: Let’s have a trendy-but-awful populist infrastructure program to get the masses on board.

So what?  For starters, any smart activist who reaches Step 3 tacitly concedes that public choice problems are dire.  You offer the public a clever-and-appealing remedy for a serious social ill, and democracy yawns.  To get action, you have to forget about cost or cost-effectiveness – and just try to drug the public with demagoguery.

Note: I’m not attacking Krugman for having little faith in democracy.  His underlying lack of faith in democracy is fully justified.  I only wish that Krugman would loudly embrace the public choice framework that intellectually justifies his lack of faith.  (Or better yet, Krugman could loudly embraced my psychologically-enriched public choice expansion pack).

Once you pay proper respect to public choice theory, however, you cannot simply continue on your merry way.  You have to ponder its central normative lesson: Don’t advocate government action merely because a clever-and-appealing policy proposal passes a cost-benefit test.  Instead, look at the trendy-but-awful policies that will actually be adopted – and see if they pass a cost-benefit test.  If they don’t, you should advocate laissez-faire despite all those shiny ideas in the textbook.

Krugman could naturally reply, “I’ve done the math.  Global warming is so terrible that trendy-but-awful policies are our least-bad bet.”  To the best of my knowledge, though, this contradicts mainstream estimates of the costs of warming.  That aside, why back a Green New Deal instead of deregulation of nuclear power or geoengineering?  If recalcitrant public opinion thwarts your clever-and-appealing remedy, maybe you started out on the wrong path in the first place.

Unfair?  Well, this is hardly the first time that Krugman has rationalized destructive populism when he really should have reconsidered.  Krugman knows that immigration is the world’s fastest way to escape absolute poverty.  He knows that standard complaints about immigration are, at best, exaggerated.  But he’s still an immigration skeptic, because:

The New Deal made America a vastly better place, yet it probably wouldn’t have been possible without the immigration restrictions that went into effect after World War I. For one thing, absent those restrictions, there would have been many claims, justified or not, about people flocking to America to take advantage of welfare programs.

Notice the pattern.

Step 1: You start with the textbook case for a welfare state to alleviate domestic poverty.  Public choice problems?  Bah.

Step 2: Next, you decide that you can’t get that welfare state without horrible collateral damage.

Step 3: So you casually embrace the status quo, without seriously engaging obvious questions, like: “Given political constraints, perhaps its actually better not to have the New Deal?” or even “How close can we get to the New Deal without limiting immigration?”

The moral: If the only way you can get your great idea implemented is to mutilate it and/or package it with a pile of expensive junk, you really should wonder, “Is it still worth it?”

Well, is it?

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