Brink Lindsey: Is Income Inequality a Problem? (52m)

This episode features an interview of academic and juris doctorate Brink Lindsey from 2014 by Trevor Burrus and Aaron Powell, hosts of the Free Thoughts podcast. We know income inequality exists, that some people are very rich and others very poor. And this bothers quite a lot of us. Aren’t we right to be concerned about this? Isn’t there something wrong when some people have access to far more resources than others? Purchase books by Brink Lindsey on Amazon here.

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Bernie Sanders’s War on Charter Schools Is Hardly Progressive

Bernie Sanders is fortifying efforts to preserve the educational status quo and stifle change. Earlier this week, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate announced his 10-point plan for education reform, including banning for-profit charter schools, placing “a moratorium on public funds for charter school expansion” and ensuring that charter schools look and act the same as conventional public schools.

Educational Innovation

The whole point of charter schools is to encourage educational experimentation and innovation. Bans, moratoriums, and calls for conformity erode this intent and threaten to make charter schools—which serve 2.8 million children in the US and would likely help many more if state caps were lifted—indistinguishable from traditional public schools.

That seems to be the goal.

In an effort to secure the highly coveted endorsement of powerful teachers’ unions that have long been hostile to education choice and charter schools, Democratic presidential hopefuls are beginning to signal their opposition to choice. Sanders is leading the way, and Elizabeth Warren appears to be second in line. As PBS reports,

Democratic presidential candidates have already begun competing for key endorsements in the education sector, including engaging directly with teachers’ unions to ask for their support ahead of the primaries.

Teacher Unions Oppose Charter Schools and School Choice

Teachers’ unions, of course, are smart to oppose charter schools and other school choice programs. Their primary purpose is to secure the jobs and benefits of their union members who work in conventional public schools. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run, most often by a non-profit organization. They are typically tied to state academic standards, curriculum frameworks, and testing requirements that limit their full autonomy, but charter schools are often free from collective bargaining agreements, giving them much more flexibility in hiring and firing decisions.

That’s an existential threat to a labor union whose sole purpose is job protectionism. It would be foolish for teachers’ unions to support or ignore their non-unionized competitors. Sanders reinforces this fundamental teachers’ union tenet, stating in his plan that charter schools will be held accountable by

matching employment practices at charters with neighboring district schools, including standards set by collective bargaining agreements.

In his plan, Sanders echoes the common rhetoric of anti-choice advocates like teachers’ unions, suggesting that school choice measures create “two schools systems” and arguing that “we need to invest in our public schools system” to combat segregation and inequality. But as all of us know, we already have segregation and inequality in the public school system. If you can afford a house or apartment in a more affluent community with better schools, your children’s educational opportunities are greater than if you’re relegated to an assigned district school in a poorer community. Forced schooling tied to zip codes creates segregation and inequality.

Charter Schools Are Underfunded

School choice mechanisms, like public charter schools, voucher programs, Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), and tax-credit scholarship programs seek to eliminate these barriers by expanding the education options available to low- and middle-income families. Championing mandatory school assignments based on a family’s zip code is hardly progressive. Promoting, creating, and increasing access to more educational options for families is much more forward-looking than clinging to a coercive system of mass schooling.

While pandering to teachers’ unions may score political points, Sanders’s attack on charter schools is largely unfounded. In his plan, Sanders argues that charter school “growth has drained funding from the public school system”; yet research suggests that charter schools are significantly underfunded compared to their conventional counterparts. University of Arkansas researchers Patrick Wolf, Corey DeAngelis, and others reported last fall that charter school students in 14 cities with heavy concentrations of charter schools received an average of $5,828 per student less than traditionally schooled students.

Overall, students in public charter schools received 27 percent less funding than students in conventional public schools. In some cities, like Atlanta, that funding gap was as high as 49 percent, with charter school students receiving roughly half as much money as public school students. Last month, Wolf and DeAngelis published a new study on charter schools, finding that for every dollar spent, charter school students were more productive and had better outcomes than students in traditional schools. From a taxpayer accountability perspective, public charter schools are a good investment.

Despite the positive results of charter schools, particularly those in urban areas, we will undoubtedly see more Democratic presidential candidates following in Sanders’s footsteps by proposing federal restrictions on education choice. With a trend toward collectivism, the idea of individual freedom and parental choice in education is concerning to many on the left. They cite segregation and inequality as societal scourges yet dismiss education choice mechanisms designed to free families from forced government schooling tied to one’s zip code.

All parents should have the freedom to choose the best educational option for their children, and all children should have the best opportunity to reach their full potential. Doubling down on efforts to strengthen an inherently coercive system of mass schooling by diminishing education choice is a troubling retreat from freedom and opportunity.

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Mark LeBar: Equality as an Ideal (43m)

This episode features a lecture by philosophy professor Mark LeBar from 2012. Mark considers what kind of social or political ideal we ought to have, with a specific focus on equality. There are numerous types of equality, and philosophers tend to be concerned with what Mark refers to as normative equality, which is concerned with how we as individuals ought to treat others. Purchase books by Mark LeBar on Amazon here.

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Backlash Immortal

Here’s a two-step exercise.

Step 1: Read this passage.

Based on research to date, there would seem to be little reason to worry about a protectionist backlash against globalization in response to rising inequality. If the “average” economist thinks that technology’s role has been four times as important as that of trade, surely policy discussion is focusing on how to even out the gains from technology, not on how to erect new trade barriers? Unfortunately, this is not the case. My reading of the current U.S. policy debate is that such a backlash is already underway. This is particularly so with respect to setting the terms of trade-policy debate.

This assessment is based on a few broad observations. First, in the United States there has not been a concerted policy effort — at either the federal level or the state level — to ameliorate the recent wage problems of the less skilled. Whether this is good or bad is open to debate on various philosophical and ethical grounds. But regardless of this, inaction has an important political implication: the median U.S. voter has experienced disappointing wage performance for more than 20 years. Labour economists often distinguish the more-skilled and less-skilled by the college-graduate / high-school graduate distinction. Table 3 shows that by this convention about 75% of the U.S. labour force is less-skilled. The wage problems of the less-skilled affect the majority of the U.S. population, not just a small minority of it. Has this voting bloc made its political might felt?…

[S]everal recent political events in the United States suggest a marked turn away from policies aimed at freer trade.

Step 2: Guess the year it was published.

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Done guessing?  Here are the “recent political events” the author names.

The events include Ross Perot’s strong electoral performance in 1992; the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) debate and close Congressional vote in 1993; Pat Buchanan’s strong electoral performance in 1996; and the failure by Congress to renew “fast-track” negotiating authority for the President in 1997; and the House of Republicans’ reluctance to renew funding for the International Monetary Fund in 1998. Clearly, all these events involved other issues in addition to trade. But the consensus analysis of them factored in sentiment for greater protectionism. Based on events like these one can argue that a protectionist backlash is already underway.

Yes, this piece (Matthew Slaughter‘s “Globalisation and Wages: A Tale of Two Perspectives“) was published a full two decades ago in The World Economy.  

What should we conclude?

You could call the piece “prescient.”  But how prescient is it to predict a “backlash against free trade” almost two decades in advance?  What if that backlash is itself mostly rhetorical?

I say the real lesson of this piece is that free trade is a hardy weed.  Politicians are always complaining about free trade.  Free trade is never popular.  If you look at policy, “warning signs” and “harbingers” of radical change abound.  Before you announce the “beginning of the end” for free trade, though, remember that the world is vast.  A thousand dead “canaries in the coal mine” shows next to nothing when the world contains billions of canaries.  Whispers of change pale before status quo bias.

The preachers of backlash habitually paint themselves as “realists.”  The real realists, however, aren’t the people who highlight the multitudinous threats to free trade.  The real realists aren’t the people who opine, “We need to seriously address inequality or else the populists will win.”  No, the real realists are the people who stare at the multitudinous threats and say, “Meh.”  The real realists are the people who refuse to be stampeded into fighting populism with populism.

Be a real realist.

P.S. The rest of Slaughter’s piece, by the way, is golden.  He wasn’t the first to say this, but he says it well:

In the United States, supporters of free trade have ceded the terms of debate to their opponents, making it very hard to argue the true merits of free trade. Trade supporters, knowingly or not, are increasingly making specious arguments that are prone to fail and thereby lend support to opponents. Consider, for example, the argument that “freer trade creates jobs.” No: on net trade neither creates nor destroys jobs — it is about the kinds of jobs in an economy, not the number of jobs. Similarly, consider “freer trade raises exports.” Maybe, at best: the overall level of U.S. exports depends mainly on macroeconomic considerations like the exchange rate and the level of foreign aggregate demand.

[…]

To reverse the trend towards greater trade protection, I think that the key change needs to be with the terms of debate. The proponents of free trade need to make the correct arguments
about trade’s benefits: comparative advantage, greater product varieties, greater product-market competition, and so on. This recommendation is probably not new, but it still seems timely.
To solidify support for freer trade, debate needs to move away from trade balances and jobs — if for no other reason that business cycles and recessions will always drive these numbers the
“wrong” way. In particular, successful arguments might develop the “trade is a form of technological change” analogy. In the United States the baseline assumption tends to be that technology’s aggregate gains outweigh any redistributive costs; public-policy and media discussions of technology often get at its general-equilibrium gains. But discussions of trade almost always get stuck in the partial-equilibrium issue of job creation and job destruction. Maybe this can change with a change in the terms of debate.

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Governing Least: A Litany of Insight

Dan Moller’s Governing Least is packed with random insights and philosophic wit.  Some highlights:

Why so much political philosophy sounds desperate:

Only those already unsympathetic to utilitarianism are likely to be swayed by Rawls’s brief observations. Those who begin their political philosophy by defending the morality of rights don’t so much preach to the choir as exorcize the elect.

Why so much political philosophy sounds so blind:

The reason France does not require aid is not because some external group took pity on the French, but that they were able to generate exponential economic growth themselves. This makes it puzzling that philosophers write long books about aid without mentioning economic growth, and generally seem to imply that the path to escaping poverty lies through individual altruism. Why ignore the only mechanism that has ever succeeded in lifting millions of people out of poverty when thinking about poverty?

A great explanation of the Theory of the Second-Best:

Suppose that a company enjoys monopoly powers that we cannot immediately remove under the present regulatory regime, but that one of its upstart rivals enjoys a market- distorting state subsidy which we can remove. It is a fallacy to infer that market efficiency will be improved by at least killing the subsidy— the reverse may well be true— just as it is fallacious to reason that if our military lacks both bombs and bombers the second- best solution is at least to build the bombers.

Why predictable outcomes can co-exist with abundant opportunity:

The data on intergenerational mobility or its absence is sobering, to say the least. In the United States, sometimes this leads commentators to call into question the traditional self- conception of America as a “land of opportunity.” It’s hardly a land of opportunity if outcomes are determined at birth, runs the criticism.

Let us consider this reasoning in more detail. The critic seems to reason as follows: If there were anything like equality of opportunity, then we couldn’t predict outcomes at birth, but we can, and so the land of opportunity is a myth. Let us assume the standard to meet here isn’t exact equality of opportunity for every single citizen. Could there still be reasonably high levels of opportunity despite outcomes— including bad ones— being highly predictable from the start? The critic seems to assume the following principle:

Predictability defeats opportunity: if we are able to specify social outcomes with a high degree of accuracy in advance, then the people in question cannot enjoy much opportunity.

Why accept this principle? What is it that connects predictability and opportunity? The obvious answer is that we think we know enough about people to be confident that if they did enjoy opportunities, they wouldn’t exercise them in a way that leads to bad social outcomes. The fact that we know that Smith will end up poor in all likelihood suggests that he is powerless to avoid it, since if he were capable of influencing the outcome, then he would. This amounts to another, deeper principle:

Predictability is evidence of incapacity: the fact that we can predict poor social outcomes is evidence that those who experience them lack a capacity for avoiding them.

Another way of putting the matter is that a fixed proportion of poor outcomes might be bad, but it wouldn’t be bad for reasons of diminished opportunity, since it might be the case that there are going to be winners and losers in anything resembling a free society, and as long as everyone has a fair shot at being a winner, things aren’t so bad. (No doubt more would need to be said about what “losing” amounts to for us to feel reassured.) What is terrible about predictability is that the losers aren’t just random, but never had a chance. Because predictability is evidence of incapacity, we know that those with poor outcomes never had a chance to succeed, and a fortiori they lacked anything like an equal or reasonable opportunity for success.

The problem is that it isn’t true that predictability, in itself, is evidence of incapacity, that outcomes are beyond our control. I don’t want to deny in the end that certain forms of incapacity do play a role in social outcomes, but how much is far from settled, and by opening with the assumption that predictability implies incapacity, we go wrong from the start. The fundamental confusion is between the epistemic question of what we can say about the future and the metaphysical question of what people are able to do at a given time in given circumstances. There are various fancy examples to illustrate this in the free- will literature, but for our purposes we can stick to some everyday examples:

Rope line: at the airport, we predict with great confidence that people will walk along a particular circuitous path— the one laid out by the velvet ropes. Nevertheless, the passengers are free to step over the ropes any time they like. It’s just that hardly anyone does. Predictability here doesn’t imply incapacity, it’s just that the passengers all have reason to exercise their freedom in a certain way.
Victim-blaming is (often) question-begging:
[I]t sounds mean to claim that people generally have a capacity to influence social outcomes when thinking about the poor, a bit like victim-blaming. But such a denial would involve insisting that something like the following claims are generally true (readers are invited to imagine these in the mouths of their own children facing unfavorable social circumstances, such as a lousy school system):
• “I can’t help it that I skipped class.”
• “It wasn’t possible to do my homework.”
• “I had no control over whether I had children.”
• “There was no way I could have worked this past year.”
It is important to acknowledge that for some people, these statements will be true. Mothers have children due to rape, classes go unattended because of gunfire or violence in the school, recessions destroy employment opportunities even for those who are highly qualified and persevering and willing to accept low wages. The point isn’t that all poor social outcomes are blameworthy, but that most (not all) people can exercise an enormous amount of influence over whether they lead a decent life in the developed world, even when ignorance or other internal impediments bar the way.
Governing Least is so packed with insight that I could easily have made this post three times longer.  Read it and see for yourself!
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Dan Moller’s Governing Least

Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority is definitely my favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  Dan Moller’s new Governing Least, however, is definitely now my second-favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  The two books have much in common: Both use common-sense ethics to argue for libertarian politics.  Both are calm, logical, and ever-mindful of potential criticisms.  Both strive to persuade reasonable people who don’t already agree with them.  Both are packed with broader insights.  And despite these parallels, both are deeply original.

So what’s most original about Moller’s position?  Instead of focusing on the rights of the victims of coercion, Moller emphasizes the effrontery of the advocates of coercion:

[I]n my account libertarianism emerges from everyday moral beliefs we have about when we are permitted to shift our burdens onto others. In fact, my account intentionally downplays the role of rights, and is motivated by doubts about what we may demand of others, rather than outrage about what others demand of us.

The effrontery is most blatant when you speak in the first person:

Imagine calling a town hall meeting and delivering the following speech:

My dear assembled citizens: I know most of us are strangers, but of late I have fallen on hard times through no fault of my own, by sheer bad luck. My savings are low, and I don’t have friends or family to help. Now as you know, I’ve previously asked for help from you as private citizens, as a matter of charity. But unfortunately that hasn’t been sufficient. Thus, I’m here now to insist that you (yes you, Emma, and you, John) owe me assistance as a matter of justice. It is a deep violation if you don’t work additional hours, take fewer vacations if need be, live in a smaller house, or send your kids to a worse school, in order to help me. Failing to do so is no less an injustice than failing to pay your debts.

Moreover, calling this an injustice means that it’s not enough that you comply with your obligations by working on my behalf. No, I insist that you help me to force your fellow citizens to assist me. It doesn’t matter if these others say to you that they need the money for their own purposes, that they prefer worthier causes, or if they’re just hard-hearted and don’t care. To the extent you care about justice, you must help me to force these others to assist me whether they wish to or not, since that is what is owed me in light of my recent bad luck.

Could you bring yourself to make this speech?

The fundamental objection to Moller’s position, he thinks, is to claim that governments have “emergent moral powers.”  But Moller firmly denies this.  Governments are just groups of people, so they are morally obliged to follow the same moral principles as everyone else.  While this may seem like libertarian question-begging, there’s nothing uniquely libertarian about it:

It is notable that many who wish to block rights-based objections to state action are nevertheless eager to enter their own moral objections to what the state does. Many of those unsympathetic to attacks on taxation rooted in individual rights also portray the absence of welfare provisions or various immigration policies as “unconscionable.” There is nothing inconsistent about this; the one set of moral claims may be right and the other confused. But the objection then cannot be based on the emergent moral powers of the state. We cannot both reject appeals to individuals rights on the general grounds that morality has nothing to tell us about what may emerge from government institutions, and then do just that, substituting our own preferred brand of interpersonal morality. Once we notice this, support for emergence should shrink drastically, since it will only come from those who think there are no policies of the state that can be rejected on fundamental
moral grounds. The non- emergence assumption per se has no particular ideological leanings.

But doesn’t common-sense morality admit that rights to person and property are not absolute?  Of course; exceptions abound.  Moller sternly emphasizes, however, that these exceptions come with supplemental moral burdens attached.  In his “Emergency” hypothetical, for example, you steal $1000 under duress.  What then?

I propose the following non-exhaustive list of residual obligations for cases like Emergency:

Restitution: although I didn’t do wrong, I must repay the $1,000 if possible, perhaps in reasonable installments.

Compensation: to the extent you are otherwise harmed by my actions, I should attempt to compensate you. For instance, if I smashed your windows getting in or forced you to incur some loss because you had to come home at short notice, I must compensate you at some reasonable rate.

Sympathy: it is incumbent on me to convey, if not an apology for my (permissible) actions, at least sympathy for the harm I have caused you. (“I’m very sorry I had to do that” would be the natural if slightly misleading phrase.) I cannot offer a Gallic shrug at your distress and announce, “I did nothing wrong— it’s your problem” as you survey the wreckage of your home. To do so would exhibit a serious character flaw.

Responsibility: my obligations are not just backward looking, but forward looking. If I can reasonably foresee that some action of mine will put me in the position of facing an emergency that will then render it permissible to harm you, I must take responsibility to avoid such actions if possible. I should not think that I have less reason to take responsibility because I can avoid harms by transferring them to you instead. And failing to take responsibility weakens my claim to impose costs on others when the time comes.

A related principle is worth mentioning as well:

Need: my warrant for harming you depends on how bad my situation is. I cannot harm you if I am doing fine already merely in order to improve my position still further. I may be permitted to take your $1,000 to avert a physical threat, but not in order to make a lucrative investment in order to get even richer.

The political implications are expansive, starting with:

A welfare state justified in virtue of overriding reasons to promote the good of the beneficiaries incurs these residual obligations. Flouting them amounts to unfair burden- shifting. What would it look like actually to satisfy them? For starters, if I were the beneficiary of some emergency medical procedure that a third party compelled others to contribute to— say a state agency— I would be obligated to
repay those charged for my benefit, possibly with some compensatory surcharge. If unable to pay, I would be required to pay in installments, with the agency keeping track of my income and tax records to ensure that my repayment were in line with my means…

Moreover, in repaying, my attitude toward my fellow citizens ought to be one of gratitude for coming to my assistance, as opposed to viewing these services as entitlements due to me as a matter of citizenship. This may seem curious: by hypothesis, the services I received made it past the threshold, meaning that the wealth transfers involved were permissible, and since I am repaying, they won’t
even be net transfers in the long run, barring misfortune. Depending on how badly I needed aid, aiding may even have been obligatory on a third party. Why should I express gratitude for others fulfilling their duties? Consider the Gallic shrug— that supreme expression of indifference at someone else’s misfortunes, while disclaiming all responsibility for rectifying them, frequently encountered
in Parisian cafés. Why shouldn’t I shrug my Gallic shrug at the rich complaining about their tax bill, and point out I merely got what I was entitled to, as would they in a similar situation?

This complaint would be apt if appropriate moral responses were a function solely of whether our acts are required or permissible. But there are all kinds of inappropriate moral responses even when what we have done is permissible or when what the other has done was required. If we are to meet for lunch and an urgent business affair obtrudes itself, I may be permitted to skip our lunch, but
I shouldn’t treat putting you out lightly. What makes a Gallic shrug a vice here is that beneath the outer layer of permissibility there remains an inner structure whereby you have been harmed for my sake, which ought to be a source of concern, leading to some appropriate expression of regret if I am a decent person.  And the same is true in the case of welfare services. This is easy to ignore because
of the opaque veils of state bureaucracy. But behind the faceless agency lie people who are harmed for the sake of benefiting me.

Governing Least manages to be at once readable and dense.  And though you can’t tell from the passages I just quoted, Moller also repeatedly appeals to and grapples with cutting-edge social science.  What, for example, should philosophers think about Greg Clark’s work on the long-run heritability of social status?  Moller’s take will surprise many of you.

Last question: Why do I still prefer Huemer to Moller?  Intellectually, because Huemer’s appeal to individual rights is just more clear-cut than Moller’s objection to “burden-shifting.”  Furthermore, Huemer focuses on the broader case for libertarianism, while Moller self-consciously focuses on opposition to the welfare state.*  And while Moller’s book is beautifully written and well-organized, Huemer’s is stellar on both counts.

Thus, if you’re only going to read one book of libertarian political philosophy, I still say you should read The Problem of Political Authority.  If you’re willing to read two such books, however, read Governing Least.  I loved it.

* Moller: “I also ignore the many noneconomic causes that libertarians have sometimes taken up, like free speech, gay marriage, and drug legalization. This is the fun part of libertarianism and requires little heroism to defend. Many disagree with such policies, but few think their sponsors cruel or ungenerous, while resistance to the welfare state and programs intended to foster economic equality evoke precisely that response.”

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