Let People Find Their Own Solutions

It amazes me how often people create worse problems while trying to solve problems.

Most problems can be solved; some probably can’t. Don’t give up trying to solve the hard problems, though. You never know if the Elixir of Life is waiting for you to discover just around the next bend.

The best approach is to let people find their own solutions. Most of their ideas will fail; some will be spectacular failures, but as long as no one’s solution is forced on everyone else, people can keep trying different things. The more ideas that get tried, the more problems will be solved.

Often you won’t know if an idea is good until you let people try it for a while. Then, if it turns out badly, the people need to be free to drop it.

Even some of the bad ideas might have the seed of a real solution, just needing a little tweak to work. It’s only when you set a bad idea in stone — or in law — that it becomes hard to reverse.

When you force a one-size-fits-all “solution” on everyone, a bad idea can do lasting damage.

Most proposals for solving anthropogenic global climate change — “global warming” — are like this. Whether the crisis is real or not matters little. Let people try the ideas they believe will help, but don’t let them impose those solutions on anyone. This would limit what others can try and is almost guaranteed to prevent a real, lasting solution from being discovered. If one is needed.

The most tragic examples are when someone causes more of the social problems they imagine their ideas would address. Things like poverty and crime come to mind.

If your anti-poverty program hasn’t resulted in a measurable easing of poverty it’s time to drop it and try something else. Many times, doing nothing would be better than what is being done.

Crime is another topic where this applies. Of course, I’m referring to real crime — violations of life, liberty, and property — not acts that harm no one other than the feelings of politicians.

I believe, from personal experience and observation, that universal voluntary gun possession would prevent most crime. Others believe a total gun ban (exempting government employees) would be the fix. Only one of those doesn’t rely on forcing a rights-violating, one-size-fits-all approach on every individual in society, so only one is ethical.

If your idea isn’t ethical, I’ll pass, no matter how well it works. With this one limit, find your best ideas.

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The Universal Basic Income: Newly Contentious

The Universal Basic Income (UBI) was the topic of my other “Contentious Issues in Classical Liberalism” presentation.  Here, at least, I can see the superficial appeal for the typical member of the Mont Pelerin Society.  Unlike the conventional welfare state, the UBI doesn’t try to micro-manage human behavior.  It doesn’t claim to know how anyone – no matter how poor – should live their lives.  It gives bureaucrats near-zero discretion.  And it preserves recipients’ marginal incentives to work.  The UBI gives money to everyone, then lets the free market work.

What do these arguments overlook?  For starters, since taxpayers have to support the UBI whether they like it or not, the moral presumption in favor of recipients’ “choice” is more than a little muddy.  Voluntary donors get to decide how their money gets spent; why shouldn’t involuntary donors have the same right?

On reflection, moreover, there are strong reasons for taxpayers to exercise this right.  Most obviously, because their first priority is to take care of children.  “You can’t use food stamps for alcohol” need not be paternalistic; maybe it’s just a pragmatic way to feed the hungry children of alcoholic parents.

Poor parenting aside, the very fact that an adult needs government help is good reason to question their personal responsibility.  If you want to sleep on my couch while you search for a job, I refuse to “just trust your best judgment” about how to get your life in order.  Anyone who wants my help has to strive to find a job, not sit around drinking my wine.  It’s hard to see why taxpayers should be more relaxed (though due to the tragedy of the fiscal commons, they almost always are).

The main reason why classical liberals smile upon the UBI, I fear, is its elegant simplicity.  If we adopt one straightforward poverty program, we can rid ourselves of all the rest.  Unfortunately, as my presentation explains, the UBI’s cost is exorbitant, the side effects are awful, and the moral justification is ultimately flimsy.  The right moderate reform for classical liberals to push is not the UBI, but Austerity for Liberty.

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Why is Immigration a “Contentious Issue in Classical Liberalism”?

“Contentious Issues in Classical Liberalism” was the theme of this year’s Mont Pelerin Society.  This gave me a chance to explore a major puzzle: Sociologically, immigration clearly deserves to be on the agenda.  After all, many people otherwise sympathetic to human freedom and free markets support even more immigration restrictions than we already have.  Intellectually, however, it’s hard to see why.

The plot thickens when you notice that pro-freedom immigration skeptics routinely use arguments that almost never use in any other context, starting with:

1. Collective ownership.  Yes, if countries are the collective property of their citizens, then they have a right to regulate immigration.  But this also implies nations’ right to regulate everything else, too!  You can’t live on my land without my consent, but neither can you open a store on my land without my consent, or even hire someone to work on my land for less than the minimum wage without my consent.

2. Collective guilt.  Yes, if e.g. foreign Muslims are collectively guilty for whatever wrongs foreign Muslims have done in the past, then immigration restrictions against Muslims would be justified.  But this also implies that other people can legitimately hold us collectively guilty for whatever wrongs “we’ve” done in the past.  So affirmative action, reparations for slavery and colonialism, returning land to American Indians, and much more are suddenly on the agenda.

3. Shocking anecdotes.  Yes, if we ought to take shocking anecdotes seriously, then any awful immigrant action on CNN justifies a major policy response.  But this also implies that shocking anecdotes about poverty, health care, worker safety, and the environment on CNN also justify major policy responses.

4. Popular support.  Yes, if “This is what citizens want, and they’re entitled to get their way,” then immigration restrictions easily pass muster.  But so do virtually all the policies classical liberals traditionally oppose, starting with protectionism and a bunch of price controls.

Unless you’re going to abandon the whole classical liberal framework, basic intellectual hygiene requires you to excise any argument along these lines.  What remains?  Only arguments claiming that the consequences of immigration are awful enough to overcome the standard classical liberal presumption against government action.

How does that approach fare?  See my full presentation to find out.  Bonus: A bunch of Zach Weinersmith cartoons!

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Keeping Score

Nobody asked but …

Big Six Henderson was a Revenuer, and remains a folk legend in Kentucky — here is a good article.  In later life, he served also as the timekeeper for the Western Kentucky Teachers College basketball team.  Truth and Big Six’s stories sometimes aligned, but I cannot attest here.  It is related that Big Six once said, after WK won on a last (or perhaps beyond last) second shot, “There’s no reason to lose if you’re the one keeping score.”  Whether he said it, or not, the thing itself seems true.

Remember when POTUS took credit for the commercial airline safety record?  POTUS is an instinctive storyteller.  The process is called controlling the narrative.  It consists of cherry picking the factoids, and to a lesser degree, the facts — or re-arranging the frame.

Here is another article, in which POTUS seeks to abolish poverty by redefining it.  Remember that he also reports frequently on progress of the border wall, turning imagination into infrastructure.

This is nothing new. LBJ, FDR, WW, TR, and Honest Abe (sic) were past masters.

— Kilgore Forelle

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War for Poverty

When a country is mired in poverty, violent revolution is the most emotionally appealing remedy.  So cinematic.  Since the powers that be almost never agree, any call for violent revolution is, in practice, a call for civil war.  But how well does the “remedy” of civil war actually work?  So far, the very best treatment I’ve found is contained within Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion:

Civil war is development in reverse.  It damages both the country itself and its neighbors.  Let’s start with the country itself.  Civil war tends to reduce growth by around 2.3% per year, so the typical seven-year war leaves a country around 15 percent poorer than it would have been…

Both economic losses and disease are highly persistent: they do not stop once the fighting stops.  Most of the costs of civil war, perhaps as much as half, accrue after the war is over.  Of course, sometimes the rebellion is worth it, with rebel victories ushering in an age of social justice, but this does not happen often.  Usually the political legacy is about as bad as the economic legacy – a deterioration in political rights.  A rebellion is an extremely unreliable way of bringing about positive change.  Rebel leaders who claim to have launched a civil war for the good of their country are usually deceiving themselves, others, or both.

Furthermore, civil war breeds civil war:

Civil wars are highly persistent.  The average international war, which is nasty enough, lasts about six months.  You can do a lot of damage in six months.  But the average civil war lasts more than ten times as long, even longer if you start off poor…

Having looked at why civil wars started and how long they lasted, we then looked at what happened when they were over.  As previously noted, the end of a war often is not the end of the conflict; once over, a conflict is alarmingly likely to restart.  Furthermore, the experience of having been through a civil war roughly doubles the risk of another conflict.  Only around half of the countries in which a conflict has ended manage to make it through a decade without relapsing into war.

Along the way, Collier also heaps amusing scorn on the Third World’s indigenous war-mongers and their credulous First World apologists:

Our work has proved controversial.  In part this is because the people attracted to the academic study of conflict tend to be politically engaged and are sympathetic to the acute grievances enunciated by various rebel movements, who often adopt extreme measures to oppose governments that may indeed be unsavory.  To such academics, the whole idea of investigating statistically whether there is a relationship between objective measures of grievance and a propensity to rebel is taken to be more or less an insult, since they know there is one.

And:

[T]he rebel groups generate a discourse of grievance that feeds these concerns, in effect inviting fellow travelers to imagine themselves wearing bandoliers on the barricades.  Unfortunately, you simply can’t trust the rebel discourse of concern for social justice; what else do you expect them to say?

A calm look at the data shows that this skepticism is well-justified:

Genuine grievances should be addressed whether or not they provoke rebellion, yet all too often they are not redressed.  But the sad reality seems to be that grievances are pretty common.  Rebels usually have something to complain about, and if they don’t they make it up.  All too often the really disadvantaged are in no position to rebel; they just suffer quietly.

Peace lacks the romance of war, just as appeasement lacks the romance of rebellion.  Yet if you really want desperate countries to escape poverty, you should hew to the path of peace.  If appeasement is the price of peace, you should probably pay it.  Civil war is a viable – though high-risk – strategy for power-hungry leaders.  For countries, however, it is a path to wretched ruin.

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Statism = Nihilism = Statism

I am not a nihilist. I don’t want to watch the world burn, and I certainly don’t want to be the one to set it on fire.

Yes, I hate and oppose negative things like governments and other archators, but I don’t hate and oppose everything. I don’t want to destroy society (that’s why I don’t support political governments). I don’t want to destroy most people. I don’t want to break windows and loot and flip over cars. Well, at least not those owned by people rather than governments. I hate and oppose those things which are most destructive– things which nihilists should love. It’s why I can’t be a statist.

However, I understand the frustration which drives some to a nihilistic world-view. I can’t even really blame them for feeling that way, even if I would blame them if they carried it out.

I’m a personal pessimist, but a long-term optimist. My own life may never be what I wish, but in the long term– maybe longer than several human lifespans– I think things will keep getting better. I am sad when I think how much horror and tyranny will probably have to pass between now and then.

I do what I can to give people the chance to avoid it, but my voice is small and unimportant. I wish I could get through to people to save them the pain, but most people (including myself) don’t learn without pain. It’s bad enough when people cause themselves pain, but so much worse when their bad choices cause pain to others.

And make no mistake: statism is a bad, bad choice. No matter how many believe it is normal. No matter how few can see another path. It’s a really dumb thing to cling to. Yet, cling they do. They will make the nihilists “happy” with the inevitable results of statism: death, destruction, poverty, slavery, and just about all other bad outcomes. Outcomes guaranteed by people claiming to want to help… by doing the opposite of the right thing.

And yet, even with all that, I’m not a nihilist and could never be one.

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