Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
John W. PayneAgainst Citizenship
Posted at 5:52 pm on September 26, 2010, by John W. Payne

Many conservatives have been kicking up a fuss over birthright citizenship, which automatically makes any child born on American soil an American citizen regardless of whether the child’s parents are American citizens. These conservatives complain that so-called “anchor babies” allow immigrants stay in the country illegally and take jobs from “real” Americans. I agree that these children did nothing to deserve American citizenship, but I find the conservatives’ selectivity repugnant. After all, the children of American citizens did nothing to deserve their citizenship either.

So here’s what I propose: no one should get American citizenship at birth. Everyone in America, citizen or not, should still have all the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights, but if someone wants to vote or run for public office, it is completely reasonable to demand that they have a working knowledge of American government. When an immigrant seeks naturalized citizenship, he has to take a test that covers American history and civics–vital information for being an informed participant in the democratic process–and I fail to see, at least in principle, why we shouldn’t all potential voters to pass the same test.

Pundits constantly bemoan the fact that the electorate is uninformed or, even worse, misinformed. This would remedy that problem to some degree and could very well lead to better policy outcomes. In The Myth of the Rational Voter, which I discussed in my last post, Bryan Caplan shows that the informed public is far more likely to agree with economists on issues like free trade and immigration (i.e. more supportive of both) than the general public. I’m under no illusion that restricting the franchise to the informed would usher in my libertarian utopia, but it might lead to fewer obviously stupid policies like protective tariffs.

My one reservation about this plan is that there would be an incentive for a powerful interest group to game the test and systematically exclude certain sets of people, and I think that’s worrisome enough that I’m not adamantly in favor of implementing such a system. Nonetheless, in principle I think the idea is sound. Democracy should not be an end in itself. It is only good if it produces good policies, and there are numerous (and mostly obvious) reasons to think that an informed public would vote for better policies than the ones we currently live under. It would be nice if all Americans were well informed about our government and public policy, but that’s never going to happen–the incentives just aren’t there–so why not limit the electorate to those who actually care enough to know what they are doing when they vote?

Cross-posted at Rough Ol’ Boy.

Filed under: Public Choice
Comments: 5 Comments

John W. PayneAt the Risk of Being Unpopular, This Economist Places the Blame for All This Squarely on You, the Voter!
Posted at 5:50 pm on September 26, 2010, by John W. Payne

I’m currently reading The Myth of the Rational Voter by George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan, and his basic thesis is that democracies enact bad policies not because the democratic process is take over by self-interested elites but because the people are ignorant and biased and get precisely the bad policies they want. I’m certainly inclined to agree with this as I believe that, by and large, the people are stupid, vicious, and evil (not you, dear reader; you take the time to listen to what I have to say), but I think Caplan errs when he literally marginalizes the role of special interests:

Politicians’ wiggle room creates opportunities for special interest groups–private and public, lobbyists and bureaucrats–to get their way. On my account, though, interest groups are unlikely to to directly “subvert” the democratic process. Politicians rarely stick their necks out for unpopular policies because an interest group begs them–or pays them–to do so. Their careers are on the line; it is not worth the risk. Instead, interest groups push along the margins of public indifference. If the public has no strong feelings about how to reduce dependence on foreign old, ethanol producers might finagle a tax credit for themselves. No matter how hard they lobbied, though, they would fail to ban gasoline. (Emphasis in original.)

I think this explains much if not most of public policy, but there are some glaring exceptions where special interests have persuaded Congress, by comfortable majorities, to override public opinion. To take a recent example, solid majorities opposed bailing out GM and Chrysler, and the public followed the issue about as closely as any in the last two years, yet it still passed Congress with bipartisan support. Similarly, although the TARP was initially popular, by the time the second round of funding was set to be released, the public had turned overwhelmingly against it, but there was never a realistic possibility Congress would rescind the funding.

Now, I’m sure these votes will come back to hurt some Congressmen in November but not all that many, and I think this is where Caplan’s theory falters. Congressional districts are so heavily gerrymandered that most incumbents never face a serious challenge regardless of their voting record. Nancy Pelosi could kill and eat a hobo in the Haight-Ashbury, and the people of San Francisco would still return her to Congress. Members of Congress from safe districts, which is about 70-80 percent of the House, are essentially free to indulge whatever special interests they please, so when basically every lobbyist in Washington starts telling them that the sky will fall if they don’t start shoveling money into the yawning mouths of failing banks and auto companies, they willingly complied without regard to public opinion.

Although I’m only about forty pages into the book, Caplan’s theory of democratic failure seems relatively sound, but he should take into account how non-competitive most elections are.

Cross-posted at Rough Ol’ Boy.

Filed under: Public Choice
Comments: 2 Comments

Sarah BrodskyBodies
Posted at 1:39 pm on September 14, 2010, by Sarah Brodsky

The company behind “Bodies… The Exhibition,” which is coming to Missouri in October, has received a lot of criticism for displaying cadavers it obtained from the Chinese Bureau of Police. At least one Missouri congressman has tried to prevent the exhibit from appearing at a mall in his district. But the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that “Bodies” will take place as planned, because Missouri’s Attorney General is letting the company get away with a wimpy disclaimer:

“Premier cannot independently verify the complete provenance of the human remains in this exhibition,” reads the disclaimer, which must be displayed at the mall and on the exhibit’s Web page.

It can’t verify the provenance? Are we talking about oil paintings and wine bottles here, or human bodies? The disclaimer would be clearer if it read, “We have no clue whether anyone would have wanted their body parts to be displayed here, but since they can’t speak for themselves, we’re happy to cash in.”

It seems particularly jarring that this company is allowed to blithely collect admissions fees when you think of all the people who would like to purchase human organs from consenting donors, but are forbidden by law. There are people who would sign and notarize all the consent forms, and who are not Chinese political prisoners, and who would receive some personal benefit from the transaction. So why don’t we let them go ahead and sell their organs, with a disclaimer that they can’t verify… what? Their own free will?

No, that’s illegal, because the government has decreed such a transaction so morally hazardous that even saving a life doesn’t outweigh the danger. But when someone wants to tack human remains up on a wall and sell tickets, they can do that if they just mouth the right words. After all, the show must go on.

Filed under: Culture, Health Care
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Wirkman VirkkalaOffshore Drilling
Posted at 9:12 pm on September 7, 2010, by Wirkman Virkkala

A rising tide of legal saber-rattling against Craigslist for its “Adult Services” listings has finally achieved something: The good people at Craigslist took down the listings. In their place, the company put up a stark, white-on-black CENSORED sign.

So I have to ask: Is making the U.S. less free (or even seem less free) a victory of some kind?

The prosecuting attorneys who pushed this — most importantly “Connecticut’s insufferably self-righteous” Richard Blumenthal — say they want to curb prostitution (and of course bring up “child prostitution”). That they’re willing to do this by attacking an online classified listing service rather than the services themselves is interesting.

But are they really getting anywhere? The offensive listings are quickly migrating to other services, many of them on the Web but hosted in other countries.

So, a Pyrrhic victory, at best.

More likely, though, it’s a definite loss, not only of the liberty of the press, but for polite society’s continual fight against crime.

You see, there are other crimes associated with prostitution, other than the proscribed contractual activity itself. Johns sometimes beat up hookers; pimps sometimes beat up johns. Such acts of extreme violence are far worse than prostitution as such, and must be fought.

By forcing the Internet listings for “Adult Services” off-shore, police and prosecutors now have less access to the means of actually fighting very violent crimes. Getting personal information (by warrant) from the ISP? Now not possible.

The ability to “drill down” through server information to get at real criminals has been undermined. By our public servants.

I fail to see the logic of this, unless all it ever really amounted to was a publicity operation for up-and-coming prosecutors.

Even at best, it’s an example of the kind of narrow-bandwidth thinking that politicians habitually apply to markets: Concentrate on one element of a problem, and forget about the more dispersed secondary and tertiary effects.

Indeed, the biggest hurdle to preventing child exploitation and slave-based  prostitution is the continued illegality of prostitution as such. The best way to protect children and weak folk is to make “capitalist acts between consenting adults” legal even in cases of sexual interaction — that is, recognize the inherent peaceful and contractual nature of prostitution — allowing police to work with prostitutes against abusive pimps and clients, enabling police to side with the adults in the sex-worker community to patrol the market for the horrendous abuses against children prosecutors say they are against.

Cross-posted at Wirkman Netizen.

Filed under: Child Policy
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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson






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