Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Justin M. StoddardFirst, Do No Harm
Posted at 11:30 pm on August 3, 2012, by Justin M. Stoddard

Just as the Kony 2012 phenomenon swept through the Internet earlier this year, so now does the current Chick-fil-A kerfuffle.

Don’t worry, this post isn’t about Chick-fil-A specifically, but instead about some things I’ve learned and observed over the past few weeks as I followed (and often commented upon) the controversy.

The comments Dan Cathy made about same sex marriage didn’t greatly disturb me apart from the notion that they were completely wrong-headed and just blatantly silly. After all, the president of the United States pretty much expressed the exact same opinions up until recently when we learned that his views had “evolved.” One can be cynical about that, as he is up for re-election and the timing of that “evolution” was, how do I put it, convenient. But, one can also be charitable about it. We tend to admire a person who is willing to change their mind on an issue.

Still, the comments in and of themselves were enough to dissuade me from doing business there. Truth be told, this was not anything near a huge sacrifice for me as I’ve only been a patron there less than ten times in my entire life.

When it came out that Chick-fil-A had given millions of dollars to groups who actively advocate for and use the power of government as a means to deny basic individual rights, it brought up the level of ire I had towards the company. If Chick-fil-A were to go out of business tomorrow, that would be just fine with me.

But, things rapidly got out of hand, as the issue became more inflamed. A call for a general boycott turned into calls for government action against Chick-fil-A. Various mayors and city council members vowed that they would not allow any new franchises within their cities. State-funded universities began campaigns to ban the stores from their campuses.

I must give credit where credit is due, as many liberal minded people opposed these actions. But there were (and are) plenty of people who support these measures.

This, of course, set off a counter-protest where people flocked to Chick-fil-A to show their support. I like to think of myself as a rather incredulous person, so I’m not overly impressed with many of the claims that this was a counter-protest in support of “free speech.” I’m sure there were people involved for whom that was their primary motivation, in that they were protesting an obvious overreach and stated threats from clueless and bumbling government officials.

No, this was a counter-protest that wrapped itself in the moniker of “traditional family values,” which the people involved believed were under attack.

The obvious point that needs to be made here is, one is not very credible if they say they are protecting “free speech” with one breath while advocating against another basic human right.

Thus, during and after the counter-protest, those who opposed Chick-fil-A began to ratchet up the issue. I received two private messages from friends on Facebook informing me that they noticed that I had “liked” Chick-fil-A’s page. They were sure, they said, that this was done in the past, but they wanted to point it out to me so I could correct that error.

Now things were getting downright creepy. It was then that several things occurred to me.

I witnessed very few people (on either side) being intellectually consistent about this issue. I decided to test this theory out by asking (on various threads and in person) this question, as can be seen in this blog post:

“Chick-fil-A gives money to groups that advocate against individual rights. That’s bad. It’s why I won’t be doing business there anymore. You seem to be showing a great deal of outrage over this, so allow me to reframe the problem on a larger scale.

The president of the United States actively assassinates people in other countries. He reserves the right to assassinate American citizens by way of secret committee. He reserves the right to keep any of that information from you. He maintains a prison on an island where no average American is allowed to go, where he oversees a program of torture and secrecy. He actively rejects the “will of the people” by violently shutting down marijuana dispensaries in states that have democratically elected to allow them. He has deported more people from the United States than any president in U.S. history, and he still does not actively campaign for same-sex marriage.

In my estimation, the president of the United States has done inestimably more damage to humanity than Chick-fil-A could ever hope to accomplish.

Will you be withdrawing your support for him this coming election?”

Only one person said yes to that question, and he made that decision long ago. The responses ranged from (and I’m paraphrasing, here):

  • Romney would kill more people.
  • Not voting would only add to the problem.
  • The president wouldn’t do those things if it wasn’t for the Republicans.
  • It’s not a fair analogy.
  • You have to work within the system if you want to change it.

It seems to me that these are very unsatisfying answers. My reply to these assertions would be:

  • Should I eat at Chick-fil-A because another restaurant would be more homophobic?
  • Would boycotting Chick-fil-A only add to the problem?
  • I find it hard to believe that a president who gives himself the authority to assassinate Americans couldn’t also find the authority not to assassinate Americans.
  • It’s an apt analogy in that you’re holding a restaurant up to a higher moral standard than the president you vote for.
  • If that’s the case, you should be spending your money at Chick-fil-A in hopes that they will change their stance.

Those are specific examples. The overall gist of the counter-arguments was that Romney will do all those things but also fight against same sex marriage, abortion rights, women’s rights, and financial regulation.

The counterpoint here is obvious.

The price that some people are willing to pay for same-sex marriage, abortion rights, women’s rights, and financial regulation is assassination, torture, deportation, murder, and misery elsewhere.

I rephrased the question:

“If the president of the United States were successfully able to completely change the policies in Russia so that same-sex marriage were legal, women’s rights were enshrined, abortion rights were protected, and there was complete universal health care coverage and drastic financial regulation, but actively targeted Americans with drone attacks, tortured them without due process, and randomly inserted heavily armed soldiers into metropolitan areas, would you still vote for him?

If not, why?”

I’ve received no answer to that question.

The inherent contradiction between the answers to those two question (though they are the same in every way, except for the people affected by the policies) is this.

People delude themselves in thinking that the first choice is at best virtuous, and at worst necessary, and recognize that the second choice is murderous.

But, in fact, both choices are murderous.

The last question I ask is, what’s the threshold? What act would the president have to do that would be so vile, so evil that you would not only withdraw your support for him, but actively oppose him?

If targeted, secret assassinations of American citizens by way of secret committee and operating a secret prison where people are tortured without due process on an island where no average American can ever visit isn’t enough for you to oppose him, where are you willing to draw the line?

I’m not overly optimistic about the answers I would receive to that question for this reason: Groupthink, identity politics, and the idea of “collective rights” makes us do incredibly stupid and evil things.

There are many people still alive who not only actively apologize for, but support the tens of millions of deaths that occurred under the Stalin and Mao dictatorships. There are many more who still claim that dropping two atomic bombs on Japan was “the right thing to do.”

Today, there are people who explicitly support assassinations, murder, and torture for ideological reasons. There are also many who implicitly support it because of their ideology.

Meaning, the concept of gay rights or women’s’ rights or class rights are more important to them than individual rights, namely the right not to be murdered or tortured. They are choosing the group they identify with over the individual. So long as the president perceived as working for these group rights, individuals elsewhere pay the price.

They are just as bad as the people counter-protesting in the name of “free speech” while advocating for the rights of Christian values. As long as Christian values are being upheld, the individual does not matter.

Groupthink clouds judgement. Mob mentality destroys it. The group infused with overwrought emotion and righteous indignation discourages dissent or reason.

I’ve known people in my life who have said bigoted things. Some of those people I love dearly. I know, to the deepest depths of my soul, that most of them are not bad, bigoted people. They have expressed mistaken views, which can change. If I didn’t believe that, I would not associate with them.

If I am intellectually honest, I must admit that others have the same qualities.

Acknowledging these simple things decouples you from what the group thinks and forces you to relate to individuals qua individuals. When you’re facing an individual rather than ideological groupthink, it tends to tamp down the anger a bit.

Which brings me to my conclusion.

The concept of rights based on identity politics is a ridiculous notion. I don’t believe in gay rights or women’s rights, or rights for the poor, rights for the rich, for the handicapped, men’s rights, transgender rights, American rights, terrorist’s rights, or for any other group rights.

There are only individual rights.

I fight for same-sex marriage not because I have many friends who are gay and have a personal stake in the matter. I fight for same-sex marriage because it’s a fundamental right, left up to only the individuals involved. I fight for the free movement of people across borders not because I identify as an immigrant, but because it is a fundamental individual right to go where you please, so long as you’re not hurting anyone. I fight for the rights of children not being murdered in Afghanistan, not because it gives me an ideological advantage over someone else, but because it is a fundamental human right not to be murdered from the sky.

I cannot and will not make a choice between them. I’m not willing to shrug my shoulders at one issue to gain an ideological victory on another issue.

People tend to get very indignant when I tell them I do not vote in national elections. Whatever reason I give them, it only makes them more angry. I’ve been told that I’m apathetic (clearly not true), that I have no right to complain (ironically ironic), that I am contributing nothing (obviously false) or that I should be ashamed (I’m not).

Countering these points almost always leads to more conflict.

That’s understandable. When it comes down to it, it’s a religious debate, and people tend to get very uncomfortable and defensive when their beliefs are challenged.

But the real reason I don’t vote is simple. I’m an individual. I try to face the world on those terms. I try to identify with everyone (regardless of gender, race, or country of origin) on those terms.

Voting is a mob action. Voting makes people view the world through a collective lens. It’s always an issue of “us” against “them.” When it’s “us” against “them,” the end result is always someone else suffering so you can get what you want.

Nobody should suffer because of my preferences. Nobody need die for abortion rights or the right to get married to whomever you please.

That’s why I am completely disengaged from the political process.

I don’t ever want to be put in the position where I hold the restaurant I eat at to a higher moral standard than the president I vote for.


Filed under: Culture, Foreign Policy, Public Choice
Comments: 2 Comments
 

Justin M. StoddardNobody Believes What They Say They Believe
Posted at 9:20 pm on August 1, 2012, by Justin M. Stoddard

According to a recent Gallup Poll, 46% of Americans believe in creationism over evolution. That is, they believe that the earth was formed roughly 10,000 years ago and was first inhabited by Adam and Eve. Another 32% of Americans believe that evolution was/is theistically guided; meaning that life took millions of years to evolve, but God guided the process. This fits in line with the intelligent design argument.

These numbers are often referred to with great shock and concern from the scientific community. Many on the left of the political spectrum are also very anxious about the implications. Evolution, after all, is a scientific fact. It’s been proven to a degree of certainty which leaves no serious scientist in doubt. We know via empirical evidence that the earth is billions of years old. We have a rough, but fairly good, understanding of how life was created. We understand the evolutionary process. Nearly every field of science confirms at some level that evolution is a hard fact.

When people get together and insist that creationism or intelligent design be given time in the classroom, there is always a loud and ferocious cry of protest. In recent history, nearly every single proposal to do so has been soundly defeated. Intelligent design took such a beating in the first decade of this century that it’s not seriously considered by much of anyone, anymore. Creationists have taken their education outreach to the confines of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.

Atheists, in particular, make a much concerted effort to pile onto creationists. They are derided, made fun of, insulted, mocked, slandered, and generally reviled at conferences, in various fora, etc. One need only make a brief visit to any serious atheist or left-leaning website to see what I’m talking about.

Now, it may be that creationists often overreach and deserve some of the criticism. There is, after all, the pretty well defined Exclusionary Clause of the First Amendment. Regardless of what people believe or don’t believe, people generally don’t want other people to push their beliefs on them or their children.

Being a creationist may also signal other intentions to people. You may be against stem cell research, or gay marriage, for example. People make assumptions. Some assumptions are right, and some are wrong. It all just depends.

Regardless, those who don’t believe, or don’t believe as strongly seem to view those who do as extremely irrational, if not just plain stupid. I suspect there is more than just a bit of class warfare going on, here, but the basic point remains. For the most part, nonbelievers loathe the irrationality of those who do believe.

I think atheists and those on the left often overstate their case for alarm on the issue. There is good evidence to suggest that even though 46% of people say they are creationists, a good portion of them don’t actually believe it. Here’s where it gets tricky. They may believe they believe it, but their actions often belie those beliefs. Many creationists are taking a literal interpretation of the Bible, after all, but clearly nobody actually literally follows the tenets of the Bible. You don’t see people taking and killing slaves, or murdering their children, or adhering to the abstinence of shellfish or woven cloth because the Bible dictates it.

If people actually literally believed in the tenets of the Bible or the Koran, then there would be an incredible amount of bloodshed, violence, and anguish in this world. Also, there would never be any such thing as “interfaith” dialogues. If your way is the only way to heaven, what’s the point in understanding other beliefs?

People like Sam Harris are extremely alarmed that the former head of the Genome Mapping Project and current head of the NIH is a person who has a “close personal relationship” with God. It seems to me, however, that Francis Collins is a brilliant doctor and scientist regardless of his personal religious beliefs. In other words, his belief in God has nothing to do with how he conducts his job, regardless of what Sam Harris thinks.

I perceive religion in America as something that’s been tamed. As Bryan Caplan says in The Myth of the Rational Voter:

Given the separation of church and state, modern religion has a muted effect on nonbelievers. Scientific progress continues with or without religious approval.

There’s more to that quote, which I’ll reveal in a bit.

There was a time when I would have seen these poll results as extremely troubling, but not really anymore, given the reasons I’ve explained above. The problem isn’t usually with religion, but in how government sometimes favors religion over the individual.

Here are the results of another recent poll taken in New York State. Regardless of political allegiances, nearly 70% of voters from every region polled favored raising the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $8.50 per hour. Certainly more Democrats than Republicans agreed with the proposal, but even 58% of Republicans were in favor.

Just as with creationism (as pointed out above), the case against minimum wage laws has been definitively made. They don’t work. It has been empirically proven that minimum wage laws increases both unemployment and poverty. They adversely affect African Americans and teenagers the most. They quite literally shut people out of the workplace.

It can be argued that creationism is wrong and irrational, but in today’s modern society, you’d have a harder time proving that it was overly harmful. Contrast that with minimum wage laws, which are clearly very harmful.

My question is, why does one belief get so roundly derided by the public at large (even when the majority of the public believes in God), when the other belief gets pretty much a free pass?

In fact, it’s more than a free pass. People who believe in minimum wage laws are afforded an elevated social status. Don’t believe me? Go to work tomorrow and say the following: “Minimum wage laws hurt the poor, cause more poverty, and create unemployment.” What do you think the reaction will be? You’d be perfectly correct in saying it. Facts would be on your side. You could cite countless empirical studies and refer to most any economist (left or right) on the subject, and they would back you up.

Creationism is banned from the classroom, but incredibly harmful economic beliefs aren’t. Why?

I suspect it’s a bit of psychological projection. Voters may think they are being rational about a subject, but they most likely aren’t. As the rest of Bryan Caplan’s quote goes:

“Thus, it is in mind set, not practical influence, that voters resemble religious believers. Given the separation of church and state, modern religion has a muted effect on nonbelievers. Scientific progress continues with or without religious approval. Political/economic misconceptions, in contrast, have dramatic effects on everyone who lives under the policies they inspire–even those who see these misconceptions for what they are. If most voters think protectionism is a good idea, protectionist policies thrive; if most believe that unregulated labor markets work badly, labor markets will be heavily regulated.”

And if voters think that minimum wage laws are good idea, then minimum wage laws will be implemented, regardless of whether they actually work.

This is because voters have no incentive to be self interested in the voting booth. Votes are free, and a person’s chance of swaying an election one way or the other may be anywhere from one in millions to astronomical. This means that a person can vote socially and enjoy the social benefit of doing so.

If voters were really as self-interested as everyone insists, they would be spending much more time determining the truth of the matters they are voting on. For example, if a single vote cost a person $10,000 and only affected him and his loved ones, he’d probably get it right. Since votes are free, effect everyone equally, and have little to no chance of making a difference, you are free to skip self interest and vote socially instead. Minimum wage is popular, so that’s the way you go. Being against gay marriage is popular, so that’s the way you go.

As with creationism, it’s my opinion that even though people say they are enthusiastically in favor of minimum wage laws, they don’t actually believe what they say they believe. If minimum wage laws really did help the poor, helped alleviate poverty, and were inclusive for all minorities, they would be advocating for even higher wages. Why not more than $100 per hour?

Currently, we have very smart people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Neil deGrasse Tyson advocating for income redistribution, the idea that robotics will eventually cause mass unemployment and poverty, a call for mass “investment” into NASA, and governmental health care reform.

These ideas go from pretty silly to economically horrible. Sam Harris shows little understanding or depth in his arguments. Neil deGrasse Tyson makes horrible errors in logic, and Richard Dawkins just gives us feel-good rhetoric without understanding the economic ramifications of what he’s espousing.

Compared to these ideas, creationism is the very least of my worries.


Filed under: Culture, Public Choice
Comments: None
 

Eric D. DixonTo Protect and Subvert
Posted at 12:42 am on January 24, 2012, by Eric D. Dixon

Public choice article of the day, from The Atlantic:

Roughly 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are given to healthy farm animals to foster rapid growth and make up for unhygienic living conditions. Many bacteria that live on animals adapt and transfer to humans, spreading superbugs that are often resistant to treatment.

For more than 35 years, the FDA has recognized that giving antibiotics to farm animals poses a risk to human health, yet the agency has done almost nothing to stop it. Indeed, it has mastered the art of making inaction look like action. Last May, NRDC and our partners sued the FDA to prompt it to take action. Instead, the agency retrenched.

It started by claiming the livestock industry could police itself. In our lawsuit, we asked the FDA to finally rule on two citizen petitions — one filed 12 years ago, the other six years ago — urging the agency to stop the use of antibiotics in healthy animals. In November, the FDA announced that although it shares concerns that the use of antibiotics to make animals grow faster is dangerous for humans, it would deny the petition because it was pursuing an alternative strategy.

This “alternative strategy” turns out to be just another name for the status quo. Instead of banning the use of antibiotics in healthy animals, the FDA is allowing the livestock industry to follow a voluntary approach. But we already know voluntary doesn’t work. The FDA has been operating under that model since 1977, yet the practice has expanded exponentially over the years. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house.

In December, the FDA tried to further justify its inaction by erasing the historic record. Back in 1977, the agency proposed to withdraw approval for the use of several antibiotics in animal feed based on findings published in two notices posted in the Federal Register. The notices containing the findings have been listed in the Federal Register for more than three decades. But just before Christmas a few weeks ago, the FDA pulled the notices. Soon after it buried its 35-year-old proposal, the agency tried to have it both ways. On January 5, it proposed banning off-label uses of a class of antibiotics known as cephalosporins on healthy livestock.

To be clear, although I’d like to avoid the consumption of antibiotic-treated livestock as much as possible, I don’t think the FDA should ban it — a clear overreach of government power.

FDAThe lesson here, though, is that when a government agency is tasked with protecting the public interest, public-sector incentives make it a near certainty that the agency will eventually instead collude with special interests in working against the public interest. Instead of serving the one function that is clearly useful for industry oversight — education and advice to consumers who can then make a more informed choice — the FDA has become a legal arbiter of illusory safety.

If the FDA allows a product or practice, the public at large regards it as safe. If the FDA disallows something, society assumes danger. But instituting a top-down decision-making process to centralize the level of risk that consumers should be allowed to take leads to a system that serves nobody well. Life-saving drugs are barred from being used by people who are more than willing to accept their potential hazards. The sale of healthy food is criminalized because of the mere possibility that it could make somebody sick, despite the fact that people can and do get sick from the FDA-approved alternative. And, as shown in The Atlantic, because people trust that D.C. paternalists are looking out for them, they carelessly consume anything that the FDA has let slip through its otherwise iron grip.

A bureaucratic overlord is incapable of choosing the correct balance between risk and reward even for the people in his neighborhood, let alone for more than 300 million strangers scattered throughout the country. There is, however, an alternative, as Larry Van Heerden noted in The Freemam:

The first step to correct these problems is to abolish the FDA, stripping the government of the power to approve drugs (and medical devices) for the market or to remove them from the market. Any rule-making for disclosure and lawsuits for fraud should be devolved to the states.

Even if the FDA were omniscient, objective, and impervious to outside influence, it would be wrong to give it the power to withhold drugs from the market. The proper function of government is to protect individual rights and guard against fraud, not to restrict freedom of choice to protect people from their own ignorance. In fact, the FDA has shown itself to be imperious, subject to prevailing political winds, and indifferent to the thousands of deaths and injuries it has caused.

[…] Forcing all consumers to live by rules that cater to the least responsible individuals imposes huge costs on everyone else and ultimately fails to protect even the willfully ignorant.

[Cross-posted at Shrubbloggers.]


Filed under: Corporatism, Drug Policy, Food Policy, Nanny State, Public Choice, Regulation
Comments: 2 Comments
 

Eric D. Dixon‘We Don’t Need a Special Master to Level the Playing Field’
Posted at 3:59 pm on October 26, 2011, by Eric D. Dixon

Cafe Hayek‘s Russ Roberts tells the House Oversight Committee that he wants his country back. Highlights of his testimony:

We are what we do — not what we wish to be, not what we say we are, but what we do. And what we do here in Washington is rescue large companies, large financial institutions, and rich people from the consequences of their mistakes. When mistakes don’t cost you anything, you do more of them. When your teenager drives drunk and wrecks the car, you keep giving him a do-over, repairing the car and handing him his keys, he’ll keep driving drunk. Washington keeps giving bad banks and Wall Street firms a do-over: ‘Here are the keys; keep driving!’ The story always ends with a crash.

And:

We need to stop trying to imagine we can design housing markets, mortgage markets, financial markets, and compensation.

Watch the whole thing:

[Cross-posted at Shrubbloggers.]


Filed under: Corporatism, Politics, Public Choice, Unintended Consequences
Comments: 1 Comment
 

Eric D. DixonGovernment Is a Broker in Pillage
Posted at 4:20 pm on March 5, 2011, by Eric D. Dixon

H.L. Mencken summed up public choice theory in 1936:

The state—or, to make the matter more concrete, the government—consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can’t get, and to promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time it is made good by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.

[Cross-posted at Shrubbloggers.]


Filed under: Economic Theory, Politics, Public Choice
Comments: 1 Comment
 

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
 

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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