It’s no longer the economy, but we are still stupid

Motivated Reasoning, Public Opinion, and Presidential Approval‘, an interesting new paper forthcoming in the journal Political Behavior (summarized here), by Kathleen M. Donovan, Paul M. Kellstedt, Ellen M. Key, Matthew J. Lebo finds that support for sitting presidents has become increasingly misaligned with national economic expectations. Rather than being a sign of voters realizing that presidents play little role determining economic performance, they attribute this to increased partisan polarization.

I think this is a compelling account. All I would add is a potential causal mechanism. My current favorite dimensions for analyzing democratic trends in the developed world is demography. Voters are ageing. When retired, they tend to have much less direct involvement with the productive economy than when they were working. On average, the elderly are quite rich and living off entitlements they have acquired during their working lives. So they are both less reliant on current economic opportunities and less knowledgeable of them. This means their personal costs of partisanship, relative to good policy, is lower than it used to be. And this is what lets all the culture-war nonsense creep into people’s decision functions.

Obscenity law liberalised

2014 Protest outside parliament for sexual expression. Photo by BeeMarsh BeePhoto
December 2014 Protest outside parliament against sex censorship. Photo by BeeMarsh BeePhoto

This is a cross-post from my contribution to the Adam Smith Institute blog.

Last week the Crown Prosecution Service published updated guidance for prosecutions under the Obscene Publications Act (1959). Legal campaigning has brought about a big change: the liberal tests of harm, consent and legality of real acts are now key parts of their working definition of obscenity. The CPS explain:

… conduct will not likely fall to be prosecuted under the Act provided that:

  • It is consensual (focusing on full and freely exercised consent, and also where the provision of consent is made clear where such consent may not be easily determined from the material itself); and
  • No serious harm is caused
  • It is not otherwise inextricably linked with other criminality (so as to encourage emulation or fuelling interest or normalisation of criminality); and
  • The likely audience is not under 18 (having particular regard to where measures have been taken to ensure that the audience is not under 18) or otherwise vulnerable (as a result of their physical or mental health, the circumstances in which they may come to view the material, the circumstances which may cause the subject matter to have a particular impact or resonance or any other relevant circumstance).

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John Rawls had good reason to be a reticent socialist and political liberal

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John Rawls: Reticent Socialist by William A. Edmundson has provoked a renewed attempt, written up in Jacobin and Catalyst, to link the totemic American liberal political philosopher with an explicitly socialist program to fix the problems of 21st century capitalism, and especially the domination of the political process by the super-rich. I found the book a powerful and enlightening read. But I think it ultimately shows that Rawls was right not to weigh his philosophy down with an explicit political program, and that socialists have yet to respond effectively to James Buchanan’s exploration of the challenges of non-market decision-making – challenges that bite more when states take on more explicit economic tasks. The large-scale public ownership of industry at the core of Edmundson’s democratic socialism is plausibly compatible with a stable, liberal political community in some circumstances but it is unclear how such a regime is supposed to reduce the scope of social domination compared with a private-property market economy in similar circumstances once we look at public institutions with the same skeptical attention normally reserved for private enterprise. A draft review is below.

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Rent isn’t a four-letter word

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Inspired by the publication this week of NYU scholar Alain Bertaud‘s critical new book Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities (MIT press), Sandy Ikeda‘s pre-book development series Culture of Congestion over at Market Urbanism, and London YIMBY, here is a note on housing reform.

Classical liberals see the economic solution to housing as relatively simple: increase supply to better meet demand. By contrast, the political economy of housing is almost intractably complex. The reason for this is that there are endless externalities associated with new housing: access to light, picturesque landscape, open space and uncongested roads just for starters. These gripes and grievances are the bread and butter of local politics. Unlike consumer product markets, housing cannot be disentangled from these social, political and legal controversies. A successful market-based housing policy must establish institutions that not only encourage housing supply growth but navigate around these problems while doing so.

Policy reform proposals that deliberately favour increasing owner-occupied single-family homes, as tends to be the focus among market liberals in the UK (and to some extent in the US), are currently self-defeating. As justified as they were in the past to achieve a more market-friendly political settlement, they are now a barrier to achieving plentiful, affordable housing. This is because every new homeowner becomes an entrenched interest, a potential opponent to subsequent housing development in their area. They impose more political externalities than renters. I propose we cut the link between support for home ownership and housing supply policies. This would free up policymaking to focus on expanding provision by all available market-compatible means.

This should include greater encouragement of institutional landlords, especially commercial enterprises. Commercial landlords have more incentive and capability to expand supply on estates that they own, while long-term renters (unlike homeowners) have an interest in keeping rental costs low. The lack of private firms dedicated to supplying housing in England compared to much of the rest of the world is startling and yet often overlooked even by friends of free enterprise.

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Populism versus Constitutional Democracy

What is the difference between a conservative and a reactionary? A conservative knows when she has lost.

A conservative respects the status quo for the sake of stability. The reactionary rebels against it. Unfortunately, it is the reactionary impulse within Brexit that now threatens to hem in the liberties of British citizens, and threaten the rights of foreign residents, for a long time to come. A looser but productive relationship that Britain could have had with the European Union was lost, first at Maastricht in 1992, then again at Lisbon in 2007. A conservative recognizes this loss and adapts her politics to the new landscape. The reactionary tries to reconstruct those lost pasts in vain as the chaotic debates in Britain and the increasingly disappointing outcome illustrates.

Does this mean that referendums are bad? Do they only embolden radicals and reactionaries? It depends. If referendums are used to rubberstamp the decisions of a party in power, or as a way of deferring political judgement, then they are useless at best, dangerous at worst. By contrast, if they are part of the fabric of a democracy, and act as a real veto on constitutional change, rather than a populist rallying point, then they can be enormously valuable. They act as an additional check on the political establishment that might be irrationally fixated on some new governance structure. It ensures that every major change carries with it some level of majority support.

Ten years ago, I wrote a monograph Total Recall: How direct democracy can improve Britain. I advocated supplementing representative democracy with a norm or statutory requirement for referendums on constitutional issues and new local initiative powers. I focused on direct democracy in US states that mean that US state elections often involve both voting for representatives and on propositions. Referendums are required for state constitutional changes. In some states, citizens can initiate new legislation through propositions.

There are parallel constitutional requirements in force in parts of Europe, particularly in Switzerland, Norway and Ireland. It is hardly a coincidence that direct democratic mechanisms have slowed down European integration wherever they have had statutory rather than merely advisory force. Ireland had to go to the polls several times to get the ‘right’ answer but at least this meant that a majority of Irish eventually accepted the new EU arrangements. By contrast, Switzerland and Norway, against the wishes of their political establishments, took European integration only so far before settling with generous trade relations and much more limited political integration. The cost-benefit calculus of their arrangements are up for debate, but few would deny their legitimacy. Britain’s future position, by contrast, may turn out to look much worse and all because its people never had the chance to say ‘no’ until long after the facts on the ground changed.

It’s the ability to say ‘no’ that’s important, with the implication that the status quo must still be a viable option. A people cannot be legislators. Mass votes can’t add up to complex judgements to inform actionable law. Hence the Brexit referendum for leaving the EU for an unknown alternative was bound to lead to chaos which, in the long run, may undermine the legitimacy of representative government, let alone popular democracy, rather than strengthen it. There is no status quo ante to return to.

At the time I was writing Total Recall, the spirits of referendums never voted on haunted British politics. Referendums were promised on adopting the Euro and the European Constitution. Both were abandoned when the Government realized they would almost certainly lose. So we stayed out of the Euro but signed what became the Lisbon Treaty. This turned out to be a deadly combination that eventually led to Brexit. The Euro is quite badly managed as an economic scheme. As a political mechanism, however, it binds members of the Euro much closer together. Leaving the European Union, as Britain is doing, is perilous and costly. Leaving the Eurozone would be even more difficult as it would involve establishing a new currency from scratch. If New Labour had been serious about putting Britain in a federal united states of Europe, it should have gone all in with the Euro from the beginning.

So Brexit could have been avoided but not by ignoring majority sentiments. If British referendums were constitutionally mandated rather than the random outcome of internal (in this case, Conservative) party politics; if referendums were required to change the status quo rather than a mechanism for a belligerent minority to relitigate past losses, then, like Switzerland and Norway, we would be in a much better position now.

Will our political leaders learn this lesson for the future? That I doubt.

Evidence-based policy needs theory

This imaginary scenario is based on an example from my paper with Baljinder Virk, Stella Mascarenhas-Keyes and Nancy Cartwright: ‘Randomized Controlled Trials: How Can We Know “What Works”?’ 

A research group of practically-minded military engineers are trying to work out how to effectively destroy enemy fortifications with a cannon. They are going to be operating in the field in varied circumstances so they want an approach that has as much general validity as possible. They understand the basic premise of pointing and firing the cannon in the direction of the fortifications. But they find that the cannon ball often fails to hit their targets. They have some idea that varying the vertical angle of the cannon seems to make a difference. So they decide to test fire the cannon in many different cases.

As rigorous empiricists, the research group runs many trial shots with the cannon raised, and also many control shots with the cannon in its ‘treatment as usual’ lower position. They find that raising the cannon often matters. In several of these trials, they find that raising the cannon produces a statistically significant increase in the number of balls that destroy the fortifications. Occasionally, they find the opposite: the control balls perform better than the treatment balls. Sometimes they find that both groups work, or don’t work, about the same. The results are inconsistent, but on average they find that raised cannons hit fortifications a little more often.

A physicist approaches the research group and explains that rather than just trying to vary the height the cannon is pointed in various contexts, she can estimate much more precisely where the cannon should be aimed using the principle of compound motion with some adjustment for wind and air resistance. All the research group need to do is specify the distance to the target and she can produce a trajectory that will hit it. The problem with the physicist’s explanation is that it includes reference to abstract concepts like parabolas, and trigonometric functions like sine and cosine. The research group want to know what works. Her theory does not say whether you should raise or lower the angle of the cannon as a matter of policy. The actual decision depends on the context. They want an answer about what to do, and they would prefer not to get caught up testing physics theories about ultimately unobservable entities while discovering the answer.

Eventually the research group write up their findings, concluding that firing the cannon pointed with a higher angle can be an effective ‘intervention’ but that whether it does or not depends a great deal on particular contexts. So they suggest that artillery officers will have to bear that in mind when trying to knock down fortifications in the field; but that they should definitely consider raising the cannon if they aren’t hitting the target. In the appendix, they mention the controversial theory of compound motion as a possible explanation for the wide variation in the effectiveness of the treatment effect that should, perhaps, be explored in future studies.

This is an uncharitable caricature of contemporary evidence-based policy (for a more aggressive one see ‘Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials’). Metallurgy has well-understood, repeatedly confirmed theories that command consensus among scientists and engineers. The military have no problem learning and applying this theory. Social policy, by contrast, has no theories that come close to that level of consistency. Given the lack of theoretical consensus, it might seem more reasonable to test out practical interventions instead and try to generalize from empirical discoveries. The point of this example is that without theory empirical researchers struggle to make any serious progress even with comparatively simple problems. The fact that theorizing is difficult or controversial in a particular domain does not make it any less essential a part of the research enterprise.

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Also relevant: Dylan Wiliam’s quip from this video (around 9:25): ‘a statistician knows that someone with one foot in a bucket of freezing water and the other foot in a bucket of boiling water is not, on average, comfortable.’

Pete Boettke’s discussion of economic theory as an essential lens through which one looks to make the world clearer.

Some Friday links

Actually, Curbing Uber Won’t Relieve Heavy Traffic (Liya Palagashvili, Professor at SUNY, in the New York Times)

CoinFund Is In The Heart Of The Blockchain Revolution (Alisa Cohn’s profile of Jake Brukhman and Alex Felix in Forbes)

The fatal conceit: the hubris of India’s planners (Shruti Rajagopalan, Professor at SUNY, in LiveMint)

Sovereign Entrepreneurship (Alex Salter , Professor at TTU at the Center for Innovative Governance Research)

The promise and peril of blockchain distributed governance

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I was very fortunate to learn that my essay ‘Markets for rules‘ has won the Mont Pelerin Society’s 2018 Hayek essay competition for young scholars (one of the perks of academia is being defined as young well until your 30s). I am now looking forward to presenting at MPS’s famous conference, originally organised by F.A. Hayek to build the post-war intellectual case for liberalism.

The essay is an attempt to explain the governance possibilities of blockchain technology through the lens of new institutional economics and more specifically private governance. Blockchains allow people to develop rules that can then be enforced autonomously by the participants that use them without further central direction. This could allow communities to rely more on common rules and less on formal coercive authorities to achieve widespread social cooperation. I am cautiously optimistic about the technology (it could also turn into a dystopian nightmare) though not any particular currently existing blockchain.

Here is the abstract: Classical liberals seek the paradoxical: government powerful enough to protect individuals from preying off each other, but limited enough to prevent it becoming a fierce predator itself. The emergence of blockchain technology heralds a potential revolution in our collective capacity to implement limited government. Blockchains offer a more secure and transparent way of implementing rules while permitting individual choice between rulesets that can co-exist at the same time and place. What this could ultimately mean is that a great deal of what we have traditionally conceived to be governance might be disintermediated from the territorially defined monopolistic coercive authorities that classically define states.

Battling Time and Ignorance: Mario Rizzo at 70

Last week my friend and colleague Mario Rizzo, a scholar central to the revival of  contemporary Austrian economics, turned 70. This occasion prompted a spontaneous outpouring of praise for his work, as well as messages of gratitude for his support of students and fellow academics over his decades as an intrepid professor with his home firmly at NYU. They are collected over at ThinkMarkets. Jeffrey Tucker has written an excellent summary of Mario’s intellectual contributions at the American Institute for Economic Research. Below is a segment of my birthday message:

In my home, the United Kingdom, classical liberal thought has until recently been virtually unheard within much of academia. As a student and think-tank researcher ravenous for liberal approaches to public policy, I gorged on Mario’s blog posts from ThinkMarkets. Together with Marginal Revolution and Cafe Hayek, ThinkMarkets was a critical lifeline for me facing an intellectual world dominated by various visions of authoritarianism and only slightly more benign variants of paternalism.

Thanks to Mario’s selfless contributions to the revival of Austrian economics, that intellectual world is changing, even in the UK. His co-founding of the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics and hosting the Program on the Foundations of the Market Economy at NYU has provided support and inspiration for countless young scholars.

I am very fortunate to be among that multitude.

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Paul Romer, the World Bank and Angus Deaton’s critique of effective altruism

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Last week Paul Romer crashed out of his position as Chief Economist at the World Bank. He had already been isolated from the rest of the World Bank’s researchers for criticizing the reliability of their data. It seems there were several bones of contention, including the accusation that Chile’s current social democratic government falsified data contributing to some of its development indicators. Romer’s allergic reaction to the World Bank’s internal research processes has wider implications for how we think about policy research in international NGOs.

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In memory of Christie Davies: defender of the right to joke

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As we approach the end of 2017, I remember this year’s sad passing of Christie Davies. Davies was a rare academic beast: a classical liberal sociologist. Despite representing a minority perspective in his discipline, he was able to thrive and leave a mark that will continue to influence scholars for generations.

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Make neo-Nazis flop off Broadway: public choice and Tina Fey’s sheetcaking

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A week ago a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville protesting the taking down of Confederate Memorial statues turned fatally violent. Other protests were due to take place this weekend in multiple U.S. cities, including New York (now postponed). How should citizens and public authorities deal with this upsurge in violent neo-Nazi protest? I am with Tina Fey on this one: don’t show up, have some cake, and encourage the NYPD to prevent violence.

Some on the left have tried opportunistically and mistakenly to associate Virginian school public choice scholarship with the far-right. This is a sadly missed opportunity because James Buchanan’s theory of club goods helps explain how far-right street protests emerge and suggest how authorities might best subdue them. I draw on John Meadowcroft’s and Elizabeth Morrow’s analysis of the far-right English Defence League (EDL).

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Public choice and market failure: Jeffrey Friedman on Nancy MacLean

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Jeffrey Friedman has a well-argued piece on interpreting public choice in the wake of Nancy MacLean’s conspiratorial critique of one of its founding theorists, James Buchanan. While agreeing that MacLean is implausibly uncharitable in her interpretation of Buchanan, Friedman suggests that many of Buchanan’s defenders are themselves in an untenable position. This is because public choice allows theorists to make uncharitable assumptions about political actors that they have never met or observed. In this sense, MacLean is simply imputing her preferred own set of bad motives onto her political opponents. What is sauce for the goose is good for the gander.

I think Friedman’s arguments are a valid critique of the way that public choice is sometimes deployed in popular discourse. A lot of libertarian commentary assumes that those seeking political power are uniquely bad people, always having self-interest and self-aggrandisement as their true aim. Given that this anti-politics message is associated with getting worse political leaders who are becoming progressively less friendly to individual liberty, this approach to characterising politicians seems counterproductive. However, I don’t think Friedman’s position is such a good fit for Buchanan himself or most of those working in the scholarly public choice tradition.

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Adam Smith: a historical historical detective?

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Adrian Blau at King’s College London has an on-going project of making methods in political theory more useful, transparent and instructive, especially for students interested in historical scholarship.

I found his methods lecture, that he gave to Master’s students and went onto publish as ‘History of political thought as detective work’, particularly helpful for formulating my approach to political theory. The advantage of Blau’s advice is that it avoids pairing technique with theory. You can be a Marxist, a Straussian, a contextualist, anything or nothing, and still apply Blau’s technique.

Blau suggests that we adopt the persona of a detective when trying to understand the meaning of historical texts. That is, we should acknowledge

  • uncertainty associated with our claims
  • that facts of the matter will almost certainly be under-determined by the available evidence
  • that conflicting evidence probably exists for any interesting question
  • that interpreting any piece of evidence through any exclusive theoretical lens is likely to lead us to error

To make more compelling inferences in the face of these challenges, we can use techniques of triangulation (using independent sources of evidence together). This could include arguing for an interpretation of a thinker’s argument based on a close reading of their text, while showing that other people in the thinker’s social milieu deployed language in a similar way (contextual), and also showing how helpful that argument was for achieving a political end that was salient in that time and place (motivation).

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Could the DUP push UK Conservatives towards a ‘Norway Option’?

Last year, Britain voted to leave the European Union under a banner of anti-immigration and protectionism. Since then, both social democrats and classical liberals have been waiting to catch a break. Ever the optimist, I hope they may have just got one, from an unlikely source, the Democratic Unionist Party. They are a Northern Ireland-based Protestant party that is usually at the margins of national British politics. Thanks to the outcome of the latest general election, they may be in a position to force the British Conservatives towards a more trade and immigration friendly Brexit.

In April, Prime Minister (for now) Theresa May called a snap election. She didn’t need to face the electorate until 2020, but decided to gamble, thinking that she would increase her working majority of Conservative MPs. Instead, as we discovered yesterday after the polls closed, she did the opposite, reducing the slim majority that David Cameron won in 2015 to a mere plurality. This was against one of the most radically left-wing opponents in decades, Jeremy Corbyn.

This was a dismal failure for the Conservatives but the result is a relatively good sign for liberals. I feared that Theresa May’s conservative-tinged anti-market, anti-human rights, authoritarian corporatism was exactly what centrist voters would prefer. It turns that Cameron’s more liberal conservativism actually won more seats. Not only is an outward-looking liberalism correct, de-emphasizing it turns out not be a popular move after all.

Without a majority, the Conservatives need to form a coalition or come to an informal agreement with another party. This seems likely impossible with Labour, the Scottish Nationalists or the Liberal Democrats who have all campaigned heavily against the Conservatives and disagree on key issues, such as whether Britain should leave the European Union at all. This leaves the DUP.

In terms of ideology, the DUP is far to the right of most British Conservatives. Their opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and occasional support for teaching creationism, means that they have more in common with some Republican Christian groups in the United States than the secular mainstream in the rest of the United Kingdom. Historically, at least, they have links with pro-unionist paramilitaries that have terrorized Irish Catholic separatists.

There is, however, one way in which the DUP are comparatively moderate. While content with the UK leaving the European Union, they want to keep the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (an EU member) open. Closing it would reduce critical cross-border trade with an economically dynamic neighbor and re-ignite violent tensions between the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland.

How could this be achieved? Leaving the EU while keeping a relatively open trading and immigration relationship is similar to the so-called Norway Option. Norway is within the single market but can exempt itself from many parts of EU law. In return, it has no direct representation in EU institutions. If the EU could accept such an arrangement, then the DUP may be able to make Conservatives commit to it.

Of course, the DUP will extract other perks from their major partners as part of any deal. But their social policy preferences are so far to the right of people in England, Wales and Scotland that this will hopefully have to take the form of fiscal subsidies to their home region (economically damaging but could at least avoid infringing civil liberties).

It might seem paradoxical that an extreme party may have a moderating influence on overall policy. However, social choice theory suggests that democratic processes do not aggregate voter, or legislator, preferences in a straightforward way. Because preferences exist along multiple dimensions, they are neither additive nor linear. This can produce perverse and chaotic outcomes, but it can also generate valuable bargains between otherwise opposed parties. In this case, one right-wing party produces an authoritarian Brexit. But two right-wing parties could equal a more liberal outcome.

That’s the theory. Has something like this ever happened in practice? Arguably, Canada is an outstanding example of how a minority party with many internally illiberal policy preferences produces liberal outcomes (see the fascinating Vaubel, 2009, p.25 for the argument). There, the need to placate the separatist movement in Quebec involved leaving more powers to the provinces in general, thus keeping Canada as a whole much more decentralized than Anglo-Canadian preferences alone could have assured. Will the DUP do the same for Britain? We can but hope.