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 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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Hayek’s Choice In Currency: A Way To Stop Inflation

I have just finished reading Friedrich Hayek’s short essay entitled ‘Choice in Currency’ (1976). I believe that this essay is highly relevant in our current time as we have become witnesses of the emergence of crypto-currencies. In the essay, Hayek argues for market competition in currencies as a way to stop inflation and its dire consequences. He does not contend that the governments’ right to issue money should be done away with. Instead, he argues that what should be abolished is their “exclusive right to do so and their power to force people to use it and to accept it at a particular price” (p. 16). Hayek concludes that

“the best the state can do with respect to money is to provide a framework of legal rules within which the people can develop the monetary institutions that best suit them… if we could prevent governments from meddling with money, we would do more good than any government has ever done in this regard. And private enterprise would probably have done better than the best they have ever done.” (p. 22)

Hayek starts the essay with a critique on John Maynard Keynes and his idea that governments or central banks should increase the aggregate of money expenditure in order to ensure prosperity and full employment. According to Hayek, an increase in money expenditure would stimulate the economy in the short run, but it would make unemployment worse on the long run. For a more detailed explanation of the Austrian Business Cycle Theory that Hayek has supported, you can read this article of mine – you have to be able to read Dutch though.

What I find most interesting about Hayek in the essay, next to his great arguments why we should allow currency competition on the market place, is that he seems to have become more embittered with politics and the common people at the point of writing in 1976. Just as my opinion of governments and the public have worsened over the years, so too has Hayek’s opinion over the course of his lifetime. He writes:

“I never had much illusion in this respect, but I must confess that in the course of a long life my opinion of governments has steadily worsened: the more intelligently they try to act (as distinguished from simply following an established rule), the more harm they seem to do – because once they are known to aim at particular goals (rather than merely maintaining a self-correcting spontaneous order) the less they can avoid serving sectional interests.” (p. 14)

“No worse traps could have been set for a democratic system in which the government is forced to act on the beliefs that the people think to be true. Our only hope for a stable money is indeed now to find a way to protect money from politics.” (p. 16)

What is Hayek’s proposal for the world in 1976? He writes:

“At this moment it seems that the best thing we could wish governments to do is for, say, all the members of the European Economic Community, or, better still, all the governments of the Atlantic Community, to bind themselves mutually not to place any restrictions on the free use within their territories of one another’s – or any other – currencies, including their purchase and sale at any price the parties decide upon, or on their use as accounting unites in which to keep books. This, and not a utopian European Monetary Unit, seems to me now both the practicable and the desirable arrangement to aim at. To make the scheme effective it would be important, for reasons I state later, also to provide that banks in one country be free to establish branches in any of the others.” (p. 17)

Fortunately, our technologies have rapidly changed since then. We are now able to create crypto-currencies that are in direct competition with governments’ or central banks’ issued currencies. I hope that such alternative currencies like Bitcoins will eventually weed out federal currencies and will stop the erosion of our money’s value. A currency that cannot be printed out of thin air would lead to a much safer world as governments cannot finance their wars through inflation anymore. Nor can they secretly usurp ‘taxes’ on seigniorage.

Reference
Hayek, F.A. (1976). Choice In Currency: A Way To Stop Inflation. Institute Of Economic Affairs

Don’t Let Me Design Your Retaining Wall!

The State of California says I’m qualified to practice civil engineering. That means you can trust me to design structures that achieve a high degree of safety, economy, reliability, and maintainability. I even have an official rubber stamp that I can apply to drawings or calculations. It is supposed to guarantee that I know what I’m doing and that I follow generally accepted best practices.

But I haven’t practiced engineering in decades. I used my license perhaps half a dozen times in the 1970s. My rubber stamp has sat idle ever since.   More …

Garbage could be beautiful

And I don’t mean in the artistic sense, though that’s an option and one that sheds light on the larger question of what to do with garbage. I recently heard a podcast on garbage incineration; how it’s widespread in Europe as a way to generate electricity and reduce the need for landfills. The discussants were wondering why America doesn’t do more of that and concluded that progress was barred by a combination of NIMBYism and the fervor of recycling enthusiasts. Whether you agree with the producer of that segment or not, they are certainly correct that this industry is stagnant, and this rigidity results in plenty of unnecessary inefficiencies. But I think the real low hanging fruit is in waste collection.

The other day I saw a garbage truck and it struck me that the institution of “garbage day” is just a hold-over from the days before apps and algorithms were available to efficiently route garbage trucks to where they’re needed. For that matter, the trucks could be different; the service level could be different, and surely resources could be saved.

There are plenty of ways garbage could be picked up, and they could all coexist next to one another. Different towns and different neighborhoods

This sort of competition would be beautiful. The results would be better service, less room for corruption, clean trucks taking away your garbage when it’s necessary and saving resources* in the process. Rich neighborhoods would have sleek electric wagons grabbing their trash cans from the side of the garage in the middle of the night. In poor and rural neighborhoods something more like Uber would give the out-of-work construction worker a  way to pay for his truck.

The problems are surely due to regulations that limit innovation and competition. So, how could we open up this market? Debate and committees is the correct response, but it’s not the only one. “If I were a Silicon Valley millionaire,” I thought while driving past that truck, “I could change this, and probably make a buck doing it.”

So here’s the exciting part: A wealthy libertarian-type benefactor (or even a non-profit funded through a Kickstarter campaign (don’t forget to comment on this article!) could make a bet with the mayor of some city (which would need certain features to be a viable first candidate) that privatization would work. The bet goes like this:

  1. Pass legislation that opens up genuine competition in trash collection in one year.
  2. Private garbage companies spring into existence and do a better job at a better price (as determined by a study we will pay for by a consultant you will pick).
  3. If (2) does not happen, we will pick up the tab at your current provider for one year.

Obviously, our first hurdle is structuring the bet property to avoid problems like Waste Management from abusing their position. And that’s probably a big problem. But here’s the thing: if someone can figure this out, and motivate the right people to contribute, it will:

  1. Make it easier for an electorate/politicians to face the risk that something will go horribly wrong, and
  2. Create a profit opportunity for the (probably) tech billionaire backing this.

Opening up waste collection to competition allows for the possibility of the next Uber or AirBnB being in the garbage business. And for that matter, this betting approach might be used for other industries. For Uber to use this approach would be even easier. They would have to pay for a study on transportation in some city, and could offer to bet some lump sum to the city if competition doesn’t work.

*”Saving resources” has practically become a verbal tic with me. I use it as a synonym for the much less evocative “reducing costs.”

The Dalai Lama on Inequality

There are many people who blame “capitalism” for the world’s economic problems, such as poverty, unemployment, inequality, and environmental destruction. This common belief is based on a confusion of meaning, and a lack of analysis. It is neither surprising nor noteworthy that many people fail to apply consecutive thought to economic issues, but it is sad that the Dalai Lama, as an influential religious leader, has not fully applied his compassionate thought to examine the causes and effective remedies of social problems.

The Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetan Buddhists, has identified himself as a Marxist socialist. He blames “capitalism” for economic inequality, and sees the Marxist alternative as the alternative that would increase equality. He advocates a more “human approach,” which implies less “capitalism” and more socialism. The Dalai Lama adds that he is not a Leninist, meaning that his Marxist views do not imply a desire for a totalitarian state.

The Dalai Lama believes that Marxism is founded on moral principles, such as economic equality, while “capitalism” is founded only on the pursuit of profit. His social and economic views were published in the 1996 book Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses. He said there that Marxism is concerned with the poor and with exploited minorities. Therefore, he said, “I think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.” The Dalai Lama had studied Marxist ideology in China during the 1950s, and became attracted to it.

The essential problem with the word “capitalism” is that it is used both as a label for current economies, which are a mixture of markets and governmental interventions, and for the concept of private enterprise and free markets. Its use as a label for mixed economies makes it meaningless to blame “capitalism” for economic problems.

This confusion is similar to blaming diets for ill health. The diet of most people is a mixture of healthy foods such as vegetables and unhealthy stuff such as excessive sugar. The proposition that “diets” cause illness may be true, but it tells us nothing about which elements of our diets are causing the problem.

Likewise, to blame “capitalism,” meaning the mixed economy, for economic inequality, is meaningless, as this does not tell us which elements of the economy are causing the problem, whether it is markets or interventions. Blaming “capitalism” is worse than useless; it fogs the mind, because the label for mixed economies gets confused with the other meaning, private enterprise, so that, in a sly tacit shift of meanings, markets get blamed for economic woes.

It is meaningless to accuse “capitalism,” as a label, as only caring about profit and ignoring the poor, because the actual “mixed economy” cannot have any thoughts or feelings. Moreover, the concept of a pure market economy does have an ethical basis. The pure market is an economy in which all activity is voluntary. The concept of voluntary human action implies the existence of a universal ethic, or natural moral law, that designates acts as good, evil, or neutral, with voluntary action being good or neutral, and involuntary action consisting in coercive harm, which is evil.

One of the premises from which natural moral law is derived is the concept of human equality, that human beings have an equal moral worth, and should therefore be equal in the application of law. Human equality does not imply that all persons should have an equal income or wealth, because moral equality implies an equal self-ownership (or ownership of one’s body) of all persons. Therefore, each person properly owns his wage and the goods and investments bought from his wage. Income, however unequal, that comes from labor, including entrepreneurship, is not an evil outcome.

The mixed economy does create poverty, but not from private entrepreneurship. The poverty comes from government’s taxing the poor and subsidizing the rich. A study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy and the Pew Research Center recently concluded that the poorest fifth of households pay more than twice the state and local tax rate (11 percent) as the richest one percent. Also, although the rich pay a much higher tax rate on their income, many of the rich get their money back implicitly in the form of the higher rent and land value generated by government spending, paid for by taxes on wages, goods, and enterprise profits. The taxes on the poor are even higher than that found in the study, as there are federal excise taxes included in goods, and also, federal taxes and restrictions on labor and self-employment add to the interventionist burden of the poor.

The economist Henry George wrote that “There is in nature no reason for poverty.” Poverty and excessive inequality are caused by human institutions. If Marxism implies income redistribution or government ownership of industry, this treats, and mistreats, the symptoms, not the causes. The main causes are the stifling of labor and enterprise from taxation and imposed barriers. The ultimate remedy is a completely free market, with voluntary, contractual, decentralized governance. Given today’s states and taxes, government interventions can be minimized with a constitutional prohibition of restrictions and imposed costs on peaceful and honest enterprise, thus with taxes only on bad effects – pollution – and on the ground rent generated by government’s public goods.

If he understood the ethics and economics of liberty, then the Dalai Lama would become a much greater global leader in promoting effective reforms that would not only promote liberty but also greater prosperity and social peace.

California Times Six

I live in California. It’s a great state. Too great.

A proposition to split California into six states may be on the ballot in 2016. “Six Californias” has announced that it has collected sufficient signatures. Why six? California’s population of over 38 million is six times lager than the US state average. The ruling powers may find a way to block the proposal, as some opponents claim that the signature gathering was unlawful. If “Six Californias” does get on the 2016 ballot, in my judgment, this will be a rare chance for fundamental reforms.

Many Californians have said that the state is too big to govern effectively. But the governance problem is not size, but structure. After the property-tax limiting Proposition 13 was adopted in 1978, taxes and political power shifted from the counties and cities to the state government. California could be governed well if decentralized, but the concentration of fiscal power to the state has made the state among the highest taxed and worst regulated in the USA.

There have been many attempts to reform the lengthy California constitution, but they have all failed. Attempts to replace the Proposition 13 have gone nowhere. The best option is to start over. Creating new states would provide six fresh starts.

Critics of the six-state plan say that the wealth of the new Californias would be unequal. The Silicon Valley state would include the high-tech wealthy counties of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara, among others. The promoter of this initiative, Timothy Drapers, happens to be a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

But the current 50 US states are also unequal in wealth. The income inequality problem is a national and global problem. Income can become more equal without hurting production by collecting the land rent and distributing it equally among the population. Since the critics of Six Californias are not proposing or even discussing this most effective way to equalize income, their complaints should be dismissed as irrelevant, immaterial, and incompetent.

US states have been split in the past. Maine was split off from Massachusetts in 1820, and West Virginia was carved out of Virginia in 1863.

If the initiative passes, a board of commissioners would draw up a plan to divide the state’s assets and liabilities among the six new states. A good way to do this would be to divide the value of the assets by population, but to divide the liabilities (including both the official debt and the unfunded liabilities such as promised pensions) by the wealth of each state. That would go a ways to deal with the inequality problem.

California’s complex water rights could be simplified by eliminating subsidies, instead charging all users the market price of water. There could continue to be a unified water system with a water commission with representatives from the six state.

If this measure is approved by the voters and by Congress, each state will design a constitution. The new constitutions should be brief, like the US Constitution, in contrast to the lengthy current California constitution that contains many provisions best left to statute law.

The new constitutions should retain the declaration of rights in the current state constitution, including Article I, Section 24: “This declaration of rights may not be construed to impair or deny others retained by the people.” This wording, similar to the US 9th Amendment, recognizes the existence of natural and common-law rights. This text should be strengthened with something like this: “These rights of the people include the natural right to do anything which does not coercively invade the properties and bodies of others, notwithstanding any state interest or police power.”

These new constitutions will be an opportunity to replace California’s market-hampering tax system with economy-enhancing levies on pollution and land value. There should be a parallel initiative stating that if Six Californias passes, the states will collect all the land rent within their jurisdictions and distribute the rent to all six states based on their populations. A tax on land value is by itself market enhancing, better than neutral, because it promotes an efficient use of land, it reduces housing costs for lower-income folks, and eliminates real-estate bubbles. Combined with the elimination of taxes on wages, business profits, and goods, the prosperity tax shift would raise wages and make California the best place in the world for labor and business.

This is all a dream, but the past dreams of abolishing slavery, having equal rights for women, and eliminating forced segregation all came true. This proposition will at least provide a platform for discussing such fundamental reforms.
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This article was first published at http://www.progress.org/views/editorials/california-times-six/

Increased/Deadly Potency in Heroin Markets due to Fentanyl

The Boston Globe put out a piece yesterday entitled “DEA details path of deadly heroin blend to N.E.: Potent painkiller fentanyl believed added in Mexico.”

This headline could not be more representative of the problems Dr. Mark Thornton mentions in his book The Economics of Prohibition. To summarize Thornton:

“Prohibition statutes generally consist of three parts. First, to be illegal, products must contain a minimum amount of a certain drug… Second, penalties are generally levied on the basis of weight… Finally, penalties are established for production, distribution, and possession. The prohibition statutes consistently define the product in terms of minimum potency (without constraining the maximum). Also, the heavier the shipment, the more severe the penalty.” (Thornton, 1991, p. 96).

Therefore distributors and traffickers (the Mexican drug cartels moving the heroin that originated in Colombia to the U.S.) have every incentive, in order to avoid detection but keep revenue high, to increase the potency of the drugs they are moving such that they can move the same value of heroin but in a smaller quantity. This is what we see currently happening with Mexican cartels mixing heroin with fentanyl.

From the Boston Globe article, “Ruthless drug organizations are including fentanyl, an opioid 30 times more powerful than heroin, to provide a new, extreme high for addicts who often are unaware the synthetic painkiller has been added.” The final point of this quote is critical. There is a huge information asymmetry between traffickers and the end consumer. Because drugs often change many hands before they reach the final user, quality standards are hard to track and verify. Furthermore, end users have minimal recourse to deal with issues of product contamination or inferior quality. They cannot sue their dealer. They cannot take anyone to court. Therefore, as a direct result of the illegal status of heroin trade, consumers have very few rights and outlets to verify that their product contains what they were expecting. While many people want to point out the Mexican cartels as the villains (and they may very well be on other margins like the relentless killing that is going on as we speak) in this scenario, these cartels are only responding to the incentives set in front of them. If we want to take issue with anyone, we need to look at the laws that have been in place since 1924, and even back to 1914. Since then, these laws have only gotten more restrictive and deadlier to everyone involved in illicit drug trade.