Some quick thoughts about political entrepreneurship

The Wall Street Journal has a weekend interview feature with an entrepreneur who founded Airbnb, a company that has been getting rich by exploiting the so-called “sharing economy.” Overall it’s an interesting read (I think the term “sharing economy” is misleading, but it is a stroke of marketing genius; “I’m not making money: I’m helping people share stuff!”).

However, after reading Rick’s recent thoughts on entrepreneurship and re-reading my own musings on how democracy works, this passage stood out to me like a sore thumb:

By year’s end, Airbnb says it will have booked more overnight stays than the Hilton and InterContinental hotel chains.

As might be expected, hoteliers and hospitality-industry regulators are suspicious of the Airbnb model. In October, New York state sued the company for violating a law passed in 2010—just when Airbnb was picking up steam—barring private citizens from renting an entire apartment for less than 30 days.

Why on earth would New York state undertake such a ridiculous ban? Ostensibly for safety reasons, right? Or maybe to better ensure that labor regulations remain up to par?

The law that hotel chains used to sue its competition strikes me as the perfect example of how cronyism works. The hotel chains are losing some of their market share to innovative competitors, but instead of improving upon their own models they turn to the political process, which (at least in the US) provides guaranteed access to any faction who would like to use it.

Just like in the marketplace, though, guaranteed access does not mean guaranteed results. Enter the entrepreneurial spirit. Except instead of finding ways to make money, the political entrepreneur is finding ways to prevent competition. This second type of entrepreneurship is also driven by self-interest. Libertarians, I think, recognize the dual nature of self-interest (in markets: good; in government: bad), but I cannot think of any literature off the top of my head that deals with this topic.

What I can note is that many people get the nature of self-interest completely wrong. In the minds of many, if not most, people, self-interest is something that only occurs in the marketplace. From this mindset springs many of the fallacies about government regulations and taxes that we often read about in the press. Whether this mindset is a product of genuine or willful ignorance is a topic that I think deserves further scrutiny.

Why is it, for example, that many people do not see that self-interest drives the political process itself? I know that the discipline of ‘political economy’ deals with self-interest in the political process, but even here I see a tendency to treat political entrepreneurs as more noble than the entrepreneur of the marketplace (with a few exceptions, of course). Support for higher taxes on corporations, or support for more stringent government regulations, is often very prominent among the general public and among elites. The general public thinks it is supporting itself against “big corporations” when it supports these policies, as do elites, but in reality these regulations and taxes are driven by an entrepreneurial process that desires to favor one faction over all others.

Am I missing anything? I know I’m missing a bunch of stuff.

Investment & Prudence

To be prudent amounts to making sure that one takes good care of oneself in all important areas of one’s life. Health, wealth, family, friendship, understanding, etc. are all in need of good care so that one will achieve and sustain one’s development as a human individual. It all begins with following the edict: “Know thyself!”

All those folks who make an effort to keep fit and to eat properly are embarking on elements of a prudent life. Unfortunately, the virtue of prudence has been undermined by the idea that everyone automatically or instinctively pursues his or her self-interest.

We all know the rhetorical question, “Isn’t everyone selfish?” Because of certain philosophical and related doctrines, the answer has been mainly that everyone is. In the discipline of economics, especially, scholars nearly uniformly hold the view that we all do whatever we do so as to please ourselves, to feel good. No room exists there for pure generosity or charity, for altruism, because in the final analysis everyone is driven to act to further his or her own wellbeing, or for carelessness, recklessness. If people do not achieve the goal of self-enhancement, it is primarily out of ignorance – they just don’t know what is in their best interest but they all intend to achieve it and even when they appear to be acting generously, charitably, helpfully and so on, in the end they do so because it gives them satisfaction, fulfills their own desires and serves their idea of what is best for them.

This is not prudence but what some have dubbed animal spirit. People are simply driven or motivated to be this way, instinctively, if you will. The virtue of prudence would operate quite differently.

One who practices it would be expected to make a choice to pursue what is in one’s best interest and one could fail also to do so. Practicing prudence is optional, not innately produced. Like other moral virtues, prudence requires choice. It is not automatic by any means. The reason it is thought to be so, however, has to do with the intellectual-philosophical belief that human conduct is exactly like the behavior of non-human beings, driven by the laws of motion!

Once this idea assumes prominence, there is no concern about people having to be prudent. They will always be, as a matter of their innate nature. What may indeed be needed is the opposite, social and peer pressure to be benevolent or kind, to adhere to the dictates of altruism, something that requires discipline and education and does not come naturally to people.

It would seem, however, that this idea that we are automatically selfish or self-interested or prudent doesn’t square with experience. Consider just how much self-destructiveness there is in the human world, how many projects end up hurting the very people who embark upon them. Can all that be explained by ignorance and error?

Or could it be, rather, that many, many human beings do not set out to benefit themselves, to pursue their self-interest? Could it be that human beings need to learn that they ought to serve their own wellbeing and that their conduct is often haphazard, unfocused, even outright self-destructive (as, for example, in the case of hard drug consumers, gamblers, romantic dreamers, fantasizers and the lazy)?

It seems that this latter is a distinct possibility if not outright probability. It is a matter of choice whether one is or is not going to be prudent, in other words. And once again, ordinary observation confirms this.

One can witness numerous human beings across the ages and the globe choosing to work to benefit themselves, as when they watch their diets or work out or obtain an education, and many others who do not and, instead, neglect their own best interest. Or, alternatively, they often act mindlessly, thoughtlessly, recklessly, etc.

The contention that they are really trying to advance their self-interest, to benefit themselves, seems to be one that stems from generalizing a prior conviction that everything in nature moves so as to advance forward. This is the idea that came from the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who learned it from Galileo who took it from classical physics.

Accordingly, acting prudently, in order to advance one’s wellbeing, could be a virtue just as the ancient philosopher Aristotle believed it to be. And when one deals with financial matters, careful investing would qualify as prudence, just as is working out at a gym, watching one’s diet, driving carefully, etc.