Throwing the Bums out is Insufficient

It’s election season (those quite weeks between October and November three years later) which means a resurgence in political economy superstitions! A particular tempting one is the Throw the Bums Out Theory of Governance.

The theory goes like this: things are awful, awful people are in positions of power, therefore we need to get rid of those awful people.

As instincts go, it’s not the worst. But it’s Twitter level thinking. Yeah, it’s worth celebrating the regression to the mean that will be the end of Trump’s presidency. I’m looking forward to the “regular” amounts of corruption and embarrassment. But those “regular” amounts are still problematic. The lesser of two evils still sucks. The mean we’re regressing to is the real problem.

In other words: the political outcomes we get reflect the underlying political reality (give or take). As Mencken said: we get what we want good and hard. Political outcomes involve (mostly bad) luck, but Trump wasn’t some utterly random accident. He happened because enough American voters wanted that (more than the next best alternative, anyways).

Throwing the bums out is cathartic, but there’s no shortage of bums to replace them.

The problem is not the bums, it’s the system as a whole. Trump was able to screw things up so badly because we’ve set up ground rules that a) gave him the ability, and b) required more competence than he was ready or able to apply. But elections don’t choose the qualified candidates, they choose the popular candidates. And if one thing is obvious in 2020, it’s that we can’t count on magically educating our political opponents into having the enlightened views necessary for us to make sure the best candidates are always the most popular.

In the long-run, the task is to make incompetent morons less important–something I hope everyone can agree is a worthwhile goal (#neverHillary, #neverTrump). The current system means ideological tribes have to be constantly warring with each other to make sure presidential power doesn’t get into the wrong hands. Can we please agree that this is a terrible system?

We can lower the stakes. We can push power back to the state and local level (and give people an incentive to actually pay attention to local issues!). Let’s take a break from partisan entertainment–as fun as Project Lincoln is, let’s face it, they’re not convincing anyone–and get to the hard task of being a self-governing society. Let’s ask how we could set things up so we don’t have to worry about the next Clinton or Trump.

Until we change the system, we’re going to keep seeing more of the same. Let’s shift the conversation away from “that candidate’s terrible, how can we defeat them?” and towards “this setup attracts terrible candidates, how can we fix that?”!

“Return to the Bronze Age… national nudism”

It seems that the alt-right (have we normalized it past the point of quotation marks?) is seriously studied almost exclusively by the political left, and demsoc journalists of the Vice variety, who will study anything edgy. This is a shame, because the alt-right was a point on the political axes chart that has grown to a blob, with its own online mythos, layered culture, and, recently, mass shooters.

The alt-right is an interesting group to study. I’m as interested in them as the Posadists, and agree with them about as much. They are no friends of liberty, so, given the 2016-and-on talk of toxic forces latching onto libertarian institutions, it seems appropriate that the libertarian mind analyze more thoroughly just what the deal is – rather than having the left stoke a pipeline theory ad infinitum.

I’m reading a recent work that is very popular among the alt-right (and other groups), and, in fairness, I do not know whether or not it is “deplorably” alt-right yet. Bronze Age Mindset came out last year and caught mainstream media attention this year, written by an irreverent anonymous author who, like any modern philosopher, has highly public blue thumbs. It’s about some sort of modern scourge, a return to greatness (a familiar theme by this point), and sex politics, I think.

It feels peculiar pausing my ongoing reading – Feyerabend, Land and Krafft-Ebing – for a piece that seems like a 200-page version of Real Social Dynamics, but the alt-right is here, it is, I still think, growing, and I don’t yet think we’ve seen the worst it will do, unfortunately.

If Bronze Age Pervert is one of the in-house philosophers of the alternative right, we should treat his work with the same critical stewardship. I’ll post a review when I’m finished with it.

The long-run risks of Trump’s racism

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This week, the United States and much of the world has been reeling from Trump’s xenophobic statements aimed at four of his Democratic opponents in Congress. But the U.S. economy continues to perform remarkably well for the time being and despite his protectionist spasms, Trump is widely considered a pro-growth, pro-business President.

This has led some classical liberals to consider Trump’s populist rhetoric and flirtations with the far right to be a price worth paying for what they see as the safest path to keeping the administrative state at bay. Many classical liberals believe the greater risk to liberty in the U.S. is inevitably on the left with its commitment to expanding welfare-state entitlements in ways that will shrink the economy and politicize commercial businesses.

In ‘Hayek vs Trump: The Radical Right’s Road to Serfdom’, Aris Trantidis and I dispute this complacency about authoritarianism on the right. In the article, now forthcoming in Polity, we re-interpret Hayek’s famous The Road to Serfdom in light of his later work on coercion in The Constitution of Liberty.

We find that only certain forms of state intervention, those that diminish the rule of law and allow for arbitrary and discriminatory administrative oversight and sanction, pose a credible risk of turning a democratic polity authoritarian. A bigger state, without more discretionary power, does not threaten political liberty. Although leftwing radicals have in the past shown disdain for the rule of law, today in the U.S. and Europe it is the ideology of economic nationalism (not socialism) that presently ignores democratic norms. While growth continues, this ideology may appear to be compatible with support for business. But whenever the music stops, the logic of the rhetoric will lead to a search for scapegoats with individual businesses in the firing line.

Several countries in Europe are much further down the 21st road to serfdom than the U.S., and America still has an expansive civil society and federal structures that we expect to resist the authoritarian trend. Nevertheless, as it stands, the greatest threat to the free society right now does not carry a red flag but wears a red cap.

Here is an extract from the penultimate section:

The economic agenda of the Radical Right is an extension of political nationalism in the sphere of economic policy. While most Radical Right parties rhetorically acknowledge what can be broadly described as a “neoliberal” ethos – supporting fiscal stability, currency stability, and a reduction of government regulation – they put forward a prominent agenda for economic protectionism. This is again justified as a question of serving the “national interest” which takes precedence over any other set of values and considerations that may equally drive economic policy in other political parties, such as individual freedom, social justice, gender equality, class solidarity, or environmental protection. Rather than a principled stance on government intervention along the traditional left-right spectrum, the Radical Right’s economic agenda can be described as mixing nativist, populist and authoritarian features. It seemingly respects property and professes a commitment to economic liberty, but it subordinates economic policy to the ideal of national sovereignty.

In the United States, President Trump has emerged to lead a radical faction from inside the traditional right-wing Republican Party on a strident platform opposing immigration, global institutions, and current international trade arrangements that he portrayed as antagonistic to American economic interests. Is economic nationalism likely to include the type of command-and-control economic policies that we fear as coercive? Economic nationalism can be applied through a series of policies such as tariffs and import quotas, as well as immigration quotas with an appeal to the “national interest.”

This approach to economic management allows authorities to treat property as an object of administration in a way similar to the directions of private activity which Hayek feared can take place in the pursuit of “social justice.” It can take the form of discriminatory decisions and commands with a coercive capacity even though their authorization may come from generally worded rules. Protectionism can be effectuated by expedient decisions and flexible discretion in the selection of beneficiaries and the exclusion of others (and thereby entails strong potential for discrimination). The government will enjoy wide discretion in identifying the sectors of the economy or even particular companies that enjoy such a protection, often national champions that need to be strengthened and weaker industries that need to be protected. The Radical Right can exploit protectionism’s highest capacity for partial discriminatory applications.

The Radical Right has employed tactics of attacking, scapegoating, and ostracizing opponents as unpatriotic. This attitude suggests that its policy preference for economic nationalism and protectionism can have a higher propensity to be arbitrary, ad hoc and applied to manipulate economic and political behavior. This is perhaps most tragically demonstrated in the case of immigration restrictions and deportation practices. These may appear to coerce exclusively foreign residents but ultimately harm citizens who are unable to prove their status, and citizens who choose to associate with foreign nationals.

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).

Continue reading

Trump Jr.

Last school year I had to deal with a pair of students (Tweedledee and Tweedledum) I caught cheating on a takehome final. When confronted with the evidence, each insisted that it was the other’s fault, and that only that other student should face any consequences.

Bear in mind that if they complete their degrees, they would be in the top 30% of the population in terms of educational attainment. In today’s world, that basically means they’re among the best and brightest, they’re high status, and they’re “the future”. If we could meaure status on a linear scale, getting a college degree still pushes you high up on that scale. 

At the time I figured that they were at least towards the bottom of that top 30%. Certainly, I still hope they’ll grow out of it. Unfortunately, Draco Malfoy’s Junior’s latest scandal shows that being bad at cheating isn’t the social hinderance we might have hoped for.

Related link: http://reason.com/blog/2017/07/13/how-trump-apologists-will-defend-the-ind

Two points that bear repeating

  1. We could have elected Hitler and it wouldn’t have turned out significantly worse than if Clinton had won.
  2. The left and right aren’t speaking the same language, and whoever fails to take the first step (which is to not blame the other side) shares the larger share of the blame.

I just listened to the post election episode of the excellent series, The United States of Anxiety. Two interviews stand out: the Trump supporter who fails (I think) to understand the genuine (albeit overblown) fear of a black teenager, and the Trump opponent who fails to understand that trump supporter. (There was also a notably boring interview with another Trump opponent, some hand wringing by the hosts, and some genuinely insightful commentary from Chris Arnade stuffed into the back corner of the episode.)

Maybe I’m in a privileged position because I used to see myself as part of the right and now see myself as part of the left (what’s left of it). Many people on the left are being sore losers about this election and they’re making things worse. I’m talking about humans, not (necessarily) politicians. That’s what’s really disappointing.

To be fair, it’s a common pool problem. We each get social capital brownie points for being angry (“10 reasons you should be angry” gets more Internet points than “difficult social science that requires you to do things you don’t like“), and we don’t get the same rewards for sober reflection (or maybe NOL is a sensible echo chamber? Agree with me in the comments.).

The fact remains that in-group signalling trumps ideological inclusion. The result could mean wild swings of power between the right and the left with due process (and the blessings of civilization… like tolerance, economic growth, freedom, and social mobility) being steamrolled in the process.

It’s fun to blame Facebook, the media, politicians, or anyone else but ourselves. The truth is, consumer sovereignty is far stronger a force than is commonly accepted. We aren’t the victims, we’re the perpetrators. It feels good to have an ideologically tight-knit Internet cocoon and so we spend more time listening to our podcasts (talk radio) while driving our Priuses (pickups) past the coast (vast ocean of farms).

And we’ll always have some of that, but we’ve got important disagreements that we have to resolve… not permanently, but for the next generation or so. All sides (libertarians have to participate too; I don’t think we’re to blame, but some people do) have to eat some humble pie and try to genuinely understand what the others are talking about. They aren’t all morons (and we aren’t all geniuses).

What really struck me in those interviews (mostly the second, longer, better quality one by the well spoken liberal academic) was that they weren’t speaking as though they were really trying to convince their intellectual opponents. Patty (Trump supporter) was happy and felt like she was finally part of the decision making process in DC (whether that’s true is another issue). He was speaking to a liberal

Both sides need to try to adopt the language of the other side. You should be trying to convince them! Why should you expect any degree of success when you say shit like “just look at the evidence [you big dummy!]” as though they don’t think they’ve been looking at legitimate evidence. You’re both falling for confirmation bias.

The way forward is intellectual humility. Will that happen? Not a chance, but that’s all the more reason for me to shout into the void. Culture changes slowly.

People will always disagree, and always should. Ideologies have blind spots and need to depend on critics from the other ideologies to account for them. The policy we get reflects the desires of those who might do something about it. Even dictators have to walk a thin line to stay in power. What seems to be at issue here is meta-policy (Buchananian constitutional issues… not the literal constitution, but informal shared understandings about how government wields power). Right now the position from the two big camps is “to the victor go the spoils.” That’s happening because each camp has closed themselves off to the other. It’s similar to what Bastiat said; when we don’t get gains from ideological trade and cooperation, we get political strife.

Everything will be fine

Eight years ago I identified more with the right. Obama represented a charismatic leader with scary ideologies and an uncertain background. (McCain represented a very old man who didn’t seem to care much about freedom.) Obama had a cult of personality and looked ready to dismantle society.

What do I think now? I think he’s handled his position gracefully (though I haven’t been following too closely… gov’t is ~1/5 of the economy and I intend to keep it <1/5 of my life), and he’s done a good deal of harm (further entrenching the role of insurance in health care finance, drone strikes, etc.). But I don’t think he did any more harm than a Republican candidate in his position. The world didn’t end, and despite a big recession, freedom ultimately proved to be a hearty weed rather than a delicate flower.

I think Trump will follow a similar trajectory. He’ll make things worse, but the outcome won’t be dramatically different (overall) than if Clinton had won. Different special interests will be rewarded, and different special interest groups will suffer. But overall, four years from now we’ll be a little less free, a bit more rich (though probably going through a recession… that would have happened under either candidate), and ready for some more political change.

Bill Burr’s got it right: nothing’s going to change. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.