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Past 100 years of human development

Hans Rosling is the creator of, a tremendous resource for global statistics, ranging from public health to economic development. I highly recommend checking out the website, but first, watch his Ted Talk below, where he uses the gapfinder visual statistics to explore the past 100 years of development — keep watching until he makes an excellent point about the distinction between excellent goals and excellent means to those goals (human rights= great goal, bad means; economic development=great means, bad goal). Frames the issue very well. I also like his comments on how every actor in the global development debate thinks *THEIR* area is both the most excellent goal and the most excellent means (e.g., NGO thinks gender rights is tops, health analysts thinks health is tops, etc. etc.)


Filed under: General Welfare

mass transit in chile: public failure

Podcasts are fairly new to me and currently there are only two that I’ve found worth tracking — TedTalks and Econtalk. Russ Roberts, host of Econtalk, recently spoke with Duke U’s Michael Munger on public transportation in a particularly interesting podcast on…

“Munger’s recent trip to Chile and the changes Chile has made to Santiago’s bus system. What was once a private decentralized system with differing levels of quality and price has been transformed into a system of uniform quality designed from the top down. How has the new system fared? Not particularly well according to Munger. Commuting times are up and the President of Chile has apologized to the Chilean people for the failures of the new system. Munger talks about why such changes take place and why they persist even when they seem inferior to the original system that was replaced.”

The reforms weren’t hijacked by special interests; they had the best intentions. Like most failed public programs, there was a worthy aim. The private system had imperfections; the buses were heavy polluters, people with more money were able to get better service, etc.

Before the reforms, public transportation mainly consisted of independent, private buses of all shapes, sizes, and comfort. To the reformers, it was chaos. To Jane Jacobs and Friedrich Hayek, the spontaneous order would be less disconcerting, and more inspiring. There were no public subsidies, and public transportation was profitable — the industry brought in more than $60 million a year.

The reformers didn’t like the inequity or the pollution, however, and decided to remove public transportation from the private market. The reformers saw the future in the metro. The dirty, greedy buses ran all over the city, making the reformers’ prized metro system irrelevant. The locals prefered the buses — they were flexible, cheap, and went to all sorts of destinations. So the reformers made it illegal to own a private bus company, and then deliberately set the bus routes so that locals wouldn’t be able to choose buses over the metro; bus routes were offered that complimented the metro, but not replaced it — increasing travel time, public annoyance, and decreasing profits and ridership.

Commute times that were 30 minutes in the private system turned in to 1-2 hour trips that demanded switching buses/metros multiple times, to the point that people had to quit their jobs. The President herself has said,“We owe the people of Santiago an apology, particularly the poor people.”

Munger notes that the only success of the reforms was reducing inequality — everyone now rides (or doesn’t ride) the same terrible public transportation.

The situation has gotten so bad that public transportation is now costing the citizens of Santiago $100 per person for the privilege of public transport that they are actually using less than before the reforms. To add some greater color to the financial change, the reformers took a system that brought in $60 million in profit and created a public system that operates at a $600 million loss.

(Makes me think about Medicare)

Again, I would recommend listening to the podcast yourself — the devil is in the details. If you don’t, however, I think its worth looking at a case study in “public-ization.” Now that we’ve seen the light with Fung Wah, Lucky Star, Megabus, etc., perhaps Americans will be more open to private mass transit. More generally, the podcast spend a lot of time addressing why Chile has yet to revert to the previous system, when everyone — including the President — deems it a destructive failure. This is crucially important, and while I can’t provide a catchy one-liner to explain the phenomena, I will say that one of the fatal flaws of government programs is that they are almost impossible to kill.

The answer is never, ‘We screwed up, let’s put it back the way it was, and let someone else try.’ The answer is always, ‘We are on the right path, we just need to plan a little better; there’s nothing wrong with our management, just some of the decisions that were made, but we’ll do better this time.’

Meanwhile, schools keep failing. Health care grows increasingly expensive, leading to benefit reductions. Social security grows insolvent. And yes, our public transportation system is a mess. Like Chile, the planners like the idea of the rail-transit services that offer inflexible routes at equitable prices.

So what happens? People drive their own cars. Instead of having a private market with more buses and such, we have one or two local bus services and millions of private automobiles. In the end, we are left with a worse mass transit system and LESS equitable transit in general.

“Mistake that the government of Chile made was they thought the problem is: in a market people are greedy, so let’s take them out of the market.” You can’t simply conflate the market and greed. People are greedy, in the market or out. The trick is aligning the incentives with the public interest. You do that through smart market design, not through allowing the rule-making body (the government) to have a monopoly on the game it sets the rules for. Regulations have a place, but the emphasis should be on shaping the private market, not giving a monopoly to central planners.

Filed under: Economic Policy

drew carey on mexicans, machines, trade

I can post a hundred articles on why its wrong to slam trade for job losses or general economic woes, but a well-made, entertaining 7-minute clip is probably more likely to open some eyes. I never knew Drew Carey was capable of this, but he clearly has found a role that utilizes his talents well. Share this with your buddies.

Filed under: Economic Policy

man’s misuse of morality

We’ve established that there are two interdependent cognitive processes, automatic (elephant) and controlled (rider), that are active when we make a decision. For some decisions, such as jumping out of the way of a speeding card, the elephant takes the lead. For other decisions, such as voting for President, we’d like to believe that the rider takes the reins, but, in reality, the elephant plays a large, often dominant, role. Surely, this isn’t a pretty thought to tend on, but it’s going to get even uglier before we break out the scalpel and explore how to fix this mess.

(If you want to take a step back, check out 1) book to own: happiness hypothesis, 2) the evolution of the elephant and the rider, 3) the mind and morality.)

Jonathan Haidt quotes from Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal (…on my to-read list), “Human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse.”

Most are likely willing to accept that, at times, we’ll employ tenuous reasoning to justify not doing what we would consider the ‘right thing’ (at a time when it would not be inconvenient to do so…). Haidt argues that these cases are exceptional ONLY in that they mark the few times we are actually aware of how immoral our moral decisions are.

He cites one study where Person A was told that two tasks, one pleasant and one not pleasant, were to be assigned to Person A and Person B. Furthermore, Person A was allowed to delegate the tasks. Person A was left alone in a room with a coin.

The experimenters found that “people who think they are particularly moral are in fact more likely to “do the right thing” and flip the coin.” No surprise there, “but when the coin flip comes out against them, they find a way to ignore it and follow their own self-interest.

But how does this happen? Why doesn’t the rider step in and take control of the cognitive process?

For one, the rider isn’t giving orders, he’s taking the role of lawyer:

“Although many lawyers won’t tell a direct lie, most will do what they can to hide inconvenient facts while weaving a plausible alternative story for the judge and jury … For example, whether the minimum wage should be raised – they generally lean one way or the other right away, and then put a call in to reasoning to see whether support for that position is forthcoming.” If the person asked about the minimum wage has an aunt who works on minimum wage and can’t support her family, the person will support it.

Haidt cites Deanna Kuhn as one researcher that has found that decisions are mostly made based on such pseudoevidence, precluding the search for any contradictory evidence that might be more robust.

Haidt continues: “Studies show that people set out on a cognitive mission to bring back reasons to support their preferred belief or action. And because we are usually successful in this mission, we end up with the illusion of objectivity. We really believe that our position is rationally and objectively justified.”

Even the people who WANT to be fair, and make a dedicated effort TO BE fair, still end up being unfair.

At this point, I expect that most readers agree that this flawed decision-making exists, but if questioned directly, would still refuse to believe that their partisan alliances, policy preferences, and everyday moral judgments are so baseless and hypocritical.

Haidt channels this position: “Everyone is influenced by ideology and self-interest. Except for me. I see things as they are.”

As I read this book I tried to constantly bear in mind man’s poor ability to assess his limitations. Here are three quotes that helped me to focus on getting passed my own biases, rather than simply dismiss others as biased:

  • “We think we have special information about ourselves – we know what we are “really like” inside, so we can easily find ways to explain away our selfish acts and cling to the illusion that we are better than others.”
  • “Subjects used base rate information [average/mean] properly to revise their predictions of others, but they refused to apply it to their rosy self-assessments.”
  • “When comparing ourselves to others, the general process is this: Frame the question (unconsciously, automatically) so that the trait in question is related to a self-perceived strength, then go out and look for evidence that you have the strength.” At that point, you can stop thinking.

Haidt terms mankind’s distorted worldview “naïve realism,” and proceeds to assail it as “the biggest obstacle to world peace and social harmony.” Why? Because naïve realists form naïve realist groups. No one cares if Joe always think he’s getting the short-end of the stick because of the people he doesn’t like at work, but it becomes all our problem when there’s a group of 1,000 Joe’s with the same distorted perception.

Naïve realism creates a narrative of pure virture (our side) versus pure vice (those who disagree with us). We’re fair and they are not. We’re just trying to do the right thing, they are selfish and immoral.

Haidt argues that the root causes of evil within naïve realism are high self-esteem and moral idealism. But why?

“Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism – the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end. … [For instance,] when people have strong moral feelings about a controversial issue – when they have a “moral mandate” – they care much less about procedural fairness in court cases.”

As we wrap this installment, let me return to Robert Wright’s excellent quote:

“Human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse.”

First it was necessary to convince ourselves that we indeed do misuse our moral equipment, and that we have only begun to understand the depths of this misuse. The next post will look at how we improve our use of our wide array of moral equipment.


Filed under: Cognition

the mind and morality

For those that missed the preceding posts on this topic (book to own: happiness hypothesis, the evolution of the elephant and the rider) or haven’t yet committed their content to memory, allow me to reintroduce some of the key terms and concepts. Our brain understands the world by processing the information received by our senses. These processes can be grouped by whether they are automatic/subconscious or controlled/deliberate. This post will focus on my primary interest: how cognitive processes affect moral judgments.

The automatic system has a long history and has evolved to serve elemental needs linked to survival (e.g., fight/flight, don’t eat the green berries, etc.). The controlled system is a relatively new adaptation, which separates us from (most, if not all) animals, and has evolved to allow humans to make better long-term decisions and expanding their ability to cooperate in large-scale communities. Jonathan Haidt equates the dynamic between the controlled and automatic systems as akin to a rider atop an elephant:

“The automatic system [the elephant] was shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action, and it includes part of the brain that make us feel pleasure and pain (such as the orbitofrontal cortex) and trigger survival-related motivations (such as the hypothalamus) … The controlled system, in contrast, is better seen as an advisor. It’s a rider placed on the elephant’s back to help the elephant make better choices. The rider can see farther into the future, and the rider can learn valuable information by talking to other riders or by reading maps, but the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will.”

It would be pleasant to believe that the human brain is a modicum of efficiency – seamlessly switching to and from the elephant (automatic system) and the rider (controlled) based on what is most appropriate. A car runs a red light and starts careening toward you as you walk down the sidewalk? The elephant throws you to the ground before the rider even puts together what’s happened. Deciding your position on a political or social issue? The elephant steps aside to let the rider judge the merits on each side.

This last step, the peaceful transfer of power from the elephant to the rider, is the destructive delusion that will be the subject of this post. The elephant will not go quietly into the night. Or rather – to be less poetic and more precise – the elephant is unable to see when his services are productive (decision to respond to runaway car) and unproductive (decision on complex policy issue). The elephant takes the lead no matter what the issue. So what does the rider do?

When confronted with a moral issue or really any issue that elicits a strong feeling, the rider is relegated to the role of the lawyer for the elephant: “It is the elephant holding the reins, guiding the rider. It is the elephant who decides what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Gut feelings, intuitions, and snap judgments happen constantly, and automatically.”

Haidt compares moral judgment to aesthetic judgment: “When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate. You don’t really know why you think something is beautiful.”

I think some would disagree that they don’t know why something is beautiful, but I don’t think they would deny the chronology of events:

1. See a Painting
2. Instantly like/dislike the painting
3. Begin to think about why you like/dislike the painting
4. Decide on a reason why you like/dislike the painting

This understanding of moral and aesthetic decision-making is humbling. No one wants to think they are simply confabulating post-hoc explanations for a gut reaction to complex issues like trade agreements or environmental issues. No one really wants to believe that their rider is reduced to “[stringing] sentences together and [creating] arguments to give to other people … fighting in the court of public opinion to persuade others of the elephant’s point of view.”

Haidt brings up a situation we’re all accustomed to: “When you refute a person’s argument, does she generally change her mind and agree with you? Of course not, because the argument you defeated was not the cause of her position; it was made up after the judgment was already made.”

It’s quite common to hear people decry “strawmen” arguments. Haidt argues that all of our arguments are (to some degree) strawmen. They are all post-hoc justifications. When “two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other.”

To set aside the elephant/rider metaphor, different parts of the brain correspond to different mental activities – the frontal insula is active during “unpleasant emotional states, particularly anger and disgust,” while the “dorsolateral prefrontal cortext, just behind the sides of the forehead, [is] known to be active during reasoning and calculation.” Haidt’s argument merries with my perception that judgments are made in the parts of brain associated with emotion and the subconscious, while the arguments defending the judgments are constructed after the fact in the parts of the brain associated with reasoning and calculation.

The more emotionally detached you are, the more likely the rider can take the reins from the elephant and steer it on a rational, calculated path.

Oomph. I don’t want to dilute this crucial point about how our brains take moral positions and make moral arguments with any additional content. In the next post, I’ll look at how the elephant further muddles our moral judgments by filtering the information that gets to the rider. For now, are there doubts about this theory of making and supporting judgments? If so, I could dig back and supply some of the studies that have looked at brain activity and behavior, which support this understanding, but I don’t want to lose the theory amidst the details if it’s not necessary.

The final post in the series has arrived: man’s misuse of morality.


Filed under: Cognition

the evolution of the elephant and rider

This post is the second in a series responding to Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book, “Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.” You can my initial brief review of the book here. This post will set the stage for a more substantive discussion about how and why our brains will sometimes lead us down paths we wouldn’t deliberately choose for ourselves, and what can be done to guard against this tendency. First, we need to understand our mind’s evolution.

Mankind is one of the few species able to live in large, relatively peaceful societies. So what do we have in common with ants, termites, and naked mole rats? We’ve all been able to overcome “the laws of evolution (such as competition and survival of the fittest)” through kin altruism.

Kin altruism is short-hand for the expansion of an organism’s genetic self-interest to family members beyond his own young. Bees, for instance, are all siblings, and its in their genetic self-interest to sacrifice themselves for the hive – “selfishness becomes genetic suicide.” This kin altruism, however, only takes a species so far; it breaks down quickly, especially for species that aren’t all brothers and sisters. For humans, “gratitude and vengeance are big steps on the road that led to human ultrasociality.”

Robin Dunbar has demonstrated that animal brain size correlates with social group size. Evolutionary success depends on playing the social game well. Brain power allows the animal to do just that, improving the animal’s odds of surviving and reproducing. Mix in some natural selection, and you explain the evolution of larger, increasingly sophisticated brains in humans.

The evolutionary backstory is essential to understanding why the brain functions as it does. Haidt identifies three cognitive developments that allowed humans to live in large, cooperative societies: language, reciprocity and vengeance.

Reciprocity and vengeance are two sides of the same coin to Haidt. He notes, “Reciprocity is a deep instinct; it is the basic currency of social life.” Social cohesion and cooperation depends on the promise of reciprocity and fear of vengeance. Haidt restates Jane Jacobs’ observation that a neighborhood has a lot of problems when a parent doesn’t feel comfortable castigating someone else’s unruly child.

While language has evolved to serve a variety of purposes, Haidt infers that one of its principle uses to early man was gossip, which serves as a “policeman and a teacher.” What hit home for me was Haidt’s insight that “many species reciprocate, but only humans gossip, and much of what we gossip about is the value of other people as partners for reciprocal relationships.”

Language, reciprocity, and vengeance all work together to a socially productive end; “Gossip paired with reciprocity allows karma to work here on earth, not in the next life. As long as everyone plays tit-for-tat augmented by gratitude, vengeance, and gossip, the whole system should work beautifully.”

Yet Haidt notes that the system doesn’t work perfectly. Evolutionary quirks leave us biased and hypocritical, sabotaging our collective efforts for social cooperation. My primary interest is identifying these destructive quirks, figuring out why they exist, and developing a plan of action to minimize their destructive impact.

The reason for our cognitive hiccups is simple – “evolution never looks ahead” (terrific insight). For instance, “linguistic ability spread to the extent that it helped the elephant do something important in a better way.” Vocalization didn’t evolve so that we could reproduce every sound perfectly. Language itself didn’t evolve so that we could communicate with perfect efficiency and clarity. Natural selection finds better ways to do things, not the best ways.

Haidt compares the human mind to a rider on top of an elephant. The elephant is our ancestral, subconscious system of automatically processing that drives our most elemental impulses. Buddha offers further insight: “In days gone by this mind of mine used to stray wherever selfish desire or lust or pleasure would lead it. Today this mind does not stray and is under the harmony of control, even as a wild elephant is controlled by the trainer.” Buddha’s elephant trainer, the rider, is a relatively new addition to the cognitive space, as “language, reasoning, and conscious planning arrived in the most recent eye-blink of evolution.”

In sum:
“The automatic system [the elephant] was shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action, and it includes part of the brain that make us feel pleasure and pain (such as the orbitofrontal cortex) and trigger survival-related motivations (such as the hypothalamus) … The controlled system, in contrast, is better seen as an advisor. It’s a rider placed on the elephant’s back to help the elephant make better choices. The rider can see farther into the future, and the rider can learn valuable information by talking to other riders or by reading maps, but the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will.”

If the rider and the elephant sounds like the basis for a Disney buddy film, you’re right on track. Haidt describes the rider/elephant dynamic: “I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.”

The rider couldn’t do without the elephant, because “the mind performs hundreds of operations each second, all but one of them must be handled automatically,” but, likewise, the elephant depends on the rider for its chance for evolutionary success. For it’s the rider that “allows people to think about long-term goals and thereby escape the tyranny of the her-and-now, the automatic triggering of temptation by the sight of tempting objects.”

As Haidt notes in the block quote above, the elephant and rider (or automatic and controlled processing systems) correspond to different areas of the brain. The distinction does have basis in the way different parts of our brain are active when we are emotional and rushed versus detached and deliberate.

The next posts in this series (the mind and morality, man’s misuse of morality) look at where and why these dual systems of processing information go awry.


Filed under: Cognition

letter to the editor: creative capitalism

One of the more interesting web experiments I’ve come across recently is a new blog titled Creative Capitalism: A Conversation, which truly is a blog conversation “designed to produce a book — a collection of essays and commentary on capitalism, philanthropy and global development — to be edited by us and published by Simon and Schuster in the fall of 2008.” The blog features economic luminaries such as Richard Posner, William Easterly, Gary Becker, and more, and the idea for creative capitalism emanates from a speech given by Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum at Davos.

I recently learned that a letter I wrote to the editors will be included on the site within the next week, so I thought I would provide my fiercely loyal readership an early glance. I will offer a disclaimer that I likely should have added to the original letter — the idea expressed in the latter half is meant to be a discussion point, not an endpoint. My impression from Gates’ speech was that he wants capitalism to search for new ways to serve the needs of man, and that’s the spirit in which I wrote this letter.

The creative capitalism blog can best be described as working group of top economists assigned two tasks: clarify what exactly creative capitalism entails, and debate its relative merits. Of course, an economist would wisely note that the dialogue’s production would be greater if it specialized in answering one question at a time. The conversation is certainly a bit confused. One moment, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are talking about the positive impact on profits of cause branding. A post later, the discussion centers on supporting causes that simply reduce revenues. In the next breath, Milton Friedman is arguing that capitalism has more social benefits than creative capitalism.

What question is the project answering again? Depends on the monologue you’re reading. I might be so brazen as to suggest that the dizzying directions this discussion has taken indicate that a bit of top-down coordination might better utilize the immense human capital brought to bear on these issues. But I am but a poor part-time blogger, so I will join the chorus with my own interpretation of “what creative capitalism means to me …”

Many libertarians would agree (looking at you, GMU) that increased competition for government services would be a good thing. We simply haven’t figured out how to do it yet (problems of jurisdiction and spatial sporting come to mind). When I think of creative capitalism, I consider the opportunity to take the corporate model as the foundation for the voluntary associations that Alexander de Toqueville described in “Democracy in America.”

When liberals ask the country to come together to tackle a social injustice, market enthusiasts counter that liberals should turn to personal charity. Yet the market enthusiast’s response fails to provide a viable alternative to the liberal’s public programs. The “charity” market is poorly defined, suffers from serious asymmetry of information, and a lack of coordinating institutions. Yes, this is partly because the government has crowded out private charity with its large programs. But still the market enthusiast will convince few liberals to disband the public safety net by asking them to have faith that the market will immediately respond with equal or better charitable services. In fact, without well-designed institutions, oversight, and coordination mechanisms, I think liberals are right to not rely on private charity to tackle social problems, even when compared to the wildly-efficient public systems.

But there is hope. Consider the industry titans modern feudal lords, forced to subsidize the wasteful public programs of the King. Their only hope is to create a parallel system of public programs that are more effective than those of the King. People want public services. If creative capitalism can provide these services, they can displace government services. Tocqueville saw the great strength of America in her civic associations. The federal government has grown so large so as to crowd out many of these ventures, and it will take the action of independent pillars of wealth, such as Bill Gates, to provide an alternative vision that liberals can believe in will better serve the needs of humanity.

To view creative capitalism as simply a value-destroying concession is to ignore the quiet competition between the private and public systems for satisfying the desires of the masses. The question is whether voluntary associations are up to the task. Surely, with friends like Gates and Buffet, the financial resources are there, but where’s the vision?.

Filed under: General Welfare

book to own: happiness hypothesis

When pitching Jonathan Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” to friends, I often find myself explaining away the title — no, it’s not another self-help book and yes, it’s about more than just plastering a silly smile on your face. With that said, the title is appropriate; Haidt is chiefly concerned with what’s responsible for making humans happy.

The title fails, however, to convey the breadth and depth of Haidt’s search, which touches on philosophy, psychology, economics, evolution, and cognitive science, and skips effortlessly across the centuries, from the Stoics’ philosophical minimalism to Ben Franklin’s pragmatism to Robert Cialdini’s work on Influence.

Haidt documents the evolution of the human mind, producing an overarching narrative that explains everything from the use of gossip and prozac to mental tendencies that steer men away from their stated values and towards self-destruction.

Along with “Kluge,” this book has profoundly shaped the way I view my brain. Before Haidt, I was aware that our brains appeared to systematically work against our best interest, and that these tendencies manifested in more general cognitive biases. Haidt, however, takes you behind the curtain, and provides a look at what exactly is going on in your brain and the evolutionary logic behind it. This book provided a more systematic take on cognition than the discrete observational work I had previously encountered.

My interest in correcting my cognitive failings largely emanates from my concern with my ability to grasp the truth. Haidt rightly adds that it’s profoundly important to happiness in general. Cognitive therapy has allowed many to escape depression by directly attacking distortions in thought. These depressive distortions are direct relatives to those that scare up trouble in all of our lives, and Haidt provides an excellent primer on how to exorcise your cognitive demons through a few different means, thereby improving the way you think and possibly making you happier.

This isn’t the end of my cognitive kick, I’m working on a series of posts that explore Haidt’s ideas in greater detail, which will dovetail nicely with Kluge, which I’m currently finishing up.


Filed under: Cognition

conservatives, liberals, and libertarians

I’ve been slow on the posting recently as I’ve been ensconced with the Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt (see goodreads link to the right, open an account, and add me). I’m also plotting a new task for myself which I’ll document here in the future — a running list of insights that I’ve come across in my readings which I think are crucial to improving decision-making. This post, meanwhile, is considerably less ambitious, but it’s been something I’ve meant to sort through for a while now.

I often find myself hop-scotching from from liberal to conservative to libertarian perspectives on the merits of policies and the role of government in general. Conservative P.J. O’Rourke once said, “The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.” On the other hand, Democrats are the party that says the market doesn’t work and then they intervene in the market and prove it.

After my recent post on conservative efforts to reform the Republican party, Will Wilkinson has a series of blog posts that details how libertarians have now become ‘free agents’ in the political battle:

“20th century libertarian-conservative alliance was based on anti-communism/socialism. The reasonable, sophisticated consequentialist pragmatism of the great 20th century market liberals seemed an insufficient bulwark against the slippery slope from the liberal, capitalist welfare state to full-on illiberal, totalitarian socialism.

I identify completely with Wilkinson when he describes himself as “an old-fashioned market liberal who thinks Hayek, Friedman, and Buchanan get it right, and who thinks Rawlsian welfare liberals should be able to recognize themselves in these thinkers.

Wilkinson sees some middle ground, “now that the welfare-liberal elite has become rather more economically literate and is no longer sighing over five year plans.” Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James M. Buchanan supported a societal safety net, so that’s not an incontrovertible divide between liberalism and libertarianism.

Just as the young Republicans see potential to reignite a Grand New Party, Wilkinson sees potential for a liberal/libertarian joint effort to solve the major problems of the day:

“The question these days is whether the U.S. will have the good sense to adopt more rational market-based old-age pension policies, like Sweden or Australia, or lower corporate tax rates to a level more in line with the rest of the wealthy world. Slightly higher personal tax rates and slightly more redistribution is a possibility, but a slide into socialism just isn’t on the table.”

Arnold Kling, for his part, douses the liberal/libertarian loveparty with a healthy dose of skepticism:

I just don’t think that the contemporary American left cares for that sort of thing. Instead, I see an obsession with market failure and the need to centralize power. The basic approach is:

1. X is a crisis.
2. Collective action through government is necessary to solve X.
3. Collective action through government is sufficient to solve X.
4. Government needs more power in order to solve X.

You can let X be anything from the sub-prime mortgage problem to the uninsured to obesity. My view tends to be:

1. X is being over-dramatized.
2. Private initiatives are probably sufficient for dealing with X.
3. Collective action through government to solve X will turn out much worse in practice than in theory.
4. Government already has more than enough power to solve X. The problem is not lack of power–the problem is, well, see point 3.

I’ll let Wilkinson get the final word:

Left-liberal welfare statists, insofar as they are actually liberals and not just progressive-style paternalist technocrats or closeted socialists, would better achieve their distinctively liberal aims by accepting something like the Friedmanite or Hayekian version of welfare statism.”

I certainly agree with Wilkinson, but I share Kling’s skepticism. Your thoughts?

Filed under: Philosophy