The Margins of the Argument


Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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81 Responses

  1. Good job articulating the axis from libertarian to liberal. I imagine most of us who identify with these two ideologies would fall somewhere in between. Certainly Rothbard is the only one who believes every intervention is necessarily inferior, and, if Rothbard were right, we wouldn’t need any elected representatives, would we? It also seems like a lot of liberals go market-by-market, technocratically working out the best way to achieve their desired ends without asking whether it’s worth it or whether they have the right to begin with.

    I think a more-appropriate application for that Hume quote might be our public schools.Report

  2. Avatar Just John says:

    Pretty much completely agree with your point, but note that your final sentence might lack the very nuance that you’re advocating.  Since they are our elected officials, and since they’re often/usually not elected due to their appearance of superlative competence but rather on the popularity of what they represent themselves to stand for, wouldn’t it be fairer to say that the liberal claim is that our electoral process is competent to empower the majority’s position on what interventions are tolerable?Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      That may be a better way of putting it, yes.  The door remains open to the public choice critique, however.Report

      • Avatar Scott Fields says:

        I agree Just John’s framing of the liberal claim is nearer the mark.

        The door remains open to the public choice critique, however.

        Can you elaborate?


        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          When the majority has a very weak interest (avoid a five-cent tax, for example), and when a small minority has a strong interest (reap the $50 million subsidy created by the tax) — in cases like those, public policy tends to favor the strong interest, which may actively harm the greater public, but which is better-equipped to take on the political process.  Almost no one lobbies to avoid a very small inconvenience.  Lots of people lobby to reap big bucks.


          • Avatar Liberty60 says:

            I don’t see a lot of evidence this is happening in real life.

            For instance, even a tiny increase in the capital gains tax would provide tremendous benefit to special interest groups; yet who has the upper hand in our politics today, those who favor a tax increase or those who don’t?

            Actually, many people DO lobby to avoid even small inconveniences.Report

            • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

              This is not this, this is that.

              You have to take into account defaults.  The lower capital gains tax was achieved by special interest lobbying.  Raising the capital gains tax is fought on the basis of raising taxes.

              Nobody wants their taxes raised.  That’s a default.  Thus, tax increase proposals are always filtered through that lens.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              even a tiny increase in the capital gains tax would provide tremendous benefit to special interest groups

              The question is, which ones?  Are they assured that their group would capture that benefit? Or are you assuming that after the budgeting process those increased funds would be distributed to those groups? Would the benefit be shared with other groups (in which case a collective action problem arises)?

              Actually, many people DO lobby to avoid even small inconveniences.

              Not too terribly hard.  The smaller the inconvenience, the less hard they lobby.  The only exception is when it’s a deeply held ideological value, but that’s not really an exception because violations of deeply held ideological values are big inconveniences psychologically.

              I don’t mean to be argumentative, but I really think you’re missing the power of the public choice critique here.  Perhaps you have some examples that can sway me, but in the abstract your argument runs directly counter to the public choice argument.Report

              • Avatar Liberty60 says:

                Public choice can explain some of what we see in action, but doesn’t (so far as I know) account for power differences.

                In other words, large power centers can effectively pursue rentseeking with barely a fraction of the effort it takes smaller groups to get the same result; which is what has the appearance of “not lobbying hard”.


              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Respectfully, public choice exists precisely to examine and explain such things.  But I don’t the view from public choice theory would suggest that your claim holds consistently.  A large power center may have more resources, but may also be less organized and more susceptible to free riding, so that it actually has to work harder to achieve its goals, even if that work isn’t publicly obvious.  A smaller power center, assuming it has sufficient resources, can be more cohesive and targeted, and actually have to work less hard.

                But it may depend on the definition of small and large.  Archer-Daniels-Midland is small in that it is just one firm.  But it’s large in that it has relevant assets in multiple congressional districts and a pretty deep bank account for lobbying (most of it, ironically, acquired as a consequence of prior successful lobbying efforts).

                So if the definition of “size” has to do with resources or the number of decisionmakers who count the power center as a constituency, then, yes, it may be more efficient, but only if it can be effectively coordinated (which is its own set of interesting problems).Report

              • Avatar North says:

                Liberty, I think most of the real world examples that spring to mind run contrart to your reasoning. I’ll toss a couple out for consideration:

                -Agriculture: Sugar tariffs, sugar price supports and similar such behavior. These mildly inconvenience the majority: slightly higher prices for sugar and food; slightly fewer jobs as sugar intensive industries locate outside the country (Ontario is a big candy making area for this reason for instance); slightly less healthy food choices (King corn and his wicked child corn syrup is so popular because they essentially were a low cost alternative to artificially expensive Caribbean and south American sugar. The minority; sugar farmers and farmers in general and agriculture corporations especially collect fat rents and income as a benefit.


                -Trade: The Cuba lobby and the continuing Cuban Embargo. The majority is mildly inconvenienced: No easy travel to Cuba, no easy access to Cuban goods, minor loss in prestige at the visible impotence of Uncle Sam on this policy, imbalances in immigration, resentment between immigrant communities. The minority benefits significantly: former pre-Castro interests retain their claim against Cuban assets. Cuban exiles get considerable solace and satisfaction from the continuing pariah state of Cuba and from the political clout it gives them.


      • Avatar James K says:

        There’s also Bryan Caplan’s “irrational voter” critique to consider.Report

  3. Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

    Without going too into detail I think you are wrong about the liberal claim.

    At minimum it should be revised to “The liberal claim insofar as I can discern it is that THE LIBERAL CANDIDATES FOR elected representatives are sufficiently competent to determine this for us.”

    I dare say no liberal is claiming that the current batch of conservative representives are sufficiently competent.Report

  4. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    The libertarian claim is that all (or almost all) such interventions are not worth the price.

    The liberal claim insofar as I can discern it is that our elected representatives are sufficiently competent to determine this for us.

    I don’t think this is the liberal claim.  I think this should be the liberal claim, as it would probably provide a lightbulb to float above the heads of some of the dogmatic liberals.  Well, more accurately, the liberal claim ought to be:

    We should only attempt those interventions which our current knowledge informs us are likely to work, we should stick to our measurements of failure and abandon those that don’t work, and we should always take care to only implement those things that our elected officials can be trusted to run.

    I think the liberal claim is more along the lines of, “Some interventions are worth the price, we just need to find out which ones they are so that we can make it better.”

    The real conservative counterclaim would probably be something along the lines of, “Don’t mess with it, it might break worse!”Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      “Some interventions are worth the price, we just need to find out which ones they are so that we can make it better.”

      I was actually going to go with something a lot like this — but then I asked myself who the “we” was, and I came up with the obvious and only answer, our elected officials.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

        Well, to be unfair to the liberal (but unfair in a fairly fair way): many of them trust their elected official just fine.  They just don’t trust the other party’s elected officials, and they think somewhere in their head, implicitly, that if they could just get rid of *those* officials the ones that were left would be *their* officials and then everything would work.  This generalizes to the other side (cough, Koz, cough).

        It’s not the policy, and it’s not even the implementation, it’s the guys on the other side who are maliciously attacking the policy for no reason other than political gain who are the problem!  And this is solvable!  Just revoke Citizens United!

        If you draw a line around only certain parts of our political system and call *that* our political system, you can ignore an awful lot of implementation problems.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          What, so I should support the conservative who legitimizes rent-seeking by Accuweather, via a downright dirty attempt to limit free speech that we pay for with our tax dollars?

          [There are honest republicans, or at least there used to be. I vote for ’em where I can find them, provided it won’t give too much away.]Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:


            But you should consider what your preferred policy proposal means, when the conservative whom you don’t like is in power instead of you.

            If you don’t like regulatory capture, and you trust Democrats but you don’t trust Republicans to resist regulatory capture… well, maybe regulatory capture ought to be higher on your list of problems than it is.

            “We have to do something” going up against “We can’t do the right thing” often produces “We just did something we will regret in 5 years”.Report

            • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

              I’m of the mind that I would rather see somebody’s policies implemented on an issue rather than no ones.  On issues where oneside believes nothing should be done, and the other side disagrees, this obviously doesn’t apply.

              So for instanec, with the economy, my first choice is an unfettered Democratic majority, but my second would be likewise for Republicans.

              This is probably why I favor a parlimentary system.  Because in recent times, divided government, at least on issues where people are unnanimous in agreeing that action must be taken, has been horrible at delivering solutions that either work or can be held accountable.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                Divided government, in practice, does seem to result in “that which passes, has poisoned pills in it”.

                I do agree with you, Mr. Gach, that sustained frames have a better set of outcomes for some problems than yanking the steering wheel back and forth like a madman.Report

            • Avatar Kim says:

              I used to trust the civil service, pre-bush (as in, at any time, that they’d try to do the right thing, mostly). they are part of our defense against regulatory capture, after all.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                Bush was certainly not Christ, you can’t divide up the world into “that which came before” and “that which came after”.

                Granted, he was a particular breed of cat, but if anything he was just a throwback, and not to “all that long ago”, either.

                Both political parties have a long and storied history of stacking every single deck they can as soon as they can and to the furthest possible extent that they can.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                Who was the last person who hounded people of his own political party out of the civil service? (seriously! Am kinda curious on this point).

                (and I don’t divide up the world by Christ either. Bush’s damage will take longer than 4 years to heal, however. Fundamental trust was lost, between the “higher ups” and the actual servants, as to whether they had a solid “never gonna go away” position).Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                Heh.   Dunno how old you are, but Reagan neutered the civil service and did even more to kill off any of the impediments to regulatory capture than Bush43.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                I was alive during Reagan, but my impression was that Reagan hadn’t done too much to the CIA and FBI, Iran contra notwithstanding. (then again, given the documented shit some folks pulled for reagan, maybe he didn’t need to?)Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                the civil service, … are part of our defense against regulatory capture, after all.

                Not so much as you’d think.  They do have the benefit of not having to be beholden to influential people to retain their positions, but they frequently tend to have similar interests and understandings of the world as those they regulate do.  For example, you wouldn’t want a financial moron to regulate Wall Str., but find any random financial non-moron, someone educated enough in the issues to potentially make wise policy and implementation choices. and the odds are they view the financial world pretty much the same as any randomly chosen Wall Streeter does.  So when discussions and negotiations start, who do you think they’re more apt to listen to and take seriously, someone from OWS or someone from Goldman Sachs?Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                I know who Tanta listened to. Even Rob Dawg would rather take advice from OWS than Goldman Sachs, I bet.Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

                Doesn’t help, too that upper-mid level management is predominantly staffed by people with a certain type of degree. If you look at Presidential Management Fellows, almost all of them have either an MBA, MPA/MPP or a JD. Of these, I’d imagine the least likely to fall into capture is the MPA/MPP crowd (bias showing, I know), but still even there what’s taught in terms of economic and political theory is pretty conventionally Neoliberal.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                I think combinations are good.

                Rather than one of those degrees, have either a MPP and a JD, or an MPP and a MBA, or a PhD and some degree not in your dissertation area, or an MBA and a Master’s in psych or sociology…

                All knowledge is good, but it all comes with a context.  If you can only ever look at problems within one context, though, it’s much easier to trick yourself into thinking that you’re not really being captured…Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

                I’m all for doing dual degrees, especially something like a MPP and a MS or MES but I have to admit, that having gone through the application process and tried to actually pay for doing a Global Policy Studies/JD program of study, I can understand why dual specialization/dual degrees in tangibly different (but related) fields is relatively rare.

                The hurdles are far too high a lot of the time. If I were a US citizen I’d probably have an easier time doing it, but even then….Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                If I were a US citizen I’d probably have an easier time doing it, but even then….

                It might come too late in the process, but I think we ought to offer U.S. citizenship to everyone who earns an advanced degree here.Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

                Yeah, and there’s proposals out there to do that.

                I don’t think we’ll see it this congressional term, but maybe it’ll happen at some point.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                I’d imagine the least likely to fall into capture is the MPA/MPP crowd (bias showing, I know),

                Hmm, do you think it matters a lot what type of emphasis their program took.  I wonder if there’s statistically significant variation in capturability between graduates of different schools’ MPA/MPP programs?

                but still even there what’s taught in terms of economic and political theory is pretty conventionally Neoliberal.

                Yep.  That’s why it was really easy for me to pick up a public admin text for the first time and say, “Oh, I know all this, but they sure do have lots of neat case studies.”  (Don’t as me to do budgeting, though!)Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

                There is a substantial amount of variability between schools on how they teach, but also in terms of A. Faculty selection/recruitment, B. what party’s administration is in power, C. how social networks are formed by the graduates.

                C I think is something that’s not taken into account when we consider public affairs/policy programs, but let me unpack it a bit. There are basically two types of programs (broadly speaking). There are career advancement programs and mid-career skill training programs. Each has a different set of student bodies they recruit from and a different level of connectiveness to the industry and public sector they represent.

                But let’s take for example a school like Kennedy. The whole Harvard angle makes capturability easier because of how the alumni system for an Ivy League school works and the wide breadth of specialist industries that come from that school. You’re more likely to run into Harvard alums when you’re starting out in DC, go to networking events, run into lobbyists who have a MBA/JD or a MBA/MPA. You get job opportunities working at consulting firms, there’s a lot of variability.

                I’m not aware of anyone who has actually looked at this, but this would be a great sociologist’s field I think.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Nob, I was thinking mostly of A, and how that self-selection often creates a dominant, although not necessarily monolithic, departmental focus or ethos over time.  E.g., “we’re the quant focused program,” or “we’re the police chief/fire captain focused program,” or what have you, and absolutely including the distinction you make.  C wasn’t in my head, but, yeah, absolutely.

                I have some good friends in MPA/MPP programs, and I try to push a lot of my students that direction, especially the ones who are thinking about law school, but only because they don’t have any other idea what to do.  They’re certainly not aware of the wide range of opportunities that will be available with the MPA/MPP.Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

                Honestly, while I think you’re right that your students should do a master’s rather than a JD, I think a MPA/MPP program is also something you should do after having a couple years of work experience.

                I think it’s particularly true if they want to make a career of public service. (This is hypocritical of me, as I basically went straight from getting my BA to grad school, but I’d also spent quite a few years out of school before starting my undergrad)

                I do get the sense that there’s a definite difference between quant and qual focused programs, as well as a difference between public administration and public governance oriented programs, though this is getting to be a bit more uniform.

                I think the biggest difference/gap right now is actually the difference between “International Relations” programs and the newer “global buzzword” programs. Both have a global affairs focus, but they work from vastly different frameworks. The latter schools tend to have much more interesting professors and are also generally the ones recruiting the interesting newcomers as well as poaching from established schools.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                I think a MPA/MPP program is also something you should do after having a couple years of work experience.

                Absolutely.  But we’re a non-elite college and I have a substantial number of students who lack either real motivation or a real understanding of how to get into a successful career path, and without pushing them toward that next step, many will end up not really going anywhere for which an expensive college degree is justified. I do tell them that they’ll be disadvantaged compared to those who have already been in careers for a few years or more, and that they’d better either find an entry level agency position or get lots of practicum/internship experience.  Then I turn them over to the faculty of those programs and hope they get the same message.  Fortunately most of mine go to a couple of state programs I have some familiarity with, and I know they’re getting that message there, too.

                (But this year I have two graduating seniors who got accepted into State Department internships, one of whom expects to be posted to Mauritius.  Those are the students who really have a chance to go somewhere.)

                I think the biggest difference/gap right now is actually the difference between “International Relations” programs and the newer “global buzzword” programs.

                That’s a new one on me.  I’ll have to pay attention and look out for that.

                I’m thinking my college should offer a BA in Global Buzzwords. 😉Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

                The Mauritius! I’ve always wanted to go to the Mascarene Islands. (I’m an avid reader of napoleonic historical fiction)

                As for the global buzzwords, the separation basically seems to be Cold War era security studies/IR programs and schools that are playing catch up.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Aubrey/Maturin, The Mauritius Command?

                And, yeah, I’m jealous of my student.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                James Henly sir! You have debauched my sloth!!!Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

                Dear North, you know what they say…a bird in hand is worth two with a stone…no that’s not quite right. Two birds in the bush are better than one in hand…Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                I can’t tell which of you is the lesser of two weevils.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP says:

              Let’s consider a few problems in other domains we’ve been forced to address.

              The military really didn’t want or need a one-size-fits-all Joint Strike Fighter.  Billions were wasted upon its development.  It became a political boondoggle:  nobody in Congress wanted to shut it down because that meant losing “Good Paying Jobs” in the defense sector, always a political consideration.   These programs take on a life of their own.

              What the military really wanted was drones.  Let’s put aside the moral considerations for a moment and consider the cost/benefit ratio, looking first at the problems drones solved.

              Heretofore, our enemies could hide in places foot soldiers could never adequately patrol.   They could move about at night, setting up ambushes and IEDs.  Mao Zedong said the totality of guerrilla warfare was a process of putting ten men in ambush against one.   The fact that the enemy’s regular army was ten times the total size didn’t matter, victory resolved to individual encounters.  Drones took the advantage of ambush away from the guerrilla forces we now face.

              Americans have proven unwilling to stomach casualties.  Our enemies know this, too.   Shooting down a drone is meaningless in the larger scheme of American war strategy, we’ll just put up another drone.   Ultimately, the price of a man’s life is higher than that of a drone.

              The military is constantly in a process of self-examination.   When we invaded Iraq, the soldiers began to up-armor their HMMVs to defend against IEDs, a problem we should have considered earlier.   Because the up-armoring put more load on the transmissions, the poor HMMVs ended up broken down in the motor pool.

              If the Great Society’s efforts to better the lives of the poor had unintended consequences, most of those consequences arose from warehousing the poor, creating high-rise slums.   Had we simply given those public housing facilities to their residents on a lottery system, they would still be standing:  human beings will only maintain what they consider to be their own property.   I do not argue for another Great Society, I argue for a Smart Society, which learns from its mistakes.

              Regulatory Capture can only happen when the regulated have any power over the regulator.   Insofar as we cannot put a chock in the Revolving Door between regulator and regulated, we shall always have regulatory capture: it’s unavoidable.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                Human beings will only maintain what they consider to be their own property.  


                I argue for a Smart Society, which learns from its mistakes.

                This, and…

                Regulatory Capture can only happen when the regulated have any power over the regulator.

                … this.

                Are all good points.

                The first is something that both sides need hammered into their skulls.  The second requires both sides to agree to set some sort of benchmark for failure when they implement their policies.

                The last just has to be corrected much better.  It’s almost always the case that the regulated will have some power over the regulator.  What you need is an ability to reset this occasionally so that it can’t become embedded.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                The military is constantly in a process of self-examination.  

                A bit off-topic here, but this is an important point that’s probably not broadly recognized. A great number of the basic principles of public administration are drawn from the military experience (globally and historically speaking, not just of the US military) precisely because the military is continually re-examining itself. (As John Nagl puts it in Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, they’re “learning organizations,” although he got that term from someone else.)

                But that re-examination is a crucial distinction between the military and other agencies.  When militaries fail, they suffer the consequences themselves, and so they are essentially forced to re-examine themselves.  When most other bureaucracies fail, the members of the agency normally do not suffer any personal consequences, and there is little incentive for them to engage in reassessment.  Failure becomes justification for a request for larger budgets or less constrained authority, but not for a fundamental re-examination of operational and organizational theory, as it does in the military.  Changes forced on them from outside, via legislature or temporary political appointee, are rarely internalized the same way as change from inside is (the outsiders can always be dismissed as not really knowing as much as the insiders).  And that’s why it’s so easy to develop failed agencies that really never do produce their claimed goals.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                We have Vietnam to thank for our current military — the best in the world. Before then, we had much more of a castebased military.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                Having served in that era, I’d argue otherwise.   There’s a whole set of books to be written on how and why the American military conducted its own internal reforms.

                Give me some time and I might write a longer answer to this.   Suffice to say the various services reformed along different axes.   The most successful reforms were achieved in the USMC for various reasons, chief among them (imho) was its view of the officer as servant.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                I’d be very interested in a long post on that topic.Report

              • Avatar James K says:

                Operation Torch played a role as well.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                Heh.  The biggest battles of Operation Torch were fought between all those would-be commanders of the operation.

                The American military was as green as grass.   Training had been pathetically inadequate.   The British and French brass proved themselves to be lunatics.   The American commanders had no idea what a formidable enemy they faced in the Afrika Korps.

                Every Allied field officer involved was either an idiot or completely out of his league.  Well, the Germans solved that problem at the Kasserine Pass.   Operation Torch is taught in the American military as how not to manage invasions.Report

              • Avatar James K says:

                Yes there’s nothing that promotes education more than an instructional example.

                Provided you live through it of course.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                “What the military really wanted was drones.”

                What?  No.  There was not and has never been any conflict between the F-35 and any UAV or UCAV program, except in the broadest total-budget sense. 

                Unpiloted aircraft were not invented in 2005.  They’ve existed since the 1960s (and depending on how far you stretch the concept, you could claim that the Germans invented the UCAV in the 1940s.)  The US armed forces had exactly as many UAVs as they wanted up until they realized how useful the long loiter time was–which wasn’t a capability they had any need for until 2005, almost ten years after the JSF program started.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                Nobody wanted the F-35.  Nobody.   It’s a boondoggle.  Neither USAF nor USN wants it:  it’s a hangar queen.   Broadest total-budget sense my ass, it costs more than its equivalent weight in gold.   It won’t fly.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                I have no idea where you got this idea about the military not dreaming about loiter time over a target before 2005.  Hee hee.   We were flying CAS missions low and slow over the battlefield with old prop planes, the slower the better, and I was around long enough to see realtime images coming in from synthetic aperture window satellites.

                Of course the military wanted more loiter time.   It’s always wanted more.   From the time of Civil War era balloons, we’ve wanted lookdown capabilities.  The Civil War era balloonists had a telegrapher aboard to relay information to the ground.

                But in a limited sense, you’re right, but only if we change the definition of the Military when “it” says it wants something.   Somehow, the lowly soldiers and Marines and pilots who actually fight the wars, you know, people like me, we never got heard.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      Patrick, I agree with your prescription for what the liberal claim should be, with the following adjustment, per the standard that Jason initially set (i.e what the liberal here is being asked to have a claim about), and then one other:

      We should only attempt those interventions which our current knowledge informs us are likely to “be worth the cost,” we should stick to our measurements of failure and abandon those that aren’t worth the cost, and we should always take care to only implement those things that our elected officials can be trusted we believe we can elect officials competent and honest enough to run the programs well enough to see if they are worth the cost when implemented reasonably well.Report

  5. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    In regards to the liberal claim, I think at best its a naive one; the belief that democratic citizens will actually be watchful and pay enough attention for representatives to put such policies in play.

    I’m not nearly so cynical as to believe that the average person isn’t smart enough, or couldn’t actually pay enough attention, as to decide whether a said policy is working or not.

    That obviously has to do specifically with the idea of whether “government” can do good things or not.  It doesn’t address partisan divides over the right set of policies, only the disagreement over whether the mechanism itself is workable or not.


    • Avatar James K says:

      The killer problem here is incentives.  One extra informed voter won’t change anything so no one voter has an incentive to inform themselves – if you want to make the world a better place becoming an informed voter is a very inefficient way to spend your time.

      This is why I strongly believe that uninformed voters have a moral obligation to either inform themselves or abstain from voting.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      I’m not nearly so cynical as to believe that the average person isn’t smart enough, or couldn’t actually pay enough attention, as to decide whether a said policy is working or not.

      Experts can’t agree on this stuff. What makes you think that the average person, who doesn’t even understand the rudiments of economics or statistics, can do any better?Report

  6. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    I’ll have to pick this one up, Jason.    Coming out in March, eh?

    Are all such interventions on behalf of the disadvantaged intolerable?   You make a caveat about Extreme Cases, but how shall we define the limits for Extreme?   Nozick comes to some rum conclusions about egalitarianism, especially his Soak the Rich for their Own Good in The Examined Life, far to the left of even the most ardent Lefties I know.   I don’t begrudge Nozick his seeming contradictions.   But how shall we square him up with the rest of what he has to say?

    These aren’t rhetorical questions.   I’m looking at how classical liberalism evolved. Modern liberalism, which resorts to the State to administer the rules, has become a Straw Man.   In this, neither Conservatives nor Libertarians have made a particularly compelling case against modern liberalism.   The old questions remain:  who shall administer the rules and who shall judge any state intervention a success or failure, if not the State?   The private sector has shown itself incapable.  Confronted with reality, we’re all a bit like Nozick became, less-willing to be quite as hard-hearted as we were when these concerns were mere abstractions.

    I believe there are equations which can guide society in its search for cost-effective solutions to the problems which bedevil us as a species.   How prevalent is any arbitrary problem?   How dire is it, how many lives are we losing to this problem?  What would a cure look like and how much would it cost?   Bill Gates did his homework and came to the conclusion he’d put his money into vaccines and malaria research:  here was a problem domain where the cost/benefit ratio could be calculated.   Warren Buffett looked at Gates’ work and threw his money at it, too.

    Charity won’t solve the world’s problems.   My personal hobby horse is made manifest in the prison system, the dumping ground for society’s failures.   I am not excusing any criminal in this context, far from it,  the criminals ran afoul of the justice system and are manifestly guilty.   I merely observe changing a few variables will change outcomes.   Criminology has advanced over time to the point we have a clear enough picture of the antecedents to make valid statistical inferences.   Given that incarceration is expensive, hell, it’s now become an industry, would it not be in society’s best interests to change those variables, thereby attenuating incarceration costs to that society?Report

  7. Avatar Chris says:

    Your last paragraph reminds me of the C.S. Lewis quote that I used to hear from libertarians, but haven’t lately:

    Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.


    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      I’ve studied CS Lewis at very considerable length at the Wade Collections of Wheaton College.   Lewis was a monarchist who made a dog’s dinner of defending it:  this from an essay titled Equality, February 11, 1944

      Monarchy can easily be debunked, but watch the faces, mark well the debunkers. These are the men whose taproot in Eden has been cut: whom no rumour of the polyphony, the dance, can reach – men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch. Yet even if they desire mere equality they cannot reach it. Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes or film stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.

      Scarcely ever has an ad hominem argument reached such heights of ridiculous panegyric.  Even within his own books, evil monarchs of various flavors put in appearances:  Jadis, the Telmarines, the White Witch. Obedience may be a virtue but the true obedience of honest men cannot be compelled.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        These are the men whose taproot in Eden has been cut:

        Are you sure that wasn’t Robert Cheeks you were quoting there?Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Oh, I don’t think Lewis was a libertarian, just there was a time when I’d hear that quote from libertarians. If you read the essay from which the quote is taken (it’s linked in my comment), you’ll see that it’s actually a very odd essay railing against progressive views of punishment.


        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          Lewis hated progressive thought, that’s true.  That Hideous Strength and quite a few of the references to schooling in Narnia, Eustace Scrubb’s attitude especially, point to a deep and unreasonable hatred for what passed for progress in those days.


  8. Avatar Stillwater says:

    The libertarian claim is that all (or almost all) such interventions are not worth the price. The liberal claim insofar as I can discern it is that our elected representatives are sufficiently competent to determine this for us.

    Determine what actions should be taken at the margins?

    Two things: if the libertarian agrees with the liberal about the necessity of a certain government policy and only disagrees about mechanisms at the margins – about maximizing liberty at the edges – then we’re talking about a very minimal form of libertarianism indeed. (I’m board with that!) Second, tho, is that a liberal wouldn’t disagree with the libertarian about maximizing liberty at the margins if there was a compelling case to make for it, and doing so didn’t undermine other values supported by the liberal. It’s this second condition that isn’t often met (or one that liberals often think isn’t met). Third is that even if the libertarian would prefer to maximize liberty at the edges, the only way to get there from here is to trust politicians to enact those changes, so no difference there (unless we go back to Grand Vision libertarianism which would appear to contradict the inherent agreement about necessity of certain governmental policies).

    Or maybe I’m not understanding what you’re getting at here.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      I’m saying that no one disputes the extreme cases.  We dispute about where to place the margin after that.  It’s somewhere in the domain of state action, but that’s where we disagree. All of us, in fact, with the exception as far as I can tell, of Marxists (different analytics entirely), fascists (the state should have more power, and this is the solution to most problems), anarchists, and a few other oddities.


  9. Avatar Kirk says:

    I’m a leftist, but I’m not really disturbed by the fact that some people earn more money than others.

    At the risk of projecting, I don’t feel that this is an adequate framing of liberal concerns about”inequality.” Issues that are more important are… the capacity of all people in society to life a decent life; the lack of social mobility; disapperance of the middle class; low tax rates lead to poor services, etc.

    While I would say low tax rates are “unfair,” what I really mean is that rich people can afford to pay more so they should pay more.

    Am I the only leftist that finds the OP’s continuum an unhelpful way of framing the political dilemmas of taxation and the welfare state? It’s almost as if a libertarian generated a heuristic to explain the motivations of liberals….

    If anything, the strongest argument against rampant inequality is a conservative one: it dissolves the bonds of society and erodes the foundations of the republic.


    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      While I would say low tax rates are “unfair,” what I really mean is that rich people can afford to pay more so they should pay more.

      I have a question about this. I took last year off from work. Consequently I have no income and no tax liability for 2011.

      Why is it “fair” that when I was working hard to contribute to the economy, I had to pay tens of thousands of dollars per year for the privilege, but that my reward for failing to do a lick of work last year is to get a pass on paying my fair share?Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        Putting words in “quotes” doesn’t make them entirely unreasonable.  This country has a soft spot for people who keep their cash in the bank and don’t have to liquidate positions in the market or petition Daddy to keep their financial keels out of the mud.   Fair’s fair, you’ve already paid tax on what income you had to declare in previous years.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        …and what’s more, you did pay plenty of taxes.   Every time you went to the grocery store, or the gas station or the Likker Stoar you paid taxes.   Specially that Likker Stoar.   Oh, those politicians love thems some Sin Taxes.   The bigger the sin, the higher the tax.Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

          I don’t drink, and groceries aren’t taxed. I paid some property taxes via the rent I paid to my landlord, gasoline taxes, car registration, and sales taxes on what little I spent on taxable goods. But this all adds up to a small fraction, perhaps 5%, of what I paid in taxes in prior years.

          Yet I didn’t consume any less in government services. I got the government at a 95% discount just because I didn’t feel like working.Report

          • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

            This strikes me as somewhat insane. The government is literally punishing industry and rewarding sloth.Report

            • Avatar kenB says:

              Well, whatever money you were living on hadalready been taxed when you got it.  The difference in taxes between making $2x in year one and nothing in year two vs making $x both years would come down to tax brackets, the FICA cap, lost opportunity for deductions in year two, etc. — could go either way.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP says:

            Well, you paid for the roads you drove on with those gasoline taxes.   Through your rent, you paid the landlord’s taxes.   And where are you pulling this 5% number from ?   Gasoline is taxed at 18% or thereabouts by the Feds.

            It little matters what you paid as a percentage in prior years.  You are at liberty to do nothing, if you can afford it.   Idleness is the greatest luxury, I spend at least three months a year as a member of the Leisure Class.   As an independent consultant, I can’t bill travel expenses all 12 months of the year.

            This business about comparing a year of no income to a year with income is specious.   Capital is the name of the game in capitalism.   You have less cash than before and cash is an asset.  Assets = Liabilities plus Capital is the standard mode of reckoning in these things.   Why should the government tax you more than it does on the goods you purchase?   Using any special government services you feel you ought to pay for, that your taxes aren’t covering?Report

            • Avatar DensityDuck says:

              “Why should the government tax you more than it does on the goods you purchase?”

              Because NASA is not funded by sales taxes.

              (This is not an invitation to have a huge derail about how NASA is a useless waste.  Replace it with your preferred Federal agency, office, or service.)Report

            • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

              5% of what I paid in prior years. That is, my tax liability declined by 95% year over year.

              The point is that this has nothing to do with justice or fairness. There’s nothing fair about me getting a free ride while my former coworkers continued paying 20 times more in taxes than I did. It’s just an amoral grab by the government for cash wherever it can get it.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

                Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with an amoral grab by the government for cash wherever it can get it. You can’t get blood from a stone, and you can’t raise raise revenues equal to a third of GDP with a head tax (arguably a good argument for a head tax, but that’s neither here nor there).

                But people who advocate that need to acknowledge it for what it is and drop the moralistic BS.Report