Exploitation, Exit Rights, and Liberal Democracy 2.0

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21 Responses

  1. Will Truman says:

    A few thoughts:

    1. Voluntary engagement always occurs within a context. Even in the private market, our decisions are constrained by the decisions of others. Any Amiga fan in the 1980’s will tell you that when people make the “wrong” decision, you end up having to abide by it. As a Windows Mobile guy, I abandoned the platform despite preferring the WinMo model because not enough people were signed on to it. This is less formal than with the government, but it’s still there.

    2. Though I am on board with the notion that there should be less top-down guidance than we have now, the advancement of society requires building blocks apart from industry. However we define consensus (we can’t rely on complete consensus, though there are arguments to be made against 50%+1 as well), it isn’t clear to me the extent to which we should say everything should be voluntary, in part because…

    3. Culturally speaking, we’re not going to let people carry the load for all of their poor decisions when there is something we can do. We’re not going to let people die on the doorsteps of an emergency room for inability to pay. We may be willing to crush them under the financial obligations (though we still have methods of default). And with the things that we will simply Not Let Happen, broader policy starts making more sense. Otherwise, everything we do gets distorted around the edges. It sucks for libertarianism that this involvement requires that involvement and government action justifies future government action, but the absence of these responses lead Emergency Rooms to go out of business (right now, they’re propped up in part due to government aid).

    4. Though I have a rather dour view of the notion that if you use public roads, you are an allegiant to the crown, there is some truth to it. So opt-out has its limitations. At the very least, unless you’re electing to relocate to an area where you are not taking advantage of the economy that society helped build.

    5. With #4 having been said, one of the reasons I am so partial to federalism is that it provides a greater degree of government flexibility within a larger tent. I consider the freedom to exit one state for another state to be a real plus. It’s a smaller degree of freedom than a real opt-out, but it’s not nothing. With national policy, this becomes harder to accomplish.

    6. With #5 and #2, I have difficulty with the notion that one should be able to move to Utah or Seattle and then demand uniformity with the laws of whatever state they left. The economy that may have brought them to Utah or Seattle may not be wholly unrelated to the lack of uniformity. Which is not to say that there oughtn’t be limits here (no, I am not pining for Jim Crow or any other direct abridgement of civil rights, though definitions can sometimes be sticky), but there are limits to the limits. Which is also not to say that they cannot agitate for change within the state, pushing for whatever policies they believe best for their adopted state, but I think moving to Utah or Seattle ought to mean a greater acceptance of the culture to which you are moving into. And as such, I think being an American does rely on accepting aspects of broader American culture beyond consumer choices.

    7. The sticky part of #6 is that the ability to exit is much-hindered, partly by policy and partly for other reasons. Which takes me back to #5 and a broad preference for allowing for regional differences within the sub-units of the United States of America.Report

  2. Liberty60 says:

    I don’t have any quarrel with the OP if only because it is couched in broad terms with sufficient disclaimers as to allow varying interpretations and applications.

    What I do find disconcerting, is how the case for improving democracy is viewed almost exclusively through the lens of economics, as if democracy exists chiefly for the purpose of optimizing the workings of the marketplace.

    In this world, my engagement and interactions with the rest of my nation and community are economic- I exchange labor for capital, or capital for property, or vice versa.

    Any exchange which is voluntary and results in a “win-win” (presumably this means on where both parties have a more favorable position afterward?) is considered good.
    How this could possibly be measured or evaluated, is not addressed.

    Roger notes that our system tends to degrade, without considering why this is so; its as if some mysterious aether is at work, causing the cogs and wheels of this governmental/ market mechanism to grow rusty and break apart.

    The answer seems to be if only we had a better design, or more frequent overhauls, the machine would work better.

    I would assert that there is more going on in democracies than what is being put forward here.Report

    • Roger in reply to Liberty60 says:


      I appreciate your feedback.

      On the issue of measuring win/win interactions, the key paragraph is the one on how difficult it is to “do the sums”. Value or utility cannot be measured between people. The reason I argue for mutually voluntary interactions is that this is one way around the measurement issue. If institutions are set up properly, voluntary, honest actions with feedback can be expected to lead to better outcomes for all parties. Economics involves extensive models of how these institutions can be constructed to arrive at what is called more efficient outcomes. We may not be able to state we have level 100 human value before and level 105 after, but we can be reasonably sure we have a higher end state than beginning state.

      Win/lose actions, such as forced redistribution from one to another are not mutually beneficial. One wins, one loses. Now, we could argue that Gates did not need that dollar, and the starving kid did, and that on net the world is better off, and for extreme casses who could disagree? (Gates maybe or he would have given it himself) Here though the problem gets more confusing assemble away from the extremes. The most challenging issue with win lose though is the dynamic it sets up. It leads to arms races of offense and defense and distorts the incentives to create value for both participants in the first place. I can go into more detail.

      The mysterious aether is contained in the literature of Mancur Olson, The Federalist Papers and the vast literature of Public Choice, which applies economics to political decisions. I could go into more detail here, but not as effectively as James H.Report

      • Liberty60 in reply to Roger says:

        “Win-win” is endless parodied as an example of corporate blandishment, for good reason.
        It can’t be objectively evaluated, or falsified, or proven.
        Nearly any exchange or interaction can be given that title, by someone.

        Democratically deciding to levy a tax on billionaire and giving it to a starving kid is a win-win, since it allows the starving kid to buy a computer. For every billionaire who objects, I can summon up one who swears it is a shrewd and beneficial investment.

        Yes, of course we could argue all day about this exchange, and whether it is truly “win-win”; thats the point!
        Who decides if a transaction is “win-win”? Who are the parties to a transaction? Is there a public interest in private transactions? How is the public assent given? What happens to minority objections?
        Yes, I do understand that for every one of these questions, a solution can be offered.

        Which is why it appears to me to be more akin to the perpetual motion machine that is classic Socialism. That is, existential objections are overcome with increasingly complex nesting dolls of more gears, more feedback loops, counterweights and switches.

        You see the central problem of democracy to be the working of the marketplace; I see it as the just and appropriate distribution of power.Report

        • Roger in reply to Liberty60 says:


          Common law has been addressing these nested dolls for about 900 years now.

          The solutions are not that complicated, though obviously the exceptions and grey cases will keep judges busy forever. The rule is simple –was it voluntarily agreed to by consenting and honest adults ? It’s even better where it is agreed to and competing alternatives are available. Yes, externalities need to be defined. Again, this is where common law can and has stepped in.

          That said, I do not see democracy as primarily aimed at the working of the market. I see it primarily as a way to solve problems which the market and other voluntary human interactions are ill prepared to handle. One of which is how to construct the institution known as the market.

          To be specific, I am arguing that human problem solving is what markets, and science and families and politics are all about. The key to progress is to maximize gains and minimize losses. The solution to this is to use each institution in the right way and in the right place. In the case of democracy, I would agree that power needs to be just and appropriately distributed.Report

  3. Roger says:

    Good points all, Will

    1) I agree that our choices are contextual, and will always be so. Some paths allow more freedom and variation in some contexts than others.

    2) I agree that everything cannot be voluntary, and that due to collective action and other reasons, we wouldn’t be necessarily happy with the results if it was. My first point was not to eliminate government, but to restrict it to its more essential roles.

    3). I agree that there are things that we will not let happen. Thus, let us not let them happen. I have no intention of living in a society without good safety nets. Thus I would choose one with effective nets that resisted free riding. Wouldn’t you?

    4). I need to really clarify that each of my ten recommendations can be applied inappropriately. It’s like saying we should consider trains, planes and autos to get around and having someone say, “it makes no sense to take a plane to the neighbors house, so planes are a bad idea. ” Opt outs can make sense in some places, and not others. There are clearly many things that I cannot envision allowing opt outs in.

    To clarify, I am not suggesting that the US will adapt to the future. I dont see my list as being politically viable in the slightest today I do however think federalism will allow us adapt better than we could with one state. I am suggesting that from an evolutionary perspective it does not really matter. A long as there are competing nation states that people, firms, plants, ideas and products can move relatively freely among, that population dynamics over time will result in creative destruction. Over generations, the successful states will be those that best restrain exploitation and best foster cooperation.

    But I could be wrong.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Roger says:

      At some point, I’d like to hear a more detailed plan for what you would do on opt-out. Specifically with regard to what we do when someone opts out when they shouldn’t have. From a budgetary standpoint, how much good does it do to allow people to opt out of Medicare if, in the event that they fail to plan properly, the government ends up responsible for their health care needs anyway (given that, as I mention, we’re not going to let them die). There is an argument, I suppose, for saying that those who opted out and need health care will get a different level of care than those who opted in, but I think that is as tough a sell generally as letting someone die on the outside of an emergency room.Report

      • Roger in reply to Will Truman says:


        As with all the liberalizations suggested, the idea can be implemented in countless ways large and small. From allowing someone to opt out of trash service, to allowing a community to opt to contract fire service with a neighboring city.

        On health care, potential experiments could range from allowing someone to opt out with proof of personal insurance, or opt out with a notarized exclusion, or opt out of non emergency care, or hundreds of other permutations.

        Does that make sense?Report

  4. BlaiseP says:

    I’m not convinced we can use the adjective “human” to modify “prosperity”. The philosophers and neurobiologists are hard at work dismantling Free Will and I’m inclined to agree with much they say. The Individual has always been an overrated concept. So, for that matter, is Rationality and Volition: consent has always been manufactured and mankind has proven himself a master of self-delusion.

    As Utility is hard to measure, we might well uproot this entire argument and ask who gets to define the ground rules of the Game, starting with a phrase I’ve always hated, “Win-win.” You make a fine start, explaining how we might sort out what activities ought to be delegated to Institutional Frameworks, by which I think you mean Gummint, and which ought to be Individual.

    Your definition of Democracy is somewhat suspect. Democracies are how we protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. In a working democracy, we have freedom of the press, judicial independence, civil rights, worker protections, habeas corpus, bicameral legislatures, all acting to restraint the majority from wreaking vengeance on the minorities. Democracy is a profoundly liberal force in the world. Furthermore, they’re all unique, all the successful ones are home grown. It has to be: it arises of the will of the people.

    Nor are markets forces for diversity. That’s complete nonsense. Market forces drive out standards: USB, 110 volt power appliances, units of measure, iPhone compatibility, MP3, socket wrenches, Java 7 APIs, 40 weight oil, a 5000 bushel corn contract. Market forces kill off incompatibility: Sony Betamax. Furthermore market forces are constantly conniving with each other, under the covers, attempting to eliminate competition, price fixing. Markets innovate but they aren’t forces for diversification.

    Diversification only happens at the beginning of an evolutionary trend: Stephen Jay Gould described it as Punctuated Equilibrium. Without going too deeply into that concept, here’s how it works out in principle. With the advent of the internal combustion motor, hundreds of firms began to manufacture automobiles. With a few decades, only a handful of firms remained. Evolutionary pressures eliminated all but the strongest and luckiest. In fact, market pressures actively inhibit diversification. Not until some new technology appears do we see any genuine innovation.

    Your enumerated list of improvements can be reduced to the first three words: Limit government activities. The rest is superfluous. Well, you could leave in that bit about the pony. That seems like a fitting end to that section.

    Let’s not get too carried away by Tekno Loogies. Though the actors change, the masks remain the same. While exploitation remains the basis for capitalism, let us not damn the one and praise the other: they are of a piece. We are left to sort out how much exploitation we’re willing to tolerate in exchange for payment. If some of us, you know, the Liberals, believe we could push back against exploitation by regulations, don’t damn us as un-Capitalistic Statists. We believe in capitalism and market forces, just as much as anyone else. We just have different ideas about the tradeoffs involved.Report

    • Roger in reply to BlaiseP says:


      Really good feedback. Thanks. 

      On human prosperity, what other prosperity are you interested in? Indeed, specifically what are you interested in? What do you value? The purpose of Democracy (and markets and science) are to serve these interests. Collectively and individually. What other purpose do they serve?

       I’m aware of the problems with rationality and irrationality, the problem is that it goes all the way up. It’s true of crowds, politicians and majorities as well.  The benefit of falling back on individual judgment where possible is that the interests are at least aligned. The person least likely to take advantage of ones self and the person most likely to experience feedback is the individual him or herself. They learn. And their interests align (with themselves) near perfectly.

      I am of course arguing that the person who gets to either define the ground rules, or to join the game is the individual player. I understand the pop psychology baggage of win/win, but it avoids the eyes rolling geek speak of game theory and economics.  I’ve found there is no better way to turn off a non economist than to start throwing out Pareto efficient outcomes. By the way, who do you suggest determines which game and which interactions are engaged in?

      I actually agree with most of what you are saying about the institutions of democracy and their liberal solutions.  My prescriptions for democracy does indeed stress limiting its scope, but it also introduces the key elements of choice, variation and a constructive brand of learning competition.   But the dynamics of democracy tend to push back, though punctuated equilibrium may actually occur here as well. democracies can “snap” into new phases. 

      Your standards issue is a good point. Market forces do drive out incompatible standards. The reason of courses is that incompatible standards is itself a problem.  They limit transparency and inter connectivity and replace ability. In other words, they help reduce chaos. We couldn’t have a thousand brands of toaster if every unit required a different size bread, a different electrical connector and so forth. Variation is good, but not unlimited variation, and not incompatible variation. Market forced and democracy are both about cooperation, and part of cooperation is coordination. 

      I also agree With your comment that new industries (and evolutionary breakthroughs) start with wide variety of firms and standards and that over time these collapse into fewer firms and standards.  Technology continues to cascade though, not as fast as the early years with big breakthroughs, but the pace is relentless. And new fields and new combinations keep occurring. 


      • BlaiseP in reply to Roger says:

        The last time I poured out my heart on the subject of how I arrived at my conclusions about human suffering, I was told to Lighten Up. This led to some unfortunate invective and no end of clucking. I am therefore somewhat reticent to voice any further opinions on this subject.

        When I consider every thing that grows
        Holds in perfection but a little moment,
        That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
        Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
        When I perceive that men as plants increase,
        Cheered and checked even by the self-same sky,
        Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
        And wear their brave state out of memory;

        Societies are not very different from men in this regard. From the flower of success, the seeds of disaster are eventually sown. Our American modus vivendi arose from the myths of endless lands to the west, of wide open spaces, of individual triumph in the face of adversity. Don Draper sorta brings all this to a head: America is where you can reinvent yourself. There’s a price to pay, of course. There always is.

        America’s love affair with the Individual is sordid. Woody Allen said “Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.” Choice – choice between which options? The ones provided by the market? We’ve already established those choices aren’t really choices, furthermore we’ve established we’re not particularly good judges even when we believe we’re choosing. Learning – learning what? Critical thinking isn’t an American strength, let’s just put it baldly. Doubt is not exactly encouraged in this society. Foreign languages? A huge blank spot on the map of American education. Sociology, literature, history, all reduced to pedantry and baffling terms of art.

        Despite all our fine talk about Democracy, the cheap veneer is peeling up. We’re lapsing into oligarchy and corporatism. I should just lay off this sort of talk, it’s too goddamn depressing and I suspect if that Duck appears, I shall be tempting the fates and the goodwill of everyone else here in what will follow should I continue in this vein. I laid out how liberal democracy doesn’t scale up to encompass other cultures elsewhere. I do not believe Markets will solve our problems. The human heart needs more.Report

        • Roger in reply to BlaiseP says:


          But I’m still not sure what values or goals you are proposing other than my suggestion of human prosperity or flourishing.

          As for the market, it doesn’t provide unlimited variety, but as I wrote that is because unlimited variety is just one human goal. Another is conformity, interchangability, and interconnectivity — not to mention lower price of economies of scale. One can buy billions of products today that did not and would not have existed in non free market eras. Choice is expanded incomprehensibly, but there are also other, countervailing values as well.

          I don’t believe you seriously are suggesting that government delivers anything resembling this variety of economical human solutions.

          In the final paragraph, I basically agree though. Markets and democracy and science are just some of the institutional systems that deliver only certain subsets of human solutions. The human heart needs more. Hence my emphasis on human flourishing.Report

  5. Burt Likko says:

    Roger, your eighth point for improvement is:

    Build opt outs or exit options into some programs to protect individuals from being exploited by the majority. Government services tend to be over bundled.

    I’m curious as to what it is you think people should be able to opt out of. Whatever else its inherent flaws and susceptibility to erosion over time (a point Liberty60 addressed nicely so I don’t have to), liberal democracy is really hard to beat from a political legitimacy standpoint — everyone can participate and while you don’t always get your way on everything, you do get your way on some things, and more importantly, you had a voice and a vote all along so you participated in the collective decision-making. The implication of consent is much stronger in a democratic setting than anything other than outside of an anarcho-libertarian fantasy.

    If you’re referring to specific programs or kinds of programs, what are the characteristics (or perhaps examples) of the kinds of programs that a) create a significant enough risk of unfair exploitation that people should be able to opt out of them, and b) can be structured in an opt-out fashion without causing too much harm or drag on the rest of the polity?Report

    • Roger in reply to Burt Likko says:


      See my comments to Will above also. The opt outs can be simple as the ability to opt out of trash service to the ability to opt out of health care.

      By the way, what comment of Liberty’s were you agreeing with?Report

    • damon in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I’d agree, from a political legitimacy standpoint, liberal democracy looks good. Too bad it doesn’t exist-at least anymore. So I got a vote and occasionally I’m thrown a bone. Meanwhile the vast majority of collective decisions impoverish me, and erode my freedoms and choices, but since I participated in these decisions, I’ve given my “consent” to the system—just like I “consent” to voluntarily pay the IRS the amount they say I owe them for my income taxes.

      Isn’t democracy a wonderful thing?Report

      • Roger in reply to damon says:

        I basically agree, though I think it is fair for someone to counter our sentiments with a bold question… “compared to what?”

        I think it could be more wonderful with more freedom and choices and if used in the appropriate contexts. The challenge is that those on both sides of the l/r political spectrum are attempting to force their values on others, as the Wardsmith dialogue with the left on Blaise’s thread reveals.Report

  6. mac says:

    Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!Report

    • mac in reply to mac says:

      Just for clarification: I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term “rent-seeking” applied to labor costs before. You and Mitt Romney ought to get on together just fine…Report

      • Roger in reply to mac says:


        I’m not a fan of Romney, and if you conflate our positions, then I have not been clear.

        Rent seeking, or as I would prefer to call it — privilege seeking, is using coercion to achieve above market rates. It is exploitation. Using government to manipulate wages, benefits and so forth quickly runs into what I have described as a win/lose situation, where employers are coerced to do something which is not mutually voluntary. Or it leads to the elimination of the voluntary transaction altogether. Unskilled be damned.

        Do note that I am not even suggesting there is no role for the will of the majority on the issue. Just that it can quickly devolve into something which is similar to exploitation into something which is exploitative.

        I am always surprised at how those on the left want to constantly play favorites in economic transactions. Coercion to help protected groups which vote democratic is consistently preferred to policies which help parties which vote right.

        I condemn the entire dynamic. We need impartial judges and systems, not arms races of left and right tinkerers.Report