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In Defense of Coercion from a Lover of Liberty

November 14, 2011 Leave a comment

As someone that believes that true free will is an illusion, I’m often asked how I can object to coercion if we ultimately have no liberty anyway. I think this question conflates two separate types of coercion. Just because I’m constrained by the laws of physics and have no moral responsibility for my genetics or for the circumstances of my birth doesn’t mean that self-determination and slavery are the same thing. Even though at a fundamental level you can’t decide what reasons and emotions are persuasive in deciding one’s own actions, at the proximate level of the brain your own reasons and emotions are still the fuel of your decisions. It certainly feels different and your conscious perception isn’t trivial. You might say it’s the only thing that matters. If you can’t appreciate the difference between autonomy and bondage , you’re probably trying your best to misunderstand me.

With that out of the way, I turn to this recent article from the New Scientist titled: ‘Nudge’ policies are another name for coercion.

All this suggests democratic arrangements, which foster diversity, are better at solving problems than technocratic ones. Libertarian paternalism is seductive because democratic politics is a cumbersome and messy business. Even so, democracy is far better than even the best-intentioned technocracy at discovering people’s real interests and how to advance them. It is also, obviously, better at defending those interests when bureaucrats do not mean well.

While democratic institutions need reform to build in dialogue between citizens and experts, they should not be bypassed. By cutting dialogue and diversity for concealed and unaccountable decision-making, “nudge” politics attacks democracy’s core.

[Some examples of nudges]

It’s widespread in American politics to treat democracy as a good in itself. Anything anti-democratic, therefore, is ipso facto bad. Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi, the authors of the piece, don’t seem to notice that democracy itself is a form or coercion – at least for the people in the voting minority. It feels like heresy to say, but the justification for democratic governance does not spring from some intrinsic property of casting a ballot or some numerological virtue of percentages higher than 50.

We agree to democratic coercion because giving political power to the people being governed is generally a reliable safeguard against flagrantly nefarious policies. In other words, people tend to appreciate their own experiences better than a tyrant might. But it’s not a perfect safeguard. We all still understand that certain individual rights are necessary to protect us from our domineering neighbors. Democratic politics doesn’t ensure maximally beneficial policies. There is good reason to believe that democracies often choose suboptimal and outright harmful policies. Libertarian economist Bryan Caplan wrote a whole book on the topic. Can anyone living in America right now really believe that democracies always choose the best policies?

Yet we accept the compulsion of voters. Coercion falls on a gradient of typical consequences. Slavery isn’t simply bad because of coercion, per se, but because that type of coercion invariably leads to undesirable consequences and suffering for the individual being violently controlled. The problem of a benevolent dictator is that even a dictator with good intentions will predictably cause worse problems than an individual acting in his own self-interest. At some level individuals resist any type of direct coercion by another because total servility just doesn’t feel right. Democratic coercion is acceptable to most people because the consequences aren’t as uniformly bad as under serfdom or authoritarianism. Also, by allotting citizens a division in the power structure – even if one’s vote isn’t decisive and can be trumped – coercion by a democratic government feels less forced. Perception is one of the pillars of democracy’s acceptability but is criticized as a defect in “nudging.”

Much criticism of this approach comes, in fact, from libertarians, who see little difference between guiding a person’s choices and eliminating them. A nudge is like a shove, they argue, only more disreputable because it pretends otherwise.

As a classical liberal I believe that liberty should always be the presumptive policy unless we collectively (or through our representatives) decide that we have sufficient evidence that the negative externalities of an activity outweigh the benefits. Policymakers should ask, “do we have strong reasons to suspect that the consequences of an alternative policy will lead to better outcomes?” In many cases, we do. Think of many environmental regulation like the Clean Air Act or financial regulations that stabilize our markets.

Do we always know a priori that setting up a nudge, regulation, or law that blunts liberty will be successful? No, but that shouldn’t lead us to the technocratic fatalism that many extreme libertarians embrace. Any political coercion needn’t be permanent. If the evidence accumulates that a specific nudge’s harms outweigh its benefits regulatory agencies, democratic representatives, and voters are free to act to change the policy.

(Weights and Pulleys Illustration)

Some other pieces talking down to democracy (here, here, here, & especially here)

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A Libertarian’s Case For Government Intervention

August 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Bryan Caplan is one of my favorite libertarian writers. He’s very persuasive and even when he doesn’t convince me he’s consistently insightful. In his Wall Street Journal review of Nick Powdthavee’s book, The Happiness Equation, he highlights one of the most important metrics for evaluating public policy:

For instance, happiness research makes a powerful case against European-style labor-market regulation. For most economists, the effect on worker well-being is unclear. On the one hand, regulation boosts wages; on the other, it increases the probability that you will have no wages at all. From the standpoint of a happiness researcher, however, this is a no-brainer. A small increase in wages has but a small and ephemeral effect on happiness. A small increase in unemployment, by contrast, has a massive and—unlike most other factors—durable effect on happiness. Supposedly “humane” regulations to boost workers’ incomes have a dire cost in terms of human happiness.

At the other end of the political spectrum, consider immigration. The most pessimistic researchers find that decades of immigration have depressed native wages by about 5%, total. The effect of immigration on Third World migrants’ wages, by contrast, is massive: One recent paper finds that allowing a Haitian to take a low-skill job in the U.S. increases his earnings 10 times. If you care about happiness, the implication is clear: Government should get out of the way.

In many instances, he’s right, government should relax regulations that obstruct full employment. But maximum freedom doesn’t always lead to full employment. Market economies with lax regulation can suffer from painful volatility.

Furthermore, during times of high unemployment like today, government could boost employment at relatively low cost to future growth (or possibly no cost). The corollary to when Caplan argues that a “small increase in wages” isn’t worth the “small increase in unemployment” is that a small decrease in future wealth is worth an increase in today’s employment. Caplan’s sound logic should help convince policymakers to support public investment programs that employ idle workers and to reverse the fall in public employment.

(The surge around May and subsequent drop is mostly due to the temporary census workers)

Over regulation can often raise unemployment, but during downturns it can also provide worker safety as some German labor policies demonstrate. From The Economist’s Free Exchange blog:

Germany proceeded to protect its labour market from major disruption by the great recession, through the use of its “short work” labour sharing programme. Firms were encouraged to cut hours rather than jobs, and workers facing reduced work hours were provided an income subsidy. The result? Germany’s huge output fall produced only a labour market wiggle.

Caring about people’s happiness also makes a further mockery of the hysteria around any Fed policy that might generate higher inflation, which would certainly boost growth and lower unemployment.

If you care about happiness, the implication is clear: Bryan Caplan makes a great case for occasional government intervention.

Childhood is Part of Life

Bryan Caplan and “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua debate parenting styles in The Guardian:

BC: I have three sons – eight-year-old identical twins and a baby. I’m not permissive, we do have discipline, but the point is to make sure they treat people decently. Once my kids were born, I realised that all these things that people say about parenting are wrong according to the best science. Parents seem to think their kids are like clay, that you mould them into the right shape when they’re wet. A better metaphor is that kids are like flexible plastic – they respond to pressure, but when you release the pressure they tend to pop back to their original shape. I don’t know Amy and her kids, but from my reading of the book the mother-daughter relationship seemed strained for many years, and that’s sad.

AC: I instilled a sense of respect and discipline that will last them a lifetime. I don’t think just by doing fun things and praising kids all the time that they develop that inner strength. When my kids wanted to give up on things, I wouldn’t let them, and those are lifelong lessons. The reason my daughters say they would be strict parents themselves is because that represents a mother who loved her children more than anything.

Twin studies aren’t perfect, but they provide the best scientific insight on the effects of parenting. Those studies suggest that parents have far less influence on how their kids turn out than most people think. Chua emphasizes that her style of parenting is truly caring because it sets children up for successful lives. In the book she writes, “everything I do is unequivocally 100% for my daughters.  My main evidence is that so much of what I do with Sophia and Lulu is miserable, exhausting, and not remotely fun for me.” The Tiger Mom prevented her kids from going to sleepovers, having play-dates, being in school plays, or doing anything else they wanted to do that didn’t fit Chua’s strict model.

As a child I had lots of fun playing at other kids’ houses and would never trade in my time in school plays, although neither will likely determine my level of success in life. Chua’s kids, as she freely admits, missed out a loads of fun and spent countless hours in distress (for their own good). Behavioral genetics shows that all that suffering was largely for nothing. Even absent that evidence, I still don’t understand why some parents believe that success in adulthood somehow outweighs misery in childhood. She can’t possibly believe that if she allowed her kid cut back a few hours on the piano or act in a couple plays they’d turn into homeless drug addicts. Chua ensures unhappiness for her children and, evidently, herself in the hope that they’ll be somewhat more successful as adults. Amy Chua and, more extremely, Kirk Murphy’s mother fail to recognize that misery is misery whether it happens at 7, 15, or 38.

Bryan Caplan on Immigration

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment


FFF Economic Liberty Lecture Series: Bryan Caplan from The Future of Freedom Foundation on Vimeo.


Bryan Caplan expands on the arguments of philosopher Michael Huemer. From Huemer’s “Is There a Right to Immigrate?”

It is possible to harm someone not only by directly inflicting a harm, but also by actively preventing that person from taking actions to avert or remedy a harm. Suppose that, through no fault of mine, Marvin is in danger of starvation. He asks me for food. If I refuse to give him food, I thereby fail to confer a benefit on Marvin and, at the same time, allow Marvin to go hungry. If Marvin then starves to death, those who accept the doing/allowing distinction would say that I have not killed Marvin, but merely allowed him to die. And some believe that this is much less wrong than killing, possibly not even wrong at all. But now consider a different case. Suppose that Marvin, again in danger of starvation, plans to walk to the local market to buy some food. In the absence of any outside interference, this plan would succeed—the market is open, and there are people willing to trade food for something that Marvin has. Now suppose that, knowing all this, I actively and forcibly restrain Marvin from reaching the market. As a result, he starves to death. In this situation, I would surely be said to have killed Marvin, or at least done something morally comparable to killing him.

The actions of the federal government of the United States are more analogous to the case in which I restrain Marvin from reaching the market, than to the case in which I merely decline to provide him with food. The government’s immigration policy is not a merely passive one—the government does not, for example, merely fail to assist people in coming to the United States. Rather, the government hires armed guards to stop people from coming in and to forcibly expel people who are already here. The federal government spends almost $13 billion a year on actively excluding or expelling unauthorized immigrants. The United States is like the market where would-be immigrants could satisfy their needs. There are Americans willing to hire immigrants, to rent them living spaces, and in general to engage in all other kinds of needed interactions with immigrants. My charge is not that the U.S. government fails to give Third World inhabitants what they need. It is that the government actively and coercively prevents many Third World inhabitants from taking a course of action that they otherwise would undertake and that would in fact succeed in enabling them to meet their needs. This is much closer to inflicting a harm than it is to merely allowing a harm to occur. (my emphasis)

The Great American Taboo: Democracy is Overrated

January 31, 2010 1 comment

Democracy is a morally necessary tool for a legitimate state and social contract, but the reality is that it is also a mechanism for choosing irrational policies. As Andreas Kluth, a correspondent for The Economist, said about democracy in a debate on if California is failed state, “James Madison didn’t want [the word] even used in the constitution of the country, because he was afraid—they had studied ancient Athens which was a failure because of direct democracy. They had studied Republican Rome, which was very stable, they wanted Rome, not Athens.”


In America, it is probably more blasphemous to criticize democracy than even religion. The founders recognized the need for a constitutional republic with limited state powers over a pure and far-reaching democracy for many reasons. In a book I read about a year ago, Bryan Caplan nails up his own version of the ninety-five theses. The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies merges economic analysis with political science to explain why voters often act against their own (and the country’s) economic interests. I encourage everyone to read what I think is one of the most important and counter-intuitive studies of our political system.

Among all the fascinating data and analysis, in one of my favorite chapters Caplan explains the phenomenon of “rational irrationality” in voters. Any one person’s vote is astonishingly unlikely to sway an election. Therefore since an individual’s vote has more emotional effect on the individual than electoral effect it may be rational to vote in a way that makes the voter feel better than to vote for a policy that may be materially better for the nation. After all it is a lot of work to research and discover the most effective policies. Aside from effort, social costs can be high to hold unpopular beliefs regardless of their veracity. Also, even think of the politician for whom it makes more sense for him to vote for policies that get him elected over policies that might better the country. Human self-interest is an insight that doesn’t only apply to economics.

I imagine this is part of the reason politics can rarely be looked at dispassionately – people so often take offense if you criticize their preferences for a particular candidate or policy.
Voters see themselves as validating their own values so to criticize democracy one is seen, by extension, to be judging the integrity of the voter himself.

This is too similar to religion to ignore. In 2007, philosopher Dan Dennett gave a talk at the Atheist Alliance International convention where he outlines “good reasons” for belief in religion. He doesn’t mean reasons for beliefs in the doctrines of religion, but reasons for acting as though you believe in those doctrines. Watch his whole talk but it boils down to the social costs being very high for not being religious.



What Bryan Caplan argues for voters applies to the religious, “If agents care about both material wealth and irrational beliefs, then as the price of casting reason aside rises, agents consume less irrationality (p. 123).” The price for an individual consuming irrationality, whether it is in the voting booth or the church pew is often small, but in aggregate for society the cost can be very high. Although Caplan’s book is about political beliefs he, to his credit, spots the connection with religion. He writes, “Human beings
want their religion’s answers to be true. They often want it so badly that they avoid counterevidence, and refuse to think about whatever evidence falls in their laps[…] Once you admit that preferences over beliefs are relevant in religion it is hard to compartmentalize the insight (p. 15).”


Understanding that voters can be irrational and the reasons for it tempers enthusiasm for democracy (and often increases appreciation for markets). A balance obviously has to be found between giving citizens the power to make their own decisions as voters and limiting the influence that a group of potentially irrational voters can have over another group of citizens. But an important step is to break the taboo that democracy always good.
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