Archive for December, 2010

The Copenhagen Consensus Center is devoted to trying to funnel government and private monies for development into their most cost-effective uses. They do this by bringing experts together to hash out priorities.

The idea is simple, yet often neglected; when financial resources are limited, it is necessary to prioritize the effort. Every day, policymakers and business leaders at all levels prioritize by investing in one project instead of another. However, instead of  being based on facts, science, and calculations, many vital decisions are based on political motives or even the possibility of media coverage.

What if there were a similar idea for promoting libertarian ideas?  Libertarians have not only limited financial resources but also limited political resources (and they often pursue agendas which further undermine their political effectiveness).  How could those resources be most effectively used?  Given constraints, what should be the priorities of the movement?

Libertarians spend a lot of energy arguing for policies that 1) are seen by non-libertarians as beyond the fringe and 2) are not that central to the daily lives of most people.  For instance, does it make sense to talk about decriminalizing hard drugs, when the FDA on a daily basis requires people to obtain permission from doctors to use any number of health promoting drugs?  If I want a drug to treat air sickness, or acid reflux, or sleep problems, for instance, I have to incur significant costs to do so well beyond the market cost of the drug–which is offensive not only from a libertarian standpoint, but also makes no sense for a society trying to control health care costs.  If we spent less time defending the sale of crack, pornography or prostitution, and more time on things like the tyranny of the FDA, perhaps we would be more effective.

Libertarians are not inclined by nature to pursue consensus, compromise and efficient trade-offs.  These are not the methods that appeal to people driven by an ideology of being left alone.  That is what the Big Government People do.  But suppose the brightest minds in the movement got together, formulated a list of Priorities for Increasing Freedom driven by the cost-effective use of economic and political resources, and then worked in concert on that agenda.  Would it matter?  Are libertarians so hopelessly irrelevant that they can’t accomplish anything other than making the case for an ideal world that will never be?

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Source: BBC.  BTW, in my snark, I’m taking it for granted that harm has been accurately measured.

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China and Porn

Although I respectfully disagree with Sven’s take on the internet and porn*, his opt-in porn policy is certainly better than China’s draconian attempt to “clean up the internet” by shutting down pornographic websites and opening over two thousand criminal investigations.  (Good luck, China!  And when you are finished, I’m sure you’ll move on to easily and successfully end the scourge of drug use). 

What is more disturbing to me is the technique used to get the “bad guys” – paying people to become informants on those trafficking in porn.  According to CNN, 534 people received “rewards totaling 544,000 yuan (U.S. $81,964) for providing information.”  This technique is destructive of human sociability and friendship in the service of a contestable end and of a mission that is very, very unlikely to make a dent in the use of pornography.  Moreover, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or public choice theorist) to see how the use of informants can be abused and lead to all kinds of problematic consequences.  You would think that a place that went through the Cultural Revolution would think twice about such things, especially for this type of “crime.”       

So, chalk up this campaign and its tactics as more reasons to hate the Chinese regime (sorry Tom Friedman) – even if you don’t approve of the consumption of pornography.   

* I just don’t like giving the state the broad power to decide what is and what isn’t “pornographic” or “obscene.”  Let’s not forget that even our government has a sketchy history doing so, including the arrest of “eccentric” presidential candidate George Francis Train for publishing some of the more colorful passages of the Bible!  I also agree with what “A leap at the wheel” said in the comments section for Sven’s post: “I would also be concerned with giving the government (or a private agent that can be brought to heel with a subpoena or threat from a senator) a big list of people who consume unpopular speech.”

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Kant and public policy

I’ve been having a philosophical debate on another thread with Mark LeBar.  Since he is way smarter than I, it hasn’t been much of a debate, but it has been fun for me.  It also comes at a time when I’m finishing off my syllabus for next semester for an undergraduate class called “Theories of Public Policy.”  I use quite a few philosophical readings for that class, even though they are mostly way above my pay grade, as the President would say.  I thought my last comment on that thread would make a nice stand-alone post, so here it is:


I once had an old philosopher ask me (like most, he had been trained since his baby philosopher days to hate economists), “Deep down, you surely believe that Kant is right, don’t you?”

To the extent I understand it (which isn’t great), I see some appeal of the deontological approach, though it can lead to conclusions as morally absurd as those used to critique the utilitarians. I think you can use a deontological line of reasoning to conceive of a certain kind of pure libertarian state. The problem is that state is so far past Never Never Land, that it does us little good. Furthermore, that pure libertarian state in my mind is not the morally optimal state, since it gives insufficient weight to other moral ends. I don’t think that I (or people smarter than me), could theorize their way to the optimal state, which is why I don’t subscribe to any known moral philosophy.

To the extent that textbooks on public policy pay attention to political philosophy at all, they usually ignore Kant, except for maybe when talking about civil rights. This reflects, probably more than anything, the fact that Kant gives no direction about how to make trade-offs, and making policy is all about making trade-offs. If your ideology is built around categorical imperatives (or categorial anything, for that matter), you have little to say about how to set a speed limit or decide how much teachers should be paid or determine how to limit carbon emissions, or pretty much anything else.

I haven’t come across deontological writers who paint a clear pathway from where we are to the pure libertarian state they envision, or, more important, to provide a moral ranking of different kind of states (this is probably due mostly to my not being very well read). When you are dealing with categorical imperatives, moral rankings don’t make much intellectual sense, do they? To say simply that the entire foundation of most of what modern democratic states do is immoral doesn’t tell us whether option A is more moral than option B.

I have a belief that most people have strong moral intuition of the importance of human freedoms, and they also have strong moral intuitions that specific freedoms are not absolute and that living in the social world requires placing boundaries on those freedoms so that other moral ends can be accomplished–protecting children (and some dependent adults) from harm and providing them opportunities to learn how to flourish as adults, economic prosperity, providing for the common defense, etc. I think we pragmatic libertarians reason with people from those intuitions to argue that the our modern, authoritarian welfare states have drastically over-reached and have significantly undermined our core freedoms. And we argue that moving to a freer world with more limited government would be a movement to a far more moral position than the status quo.

In my obviously naive view, philosophy goes astray because it forces people to pick between public values that are all important–between liberty, utility, equality, community–and then build a moral system founded upon their chosen value. I say no to this choice. I am going to pick all of them. The most ethical state is the one that adheres most closely to the ideal mix of these values–which appears to be a tautological statement to those lacking my clear vision!

Having said all that, I’m still going to force my undergrads in public policy theory next semester to read some Kant — for which they will hate me, assuming they don’t already hate me for forcing them to read Aristotle, Locke, Mill, and Rawls!

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Free Favre!

What, exactly, has Brett Favre done wrong? I don’t mean playing exceptionally poorly this year; I mean whatever it is that has led to the many-months-long investigation and has finally culminated in a $50,000 fine from the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Favre was accused of sending “objectionable photographs” and “inappropriate messages” to Jenn Sterger in 2008 while both he and Sterger were employees of the New York Jets. According to the statement released yesterday by the NFL, however, Commissioner Goodell was unable to determine whether Favre had violated any league policies, and he was unable to determine whether in fact Favre had sent any of the allegedly objectionable or inappropriate material.

There was apparently a “forensic analysis” conducted of the photographs and messages, and this analysis could not determine whether the relevant material came from Favre. It has been rumored that the sent materials included, as ESPN put it, “below-the-belt photos”; one might therefore infer that the inconclusive forensic analysis included rather intimate comparisons of Favre’s below-the-belt reality with the photos’ below-the-belt representations.

All very tawdry stuff. But if (1) it could not be determined whether the alleged photos were in fact of (any part of) Favre, (2) it could not be determined whether the alleged text messages came from Favre, (3) it could not be proved that Favre used any Jets or NFL equipment to send any alleged photos or messages, and (4) Favre apparently did not admit to any wrongdoing—all of which Goodell conceded in his statement—then shouldn’t he be deemed . . . innocent?

So what was the $50k fine for? From the Commissioner’s statement:

“The commissioner notified Favre that he has been fined $50,000 for his failure to cooperate with the investigation in a forthcoming manner. Commissioner Goodell stated to Favre that if he had found a violation of the league’s workplace conduct policies, he would have imposed a substantially higher level of discipline.”

That last sentence is rather telling, isn’t it, since it implies that Goodell did not, in fact, find any “violation of the league’s workplace conduct policies.” One wonders, then, why that wasn’t the end of it.

But the $50k fine is for not cooperating “in a forthcoming manner.” Well why should he? Suppose the allegations are in fact true. Suppose, that is, that Favre sent below-the-belt photos and racy text messages to Sterger. How is that anyone else’s business? Both Favre and Sterger are legal adults, and the claims of photos and messages sent all allegedly took place via personal electronic devices during personal time. How is that the NFL’s business? How is that Goodell’s business? Yes, if he had discovered that objectionable material had been sent during company time or using company equipment, that might be a different story. But the point is that he did not discover that. He couldn’t even be sure the messages came from Favre!

Whether a married man should be sending objectionable photos and inappropriate messages to a woman not his wife is another matter. (The answer is no.) But that is a matter between the persons involved and their consciences (and perhaps their Maker), not a matter for a public clamoring for salacious gossip.

I have no inside information, of course, and can go on only what has been publicly released. But based on that, I cannot see why Favre should not have been completely absolved.

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I quite enjoy reading op-eds and writing them is pretty fun too (though not well-paying for us part-timers!).  The obnoxious ones are even worth reading as they provide great insight into the writer if not the subject of the op-ed.  With that in mind, Gene Healy of the Cato Institute has an amusing op-ed on the worst op-eds of the year.  I’m just surprised David Brooks didn’t make the list – though the competition was pretty stiff this year.  As might be expected, Thomas Friedman (who should get a lifetime achievement award from Gene) and Frank Rich both make the list.  However, the David Broder piece was as obvious a choice as Godfather II was for the Oscar in 1974.   Indeed, Broder’s piece has to be – at least –  in the conversation for the worst op-ed ever!  Here are Healy’s winners (you’ll have to go to the post to see the full discussion):

5. Al Gore and David Blood, “Toward Sustainable Capitalism,” Wall Street Journal (June 24)

4. Thomas Friedman, “Malia for President,” New York Times (May 29)

3. Charles Krauthammer, “Throw the Wikibook at Them,” Washington Post (Dec. 3)

2. Frank Rich, “The Axis of the Obsessed and Deranged,” New York Times (Feb. 27)

1. David Broder, “How Obama Might Recover,” Washington Post (Oct. 31)

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Please stop helping us

John Stossel’s critiques usually aren’t terribly sophisticated, but I still like them (since I’m not even a little sophisticated).  He does manage to understand market economics better than almost all of those sophisticated, Ivy League journalists who make up the MSM elite.

This piece is based on analysis done by GMU’s Todd Zywicki on the impact of the new credit card regulations.  Sadly, the impact of more regulation is not hard to predict: higher interest rates and less credit availability.

Here are some snips:

People who have limited choices when it comes to credit are not likely to have their situations improved by taking away some of those limited options that they have…”

So the real result of this “consumer” regulation? “Hundreds of thousands of people can’t get cards who used to be able to have cards, and all the rest of us now have to pay more…”

“Just to say they don’t have a credit card doesn’t mean that they don’t have credit,” Zywicki retorts. “They’ll just go to more expensive places — the local payday lender or the local pawn shop.”


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