Ban the Ban

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Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

16 thoughts

  1. Will,
    Your views should be more widely read and debated than they currently are; this post is just one of many awesome, insightful posts.

  2. Well stated. While wealth and influence coincide in many instances, they are two distinct entities. To complement your excellent point that the wealthy do not all vote the same, many of them wish to be left alone and do not wish to exert influence over anything but what they do for a living and for fun! Some people are drawn to power and/or influence. Many are not. Being wealthy is a feature enjoyed by both groups.

  3. > And if wealthy, better-educated people are more likely to be committed to liberal values overall…
    This seems to be the crux of the entire argument, and it’s reasonable that it is true in general. But how generic is the support for liberal values overall? Do some values get washed out due to their relative unimportance? In other words, might certain liberties be valued (and defended) less than others, and/or less than they would be valued in a more egalitarian society?

  4. Will,
    You can buy media and academic influence, or even direct political outcomes .
    You can buy the Wall Street Journal for $5 billion, or a controlling equity interest (using debt in the purchase) for quite a bit less.
    $370 million in the John Olin Foundation built a massively influential law and economics movement in the legal academy and the court system.
    $24 million is Cato’s budget for a year.
    A few million can fund an initiative on some issue where popular opinion greatly diverges from legislators’ preferences, e.g. the affirmative action bans in California and Washington.

  5. I’d be curious to know when the last time was that you posted something that called into question your ideological preconceptions. I’ve been looking for the better part of an hour and I literally cannot find a single post that doesn’t in some way end with “so you see, markets will always produce justice.”

    1. Freddie, I have never called into question my ideological preconceptions. Naturally, I spend all my time trying to understand the most forceful challenges to my preconceptions so that I can feel more secure in them.
      However, I don’t believe I have ever said anything even remotely like “markets will always produce justice,” which would be silly.

  6. “If a high level of income inequality is a side-effect of voluntary exchange according to just rules, then what’s the problem?”
    How do we determine which rules are “just” without looking at outcomes? If justice is the aim of a set of rules, and if justice aims at “roughly meritocratic inequality”* (I agree with this), then apparently countermeritocratic income inequality at the very least suggests the rules aren’t just.*
    * What counts as “meritocratic”? Good question — but whatever evaluative content you give the term, surely the judgment will be a function of whether outcomes track the goals that underlie adopted rules.

  7. “How do we determine which rules are “just” without looking at outcomes?”
    -Michael Drake
    How do you determine what is “just” by looking at outcomes? If my roommate and I have the same job and make equal pay but over the years he invests his savings and I spend it on partying every weekend, would it be unjust that he can retire early and I must remain working until I am very old? Should his savings be divided up between us so I can retire earlier? How differences come about seems more important when determining justice than simply looking at the outcomes.

  8. I don’t see how anyone with intellectual honesty (liberal democratic or not) can look at this mess and conclude that markets and “deregulation” were solely to blame.
    As you point out, the Fed and other central banks set interest rates which in turn has an effect on the cost of capital and thus on the amount of loans that get made. In this case, the impact on the housing market of Greenspan’s easy money policy appears to have been large.
    As well, Freddy and Fanny, stuffed to the gills with Democratic cronies and protected by powerful Congressmen of both parties, were encouraging very risky home loans to people who clearly couldn’t afford them.
    Yet in the popular press and among liberal intellectuals these factors and others (like the mountain of regulations already on the books) are simply ignored in the rush to blame free markets.
    Alas, I fear that we are on the cusp of a period of renewed dirigisme which will make us all poorer.
    Finally, I can’t resist adding that Obama – who you praised as reasonable in a recent post – has been among the worst of the demagogues on this issue.
    Despite his ‘T.R’ style rhetoric, I’d much rather have McCain dealing with the fall-out of this debacle.

  9. Wow! You should have just titled this one The Return of the King. Or maybe Some People Are More Equal Then Others.
    “meritocratic inequalities ” … what the heck? So like Paris Hilton or Prince Williams? Those kinds of Meritocrats? At some point they become Autocrats and that’s what we fought the last revolution against.
    The meltdown you see ever day you read the paper is a result of Meritocratic rule. Yeah if Paul Krugman was so powerful we’d have universal healthcare and not the Pharma lobbyist written Medicare Part D drug bill.
    Come on man open your eyes. But indeed the crap you wrote was eloquently written enough to make some thing it was deep and thoughtful.

  10. teageegeepea – If you're willing to do a little legwork you can probably find out who I really am, and then be disappointed when you find I'm nobody.
    TGGP says:

    What about anti-democratic market liberals? Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn called himself an “arch-liberal”. Both Freud and Mises were also fans of the Habsburgs. I think any anarcho-capitalist would also have to reject democracy.

  11. Your last paragraph gives it away: “…if wealthy people are better-educated…”
    And what is one reason wealthy people are better educated? Because they had wealthy parents.
    Why did George W. Bush get into Yale? Because his daddy went there.
    Your last paragraph just discusses differences between rich and poor and there is no mention of a middle class. What are we become? A banana republic?
    The middle class was the source of this country (go read your history, Mr. Tory) and its long term strength. Changes in the social contract that weaken the middle class, weaken this country. That’s the problem symbolized by increasing inequality despite the sophisticated sophistry of its apologists.

  12. It’s also the case that organized special interests have in many cases more power than the monied class, which is not particularly united anyway. Consider the debate over amnesty and immigration in general. While business was very much in favor of a deal, Congress became much more negative after a focus groups mobilized strong public opinion. Lobbies such as AARP, NRA, the teachers union, and abortion partisans on both sides have power not because they are rich, but because they can mobilize large numbers of voters on key issues.

  13. I find a lot of merit in this analysis. Money is not the sole determinant of government policies; meritocracy may have some sway, too.
    But does Wilkinson really believe that our economy is ruled by a benign technocracy? Let’s just start with the US tax code: Wilkinson believes technocrats designed it? Decided that retroactive tax cuts are necessary to stimulate productivity among people with time machines? That a child tax credit is arguably a good idea because child-rearing is a social good, but the tax credit should not be refundable to people who don’t pay enough income taxes because, well … I dunno, but I’m sure the answer is perfectly sound and has nothing to do with social class?
    Yes, technocrats wield influence out of proportion to their numbers. But obviously other factions do as well and, to my mind, much less benignly. As Krugman – and damned near everyone else – observes, powerful factions steer government policies to promote their interests at the expense of everyone else.
    This problem seems intractable to me. Indeed, the Cato Institute seems pretty familiar with it.
    At least two conclusions follow for promoting the general welfare: First, we should make government no more powerful than necessary, thereby reducing everyone’s incentive to control it. Second, if government is inevitably going to be controlled by powerful factions, we should create policies that promote the power of factions that have the most interest in promoting the general welfare. Arguably this includes technocrats. And arguably this includes the middle class. The virtue of the middle class is not its selflessness, but rather its size. As the largest group ever to wield a modicum of power, its self-interest coincides more closely to the public interest than does the self-interest of any other group.

  14. Nobody really said what I wanted to say better than I could say it. So I’ll say it…
    Kidding aside, I don’t understand why Mr. Willkinson doesn’t account for the possibility that money and political power has a large say in what obscure academic’s scribblings see the light of day.
    I’m sure that Will must have noticed how liberal ideology has gradually made itself more comfortable with policies that benefit the interests of those with more and more wealth. Neo-liberalism at first was designed not to offend the middle class, (and to distance liberalism from the ravings of the liberals who really kept it real) and has since become more and more deferential to those progressively wealthier. There’s something about shaking hands with powerful people that turns a radical into a neocon. And there’s something about being a neocon that raises your candidacy to getting a job in a policy institute, or a newsmag, or a nice federal bureaucracy. And so on.
    What Will does is perfectly illustrate how at ease liberals are with our technocratic elite and why they are at ease with it. They identify with it and are empowered by it. If I can graduate Harvard and work at a policy institute, it allows me to put all my social good-will (i.e. my liberal prejudices) into effect. Of course, it may be that I have to modify my attitudes somewhat so as not to offend the sensibilities of my peers and employers; but that’s no big deal. We’re all good liberals after all, regardless of what the word means.

  15. Political power virtually always translates into more wealth. I guess Krugman and the like are under the (mistaken) impression that the implication also goes the other way around. (This is a very widespread type of logical error.)
    Also, until just a few centuries ago, only the powerful had any wealth, so it’s not that unusual that people are instinctively associating wealth with power.
    Moreover, there’s the history of how Europe shed feudalism and got to be liberal: the manufacturing sector in cities got wealthier and, as a consequence, they, eventually, also ended up by having more political power. So, at least once in our history, economic power did translate into political power (as it happened, it was for the better). Why couldn’t it happen again (this time perhaps not for the better)?

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