Why Can't My Team Do Whatever It Wants!?

Ezra Klein is annoyed with the Obama adminstration’s pusillanimous pussyfooting. Even that foul-mouthed hard-guy Rahm Emanuel is a squish these days. Why are the Democratic powers-that-be willing even to entertain the lame “trigger” public plan, which kicks in only if private plans fail to hit certain benchmarks for performance. Klein:

What Emanuel is saying here, however, is that in 2009, when Democrats control the White House, the House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate — and have larger margins than Republicans ever did in the latter two — that they are interested in settling on the same policy compromise [behind Medicare Part D, a product of a Republican president and Congress]: a weak public plan that would be activated if certain conditions aren’t met by private industry. That’s a bit weird. Weren’t elections supposed to have consequences?

Policy follows public opinion, more or less. And the public hasn’t really changed much since 2003. This is something partisans have to learn and relearn again and again. If a policy was unpopular before a change in the party controlling government, it will probably remain unpopular after. And politicians like getting reelected. It’s pretty simply, really.

Bush couldn’t reform Social Security because his plan was unpopular. Obama won’t be able to deliver a health-care bill ideological Democrats want, because what they want is unpopular and legislators know it. So Congressional Democrats want something they can cast as “victory” while doing nothing that could hurt their noble struggle for ongoing political self-preservation. Right now, strongly ideological media liberals like Klein have to decide whether they’re going to (a) act as enforcers, sending the signal to the powers-that-be that they will vocally and publicly count a “trigger” plan as a pathetic failure, or (b) sigh and prepare to declare whatever legislation passes a profound victory for ordinary Americans that shows just how great Democrats are.

But I imagine this one’s a tough call. For lots of ideological Democrats, the point of preserving political capital is to secure real universal health care. So I expect to see a fair amount of (potentially counterproductive) enforcer rhetoric.

Health-Care Reform Discussion Question

Does the fact that the United States does not now have a system of universal health care, despite more than a half-century of strenous legislative efforts by the Democratic Party, imply that a U.S. system of universal health care would produce results significantly different than that of countries that have had such a system for decades?

Pithier: If the U.S. suddenly got the Canadian-style system that majorities of Americans have traditionally resisted, would Americans start acting like Canadians?

History Repeats Itself

As I admitted below, I don’t know much about Iran, but I suppose exiled Iranian journalist and filmaker Lila Ghobady does. She says:

There has been no real election. Candidates are all hand-picked and cleared by a central religious committee. It is a farcical imitation of the free nomination/ election process that we have pictured in the free world. There is no possibility that a secular, pluralistic, freedom-loving democratic person who loves his or her country can become a candidate to run for president (or any other office) in Iran.

Twelve years ago, we went through the same process. Mohamad Khatami became the favorite of the western media, which called him a “reformist” who spoke beautifully about freedom of speech, civil rights and dialogue between cultures. But when he became president there was a crack down on a student uprising – a crackdown against the same students who voted for him. Many were killed, many disappeared, and many were tortured. Artists, authors and intellectuals disappeared and were found “mysteriously” murdered. The smooth-talking president Khatami, whom westerners loved, never tried to stop the violence and never showed sympathy to his supporters. Instead, he openly avowed that his responsibility was to respect the wishes of the supreme leader, Ayotollah Khameni, and to protect the security of the Islamic regime.

Now, the passionate and oppressed young generation of Iranians are going through exact same situation. They are supporting Khatami’s friend, Mousavi. It is sad that history repeats itself so quickly in my beloved country of birth. The people of Iran were fed up with poverty, injustice, corruption and international embarrassment with the knuckle-dragging, anti-Semitic, war-mongering cretin who was President Ahmadinejad. They chose to support a bad choice – Mousavi – rather than the worse choice, Ahmadinejad. However, when an election is really a selection, choice is an illusion. Mousavi is from the Islamic regime; he is inseparable from it, and all its abuses and cruelties.

The reality is that Iran has not had a democratic, free election for the past 30 years. Mr Mousavi, if elected, will not make any changes, not because he is powerless to do so (as Khatami’s supporters claimed during his presidency), but because he doesn’t believe in a democratic state as his background shows. He belongs to the fanatic dictatorial era of Ayotollah Khomeini and he believes in the same command-and-control system of government. We should not forget Khomeini’s statement in one of his speeches after the revolution about democracy. He said that “if all people of Iran say ‘yes” I would say no to something that I would believe is not right for the Islamic Nation”.

Let us not forget that Mousavi was Prime Minister of Iran in the 1980s when more than ten thousand political prisoners were executed after three-minute sham trials. He has been a part of the Iranian dictatorship system for the past 30 years. If he had not been, he would not be allowed to be a candidate in the first place.

Do you have any reason to think she’s wrong?

Ghobady observes that no matter who comes out on top, he would stone her for her many “crimes” against Islam. This is not the situation I prefer, but it does seem to be the situation we have.

Democracy and Markets in Government

My post on libertarian democraphobia has elicited a sharp response from Patri Friedman. It’s good stuff, but I think we’re talking a bit past each other. In part, that’s because I was brain-dumping and wasn’t as clear as I might have been, and in part because we have some substantive disagreements. I think maybe I can be clearer on a few points and that we can start to try to get to the bottom of our disagreements.

First, I’m completely sincere in wishing Patri and others well in their exciting visionary project. I’m eagerly watching its progress and I hope it succeeds. But I think one thing we need to hash out is why we think the probabilities of success are what we think they are. At this point, I consider the probability very low that seasteads (or something like them) will create a competitive market for systems of social organization within my lifetime. I also think the probability is low that persuasion and political organization will, by itself, be very effective in moving any already relatively liberal state within the status quo global system of states very far toward more thoroughly liberal ideals. I just happen to think that the prospect of making some progress on this front is better.

I share the view that demonstration is more powerful than argument. And I think that if there is significant further liberalization within the system of states, it will most likely be due to the salience of successful innovations in governance, and that other jurisdictions, competing for talent and investment, will act to copy those innovations. I just don’t presently think the jurisdiction most likely to set off this kind of race to the top will be a seastead. And, furthermore, I think setting off this kind of cascade requires a good deal of intellectual and rhetorical groundwork. Argument and persuasion often makes demonstration possible.

Anyway, let me reply directly to some of Patri’s remarks:

Will seems trapped in the hopeless quest to philosophically define a single just society.  I find the idea that one can determine, philosophically or practically, the best way to organize a society a priori to be laughable.  And that’s even if we agree on a single set of goals for our society – which we don’t. Competition and consumer choice are the answers – why is this so hard for a libertarian to understand?

Not hard at all. And I share Patri’s skepticism about the worth of a priori ideal theory.

We face a very hard problem – the problem of creating a good system of social organization, one with the power to enforce laws,  yet which does not abuse this power.  As liberals, we know how to solve hard problems – use markets.  Which is why I advocate for a competitive market for government.  Will, strangely, seems to like the current oligopoly with its high barrier to entry and high switching costs, and is skeptical that a more competitive market will provide a better solution.

I don’t believe I said anything that implied I like the status quo system of states. As readers of this blog know, I am deeply invested in the conviction that the fundamental human right to move — the right to exit and enter jurisdictions — must be more fully recognized and honored. Competitive markets for government can’t work if people are not allowed to “unsubscribe” from their current provider of governance or “subscribe” to another. Because governance is territorial, the very possibility of anything like consumer choice in governance is based on mobility rights. I’m not skeptical that more competition between jurisdictions will provide a better solution. I’m pretty certain it will. I think Patri has confused my defense of the possibility of progress within existing liberal democracies for complacency about the “current oligopoly” system, which I actively deplore.

Note that this argument has nothing to do with democracy, and doesn’t depend in the slightest on the morality or practicality of the system.  Democracy is simply the current industry standard product that firms offer customers.  If it truly is the ultimate form of social organization, then in a world of competitive government, democratic seasteads will outcompete all other seasteads, attract all the customers, and people will eventually give up trying other forms of government.  Personally, I find the idea that this ancient Greek technology is the best we’ll ever do to be absurd, but even if I’m wrong, even if our Thousand Nations are all different variants of democracy, the system will still improve politics by allowing for competition between those variants. so we can find those that work the best.

First, I think it’s more than confusing, on Patri’s own terms, to talk of states as if they are “firms” and as if the people who live within their territories are “customers.” I thought the point was that there isn’t a market and that people within the jurisdictions of states don’t have effective consumer choice over governments. I suppose talking as if the culmination of your work has preceded you may help to create a needed conceptual shift, but it also obscures the fact that the freedom of citizens and subjects all over the world to become globetrotting jurisdictional shoppers remains a largely political question within existing states.

Second, does Patri think democracy has become “the current industry standard” for no reason? As it happens, liberal democracies are in fact the best places in the world to live. They are where people are happiest, healthiest, live the longest, and, yes, are most free, And, as it happens, people who live in advanced liberal democracies generally have significant freedom to emigrate. (In non-democracies, not so much.) When they do move, they tend to move to other liberal democracies.

I understand it’s tough for new entrants to break into the government “market,” and that if attractive non-democratic alternatives were to be offered, people with the freedom to choose them might choose them. But insofar as there has been a limited market test, democracy is the decisive champ. So, if Patri really finds a priori identification of the best way to organize society “laughable,” then I don’t understand why he’s entitled to be so confident that “the idea that this ancient Greek technology is the best we’ll ever do [is] absurd.”  It’s this sort of thing that makes me (and others, I’m sure) suspect Patri’s less than wholehearted about the “Let a Thousand Nations Bloom” rhetoric and is in fact a closet ideal theorist who wants a bit of turf on which to demonstrate the superiority of his ideal. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

Thus even a democraphilic should want competitive government.  It’s not democraphilia or democraphobia which is the key here, but agoraphilia or agoraphobia (meaning markets, not open spaces, of course).  So my challenge to Will, and any other agoraphilic skeptic of competitive government is to resolve this contradiction.  If you generally believes in the power of competition to offer better products to consumers, why is the market for government fundamentally different?

I do want more competitive government! But I’ll persist in complaining that Patri underestimates the extent to which the possibility of competitive government remains, for the forseeable future, largely a political problem and not an engineering one. The question of “why the market for government is fundamentally different” takes us back to anarchist vs. statist ground zero, doesn’t it? But, that aside, my response to the challenge is simply to deny that I am agoraphobic, or that there is a contradiction I need to resolve.

Here’s a question for Patri: Why do you think building some new territory relatively few people will be politically free and economically able to move to will be sufficient to create a “competitive market in government” significantly different than the current “market”? And here’s another: If seasteads converge on forms of democracy not very different from current ones, will you consider this a vindication of familiar forms of democracy or an indictment of imagination?

There’s more in Patri’s post I’d like to respond to, but for now I’ll leave it at that.

Libertarian Democraphobia

If you’re a new-school classical liberal (neoclassical liberal?) like me, you like democracy just fine. This puts you somewhere between (a) modern liberals in the post-Rawlsian vein who tend toward not-actually-very-liberal Rousseuvian romanticism about democracy and (b) libertarians who tend toward often not-very-liberal renunciations of democracy. I want to talk about these libertarians. Here are some off-the-cuff (that means disorganized) thoughts.

First, I think it’s important to recognize that libertarian democraphobia often comes from a deeply liberal place. The libertarian non-coercion principle is a good abstract first approximation of the liberal presupposition that persons are free and equal. No one has a natural right to rule over another, and no one has a natural duty to obey. The liberal presupposition sets a high bar for the justification of coercion, and thus the justification of the state. Many libertarians think there is no justification. Therefore the only acceptable rule of collective choice is unanimity or full consensus. This is one focus of the debate between anarchist and limited-statist libertarians. On the anarchist side, political power cannot get off the ground, and thus the design of mechanisms to control political power is a non-issue. On the limited-statist side, political power does get off the ground, and thus so does the design of constitutions and democratic institutions. I think this divide is far wider than is reflected in the libertarian community, and part of the reason is that limited-government libertarians tend to internalize more of the anarchist framework than they logically should.

In any case, libertarians often display a confusing or confused reaction to democracy as it actually exists. The scheme laid out in most libertarian ideal theory is so distant from actual democratic practice that the whole existing system can seem by comparison a comprehensive injustice. When one’s ideal theory implies that politics is by its nature illegitimate and corrupt, one tends to develop a sharply disapproving attitude toward participation in politics. Lots of libertarians, for example, think it’s morally wrong to vote. (There are many structural reasons the Libertarian Party is hopeless, but here’s one reason libertarians tend to be at best half-hearted political activists.) Likewise, incrementalist approaches to policy can never be adequately pure from the perspective of radical libertarian ideal theory. School vouchers are still tax-financed; a system of mandatory personal retirement accounts has a restriction on economic liberty at its heart; and so on. So, not only is politics corrupt and corrupting. There are few democratically feasible libertarian policies that merit support. The public does not want libertarianism. Which means that the public does not want a system that respects fundamental rights. So much the worse for the public, the thinking tends to go.

The confused radical libertarian response is to more or less agree with all of this, and then decide to vote for the Republican because he promises lower taxes or whatever. Whatever else you can say about Patri Friedman and Peter Thiel’s wholesale rejection of politics in favor of flight to a DIY frontier, it is not confused or incoherent. It is to reject the terms of the local democratic game by exercising the exit option. It’s what the Pilgrims did. It’s what the Mormons did. The difference is that there’s no more ready-made frontier left to settle. And I truly wish them the best of luck.

But I don’t think they take seriously enough the problem of governance in the DIY frontier. One can avoid politics and democratic conflict in the short-run through self-segregation. But this tends not to last that long. (See: the Pilgrims in Massachusets; the Mormons in Deseret/Utah) And I have questions about how well the Friedman plan can scale, as newcomers come to the settled frontier, and as pioneers raise children who do not share the consensus of the initial settlement. Sooner or later the problem of pluralism and moral disagreement will rear its head, and there are liberal and illiberal ways to respond. If the response is to maintain the consensus of self-segregation by evicting inevitable dissidents, one begins to wonder what to call those with the power to evict. At a certain point, the differences between a sovereign monarch and a monopoly landlord becomes semantic.

Anyway, not to rehearse Anarchy, State, and Utopia, but I think the prospects for avoiding something like a state are slim. And I think it would be better to design a democratic structure in advance, rather than morphing into a neo-fuedal landlord/tenant model of territorial governance, or trying to cobble together an adequate constitution when the original system starts to break down. Of course, the point of the DIY frontier for its present advocates is precisely to demonstrate that society without politics is possible. So to recommend a democratic constitution at the outset is just to express pessimism about a project meant to show this pessimism unfounded. And why argue when you can experiment? Let’s do the experiment!

Now, as I’ve argued before, I think the anarchist is right about the minarchist: once you accept the public goods argument for state protection of various rights, you have accepted that there are no fully voluntary solutions to certain collective action problems, and you’re logic-bound to ride the public goods argument as far as it takes you, which is further than the minarchist thinks. And you have accepted that it is possible to justify a break from a full consensus or unanimity rule. You’re going to have to settle on a collective decision procedure that can determine what is and is not going to count as a public good, how much it will cost to pay for these goods, what the scheme of public finance is going to be, etc. You have agreed to politics, and there is no guarantee things are always going to your way. I fully accept all of this. And I think other neo-classical liberals (other moderate limited-government libertarians) could do much better at fully facing up to their implicit buy-in to democratic politics. This doesn’t mean giving up idealistic disenchantment with the current dispensation, or giving up hard-headed views on the limits of democracy, but it does mean taking democracy seriously, and I think that means taking more responsibility for public opinion.

Which brings us to Thiel’s boneheaded quip about women’s suffrage. Extending the franchise to women is, in my estimation, one of the great triumphs of the American classical liberal tradition. Like the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage was rooted in the rejection of a shameful tradition of paternalism that held that some classes of people are less than fully able to govern themselves. I cannot see how anyone who accepts basic liberal assumptions about freedom and equality can see the establishment of equal political rights as anything but an unequivocal good… unless he rejects the legitimacy of politics in principle. I think this is were Thiel was coming from.

But if politics is in-principle illegitimate, it was illegitimate before women got the vote, so why bring it up? By bringing it up as a reason why democratic progress is hopeless, Thiel does make it sound like he thinks the problem’s not democratic politics per se, but democratic politics without good prospect of producing the right answer. But liberalism starts from the recognition that free and equal people don’t agree about the right answer but need to find a way to live together anyway. The secessionist instinct does seem illiberal insofar as it’s based in the frustration that reasonable pluralism fails to generate consensus on the right answer — even when the content of the right answer is a radical version of liberalism. And Thiel’s comment seemed to imply that political recognition of the fundamental equality of persons is not only tangential to the right answer, but might even get in the way of arriving at it, which is just screwed up.

If establishing equal rights to political participation in fact created an impediment to the political success of libertarianish ideas, maybe there are some very good reasons for that. People who finally gained equal political rights through a long democratic struggle cannot have been unreasonable to see democratic politics as a morally and politically progressive force. An ideology that damns democratic politics as almost necessarily immoral might not look so good to them. And if libertarian-style politics seems especially unnatractive to members of formerly oppressed and disenfranchised groups, maybe that’s because it is reasonable to suspect that a politics that focuses relentlessly on the inviolability of property rights in a system that once treated people as property, and for centuries denied much of the population the chance to accumulate any property, is a politics meant to protect those who reap the gains of a still-rigged and unjust system.

Libertarianism does have public relations problems, and it’s not because most people are stupid or immoral. It’s because libertarians have done a terrible job countering the widespread suspicion that it’s a uselessly abstract ahistorical ideology for socially retarded adolescent white guys. The sadly common libertarian-conservative penchant for “brave” counter-PC truthiness (e.g., “Women do love the welfare state!” “Blacks really do have lower IQs!”) certainly doesn’t help.

Most libertarians don’t want to move to man-made islands. Most don’t even want to help take over New Hampshire. If libertarians are going to shift the politics of the countries we live in, we’ve got to get it through our thick skulls that many people have considered libertarian ideas and have rejected them for all sorts of decent reasons. We’ve got to take those reasons, and those people, fully seriously and adequately address them. Otherwise, we should probably just accept that libertarianism is a niche creed for weird people and reconcile ourselves to impotent, self-righteous grousing. Or get serious about life on the sea. For my part, I’m going to continue to try to convince people that free markets and limited goverment are better than they might have thought.

Government vs. State, Again

Matt Ygelsias, commenting on Spencer Ackerman’s dispatch on the armed services’ plans to resist cuts in their budgets, nicely illustrates the antagonism between democratic government and the permanent state:

Note that “the services’ legislative outreach and public-affairs offices” are technically part of the United States government. Indeed, they’re technically not supposed to be doing any lobbying at all. In fact, they regularly lobby congress against positions taken by the civilian leadership of the United States and on behalf of the defense contractors they’re hoping will employ them post-retirement. 

Part of what you’re doing when you’re paying taxes is paying for functionaries of the permanent state apparatus to lobby the elected government to ensure that you never stop paying the taxes that finance their “vital functions.”

The Debate We're Not Going to Have

Matt Yglesias writes:

One thing people are disagreeing about when they disagree about the stimulus is about the value of public sector activities.

So true. The “OH MY GOD WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE FROM RECESSION MONSTER” rush to pass the deficit spending package is a travesty of democracy because we could really use a serious national debate on the value of various forms of public spending. But that was summarily preempted. This bill is a transparent vehicle for an immense amount of new public spending, much of which will have no effect other than to benefit certain political constituncies and make most of us poorer. I find the debate over what kinds of government spending are and are not conducive to broad prosperity really interesting. It’s too bad we couldn’t have passed a responsible Rivlinesque stimulus bill, leaving open the possibility of increasing the value of public sector activities by better identifying which of those activities actually have value. But when a political party has a chance to pay off their hungry clients after years of famine, it’s a bit much to ask for a pause for intelligent public deliberation. I guess that’s why it never seems to happen!

We're All Participatory Fascists Now?

Newsweek’s “We’re All Socialists Now” piece seems designed to provoke, and it’s working. The most interesting response so far comes from Robert Higgs:

I don’t recommend the Newsweek article. Although the writers, Jon Meacham and Evan Thomas, have absorbed a number of true facts, their level of economic understanding is abysmal, and hence their reasoning is close to worthless.

Truth is, socialism is not the wave of the future. Indeed, it is already almost as dead as the dodo.


No, the world is converging ever more visibly, not toward socialism, but toward what I (following Charlotte Twight’s usage) have for many years been calling participatory fascism. The hallmarks of this system are, on the political side, the trappings of democracy (parties, elections, procedural niceties, etc.), and, on the economic side, the form of private property rights (though not much of the substance that characterizes the real thing).

The beauty of this system is that the political system can easily be corrupted so that the power elite retains a firm hold on the state, despite the appearance that they rule only with the consent of the governed. The major political parties appear to compete, but for the most part they coalesce and conspire; on the basics, they are in complete agreement. The apparent “consent” they enjoy they actually manufacture by their control of the mass media, the schools and universities, and other key institutions, and no political opinion outside the 40-yard lines ever receives a hearing in serious political circles.

Aha! But the editors of Newsweek can’t call it “participatory fascism,” which is outside the 40-yard line, so “socialism” it is.

I strongly feel the pull of Higgs’ Chomskyite analysis, and I don’t think many enthusiasts of actually-existing democracy, like Josh Cohen, take seriously enough the extent to which Higgs is right. Yet I cannot help but think that the ability of the “power elite” to  “manufacture consent” is eroding. The fragmentation and democratization of media production, and the relative ease with which one can create alternative institutions, pushes against both the ability of the “power elites” to control the message and hand-pick their heirs. And to say that political opinion outside the 40-yard lines can’t get a hearing in “serious political circles” — that is, circles containing those with a real shot at political power — is just to restate the median voter theory in conspriatorial language. Hence the urgency of engaging public opinion and moving the the 40 yard lines.

Parties, Government Capture, and Poverty

Nancy Rosenblum’s apology for partisanship put me in mind of some thoughts on the perils of strong party identification in the section on inequality and democracy in my forthcoming Cato paper. 

[T]he danger of “capture” in democratic politics is not primarily a matter of systemic conflicts of economic interest between those occupying different strata of the income distribution. Rather, the problem is that political power in democracies flows to those able to put together winning electoral coalitions, and this ability necessarily involves maintaining the loyalties of special interests whose demands may not be in the public interest. 


[W]e’re unlikely to make real progress in improving the quality of public policy if otherwise sophisticated minds continue to be surprised by the fact that the party promising security may leave us less secure, or that the party promising to lift up the poor may leave them stranded. Strong partisan identification is dangerous because it can pressure even the best and brightest into accepting that the policies best for the electoral success of their favorite party — a fragile and contingent consortium of often conflicting interests — will somehow turn out best for the country. 


It is not enough for the privileged and the powerful to wish with their whole hearts to make ours a society in which all people have a real chance to make the most of their liberties and lives. Our democracy has to deliver the policies that can actually make this happen. But just as special interests can capture democratic coalitions, our coalitional minds can be captured by democratic politics. What the poor need is not party faith, but good faith in the effort to find policies that really deliver. 

That “our coalitional minds can be captured by democratic politics” is my main concern about partisanship. Party ID can become a powerful social signal of moral rectitude. But electoral dynamics provide strong reasons to believe that each major party must rule out of bounds some policies that would be best for the poor. Perversely, the more strongly a particular party ID signals care for the poor, the more protected will be large factions within the party whose interests oppose the poor. This is how our coalitional minds reason: Because the success of the party is so important to the welfare of poor, and these factions are so important to the successes of the party, their interests are ipso facto important to the welfare of the poor. And so their actual antagonism to policies in the interests of the poor becomes most invisible to those most eager to communicate their solidarity with the poor through party identification. Our need to signal care can produce viciously careless results.