Quote of the Day: Anti-Federalist Edition

When the public is called to investigate and decide upon a question in which not only the present members of the community are deeply interested, but upon which the happiness and misery of generations yet unborn is in great measure suspended, the benevolent mind cannot help feeling itself peculiarly interested in the result.

That’s the opening sentence Brutus #1, from 1787. Politics isn’t policy, however, even at the constitutional level. For related reading, see here.

Constitutional Dilemmas: The Push for Proportional Representation

Luke Malpass of the Centre for Independent Studies gives an interesting talk (based on a forthcoming paper) on proportional representation and the possibility of bicameralism in New Zealand. In my view, bicameralism is the best constitutional reform for New Zealand which has much hope of succeeding. I’m not sure why it isn’t more of a political issue.

The ‘cult’ political following that Proportional Representation electoral systems achieve in Westminster countries means that it is a matter of when not if pressure for comprehensive PR is going to arrive in Australia. New Zealand has it, Scotland has it, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is holding a referendum on it in England, the very home of the Westminster system of government.

Curiously perhaps, New Zealand is holding a binding referendum on the future of its Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system which was modelled on the German electoral system, and early polling indicates its future is far from assured, due to concerns about its efficacy, and widespread lack of public understanding.

CIS NZ Policy Analyst Luke Malpass discusses his research in this area, looking at MMP, how it has operated and what alternatives exist. With an introduction by CIS Research Fellow Dr Oliver Hartwich.

Scenes from a Moral Panic

From Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine (1997), The Crack Attack: Politics and Media in the Crack Scare.
On September 5, 1989, President Bush, speaking from the presidential desk in the Oval Office, announced his plan for achieving “victory over drugs” in his first major prime-time address to the nation, broadcast on all three national television networks. We want to focus on this incident as an example of the way politicians and the media systematically misinformed and deceived the public in order to promote the War on Drugs. During the address, Bush held up to the cameras a clear plastic bag ofcrack labeled “EVIDENCE.” He announced that it was “seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House” (Washington Post, September 22,1989,p.A1). Its contents, Bush said, were “turning our cities into battle zones and murdering our children.” The president proclaimed that, because of crack and other drugs, he would “more than double” federal assistance to state and local law enforcement (New York Times, September 6, 1989,p.A11). The next morning the picture of the president holding a bag ofcrack was on the front pages of newspapers across America.

About two weeks later, the Washington Post, and then National Public Radio and other newspapers, discovered how the president of the United States had obtained his bag of crack. According to White House and DEA officials, “the idea ofthe President holding up crack was [first] included in some drafts” of his speech. Bush enthusiastically approved. A White House aide told the Post that the president “liked the prop….It drove the point home.” Bush and his advisors also decided that the crack should be seized in Lafayette Park across from the White House so the president could say that crack had become so pervasive that it was being sold “in front of the White House” (Isikoff,1989).

This decision set up a complex chain of events.White House Communications Director David Demarst asked Cabinet Affairs Secretary David Bates to instruct the Justice Department “to find some crack that fit the description in the speech.” Bates called Richard Weatherbee, special assistant to Attorney General Dick Thornburgh,who then called James Milford, executive assistant to the DEA chief. Finally, Milford phoned William McMullen,special agent in charge of the DEA’s Washington office, and told him to arrange an undercover crack buy near the White House because “evidently, the President wants to show it could be bought anywhere” (Isikoff,1989).

Despite their best efforts,the top federal drug agents were not able to find anyone selling crack (or any other drug) in Lafayette Park,or anywhere else in the vicinity of the White House.Therefore,in order to carry out their assignment, DEA agents had to entice someone to come to the park to make the sale. Apparently,the only person the DEA could convince was Keith Jackson,an eighteen-year-old African-American high school senior. McMullan reported that it was difficult because Jackson “did not even know where the White House was.”The DEA’s secret tape recording of the conversation revealed that the teenager seemed baffled by the request: “Where the [expletive deleted] is the White House?” he asked. Therefore, McMullan told the Post, “we had to manipulate him to get him down there. It wasn’t easy” (Isikoff,1989).

The undesirability of selling crack in Lafayette Park was confirmed by men from Washington,D.C., imprisoned for drug selling, and interviewed by National Public Radio. All agreed that nobody would sell crack there because,among other reasons, there would be no customers. The crack-using population was in Washington’s poor African-American neighborhoods some distance from the White House. The Washington Post and other papers also reported that the undercover DEA agents had not, after all, actually seized the crack, as Bush had claimed in his speech. Rather, the DEA agents purchased it from Jackson for $2,400 and then let him go.

This incident illustrates how a drug scare distorts and perverts public knowledge and policy. The claim that crack was threatening every neighborhood in America was not based on evidence; after three years ofthe scare, crack remained predominantly in the inner cities where it began. Instead, this claim appears to have been based on the symbolic political value seen by Bush’s speech writers. When they sought, after the fact, to purchase their own crack to prove this point, they found that reality did not match their script. Instead of changing the script to reflect reality, a series of high-level officials instructed federal drug agents to create a reality that would fit the script. Finally, the president of the United States displayed the procured prop on national television. Yet, when all this was revealed, neither politicians nor the media were led to question the president’s policies or his claims about crack’s pervasiveness.

The Political Power of Bad Ideas: Networks, Institutions, and the Global Prohibition Wave

That’s the title of  a forthcoming book by Mark Schrad, which looks very interesting. I’ve read a paper on this topic by the author, which has been very useful to the chapter I’m currently writing of my thesis (basically analyzing the consequences of  what Schrad calls “bad policy ideas” on constitutional effectiveness). I really wish the book were out now. Here’s the blurb:

In The Political Power of Bad Ideas , Mark Lawrence Schrad looks on an oddity of modern history–the broad diffusion of temperance legislation in the early twentieth century–to make a broad argument about how bad policy ideas achieve international success. His root question is this: how could a bad policy idea–one that was widely recognized by experts as bad before adoption, and which ultimately failed everywhere–come to be adopted throughout the world? To answer it, Schrad uses an institutionalist approach, and focuses in particular on the US, Russia/USSR (ironically, one of the only laws the Soviets kept on the books was the Tsarist temperance law), and Sweden. Conventional wisdom, based largely on the U.S. experience, blames evangelical zealots for the success of the temperance movement. Yet as Schrad shows, “prohibition was adopted in ten countries other than the United States, as well as countless colonial possessions-all with similar disastrous consequences, and in every case followed by repeal.” Schrad focuses on the dynamic interaction of ideas and political institutions, tracing the process through which concepts of dubious merit gain momentum and achieve credibility as they wend their way through institutional structures. And while he focuses on one episode, his historical argument applies far more broadly, and even can tell us a great deal about how today’s policy failures, such as reasons proffered for invading Iraq, became acceptable.

Bailouts and Capitalism

The G-20 protesters in Pittsburgh seem to have some interesting political views:

The marchers included small groups of self-described anarchists, some wearing dark clothes and bandanas and carrying black flags. Others wore helmets and safety goggles.

One banner read, “No borders, no banks,” another, “No hope in capitalism.” A few minutes into the march, protesters unfurled a large banner reading “NO BAILOUT NO CAPITALISM” with an encircled “A,” a recognized sign of anarchists.

The “NO BAILOUT NO CAPITALISM” sign raises some interesting questions about the word “capitalism.” Many self-described leftists (some of whom I come very close to agreeing with) see bailouts and other forms of corporate privilege as part and parcel of capitalism. Many non-left libertarians see bailouts as antithetical to capitalism. Both groups are wrong.

The only useful definition of capitalism in line with its historical and contemporary usage is a system which allows the private ownership and alienation of property. This definition can accommodate a wide variety of institutional arrangements, from a market-anarchism to fascism: there are both good and bad forms of capitalism (full book here!).

By that definition, I am completely and utterly pro-capitalist in the sense that I think any system without private property would be irredeemably awful. History hasn’t exhausted the design-space of propertyless social systems (and I, for one, hope it never does), but it teaches some valuable lessons.  At the same time, I’m completely and utterly opposed to some forms of capitalism. Government funds lining the pockets of well-connecting firms is neither essential to nor inconsistent with capitalism. It is essential to some kinds of capitalism and inconsistent with others.

Minority Rights are Anti-Democratic

Robert Dahl knows his democratic theory, so we should take notice when he argues that the protection of minority interests conflicts with democratic ideals. Writing in 1957 [gated], he says:

One problem, which is essentially ideological in character, is the difficulty of reconciling such an interpretation [of the US Supreme Court as protecting minorities] with the existence of a democratic polity, for it is not at all difficult to show by appeals to authorities as various and imposing as Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, Jefferson, and Lincoln that the term democracy means, among other things, that the power to rule resides in popular majorities and their representatives. Moreover, from entirely reasonable and traditional definitions of popular sovereignty and political equality, the principle of majority rule can be shown to follow by logical necessity. Thus to affirm that the Court supports minority preferences against majorities is to deny that popular sovereignty and political equality, at least in the traditional sense, exist in the United States; and to affirm that the Court ought to act in this way is to deny that popular sovereignty and political equality ought to prevail in this country. In a country that glories in its democratic tradition, this is not a happy state of affairs for the Court’s defenders; and it is no wonder that a great deal of effort has gone into the enterprise of proving that, even if the Court consistently defends minorities against majorities, nonetheless it is a thoroughly “democratic” institution. But no amount of tampering with democratic theory can conceal the fact that a system in which the policy preferences of minorities prevail over majorities is at odds with the traditional criteria for distinguishing a democracy from other political systems.

Why are so many unwilling to admit the conflict between liberalism and democracy? I’m bloody sick of “democracy” being used as a synonym for “good.”

Coherence versus Political Reality

Arnold Kling tries to categorize current attitudes towards markets and state intervention as combinations of three points on an ideological triangle; Libertarian, Conservative, and Progressive:

1. Point L, where you believe that markets are effective at processing information and solving problems. This position is to take a radically pro-market view, and to let markets fix their own failures.

2. Point C, where you believe that tradition incorporates the evolved use of information to solve problems. This position is to be very cautious about overthrowing existing institutional arrangements.

3. Point P, where you believe that expert technocrats should be in charge. You are comfortable with throwing out tradition and markets in order to cede power to experts.

I think something like this would be the best framework within which to think about policy, but I think it only works as a descriptive model of actual beliefs for a small subclass of people: those with both a decent knowledge of the social sciences and a broadly consequentialist worldview. Politics as it’s practised on the ground isn’t a competition between alternative coherent worldviews, but competing myths, symbols, and identity groups.

The difference between Arnold’s description and political reality is most obvious in the case of conservatives. Hayekian conservatism is certainly a reasonable argument against the reformist zeal of either libertarians or progressives, but most self-identified conservatives surely don’t base their preference for existing institutions and norms on arguments from institutional evolution. They see existing institutions and norms as right – not merely stable equilibria which it would be unwise to mess with.

Arnold is talking about policy, but politics is an entirely different thing.

Preference Falsification and Support for Gay Marriage

Andrew Gelman is stunned that support for gay marriage has increased more in states with already liberal attitudes:

In the past fifteen years, gay marriage has increased in popularity in all fifty states. No news there, but what was a surprise to me is where the largest changes have occurred. The popularity of gay marriage has increased fastest in the states where gay rights were already relatively popular in the 1990s.

In 1995, support for gay marriage exceeded 30% in only six states: New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, and Vermont. In these states, support for gay marriage has increased by an average of almost 20 percentage points. In contrast, support has increased by less than 10 percentage points in the six states that in 1995 were most anti-gay-marriage–Utah, Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Idaho.

Here’s the picture showing all 50 states:


I was stunned when I saw this picture. I generally expect to see uniform swing, or maybe even some “regression to the mean,” with the lowest values increasing the most and the highest values declining, relative to the average. But that’s not what’s happening at all. What’s going on?

Gelman offers two possible explanations: First, gays are more likely to come out of the closet in liberal states, and so the average person in these states knows more openly gay people. Second, politicians in tolerant states have electoral incentives to argue for the liberal position, thus pushing public discourse in that direction.

I suspect both of these factors have some influence, but I think another may be more important. I suspect that public opinion on highly salient issues with strong signalling value tends to be self-reinforcing. A useful framework for thinking about this is Timur Kuran’s model of preference falsification.

Kuran distinguishes between an individual’s public opinion – the views he openly expresses on a particular issue – and private opinion – the way he privately feels about this issue. Since there are social costs to expressing unpopular views, public opinion will be systematically biased towards the social consensus compared to the underlying distribution of private opinions. There is social pressure for those in Utah to express opposition to gay marriage, while there could well be social pressure to express support in New York. If few people share your opinion, you’re more likely to keep quiet or actively falsify your view. Via this mechanism, social pressure leads to homogeneity in public opinion, but leaves private opinion unchanged.

If we think socialization matters in creating private opinion, though, preference falsification will also affect private opinions. When there seems to be a strong consensus on some issue, social learning will bias the underlying distribution of private opinions towards the consensus view relative to the situation without preference falsification. This is obviously pretty closely related to the psychological phenomenon of group polarization.

The preference falsification view is pretty close to Gelman’s hypothesis that liberal states encourage gays to come out of the closet. Social environments which reduce the costs of coming out as gay also reduce the costs of coming out as gay-tolerant. Beyond some threshold, the social payoff from expressing gay-tolerant attitudes becomes positive, which means we’re likely to have closeted bigots rather than closeted liberals. This pro-gay preference falsification will then reinforce pro-gay private opinion, accelerating the liberalization of attitudes in already liberal states.

I heartily endorse Gelman’s call for further study:

We can look at other issues, not just on gay rights, to see where this sort of divergence occurs, and where we see the more expected uniform swing or regression-to-the-mean patterns.

My guess is that issue salience would be a good predictor of divergence. It would also be informative to try and break things down to areas smaller than states. If the preference falsification explanation works, opinion converges within social networks. County or town data should show a stronger effect, as people are more likely to interact with those geographically close to them. Social networking sites could provide some pretty awesome data if you could get entire tightly interconnected networks to share their opinions.

Kuran on the Collective Nature of Public Opinion

Timur Kuran has a great response to Robert Wright at Cato Unbound:

Wright’s three claims contain many grains of truth. Moreover, there is no doubt that changing Muslim and Western perceptions concerning their interactions with one another would diminish interreligious tensions, facilitate solutions to various global crises, and make it easier to generate effective responses to chronic problems of the Muslim world. Yet, achieving these desirable outcomes requires much more than campaigns to alter perceptions. Two of Wright’s claims are only partly true, and the missing factors have critical policy implications.

People’s actions and reactions depend on more than their mental models. They depend also, and in politically charged contexts primarily, on the prevailing social pressures. Consider the resident of an impoverished, Taliban-controlled area of Pakistan. When he opts to participate in an anti-American demonstration, he need not be acting on the belief that global trade produces zero-sum effects. His principal motivation may well be that by endorsing Islamism publicly and openly aiding a Taliban-supported cause he gains social status, economic advantages, and even physical security. Suppose we pluck that person out of the Pakistani-Afghan border area, place him in a peaceful neighborhood of Lahore, and give him a lucrative job. Living among Muslims at ease with modernity and facing a different set of social pressures, he will no longer feel compelled to demonstrate against foreigners. Obviously, what goes for one demonstrator goes for the rest. Each joins the demonstration, in part, because others in his neighborhood are demonstrating. Hence, what explains the anti-American demonstration in question is a collective process, not simply a faulty mental model that shapes myriads of individual actions independently. (…)

My two key points are (1) that Muslim hostility toward the West, such as it exists, is a collective process and (2) that the individuals who join anti-Western movements are motivated substantially by their opportunities. It follows that teaching radical Muslims to view their interactions with non-Muslims as positive-sum processes will not necessarily turn them into friendly, peaceful, and democratic-minded negotiators. For one thing, wealth-generating positive-sum processes are of no use to them if they themselves have no hope of sharing in the benefits. Although Pakistan as a whole benefits handsomely from producing footballs for Nike and Adidas, its youth in Swat and Waziristan remain mired in poverty. For another, Muslims trapped in radicalized areas will not consider themselves free to cooperate with even secular Pakistanis, let alone foreigners. Knowing that abandoning the radical cause is to risk severe retaliation, they may refrain from publicizing their changes of heart and mind in the interest of self-preservation.

Read the whole thing.

Asthma and the Limits of Public Choice

Jason Kuznicki wonders why politics has robbed him of an effective asthma treatment:

My old CFC albuterol inhaler is much more effective than my new non-CFC inhaler. The medicine is the same, but the delivery system is awful.

I’m dreading the day that my old inhaler runs out. Yes, I follow the directions on the new one, and I know that it’s used differently. I know about priming and cleaning and all that. It doesn’t matter. The old inhaler works. The new one, if it works at all, may take around twice as many applications. (…)

But enough about asthma per se. The public choice aspect of the problem seems to run counter to the usual, doesn’t it? Here we have a concentrated group of people taking a huge utility loss. Being unable to breathe is one of the most unpleasant experiences you could possibly imagine. The old inhalers fixed it instantly. That’s what was lost.

The gain from this legislation is tiny, hard to notice, and literally diffused among all the people of the entire world — There are slightly fewer CFCs in the atmosphere. (CFCs are a problem, yes, but CFCs from inhalers were never a serious problem when considered alone.)

Why should it be that in this one case, the tiny, diffuse benefits win out over the large, concentrated ones?

I think it’s because the ban on CFC inhalers is not at all the result of classic public choice dynamics. This nicely demonstrates the limits of public choice theory in understanding politics. As Caplan and Stringham show, most inefficient policies are not the result of concentrated interests having their interests served against the preference of a powerless majority. Policymakers are tightly constrained by public opinion, and cannot normally simply accept bribes in exchange for creating unpopular rules to enrich special interests. We have bad policy because that’s what voters want. The public gets warm fuzzies from banning CFCs, and doesn’t much think about the costs (thinking about costs is, afterall, a downer).

Public choice theory in general and The Logic of Collective Action in particular has opened our eyes to many important aspects of the political process. The good old tyranny of the majority, though, remains of paramount importance. Democracy requires that politicians pander to the whims of the majority, even when there is strong pressure from concentrated interests to do otherwise. Interest groups do have an effect on political outcomes, but can only operate in the cracks of majoritarian democracy. Small, well-organized interest groups can achieve their goals when issue salience is low and voters will not punish politicians; when there is a compelling moral or public-interest argument to accompany their preferred policy; or when there are already legislators in favour of their preferred policy (which obviously depends on a significant constituency) whose legislative efforts they can subsidize. When these factors are absent, the majority will prevail even when there are huge utility losses to a minority.

The upshot of this is that anyone wishing for social change should focus on preferences at least as much as incentives.


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