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.

Brutus on the Optimal Size of Nations

In a republic, the manners, sentiments, and interests of the people should be similar. If this be not the case, there will be a constant clashing of opinions; and the representatives of one part will be continually striving against those of the other. This will retard the operations of government, and prevent such conclusions as will promote the public good. If we apply this remark to the condition of the United States, we shall be convinced that it forbids that we should be one government. The United States includes a variety of climates. The productions of the different parts of the union are very variant, and their interests, of consequence, diverse. Their manners and habits differ as much as their climates and productions; and their sentiments are by no means coincident. The laws and customs of the several states are, in many respects, very diverse, and in some opposite; each would be in favor of its own interests and customs, and, of consequence, a legislature, formed of representatives from the respective parts, would not only be too numerous to act with any care or decision, but would be composed of such heterogenous and discordant principles, as would constantly be contending with each other.

That’s from Brutus #1. He has half (and by far the most important half) of Alesina and Spolaore’s model of the optimal size of government. Speaking of which, you should go check out today’s secession week topic at LaTNB!

When I first read the Federalist Papers, I remember being struck by the subtlety of Madison’s public choice theorising. Now that I’m reading the Anti-Federalist Papers, I’m far more impressed with them and inclined to see Madison as naive in comparison. Sadly, I suspect he remains more realistic about politics than any politician who has come since.

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.

Behind the Moral Curtain

I’m slow in posting this video of Elise Parham presenting her monograph Behind the Moral Curtain: The Politics of a Charter of Rights. The paper and video are both well worth checking out. Astute viewers may even be able to spot the back of my head in the video.

Elise’s argument is that bills of rights are fundamentally political, rather than legal, documents. This is true in the sense that rights will be interpreted and enforced based on political expediency and prevailing ideologies, as Robert Higgs and others have argued. Elise’s argument is that the writing of a bill of rights is also political. Once a government decides to draft a charter, many competing interests will compete to have their preferences reflected and the end result is unlikely to be a liberal document. Rather, we’ll end up with a whole lot of illiberal, and constitutionally protected, positive rights.

Miscellaneous Links

My Apologies for the lack of posting. In penance, I offer you some links of a Public Choicey nature:

If you just can’t get enough of the sort of things I find interesting, you can subscribe to my shared items in Google Reader. (While you’re at it you can also follow this blog on NetworkedBlogs).

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.”

Hobbesian Government

In Federalist 51, James Madison puts the problems of the tyranny of the majority and the rent-seeking in an interesting way:

In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger; and as, in the latter state, even the stronger individuals are prompted, by the uncertainty of their condition, to submit to a government which may protect the weak as well as themselves; so, in the former state, will the more powerful factions or parties be gradnally induced, by a like motive, to wish for a government which will protect all parties, the weaker as well as the more powerful.

By anarchy, of course, Madison means Hobbesian anarchy. Unrestrained government, like the Hobbesian state of nature, traps everyone in an n-person prisoner’s dilemma. If everyone can expect to be a victim of factionalized politics (i.e. the tyranny of majority or well-organized interest groups) some of the time, everyone would prefer to live in a world in which the machinery of the state could not be used for plunder. When it comes to playing the actual political game, however, every player’s dominant strategy is to prey upon others when part of the winning coalition and everybody winds up worse off.

Alfred Cuzán makes a similar but distinct point when he argues that we can never really get out of anarchy. He sees the state as subjecting relations among citizens to the control of a third party, but relations within government remain anarchic (i.e. bilateral, without external control). I prefer Madison’s way of looking at things: the state is never completely external to men, and can be used as an instrument of factional predation. It’s a different set of rules in which people relate to one another rather than an organization per se. People can be trapped in the Hobbesian war of all against all with or without the state.

Some see the constitution as a way of escaping the disorder of Hobbesian government. My current view on this is that constitutions can somewhat mitigate, but never come close to eliminating, the expression of factional violence through the state. Government will always be a war of all against all, with lobbyists replacing guns. The best we can hope for from government is the avoidance of total war.

Nazi Parents and the State

Janet Keeping writes in the Western Standard:

The Manitoba government is seeking permanent custody of a brother and sister already in care. What’s wrong with the parents? Media reports have mentioned possible drug and alcohol abuse. But if press coverage is accurate, the main issue is that the parents have been teaching their children to hate non-whites and how to act on that hatred. Apparently, the seven-year old not only believes people of colour are inferior and ought to die, but knows how to kill them. (…)

What then about children brought up in a household that is relentlessly and hatefully racist? The generally applicable standard for guardianship decisions is “best interests of the child”. Given that foster care is often inadequate, we can’t justify seizure of children unless their best interests will be so served. Is ethical abuse – the systematic inculcation of hatred – enough? Does it differ so greatly from refusal to educate? How do you function safely, let alone even remotely successfully, in our highly diverse society, if you are taught from day one that people of colour (or Jews, Aboriginal people, or other minority populations) deserve to die?

And what if it isn’t just hate as an attitude that is taught, but also the ways in which hate can be acted upon? The seven-year-old girl in the Manitoba case – if the reports are correct – told investigators she knew how to kill black people and proceeded to explain.

To remove children from such a home does not strike me as ideological tyranny. Given such extreme ethical abuse, we would be justified, I think, in trying to give the children involved a better chance at a decent future. And in my book, the hate alone, even without the teaching of murderous technique, could sometimes warrant removal.

Indoctrinating kids in this way is certainly extremely harmful to them, and in this case probably to others as well. As I’ve said before, though, I don’t think the state should intervene to prevent even very bad parenting. Government action should be based on simple rules which delimit the scope of legitimate intervention. In general, parents are best positioned and motivated to advance their child’s interests, and so I prefer a blanket rule of parental sovereignty. I’m going to bite the bullet and say the government should leave this girl with her awful, awful parents.

That’s not to say the rest of us shouldn’t do anything peaceful in order to discourage the parents and expose the child to different and more reasonable points of view. I’m all for voluntary action to socially pressure parents into being more reasonable. Altruistic punishment to enforce illiberal norms can be very bad, of course, but the fact that it’s decentralised probably makes it more robust to bigotry than a centralised decision-making body like the state. A liberal state with the power to intervene in the parent-child relationship might be able to prevent small scale Nazism from being passed down the generations, but those same powers make possible the eugenic horrors of state Nazism we saw last century.

Parental Sovereignty and the Reason of Rules

Roger Pilon at Cato@Liberty is rightly troubled by the case of the parents of a 13 year-old refusing to have his cancer treated, and argues that the state is right to intervene.

The presumption is with parents, but it is not irrebuttable. Just as the state may interfere in family matters in the case of spousal or child abuse, so too it may in a case like this, where the scientific evidence is overwhelming that the long-term interests of the child are being ignored by a parent.

Will there be close calls in such cases? Of course. But on the facts presented here, this case does not appear to be a close call.

I share Roger’s reaction to the parents’ decision and, when thinking in terms of ideal theory, I see a strong case for government intervention. When we move into the real world, though, things are much more complicated. In this case, government intervention would be a good thing; in others, a bad thing. It would be nice if we could choose to intervene in parental sovereignty when and only when parents are acting in ways extremely harmful to their children. But this isn’t how politics works. Political results emerge from the interactions of political agents in an environment of formal and informal rules. We can’t simply specify the set of policies we want and have the government make it so, but rather create a system of rules which produces the best results all things considered.*

My suspicion is that it’s generally preferable to leave parental sovereignty intact. I worry that if government starts preventing parents from making obviously bad decisi0ns, it will slowly move into preventing more reasonable decisions. I can imagine many people seeing the failure to instill the fear of God in children as a form of abuse. If you really believe infidels are going to spend eternity in a fiery lake, abuse is probably a reasonable characterization. If there were an enforceable rule that government would only intervene in cases which are clearly justified (severe physical abuse, etc), I’d be all for it. I just don’t think any such rule exists. I’m generally in favour of insufficient government.

*Of course, it’s policy all the way down: constitutional decisions are themselves political and ‘we’ never literally make any decision as to the set of rules governing workaday politics.

Quote of the Day: Worst-Case Political Economy Edition

There is one final observation to be made. Homo economicus by no means represents the worst imaginable character for the social drama. The natural monopolist whose predilection towards the ‘ small is beautiful’ philosophy leads him to produce less output than would be profit-maximising inflicts yet larger marginal losses on the community than his rapacious wealth-maximising counterpart. The political zealot who works with self-sacrificing conscientiousness to pursue some ideological goal – such as the purification of the race, or securing the world for Islam – can cause much greater harm than the mere budget-maximiser.

Brennan and Buchanan, Predictive Power and the Choice among Regimes, pp. 103-104.