He Said It!

by Don Boudreaux on April 24, 2016

in Politics

Earlier this afternoon I heard a report on WTOP radio about Pres. Obama’s visit to Germany.  The report featured a clip of Obama explaining to his German hosts why the United States government has yet to approve U.S.-government participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a trade treaty that would give consumers a bit more freedom from government interference with their purchasing decisions.  Here’s the relevant part of Obama’s remarks (emphasis added):

And with respect to Congress, and transpacific partnership, I think after the primary season is over, the politics settle down a little bit in Congress and will be in a position to start moving forward. Because I know that we have had a majority of members in the past who were in favor of this deal. Otherwise you would not have gotten the authority for me to go ahead and fast-track this agreement. But I think we all know that elections can sometimes make things a little more challenging. And people take positions in part to protect themselves from attacks during the course of election season.

Politicians routinely confess that this fundamental flaw infects their profession and, hence, plagues the institution of democratic government.  They make this confession – often, as here by Obama, as an excuse for this particular state inaction or that specific state action – so regularly and openly that we (and they) all nod our heads in knowing agreement.  No one is surprised by such a confession by a politician; indeed, were a politician to announce otherwise, his or her announcement would be correctly greeted with howls of laughter.

Yet notice what’s being confessed; do not let the regularity and familiarity of a confession such as this one serve as an excuse to discount the relevance and importance of what is being confessed – namely, that politicians seeking votes typically do, and promise to do, not what they believe to be best to do and to promise to do but, instead, something different.  That ‘something different’ is a set of government actions or inactions that politicians presumably believe to be injurious to the public welfare but which they nevertheless support, at least during election years.

Remember, the above quotation is from not only a sitting president of the United States, but from a politician who, even as American politicians go, is especially enamored of the promise of state action to override or to ‘nudge’ private actions.  Obama is a man who believes in a big, powerful, intrusive government.  Yet even he confesses (publicly!) that the principal check that most people trust to ensure that the power of the modern democratic state is not abused and is used to public advantage – namely, democratic elections – often, or at least “sometimes,” causes politicians to act against rather than for the public’s best interest.

So remind me: Why do “Progressives” have a presumption in favor of government action and against private, market action?  And given such a confession by a “Progressive” president of the United States, why should the rest of us be willing to turn yet more power and resources over to such people who are, by the admission of Obama, unprincipled cowards who sell the public interest down the river in order to get and to keep their political offices?

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Georgetown University philosopher Jason Brennan has some questions for advocates of a government-mandated “living wage.

Kevin Williamson entertainingly exposes the ignorance of economics and the retrograde notion of the individual’s relation to the state that are shared by most advocates of minimum wages.  A slice:

Krugman, Clinton, Sanders, et al. have a backward and primitive view of government. For them and for their fellow Hobbesians, the Middle Ages never really ended, and the role of the sovereign is to distribute benefices and issue decrees. Unhappy with your wages? Petition the prince to decree that they shall be otherwise, and dare any gimlet-eyed economist to point out that the imperial tailor is skimping on the ermine.

(Actually, even people in the middle ages weren’t quite as naive as are Krugman, Clinton, Sanders, et al.  In Europe, at least, such naiveté didn’t arrive en masse until the 16th century.)

Jack Salmon explains the devastation that the minimum wage has unleashed on the people of Puerto Rico.

In the May 2016 issue of Reason, Johan Norberg explains that, indeed, America should be more like Sweden.  A slice:

Sanders is right: America would benefit hugely from modeling her economic and social policies after her Scandinavian sisters. But Sanders should be careful what he wishes for. When he asks for “trade policies that work for the working families of our nation and not just the CEOs of large, multi-national corporations,” Social Democrats in Sweden would take this to mean trade liberalization—which would have the benefit of exposing monopolist fat cats to competition—not the protectionism that Sanders favors.

Alex Epstein explains that the planet has never been cleaner for humans than it is today.  A slice:

To master nature, we’ve drained swamps, reclaimed land, cleared forests, built roads, constructed glass and steel skyscrapers. We’ve irrigated deserts, developed fertilizers and pesticides, linked oceans — all of it in humanity’s incredibly successful effort to create a safer, cleaner, more habitable world. And we did most of this using machines running on cheap, plentiful, reliable energy from fossil fuels.

University of Virginia law professor Jason Scott Johnston shows that centrally planned energy provision is bad for the economy and bad for the environment.

Ross Kaminsky recently interviewed CEI’s Sam Kazman on government-inquisitors’ persecution of private citizens who speak out in opposition to the dogmas of the Church of Climate Change.  The interview starts around the 1:04 mark.

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Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on April 24, 2016

in Competition, Growth, Inequality, Innovation

… is from pages 577-578 of the ink-still-wet-on-its-pages final volume – Bourgeois Equality – of Deirdre McCloskey’s magnificent trilogy on the essence and role of bourgeois values in modern life (original emphasis):

And in some important respects equality is improved by an ethic of trading.  Free entry erodes monopolies that in traditional societies keep one tribe rich and the rest poor.  Unfettered ability of workers to offer themselves for employment erodes differentials, as I noted in mentioning Robert Frost’s wavering between teaching and farming, between a professor who teaches with the same scant equipment that Socrates used – a place to draw diagrams, a stretch of sand in Athens, Greece, or a whiteboard in Athens, Georgia, and a crowd of students – and an airline pilot working with the finest fruits of a technological civilization.  The pilot produces thousands of times more value of travel services per hour than a Greek steersman in 400 BCE.  The professor produces, if she is very lucky, the same insight per student hour as Socrates.  But equality of physical productivity doesn’t matter in a free, great (that is big and trading and mobile) society. Entry and exit to occupations is what matters.  Some few of the professors could have become airline pilots, and some few of the pilots professors, which is enough to give even workers like the professors who who have not increased in productivity in the past twenty-five hundred years an equal share of the finest fruits.

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Bonus Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on April 23, 2016

in Seen and Unseen, War

… is from page 164 of Christopher Preble’s 2009 book, The Power Problem:

For too long, we [Americans] have defined our strength as a nation by our capacity for waging war.  We have come to believe, erroneously, that military power keeps us safe, and that more power will keep us safer.  But the true strength of the United States, the true source of U.S. power, is its people.  Our spirit, our generosity, our ingenuity, is expressed in countless ways, most of which have nothing to do with our military prowess.  By reducing the size of our military to a level more consistent with our own needs, and by encouraging others to become more self-reliant, we can make space for other forms of human interaction that facilitate security and prosperity over the long run.

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Theocracy In 21st-century USA

by Don Boudreaux on April 23, 2016

in Environment, Religion

imagesI originally planned to include the two essays below in my “Some Links” series.  But they detail a risk so great, a state overreach so dangerous, an exercise of government power so egregiously unjust, and a use of ‘official’ tools of intimidation so extreme that I give them here their own post.  Each is from the Washington Post, and each deals with a current attempt by government thugs officials to prevent people from expressing opposition to the dogmas of a religion to which many on the “Progressive” left are mindlessly devoted – namely, environmentalism.

The first essay is by George Will.  Two slices:

Authoritarianism, always latent in progressivism, is becoming explicit. Progressivism’s determination to regulate thought by regulating speech is apparent in the campaign by 16 states’ attorneys general and those of the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands, none Republican, to criminalize skepticism about the supposedly “settled” conclusions of climate science.

….

The attorney general of the Virgin Islands accuses ExxonMobil of criminal misrepresentation regarding climate change. This, even though before the U.S. government in 2009 first issued an endangerment finding regarding greenhouse gases, ExxonMobil favored a carbon tax to mitigate climate consequences of those gases. This grandstanding attorney general’s contribution to today’s gangster government is the use of law enforcement tools to pursue political goals — wielding prosecutorial weapons to chill debate, including subpoenaing private donor information from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

The second essay is by Sam Kazman and Kent Lassman, both of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI).  Two slices:

With seven state attorneys general and Al Gore sharing a New York City stage , there was no doubt about it: It was showtime for a whodunit. The crime being investigated? Dissent.

The March 29 news conference unveiled, according to New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, an “unprecedented” coalition to fight not only climate change but also allegedly deceptive speech about climate change. The group, which dubbed itself AGs United for Clean Power, promised to “use all the tools at our disposal” to battle for progress on “the most consequential issue of our time.”

Schneiderman was blunt about his goal of shutting down debate: “You have to tell the truth. You can’t make misrepresentations of the kinds we’ve seen here.”

This isn’t a law-and-order drama. It’s politics clothed in messianic garb, and its primary tools are censorship and intimidation.

….

Regardless of where you stand on global warming policy, the notion of a multi-state campaign to end the debate ought to make you worry. After all, there are many science-driven policy debates out there, on topics ranging from genetically modified food to population control. It is not as if the government has a sterling reputation when it comes to science. From Galileo to today’s food plate, we know government politicizes science. It ought not to punish dissent, too.

In today’s Quotation of the Day, Deirdre McCloskey – in part by herself quoting CEI’s great founder, Fred Smith – identified modern environmentalism as a religion.  She’s correct.  And no matter what you think of religion in general or of the proper role of government in protecting the environment, you fear, if you are wise, the exemption that the religion of environmentalism has from the rule in the United States that church and state be kept entirely distinct.  You fear, in other words, what appears to be environmentalisms’ rapid approach to becoming the de facto state religion.

….

I ask everyone to join me in supporting CEI as it fights the modern Inquisitors.  Success at beating back the antediluvian, irrational, anti-science, dogmatic brutes who are attacking CEI will help not only CEI but, more importantly, also our very civilization.  I myself will now make a donation.   You can make a donation to CEI here.  (I have no official role or connection with CEI, although in the past – the 1990s – I wrote some papers for them.  No one asked me to use Cafe Hayek as a forum for helping CEI fight the Inquisitors.  I do so of my own accord, as a public service.  I can, I add, vouch for the excellent integrity, soundness of character, and commitment to the cause of human freedom of the people at CEI.)

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Saviors Need Victims Who Need Saving

by Don Boudreaux on April 23, 2016

in Hubris and humility

One of the many lovely benefits of the mass prosperity made possible by free-market innovationism is that it unleashes the better angels within us – angels that encourage us to turn some, and sometimes much, of our time and individual attentions toward helping others.  The mother of children dying of diarrhea or near starvation isn’t much interested in helping strangers.  In contrast, the mother of children healthy and well-fed has the luxury of being able to care about strangers.

But this praiseworthy human moral sentiment can, and often does, backfire.  Wealthy people – by which I mean people healthy, well-fed, well-clothed, well-shod, well-housed, and well-leisured and literate – are often deformed by their better angels into saviors.  Busybodies.  Officious do-gooders.  Arrogant meddlers.  Tyrants seeking as personal payoff not crass material gain but the perverted satisfaction of lording it over other people for what these tyrants sincerely believe to be the good of these other people.

Saviors need victims who need saving.  And if such victims are not real and readily available, the saviors conjure them up by convincing themselves that this or that group of people are helpless victims eager to be raised from the muck of their misfortunes by the saviors.  Sometimes the saviors convince even the groups they seek to save that they – the members of these groups – are indeed mired in a muck from which they can be extracted only by the saviors.

As society grows wealthier, the need to be saved by others from earthly misfortunes grows steadily less frequent and less dire while the itch to save others from earthly misfortunes grows steadily more frequent and more intense.  A great irony is that, insofar as this itch to save grows faster than the need to be saved declines, the genuine need to be saved might actually rise because the actions of those who itch to save more often than not worsen, rather than improve, the well-being of those who are the targets of the saviors’ efforts.

A mathematically inclined theorist should be able to describe, with equations, the outcome of these opposing forces as a dynamic equilibrium – an equilibrium that is not necessarily a happy one.

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Antimicrobial Q-Tips are another tiny addition to our Prosperity Pool – a vast, deep, wonderful pool filled mostly by the continual addition of tiny drops of increased prosperity.  This particular droplet into our Prosperity Pool is yet another of the many ways that we are today cleaned by capitalism.

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These drops are so tiny that each one is noticed, if noticed at all, only fleetingly and then is forgotten.  Each individual drop effectively is invisible, both to us ordinary people going about our daily lives in an already Greatly Enriched modern economy and to statisticians and econometricians charged with the impossible task of accurately measuring in detail the changes in our standard of living.

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Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on April 23, 2016

in Environment, Religion

… is from pages 28-29 of the newly published final volume – Bourgeois Equality – of Deirdre McCloskey’s essential trilogy on bourgeois values (footnote excluded; links added):

Or consider the emergence of a Nature-worshipping environmentalism that would have been viewed as a crazy luxury in the hardscrabble times of 1800 or even of 1933.  The economist and student of theology Robert Nelson calls environmentalism the new religion of the West (a West that nonetheless, outside of places like Poland or the United States, imagines itself to be irreligious)….

The economist and think-tank maven Fred L. Smith, Jr. speaks of “eco-paganism”: “Most environmentalists do not, of course, see themselves as pagans,” he writes.  “Yet many do espouse a watered-down form of pantheism which elevates nature to near the status of a deity.”  By now the good people of rich and secular places such as Sweden, though contemptuous of the childish absurdity (as most Swedes believe it to be) of their ancestors’ worship of a Lutheran God, have found their transcendent in the worship of Nature, and spend their Sunday mornings devoutly gathering mushrooms and lingonberries in Nature’s forest.

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Bonus Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on April 22, 2016

in Environment, Myths and Fallacies

… is from page 26 of Richard Epstein’s insightful 2014 Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy article, “Modern Environmentalists Overreach: A Plea for Understanding Background Common Law Principles” (footnote excluded):

Knowing when to quit is as important as knowing when to proceed.  Any support for creating a pollution-free river fails if it overlooks the need to set marginal benefit equal to marginal cost.  In doing so, advocates of a pollution-free position have gone a bridge too far by inventing problems that need no solution.  Now the environmentalists themselves become the social problem.

The marginal cost of activity X in excess by dollar amount Z over the marginal benefit of activity X is exactly as harmful to society – $Z – as is the marginal cost of activity Y in excess by dollar amount Z over the marginal benefit of activity Y.  This reality holds if X is an industrial activity aimed at earning profits for factory owners who produce goods that satisfy consumer demands while Y is a political activity aimed at reducing X, no less than if X is a political activity aimed at reducing Y while Y is an industrial activity aimed at earning profits for factory owners who produce goods that satisfy consumer demand.

See Ronald Coase.

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Last Day to Apply for 2016 IHS Summer Seminars

by Don Boudreaux on April 22, 2016

in Uncategorized

Great opportunities for students.

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