B is for Bundling
Even when voters do know about a political action they find unacceptable or upsetting, their ability to offer feedback by voting is still limited. One reason for this is that in most elections issues are bundled. When you vote for a presidential, congressional, gubernatorial, or mayoral candidate, you are not voting in a referendum on any specific policy issue. Instead, you are voting to elect a politician, who will then have increased power to act on all their policy preferences. There is no way to signal that you are voting for a particular candidate based on their foreign policy views but disagree with their views on financial regulation.
This poses problems, because a voter might know about some action or policy by an incumbent politician that they strongly condemn. However, while they strongly oppose the politician on that issue, they may disagree with the politician’s opponent even more strongly on another issue. They may therefore feel that they cannot in good conscience vote against the incumbent, even though they would like to offer negative feedback.
Politicians use their power to influence a wide variety of issues, including foreign policy, fiscal policy, environmental regulation, parks and recreation, public health, and many more. The list is potentially endless. Given the diversity of issues that politicians influence, a voter who cares about policy must vote based on a complex bundle of positions rather than offering neat, legible feedback regarding any specific issue. This means that electoral feedback is a rather noisy signal.
Arnold Kling likes George Leef’s new novel. Here’s the opening paragraph of Arnold’s review (link added):
George Leef, a scholar and pundit known as an advocate for traditional standards of excellence and viewpoint diversity within higher education, recently published a novel called The Awakening of Jennifer Van Arsdale. The main character is a young progressive journalist, Jennifer Van Arsdale, who gets mugged by reality. As the novel begins, she feels smugly assured that progressive policies that expand government and stifle opposition are noble causes. Meanwhile, other characters in the novel reveal the devastating consequences of these policies for the people they are supposed to help.
According to F.A. Hayek, liberty “not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and burden of choice; it also means that he must bear the consequences of his actions and will receive praise or blame for them. Liberty and responsibility are inseparable” (Hayek 1960, p. 71). Such a definition not only illustrates why the right to private property is not only the cornerstone of liberty. More importantly, it also alludes to the notion that fundamental nature of private property as a social relationship is not to physically assign goods and services to individuals, but to assign the consequences of action over goods and services, both negative and positive, in relation to others. The enforcement of private property rights imply that individuals are accountable and liable for their decisions when private property rights are well-defined.
The person, whose name might soon be known and should be forever odious, who leaked the draft Supreme Court opinion is an appropriate symbol of 49 years of willfulness that began with Roe v. Wade in 1973. The leaker accomplished nothing but another addition to the nation’s sense of fraying and another subtraction from the norms that preserve institutional functioning and dignity.
Hysteria is the default mode of many Americans of all persuasions who engage in civic arguments. So, by late June, when the court would normally be expected to issue a momentous opinion, such people will have worked themselves into an apocalyptic frenzy. If the court overturns the postulated constitutional requirement for America’s almost uniquely radical abortion regime, there will still be a frenzy, but two months of emotions will have been vented.
Last year, based on a scenario in which 22 states banned abortion, Middlebury College economist Caitlin Knowles Myers projected that the annual number of abortions in the U.S. would fall by about 14 percent. In Texas, which banned the vast majority of abortions last September and avoided early judicial intervention by restricting enforcement to private civil actions, the net impact seems to have been a drop of about 10 percent.
Americans should keep those surprisingly modest estimates in mind as they try to predict what will happen after the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, as a leaked draft of the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organizationsuggests it will soon do. While many states are expected to respond by imposing severe restrictions on abortion, most probably will not. And even in states that ban elective abortions, workarounds will mitigate the impact of those laws.
Politico reported that the board was supposed to “coordinate countering misinformation related to homeland security, focused specifically on irregular migration and Russia.” But when a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki about the working group last Thursday, she said “it sounds like the objective of the board is to prevent disinformation and misinformation from traveling around the country in a range of communities.” She added that “I’m not sure who opposes that effort.”
That broad description of the board’s mission, combined with Psaki’s apparent obliviousness to the civil liberties issues raised by government efforts to “prevent disinformation and misinformation from traveling,” seemed to validate the concerns of conservative critics. It did not help that the “expert on online disinformation” appointed to head the working group, Nina Jankowicz, had disparaged “free speech absolutists,” criticized Republican legislators for “laundering disinfo,” and described the New York Post‘s accurate reporting about emails from Hunter Biden’s abandoned laptop as part of “a Russian influence op.”
Damon Root identifies some flaws in Justice Alito’s leaked opinion. Here’s his conclusion:
I am reminded of the words of the political theorist Stephen Macedo, who, while debating the late Robert Bork in 1986, offered this memorable description of the American constitutional system: “When conservatives like Bork treat rights as islands surrounded by a sea of government powers, they precisely reverse the view of the founders, as enshrined in the Constitution, wherein government powers are limited and specified and rendered as islands surrounded by a sea of individual rights.”
The opinion’s careful analysis of text therefore represents not only the overruling of Roe but also a sea change in the appropriate method of reasoning about the Constitution. What was notable about Roe was that it failed to locate the abortion right in the text of the Constitution or even in previous precedent. As law professor John Hart Ely said about Roe, “it is not constitutional law and gives almost no sense of an obligation to try to be.” (Not surprisingly, Alito quotes Ely.) But Roe was also the culmination of decades of loose thinking about constitutional interpretation, as expressed in cases that ignored the original meaning of text and were driven by what the justices thought of as good policy. If the Dobbs decision follows this draft opinion, then its most important legacy will be the restoration of a more rigorous method of reasoning to the heart of constitutional law.
The overwhelming majority of economists agree on a few things: secure, well-defined property rights are a vital ingredient of growth; people respond to incentives; the economy is not zero-sum; sustainable growth comes from innovations that enable us to make more from less; some trade-off between equality and growth is necessary because innovation often makes some people rich, and they must be rewarded for their risk-taking and talents.
In his latest book, A Brief History of Equality, Thomas Piketty rejects these assumptions. He has written more of a manifesto than a history or economics book. As an economist and market enthusiast, I am not his target audience, as he makes clear in his introduction. Throughout the book he makes some assertions that don’t square with standard economic thinking. Like most economists, I expect explanations for why all those other studies were wrong, but Piketty offers none.
He also has no interest in converting nonbelievers like me. I think markets are wonderful—not only for their ability to provide order through prices but also because of how much they have enriched the world, yielding once-unimaginable improvements to our quality of life and longevity and facilitating the emergence of a prosperous middle class.
Piketty acknowledges these improvements and agrees that they are wonderful. He believes, however, that they happened not because of free markets but despite them. And he sees economic growth as not such a great achievement, given that it coexists with so much inequality in wealth and income. Above all, people “need justice,” he maintains. An economically equal society is his ultimate goal, a vision that stems from deep convictions that reflect his personal values.
I don’t doubt that Piketty genuinely believes his solutions would create a fairer and more just world, but I wish that he had tried harder to convince skeptical readers. I also would like to live in a world where there is less poverty and more opportunity, but I believe that market-friendly policies are a better way to achieve this goal. To some degree, the dispute comes down to a difference of values. People of my persuasion put a higher value on rising living standards than on equality for its own sake. We also have different (and equally valid) readings of the history and data, which are surely influenced by our values. Yet Piketty frequently dismisses people who disagree with him as corrupt, ignorant, or stupid. He would do better not to assume the worst of his opponents and to reckon honestly with their arguments.