Bangkok Bleg

Sorry for the nonexistent blogging. Kerry and I are heading to Bangkok for Christmas, and then to Burma. Blogging will likely remain nonexistent, except perhaps for a picture or two. So what should we do in Bangkok? One well-traveled friend suggested “street food and, don't take this the wrong way, the prostitutes.” So that's covered. What else? Restaurants? Specific not-to-be-missed, off-the-beaten-path sites?  

The Lost World

I find myself somehow charmed by this no-room-for-satirization Austin Bramwell post. It perfectly exemplifies the quaint essence of elite American conservatism: a sense of grievance at the loss of exclusive WASP folkways. 

For the well-heeled, perhaps the biggest problem with economic growth is that eventually one is forced to compete with the hoi polloi for non-manufacturable goods. In this example, to avoid entirely the snowboarding philistines, one ends up having to own a mountain. But in what kind of damnable world must a Yale man be that rich in order to carve virgin powder?

I feel Bramwell's circle and its habits should be the subject of a careful ethnography, or declared endangered and legally protected, before all is lost. Perhaps he could be placed in a handsome diorama on weekends, so that snowboarding American slobs can contemplate first-hand just how much gracious living their vulgar appetites have displaced.

New at Free Will: Those Crazy Canadians with Jacob Levy

If you're like me, you feel like you should know more about Canadian politics, but never bother to find out, maybe because you suspect that Canadian politics is not very interesting. Well, it's sure interesting now! Our friends in the land of “toques” and “chesterfields” are having a constitutional crisis! Say what? How did that happen? Ace political theorist Jacob Levy — who is not Canadian, but teaches at McGill in Montreal and grew up in New Hampshire, which is physically near Canada — explains all with exemplary lucidity.

[Update: In other crazy Canada news, the front page of the Ottawa Citizen online reports: “Barenaked Ladies concert postponed.” I think it's pretty clear by now that all hell's breaking loose up there. ]

More on Corruption

I found this discussion of Blagojevich and political corruption in the U.S. more generally very interesting. My friend Chris Hayes raises a question that really interests me: Why are some places so much more corrupt than others? Corruption expert Kim Long notes that corruption seems to have largely cleared up in many cities that used to have problems with it. So what explains that?

The most cynical story is that nothing has changed and what used to count as corruption has simply been formalized. I think the following is more likely: Better monitoring technology plus economic growth shifts the expected payoff from production relative to the payoff for political predation. This, in turn, creates new expectations and improved norms, and a lot less corruption.

Here's an interesting possibility… Maybe we used to be in an especially bad equilibrium in which most people naively trusted politicians, which only made it more likely for bad people to get and abuse power. If we have become at once (a) more skeptical of people with power and (b) less likely to abuse power when we have it, that would certainly explain a reduction in corruption. Some good government types think encouraging skepticism of power simply encourages abuse of power by communicating that we expect power to be abused. Some public choice types are so skeptical of the possibility that people might simply become less prone to corruption that they think discouraging skepticism of power is a dangerous encouragement of corruption. Is there an untenable cognitive dissonance involved in encouraging skepticism of power while at the same time encouraging norms of public-minded professionalism among politicians? I don't feel like I have any problem with it, but then I'm weird.

Naomi Klein Quote of the Day

From Lloyd Grove's Portfolio interview:

So I think reality is really causing the crisis for the true Friedman fanatics. There's kind of a retreat going on into sacred text. They don't want to deal with reality because for a long time it was just about trying to get policymakers to accept their ideology. But now they had those policymakers and they've created such a disaster, and indicted the ideology with their legacy, now there's just a desire to go back to the sacred text and say that everything was a distortion. And what I see is a really striking similarity that I've seen on the left, on the far left, where you've had these kind of Trotskyite people who sell newspapers outside of my events, and they have no interest in looking at the reality of authoritarian communism in Russia, in China, in Cambodia, anywhere. These are all distortions and what they want to do is, they just want to go back to the sacred texts, and say that we have nothing to learn from these lived experiments. The Cato Institute now, essentially, they are Friedmanite Trotskyites.


Please debate me, Naomi Klein!

Virtue and Trust: Insufficient but Necessary

About my call for better government, my friend Lynne Kiesling writes:

I do think Will is creating a false dichotomy in his fine-hair-splitting. “Norms of anti-corruption and civic responsibility” are not substitutes for institutions, like a constitution, that recognize the inducement to corruption that is inescapable when some subset of a population has legal power to determine outcomes. The point that I think Will is missing is that the incentive is inescapable, even if the actual corruption does not occur.

Put another way: institutions matter. Formal and informal institutions matter. Constitutions that define and limit the role of government and norms of civic virtue are institutional complements in creating relatively better government than we would have in the absence of these institutions. But the reason that we need the formal institutions, and particularly formal institutions that define the scope and limit of government power and action, is that civic virtue is often insufficient to deter elected representatives from following the lure of the ever-present corruption incentive.

I agree with just about everything Lynne says. Though I think that if she checks her North and Greif she'll find that norms count as institutions, in their broad sense of the term. And one of the deepest facts of the institutional world is that conscience is cheaper than police.

Anyway, here's something I said in the earlier comments thread, in response to Tim Lee:

[I]t's hard to make government work well. The public choice guys are right that its more about structure than public-spiritedeness. It is laughably naive and romantic to think that sufficient public-spiritedness will deliver good government. But it remains that we WANT good government, and public-spiritedness helps. Libertarians seem loathe to admit this, and I think it's a problem for us.

I think this is a disagreement of emphasis and strategy. Yes, civic virtue is insufficient. But it's also necessary, and necessary is a big deal. The best constitution in the world isn't worth a damn in a context of pervasively lousy norms. Incentive structure and institutional form is so important that political economists often feel that a breath spent affirming honesty and public-spiritedness is a breath wasted. After all, you could be telling folks just how important incentives are. 

What I was objecting to in Steve and Mike's posts was not their indisuputably sound opinion that institutions matter, or the idea that it is not surprising when opportunities for corruption are seized. What I thought I detected, and what I was objecting to, was a sense of vindication in the view that people with political power are irremediably corrupt and cannot, must not, be trusted. Because this view is false. If there is going to be political power, we must trust people not to abuse it, and many people don't abuse it, for which we should be grateful. If we can remove incentives for abuse, and therefore lean less on frail conscience, then we should. But I think an indiscriminately scathing attitude toward politicians and political power (of which I have often been guilty) is harmful, both to the level of social trust that does in fact help determine the effectiveness of our suboptimal institutions, and also to the public credibility of libertarians, many of whom do have an especially rigorous grasp of what it would take to make our institutions work better.

Let me draw a parallel and see if it flies. I think the corporate form suffers from some thorny agency problems. The incentives of owners and managers are often poorly aligned. And I'm convinced some of the recent financial crisis is a consequence of corporate executives abusing the trust of their creditors and shareholders. However, I am unimpressed with arguments that this calls into question the legitimacy of capitalism, the corporation, or corporate executive power in precisely the same way I am unimpressed with the suggestion that Rod Blagojevich calls into question the legitimacy of democratic power.

We need better institutions. But there is no insitutional design, whether it be of a public system of democratic governance or a private system of corporate governance, that is so airtight in aligning the interests of principals and agents that conscience and trust are unneeded. One of the reasons many people are skeptical of “cynical” public choice-types is that the quest for incentive-compatible institutions can look like an attempt to squeeze all the trust out of the system. And it is indeed an attempt to rely less on trust. But the point is not to rely less on trust; the point is to make our institutions more likely to deliver what they promise. Emphasizing, truly, that the system can't possibly work without some level of virtue and trust is a good way to reassure skeptics that you haven't declared jihad on fellow feeling and are not out to wring the inefficiency from our institutions by wringing out the humanity.

The Indeterminacy of Propertarianism

Todd Seavey continues to argue that libertarianism just is the view that the only legitimate function of the state (if it has any legitimate function) is to protect property rights, and that sticking to this view saves us from confusing culture war politics. But the definition of legitimate property rights is confusing culture war politics. There is nothing especially clear-headed, “thin,” or even libertarian about emphasizing the inviolability of property rights.

The contemporary welfare-liberal argument is that redistributive fiscal policy does not violate property rights as long as policy was determined according to certain principles of legitimate democratic procedure. The contemporary environmentalist argument is that reasonable land-use restrictions do not violate property rights because there can be no legitimate right to destroy species or degrade the quality of the environment for future generations. Most people don't think laws against selling your tissue or organs violate property rights because they don't think you can “own” these things in the way you can own a digital camera. Many drug warriors deny that drug laws violate property rights because they deny individuals can have a legitimate right to own certain personally and socially destructive substances. And many labor advocates believe that asymmetries in bargaining power violate the property rights of workers by denying them the fair value of their labor.

So if an environmentalist, welfare-statist, paternalist, drug warrior, labor advocate can agree in principle that the sole legitimate function of the state is to protect property rights, where does that leave us?  I think it leaves us in a position to see that a philosophy emphasizing the inviolability of property rights has no distinctively libertarian content in the absence of a “thicker” account of the justification and content of these rights. If I was as ambiguity-averse as Todd seems to be, I might argue that the slogan “Let's stick to property rights!” simply invites us to wade into a impossibly confusing thicket of arguments about what does and does not count as a legitimate property right. These issues are complex. But either you wade in or you forfeit the argument to more intrepid souls.

Todd is right that feminism does not logically imply a concern for liberty in his favorite sense of the term.  But then neither does an exclusive concern for the protection of property rights. There are more or less libertarian feminisms and there are more or less libertarian accounts of legitimate property rights. I believe a certain kind of regime of property rights is indispensable to the protection and value of individual liberty. And so are the norms of equality promoted by certain kinds of feminism.

The Lesson of Rod Blagojevich: We Need Better Government!

Two of my favorite political economists, Mike Munger and Steve Horwitz, each suggest that the Blago markets-in-senate seats scandal vindicates the public choice paradigm. I'm actually rather confused by their posts, and suspect they're both guilty of the “libertarian vice” in this particular case. I think Ed Lopez is the voice of reason here.

I increasingly think standard liberals are right. It's not clear why we should expect people to trust libertarians about our policy proposals when we sometimes seem to deny the possibility that any policy can be effectively administered by government. Look at Blago! He's a politician! They're all alike. Neener! Except, they aren't. And some places are better governed than others, with less incompetence, waste, and corruption. Iowa is better governed than the District of Columbia. And the District of Columbia seemed better governed when I left than it was when I arrived. Most of the U.S. is fairly well-governed. That's good! The local, state, and national government generally succeeds in protecting many/most of our basic rights. Government works best when it is much more limited than it is now, and when it is so limited, it works better than all the alternatives. What we want is: government that works better. That's what I want, anyway.

But if government just doesn't work, limited government just doesn't work either. So either go ahead and come out as an anarchist or swallow your iconoclastic loathing of “good government” pap and admit that you want better government. I want better government!

Generally, we're more likely to get relatively good government in a cultural climate that encourages good government. Ridiculing as naive norms of anti-corruption and civic responsibility doesn't undermine belief in the efficacy of government so much as expose the one who ridicules as a defector in a crucial cooperative game, undermining his reputation as a sincere advocate of the public interest. It is valuable and necessary to point out that certain institutional arrangements are unstable and invite corruption, and should therefore be reformed. But people are more likely to listen to you if they believe you believe reform is possible.

The More Specific Lesson of Rod Blagojevich

I think Steve Chapman draws exactly the right lesson from the Blagojevich's attempt to auction a Senate seat:  

Okay, so it's obvious we don't want Rod Blagojevich choosing a replacement to fill Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat. But is it obvious we want any governor to have that power?

Of all the things a governor has the authority to do, this is the one that reeks most of King George III. One senator, Dick Durbin, holds his office because the people of Illinois voted for him. The other, to be named later, would hold his or hers just because the governor said so. Neither the legislature nor the courts nor the voters have any role.

Even absent corrupt motives, that role asks too much of any governor. No one can accurately represent the wishes of the people of the state, and no one should try.

If a House seat opens up more than six months before the next regular congressional election, it's filled by a special election, letting the people choose their representative. But if there are less than two years left in a Senate term, they have no say for that entire period. It's an insult to democracy.

Why do we tolerate this procedure? Partly because it's invoked so rarely, making it hardly worth our time to change it. And partly because special elections are expensive. But so are regular elections, and nobody proposes to save money by doing away with them.

The people of Illinois chose Barack Obama to be their senator. Now that he's moved on, they are the only ones who should choose his successor.

This episode powerfully illustrates why governors should not have the power to appoint senators. It also suggests that governors might have other powers that invite corruption and also need to be limited or stripped. Now would be an opportune time to look for some of those.

[HT: Kevin O'Reilly in the comments below]  

Tyler Cowen on Time Management

The cryptic one says:

All people are equally good at time management, but some people are more willing than others to admit that they are doing what they want to do, while others maintain the illusion they wish they were doing something else.

Completely unhelpful. And obviously false!

Here's the easy proof: (1) If it is possible to improve your time management skills, then time management skills can be better or worse. (2) If time managment skills can be better or worse, then some people (or stages of people) are better at time management than others. (3) If some are better than others, all aren't equally good. (4) It is possible to improve your time management skills. So, (5) All aren't equally good at time management.

Tyler apparently denies (4), which is weird. It seems to me he's just re-stating the well-known fallacy of psychological egoism. That each thing you have done is, ipso facto, the thing you were then most motivated to do, does not imply that you were acting in your self-interest. It implies nothing more and nothing less than that what you do is what you are most motivated to do. That is not very interesting. “Doing what you are most motivated to do” is equivalent to neither “acting in your self-interest” nor “managing your time as well as possible.”

Here's a much more complicated argument from the intensionality of desire. Good time management intuitively has everything to do with coordinating first- and higher-order desires. Tyler seems to maintain that first-order desires are both motivationally decisive (true) and not subject to deliberative or therapeutic revision (false). This implies that higher-order desires don't really count as desires at all, since they can't do anything. There is no higher-order. If we are willing to admit that we are always already doing what we most want to do, then it is because we have a first-order desire to admit this. Likewise if we don't admit this. If not admitting it amounts to an “illusion,” then some people are stuck in illusions because of their first-order desires about what to admit.

Now, while it may be true that not admitting that you're already doing what you want does amount to an illusion, those of us who don't admit it may not represent it as an illusion. But a change in representation can create a change in desire. Learning that Clark Kent is Superman may change Lois' first-order desires with respect to Clark Kent. Likewise, a first-order desire to avoid illusions may lead me to adjust my willingness to admit that I was already doing what I wanted to do. Because of my stong feelings about not being self-deceived, simply reading Tyler's post may have changed my first-order desires. I have become willing to admit something I was unwilling to admit before!

But notice that I did not previously represent my options the way I did because I wanted to represent them that way. Extensional exquivalence is often a discovery. But we can also induce these discoveries by, say, reading illuminating books on time management. It is a general possibility that redescribing our options can change what we want to do. And if there is some redescription of my options such that I would be doing what I believe I really want to do, instead of what I am actually doing, then it's true that I have sufficient desire to do what I think I really want to do. I just need to think about my options in a different way. In which case, my “wish” is no illusion.

Some people really do get something out of Getting Things Done.