Structural changes strike at the root

I guess we're going to give Matt's piece double-billing here today, because I wanted to make some brief comments. It's about how we could make the US govt. work better via some structural changes. Besides the specific details he is talking about, he hammers on the very important point that it's about structure, not people or parties:

We as citizens have to resist the temptation to see the problem in terms of individual politicians or their parties and start viewing it in terms of the institutional logic of collective action. Until we internalize this view, even where grassroots lobbying movements manage to successfully pressure politicians into backing down from a particular measure, the results will be meagre and fleeting. As Chris Sandström's excellent piece on the incentive structure of tax code reform so aptly illustrates, the only permanent solutions are institutional solutions.

I think this idea is both unintuitive and absolutely crucial to understanding human social systems. We have a tendency to blame individuals or tribes for problems that would occur from almost any individual or tribe placed in a given system. (Or, more subtly, any individual or tribe that system would select to participate in it). The same idea is at the center of why I see libertarianism as naive, and believe strongly that only radical changes like ancap or dynamic geography will bring about substantially freer societies. Tweaks like Matt's are valid, but can only do so much within the structure of democracy.

The whole hacking at the leaves / striking at the root metaphor can get abused, but this is a case where the isomorphism is truly apt. Fighting individual corrupt politicians/wasteful projects/party in power run amok = hacking at the leaves. Reforming the system to reduce the incentives for corruption and waste = striking at the root.

Of course, the question of how to get such reforms past the corrupt politicians in power is also apt

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It's worth noting that this

It's worth noting that this solution is not likely to produce the desired results, nor is it likely to pass. The solution of LIB and hard term limits is most likely to shift power towards the parties as the term limits encourage use of the party as the "brand" as opposed to the individual. The parties, then, become the real machinery of power and they will work hard to create a reputation system to remove disloyal politicians from the government. The reason it is unlikely to pass is the same as the reason we have a problem: there is no incentive for any individual actor to take up the restriction of spending and every incentive not to.

What Matt's piece misses is that pork isn't about spending money, it's about appearing to "create jobs" and "serve constituents." These will always be powerful political needs and the more competitive the system gets (as it would with hard caps) the more exaggerated these needs become. It's not some abstract spending question, but goes deep to the heart of how people think (or rather do not think) about the economics of public policy. As long as people believe that politicians can simply create jobs with any spending then these sorts of reform proposals tweak the margins at best and will radically enlarge the problem at worst.

At any rate, Matt will certainly admit that these earmarks represent the a fairly small portion of government waste compared to boondoggles like the Medicare drug benefit. A serious (and probably fast approaching) evaluation of the benefits of these sorts of state-run initiatives is necessary to make serious headway against wasteful government spending.

It isn't solely hacking at

It isn't solely hacking at the leaves. If you put enough corrupt politicians out of work... the remaining politicians will incorporate the potential consequences into their future decisions.

But you have to make sure that you are going after legitimate fuckjobs and not mearly "typical politicians."

Though... from the outside... I really can't tell the difference.

Steven, What about Matt's


What about Matt's idea that voters from one State won't approve of their Congressmen spending their money to "create jobs" and "serve constituents" in other States?

I'm not sure how negative the reaction would actually be, but I think it is plausable that there might be one.

If I may torture the analogy

If I may torture the analogy a bit more... Imagine a tree. There's plucking leaves, snapping off twigs, trimming branches, removing limbs, felling trunks, and digging up the rootball. Each succeeding level requires more effort than the one before, but has to be repeated fewer times.

Repealing a government spending program or a censorship law is plucking a leaf. Getting a pro-liberty candidate elected is snapping off a twig. Etc. It's not clear to me that the effort spent sawing through the tree's trunk wouldn't be better spent trimming back lots of branches. These things don't come with convenient price tags, so we can't calculate the optimal approach by looking at the relative costs and payoffs.

I'm particularly skeptical of claims that the democratic system is so horribly broken in such fundamental ways that the optimal course is to carve out AnCapTopia someplace. Sure, when I see a plan that seems workable I'll be right there behind it, but as long as the cost-of-entry remains funding our own army to defend our borders when we secede, I'll be staying at home, writing letters to my congressmen, paying my taxes, and hiding my stash.

And my wife would get seasick living on a boat.

Podraza -- Forgive the

Podraza --

Forgive the tardiness of my reply.

The problem with insisting that the people will hold individual politicians accountable is created by the term limits. Term limits are likely to shift the focus to parties as the identifiable "brand," a fact that leaves us back at square one.

In my opinion, all term

In my opinion, all term limits will do is shift the power from politicians, who will hold their position for a finite period of time, half of which is spent campaigning for re-election (until the final term, that is...) the myriad of agency bureaucrats who are more entrenched, better organized and focuses, most likely "lifers", and more able to whether the storm of changing political trends.

With regard to the last

With regard to the last couple of posts, I think you may have missed the fundamental point of Matt's piece: individual politicans are largeless meaningless. The popper quote he cites is absolutely dead-on, and I was immediately drawn to matt's argument because it gets right what so many get wrong. In the early stages of a serious political reform using party identification as a proxy for political positions is an acceptable evil. The real issue is how we can achieve meaningful representation with regard to the issues which matter to us: not whether the representatives are grouped together under a party structure but what the positions of those reps or parties are. Now that's where I may part company with Matt, because I feel the fundamental issue of political reform is money in politics.

Attempting to stop the flow of money to politicians is a worthless and impossible short-term strategy (though it may be eventually achieved with serious changes in the activism of the body-politic.) The best short-term solution by far is a system of tax credits which would allow US citizens to compete in the funding of politicians. This would radically change the face of US politics, and would shift both parties unrecognizably to the left on nearly every major issue (splits on abortion and a few other non-business issues would remain roughly the same.)

There's much more to say on this issue, but again I'd like to commend Matt for putting forth the imminently defensible and true position that politics is not a matter of getting the right benign god into a position of power.

Matt S.

brief note: parties have the positive effect of limiting the information requirements of successful political participation. The electorate is shamefully uneducated with regard to the position of politicians (most Bush-voters think Bush is pro-Kyoto, for instance, according to a gallup poll.) As such an electorate which aligns itself with a party generally committed to the set of policies said electorate prefers is a vast improvement of an electorate that simply votes on the character traits of an individual candidate (as the huge majority of voters of both parties did.)

Matt27- Why on earth would


Why on earth would we ever want to shift both parties to the left? The right is wrong, but the left is poison.

Brian, Why on earth would we


Why on earth would we ever want to shift both parties to the left? ...

How about if they're both posing for a group picture on the rim of the Grand Canyon?

Regards, Don

Don- LOL. Ok, perhaps in


LOL. Ok, perhaps in that case...

Well Brian, you aren't

Well Brian, you aren't taking issue with the substance of my point. We certainly wouldn't make this change to tax credits with the intent of making the parties shift to the left, it would simply be an effect. The reasons for enacting tax credit policy would be that it increases meaningful self-determination by allowing people to participate more effectively in the political decisions that affect their lives. Meaningful self-determination is about the most important political goal I can think of- far more important than simple negative freedom. You might not want the parties to shift to the left, but that's niether here nor there. You can't argue against freedom and choice simply because the outcome wouldn't be to your liking.

BUT, just to be a bit more persuasive there would likely be some majorly libertarian-friendly effects. For one thing the potential efficacy of a movement like the free-state project would vastly increase, and there would arguably be potential for a state of affairs more closely resembling that of the Nozickian smorgasbord of varying govts. A serious attempt to curb federal and state subsidies (which, by the way are huge for "neo-randian heros" like Wal-Mart) would be far more successful and the market would thereby be rendered far more competitive presumably for the benefit of all. Wait a second... why am I trying to talk a libertarian into a system of tax credits? Shouldn't you have taken one look at the proposal and given it your stamp of approval, given that it gives you some tax money back and therefore puts less of a "gun to people's heads"? ANYWAY...

Overall, electorate politics currently resembles the dumpster out back of Morton's Steakhouse; we the voters can have our pick of things that the rich and elite people feel aren't important (abortion being a real world example.) A system of tax credits would give us a seat in the restaurant, and with that newfound power to select serious things, we'd probably experience a much more serious marketplace of ideas debate. Given the high level of rationality I've seen many Libertarians exhibit (including you and Don, not withstanding your two responses on the thread thus far) that could be very beneficial for your body of thought indeed.


Matt27: A few points. First,

A few points. First, "self-determination," as you use it, is highly misleading term. No doubt you include in the right of "self-determination" the right of some people to impose their will on others through, e.g., confiscatory taxation. But that's not self-determination---it's other-determination. As true liberals, we enthusiastically endorse true self-determination, but we abhor the other-determination of which you speak.

I don't care whether shifting the government to the left is the goal or simply a side effect of a more democratic process. The point is that I don't want it to happen. I don't care about democracy as an end in itself---if more democracy means more socialism, then I want less democracy. Besides, if money is as important a factor in politics as you think---if the people are so easily swayed by flashy advertising---doesn't that prove that they're not fit to govern?

Tax credits are great as long as the money for the credits is taken out of government spending, but you know as well as I that that wouldn't happen. The government would either raise marginal rates or borrow more money, and we'd end up with the government spending just as much money while further constraining the ways in which we can spend the money it doesn't take. And if the ultimate result is to move the government far to the left and increase taxes and spending even more, then your tax credits are just a Trojan horse.

Berg: No doubt you include


No doubt you include in the right of “self-determination” the right of some people to impose their will on others through, e.g., confiscatory taxation. But that’s not self-determination—it’s other-determination.

I think you've got this all wrong. We can debate the finer points of theoretical democracy if you like, but we're talking about practical improvements in the now. Since that's the case, the issue is relative self-determination- "relative" to our current level. Given that we have a minimal voice in the political process, anything that increases that voice in an egalitarian manner increases meaningful self-determination. If you'd like to change the gov't from a democracy you can try and do that and your cause will be aided by your increased ability to participate in politics. You'd have to be really indoctrinated not to see this: if our current system allows for "other-determination" on behalf of only a small group of individuals, then a system that allows for "other-determination" on behalf of everyone would be a major improvement. Certainly having somewhat of a say is better than not having one.

As true liberals, we enthusiastically endorse true self-determination, but we abhor the other-determination of which you speak.

this is precisely what libertarianism does not do. Your theories speak of negative freedoms, but you're willing to rationalize limiting meaningful self-determination. For instance, if you don't like your job that pays 12 cents an hour you're "free" to quit and starve to death. That's freedom without self-determination, and that's a state of affairs you Libs are constantly rationalizing (I bet you'll throw an attempt at me right now, in fact.)

The point is that I don’t want it to happen.

and you may let your voice ring out in a far more malleable marketplace of ideas.

I don’t care about democracy as an end in itself—if more democracy means more socialism, then I want less democracy.

I doubt it will mean this- if you look at the polls regarding what gov't spending people genuinely want to see vs. what they want to see decreased, you wouldn't wind up with more socialism at all. There'd probably be tax decreases in fact, as that's a genuinely popular position, unattainable simply because the corporations you so admire love sucking the teat of the corporate nanny-state. My guess is that the corresponding decrease in corporate welfare and spending on national defense would outweigh the increased spending on education and health care. That would make the government less socialist but further to the left. No contradiction there.

Besides, if money is as important a factor in politics as you think—if the people are so easily swayed by flashy advertising—doesn’t that prove that they’re not fit to govern?

Money sets the constraints of policy and prevents a candidate from coming forward to represent meaningful issues supported by the vast majority of the population. It's not just about fooling poeple- it's mostly about preventing a legitimate option.

Tax credits are great as long as the money for the credits is taken out of government spending, but you know as well as I that that wouldn’t happen. The government would either raise marginal rates or borrow more money, and we’d end up with the government spending just as much money while further constraining the ways in which we can spend the money it doesn’t take.

we don't know this at all, and assuming it was true we could immediately seek to make changes in the budget 2 years down the road when we got our say. Again, higher taxes is not a popular position unless it's attached to a meaningful benefit- aren't you constantly arguing that people want what libertarians want- lower taxes, lower consumer prices; a free market utopia? I think your argument here is revealing more about your confidence in the popularity (and therefore the reality) of your political opinions than perhaps you'd like.

Look, if you aren't confident that people genuinely want some sort of libertarian utopia and that you couldn't convince them of this under a more rational system then I suppose your support of libertarianism would make you some sort of fascist. Are you a fascist?

man I really hope my

man I really hope my response is just being held for moderation, because it was almost as melodramatic as my response to Dave. You'd really be missing out, B.