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Birth of a libertarian – but not an anarchist

New study shows that, contrary to my recollection, kids don’t resist all rules. They generally go along with rules related to safety, morality and even social norms. However, kids in a wide range of cultures develop a sense of autonomy (about friends, clothes, etc.) and resist rules that they perceive as infringing on that autonomy.

On von Mises and human motivation

Forgive me if I've posted this here before; I can't remember.

Shamelessly ripping off Mark’s comment:

Being able to imagine a world better than the one we live in is not a bug, its a feature. Its how we take the world we are born into and start to adapt it to the one we want.

We call contentment or satisfaction that state of a human being which does not and cannot result in any action. Acting man is eager to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory. His mind imagines conditions which suit him better, and his action aims at bringing about this desired state. The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness. A man perfectly content with the state of his affairs would have no incentive to change things. He would have neither wishes nor desires; he would be perfectly happy. He would not act; he would simply live free from care.

--Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, p. 13

Just make sure you don't fall into a trap of despair. Von Mises' next paragraph shows the problem with this:

But to make a man act, uneasiness and the image of a more satisfactory state alone are not sufficient. A third condition is required: the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness. In the absence of this condition no action is feasible. Man must yield to the inevitable. He must submit to destiny.

Intriguing – these statements seem to mesh well with my understanding of contemporary psyc research.

Regarding the first von Mises paragraph above: If we were content, would we stop acting? Apparently. If you give a rodent a button that delivers a dose of dopamine on demand, the rodent will just push the button endlessly – ignoring all other things, such as sex, food or even sleep – until it dies.

Regarding the second paragraph: Harvard psyc prof Daniel Gilbert (author of Stumbling on Happiness) conducts research on “affective forecasting” – that is, our ability to predict how we will feel in the future if we do X rather than Y. In a nutshell, humans seem to be systemically LOUSY at this. Our minds are filled with ideas about how great our lives will be if we could just get that job, or how devastated we would be if we lost a limb. Yet the bulk of research suggests that people have a natural “set point” of happiness, and we tend to regress to that point. Certain phenomena do correlate with improved affect – having religious faith, avoiding poverty, having a marriage and social networks (but not having kids!). But most things we worry about have little long-term consequence to our happiness.

So why would humans have this curious systemic “defect”? It suggests that there’s something adaptive about being wrong. What could that be? One hypothesis is that the adaptive feature is motivation. By having an exaggerated sense about the potential risks and rewards of future events, we become more motivated to shape those events.

This has some curious implications for libertarianism:

1) People, left to their own devices, will make choices that predictably will make them less happy than they could be. In other words, you can seek to maximize freedom or maximize happiness, but not both.

2) The more discontent people are, the more adamantly they will seek change – regardless of whether the change they demand has any relationship to their discontentment. This creates problems for small government advocates because, especially during emergencies, the public will clamor for their leaders to “Do something!” even if the something is weakly correlated with the emergency. Sometimes the “something” will be to shrink government. But more often, it’s the opposite. And a humble acknowledgement that there’s little to be done and patient restraint would be the best policy – that’s never an option.

Arguably some of the New Deal programs were popular not because they did much to mitigate the effects of the Great Depression, but because they LOOKED like they were doing something about the effects of the Great Depression. Roosevelt riding around, visiting the Hoover Dam and CCC projects, created a great narrative, and he was a great narrator.

Similarly, during the OPEC oil embargo and the resulting stagflation, the public kicked out every president that came along, and voted against the Reagan-led Republican Party during Reagan’s first mid-term, in a perennial mood of “throw the bums out.” Only after OPEC collapsed and the economy revived after the 1982 midterms did the public begin electing presidents for two terms again.

The public threw George HW Bush out of office when the economy turned bad at the end of his first (and only ) term. Gore lost to W when the economy dipped. And W nearly became the first wartime president to get kicked out of office. I suspect W was spared his father’s fate only through the felicitous/strategic choice to begin a war in Iraq – a place that, unlike Afghanistan, would have targets to destroy, terrain to capture, and periodic symbols of progress.

With a terrible economy, I expect Democrats will lose seats in 2010 (unless Obama starts a new war to rally around?). But assuming the economy revives by 2012, Obama will be claiming that all his stimulus spending has made the difference. Accurate or not, it’s a narrative. Republicans will argue that they actually should be given credit for improving the economy because … they restrained Obama from making things worse? Not much of a narrative, even if true.

The public clamored for change, and change occurred. Much like Reagan got the benefit of the economy’s revival when OPEC collapsed, I expect Obama will get credit for the economy’s revival in 2012. And the public will be reaffirmed in its belief that political leaders can actually mange the economy.

3. Von Mises and Gibert seem to point to a common conclusion: happiness is maladaptive. The individual that is most likely to pass on genes to the next generation is the discontented, and therefore active, individual.

Query: So what? Does the fact that something is adaptive make it virtuous? Consider the rodent on the dopamine drip. Lacking external constraints, it has freedom to refrain from pushing the dopamine button. Yet it chooses that option. It seems to be maximizing its utility. Should we not all emulate the rodent?

Seems like an icky outcome. Yet I don’t see why I could feel that way unless I value something more highly than the freedom of the individual to choose how to live his own life. The fact that I would reject that kind of life suggests I believe people have some kind of duty higher than the duty to pursue their own choices. I’m still struggling with this.

I’ll see your Friedman, and raise you.

Richard Friedman’s in the NYT? Big deal.

We’ve got PATRI FRIEDMAN on the NYT’s Freakonomics Blog and podcast! The theme is “What if economists ran the world?” (Just scroll down/fast forward a bit; he’s squeezed in between the Estonian prime minister and the ultra-high-end call girl. Location, location, location….)

Even Boulder Prediction

Someone’s gonna get a bad case of poison ivy.

On Populism

Micha Ghertner notes media accounts of bigotry among the Tea Partiers. As I noted in that context, this phenomenon doesn’t strike me as unique to the Tea Party; rather, the practice of organizing around a common enemy is the hallmark of populism.

Thus, I expect contemporary conservative gatherings to attract a following from people motivated by animosity against ethnic minorities, religious minorities, sexual minorities, etc. Because these people have a justifiable fear that the prevalence of their world view is declining, they may well be among the most energized people at conservative gatherings. Similarly, I suspect that liberal gatherings attract Communists and people who regard riches as the sole capital offense.

I don’t think these dynamics to say much about conservatism or liberalism. But they do speak to the political “marketplace of ideas.”

Both liberals and conservatives can marshal principled reasons for their positions – well, “principled” by their own standards, anyway. Those principles speak to a certain segment of the electorate. And then we’re left with elections being driven by people who are not motivated by those principles. So politicians go around eating the local burritos and kissing the local babies and otherwise trying to appeal to people on some other-than-principled basis.

Among the strongest of these bases is appealing to people’s sense of grievance. During war every government beats the drums about the harms that the government’s opponents are inflicting on the public. Those rapacious Jews! Those dirty Japs! Those fanatical Islamists! Those cowardly conscientious objectors! It’s us vs. them!

A large component of the hippy movement involved a populist revolt against the war in Viet Nam. ("Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming; we're finally on our own...!") Nixon was able to flip the white South to the Republican camp by conveying the idea that Democrats were sacrificing their interests to the interests of blacks. I suspect that Carter, Reagan, Clinton, W. and Obama were able to win office in large part based on populist disenchantment with their predecessors, distinct from a positive statement about their own merits or agenda.

Obama has given frequent speeches about the problems that the aging population will create for the future, and for the federal budget in particular. Whatever the merits of these discussions, they did little to motivate people who were not already motivated. So then he started playing the populist card: Those health insurance execs are evil! Their gouging us with rate increases! It’s us vs. them! While insurance creates an unavoidable Moral Hazard problem – and nothing in the health care reform bill will eliminate that – I understand that health insurers were actually one of the few market forces that succeeded in moderating the growth of health-care spending. So, in his drive to push the health care bill, I suspect Obama has been flogging his friends in order to whip up the crowds. If the public needs a morality play, we’ll give them one.

Similarly, arguments about the need to avoid certain abuses in the financial markets are all very nice and intellectual, but are going nowhere. But whip up a little populist resentment about bonuses paid by investment banks and – well, it’s probably still going nowhere. But that’s the most effective lever Obama’s got. And once health care is off the table I expect we’ll see more of it.

So with the Republicans out of power, their best hope to influence public policy is to appeal to populism. Oh, now Republicans are deeply concerned about deficits; that’s what the crowd wants to hear. We dare not grant civil rights to those accused of terrorism; the Republicans are the only thing that stands between you and terrorists attending your schools! And Republicans want no part in negotiating public policy with the Obama Administration; that would muddle the clear Us vs. Them narrative.

Populism is the One Ring of Power: it may help you achieve your objectives, but you get a little more evil every time you use it. For better or worse, populism is the only tool the Republicans have right now, so they need to don the Ring a lot, even in counter-intuitive ways. As I noted before, the Republican leadership has positioned itself as the true defenders of Medicare. Oy.

But once the Republicans return to actual power -- and they may take control of the House in November -- they'll have to do some actual governing. And then the populists will feel betrayed because the simple narrative will no longer apply.

On Democrats, Republican, and Voting – 127th edition

Golly, it’s been months since the last general election – time enough to drag out this old chestnut: After noting a bit of Democratic union pandering, Jacob Lyles remarks,

I doubt that I can ever vote for a Democrat without breaking out in hives....

which prompts me to ponder what afflictions attend his votes for other parties.

On voting, I basically see two options: 1) vote for the candidate that will always do what I would do, or 2) vote for the lesser of evils. Option 1 requires that I write in my own name (or perhaps engage in some studied ignorance combined with wishful thinking). Option 2 requires me to candidly acknowledge that life is full of trade-offs, go through my pouty period, and get on with it.

As far as I can tell, all successful politics is coalition politics. As Lord Acton remarked, "At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own...." You can have purity, you can have victory, but you can’t have both.

Yes, the Democrats are beholden to unions and trial lawyers. However, these ties have not kept Obama from proposing a tax on the “Cadillac health plans” included in some union contracts, and his substitute proposal for No Child Left Behind that focus both rewards and punishments on teachers; nor have they kept Obama from putting tort reform on the table.

And what’s the lesser evil? As F.A. Hayek remarked in Why I Am Not a Conservative,

Unlike liberalism, with its fundamental belief in the long-range power of ideas, conservatism is bound by the stock of ideas inherited at a given time. And since it does not really believe in the power of argument, its last resort is generally a claim to superior wisdom, based on some self-arrogated superior quality.

[T]he most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it - or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism.... I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution....

Connected with the conservative distrust of the new and the strange is its hostility to internationalism and its proneness to a strident nationalism.... The growth of ideas is an international process, and only those who fully take part in the discussion will be able to exercise a significant influence. It is no real argument to say that an idea is un-American....

[T]he anti-internationalism of conservatism is so frequently associated with imperialism. [T]he more a person dislikes the strange and thinks his own ways superior, the more he tends to regard it as his mission to "civilize" others....

And Hayek wrote that in 1960! (If Texas teachers remove all their Jefferson quotes from their walls, at least they can put up this quote in their place.)

When it comes to picking the lesser of evils, I regard Republican crony capitalism, loopy public finances and paranoid fundamentalist nationalism as the greater threat.

Ayn Rand’s genius….

…was not in making a philosophy, but in selling it. Can you do as well?

This year’s ThinkOff debate topic is, “Do the wealthy have an obligation to help the poor?” They’re looking for a pool of 750-word essays from which to pick two champions for each side of the proposition for a live debate.

Easy-peasy, right? Here’s the real challenge: The judges ain’t lookin’ for a dry exchange of talking points comparing Objectivism to Rawlsianism. They’re looking for people with COMPELLING PERSONAL STORIES to illustrate their own arguments.

Now, it’s not hard to imagine lots of compelling personal stories from poor (or formerly poor) people about how they benefited from wealth transfers from the rich, or how they didn’t get those transfers and suffered as a result. Can you construct a countervailing compelling personal story for the opposite perspective? And having constructed it, can you think of a champion who could plausibly claim the story as his or her own? Some alternatives:

1. Find a real-life John Galt who is as succinct as Ayn Rand was verbose.

2. Draft Patri. Admittedly, I know nothing of his personal circumstances, although I suspect that everybody’s life story has SOMETHING that could be told. No, I nominate Patri because of his personal commitment to Seasteading movement – action with inherent drama. So we’d need a brief personal anecdote somehow related to the topic, and immediately transition into describing the life of the new frontiersmen. Recreating the story of the Pilgrims but without the Indians. Risking lives, fortunes, sacred honor in pursuit of the ideals of liberty. Hell, it writes itself.

3. As a fall-back position, there are various ways to criticize the “OBLIGATION to help the poor.” While I can’t think of how to mount an appealing attack on the concept of compassion in 750 words, I can drive a wedge between the idea of compassion and the idea of obligation.

A. “People with the discipline to change themselves are laudable – and rare. For most of us, change becomes possible only when we must confront the consequences of our refusal to change. X% of American adults living in poverty do so because of mental illness, chemical addiction, etc. -- circumstances that cannot be solved with money alone. For people with these issues, an entitlement to a stream of resources merely delays the day of reckoning and the possibility of reformation and growth. As the director of Alcoholics Anonymous – and a recovering alcoholic myself – I know the harm that can be done by a misguided sense of obligation….”

B. “As the principle fundraiser for Catholic Charities, the first thing I want to tell parishioners is to stop feeling guilty -- and among Catholics, that’s a hard message to sell! But I repeat, if you feel even the slightest resentment about contributing, please keep your money. That kind of contribution will not only diminish your own life and vitality, it will diminish the welfare of the poor. Today more families than ever are struggling with financial and other stresses. On top of this, they struggle with a sense of inadequacy for coming to us during their hours of need. We don’t want to compound their problems by subjecting them to a free-floating sense of resentment from the rest of society. So Just Say No to obligation. God loves the cheerful giver!”

C. “As a former Klansman, I can tell you that nothing is eroding the foundations of our society more than the widespread sense of resentment felt by people who feel that they’ve been compelled to help the poor. And because a disproportionate number of poor people are also members of ethnic minority groups, this resentment is fueling racism. If we as a society ever want to get serious about our real obligations – that is, our obligations to remedy the harms of racism – then we need to stop stoking resentment against members of minority groups. Don’t be fooled: while the Klan is currently – and blissfully -- in decline, the Tea Party Movement is now expressing this popular frustration more forcefully than ever….”

4. If the link between compassion and obligation is too great to be overcome in 750 words, then the next best position may be to whipsaw the argument: “Yes, the rich have an obligation to help the poor, just as the poor have an obligation to help the rich. We all have an obligation to use our resources for the betterment of society in general. But an obsessive concern with the resources of the rich – that is, with money -- reflects a misguided sense of envy. As the director of the Organ Donor Repository, I’m in a position to observe that people’s feelings about the duty that the rich owe the poor are not generally reciprocated. People who have signed up to donate organs, volunteer for a bone marrow transplant, or even give blood are overwhelmingly upper class. If we’re all in this together, let’s act like it. No more excuses!”

Those are a few ideas that leapt to mind. Whadda you got?

Deadline is April 1, no foolin'.

Government: Save me from myself!


[I]f we were to think about raising taxes on cigarettes, we would typically say raising the price is bad for people who smoke, right? But there's a little bit more going on. Lots of people actually want to quit. So we might ask, is it possible to improve welfare by raising cigarette taxes? A pair of economists Jon Gruber and Sendhil Mullainathan found that excise taxes make potential smokers happier. The intuition is that because some people actually quit smoking when the price goes up, they are made better off. And so it is possible to improve welfare by raising a tax that encourages us to kick bad habits.

Of Property and Parking

Libertarian theory, being grounded in property rights, sometimes founders in the question of how a person establishes an initial claim to property. By what authority can anyone claim an exclusive right to land? Yet in the absence of the right to exclude, what incentive do people have to expend resources improving land?

While I've often pondered these questions on a theoretical level, I hadn’t realized how they are being fought out, day by day, in the very streets of America.