Arnold Kling  

Faith in Leaders

An Outside Perspective on GMU... Dissing Ethanol...

In my latest TCS essay, I write,

Democracy does not lead to particularly good choices. Most successful institutions in society are not democratic.

...For me, the value of democracy is that it provides a check on government officials. The fact that leaders can be tossed out by popular vote helps to limit their abuse of power. Democracy gives the people the power to toss out the bums.

We should not assume, however, that we are going to replace the bums with anything better.

Along the same lines, Richard M. Ebeling writes,

In the free society—in which government is confined
to the essential but limited functions of protecting
life, liberty, and property—politicians and bureaucrats
have no assigned “leadership” role. Their function is far
more modest, though useful: seeing that each of us is left
free from violence and fraud to direct his own life as he
considers best and most fulfilling.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (10 to date)

I feel this article somewhat misses the point - indeed it has more than a touch of mandarin weariness and disdain about it, or else technocratic superiority. Either way it is unworthy of a libertarian modernizer like AK.

AK says: "Democracy does not lead to particularly good choices. Most successful institutions in society are not democratic."

The point should be : Most successful _societies_ are democratic. And the time frame of political change is very slow - decades rather than years. Democracy is just like science or sports tournaments, but slower. And voters _are_ the experts on government: voters are not always right but they are certainly preferable to mandarins or technocrats, who are almost always wrong.

Brad Hutchings writes:

I think misses the point on a whole other level. Look, there are a lot of ways that individuals can participate as partisans in Congressional elections.

(1) You can vote. If the R or the D is going to win your district regardless of your vote, then holding your vote hostage is just show. I live in a district (Chris Cox's old district) where the R will win. No idea what Arnold's situation is, but I suspect his district is a safe D.

(2) You can volunteer or send money to other districts. If this is something you have regularly done and you decide not to because your party is degenerating into a power hungry joke, then that makes a statement. If it's not something you do anyway, then threatening continued apathy is kinda hollow.

(3) You can root for a national party to win enough seats to have control. This is where I think Arnold is playing, rooting against the Republicans where he might have rooted for them in previous recent elections. Fair enough, although I sense in this article a little wiggle room for eventually saying "you Republicans suck, but I'm holding my nose and rooting for you a little".

The point is that this election is district by district politics. Nobody is going to tally up the total votes for R's and compare to the total votes for D's. OK, so someone will, but I doubt they are going to be able to make any kind of statement about the Iraq War from that tally. Maybe from the exit polls, which only count in editing the victory speeches.

As for what I'm rooting for... I don't know. I see Newt and Dick Armey duking it out on the sidelines for future influence in the direction of the party. I think Newt is far more articulate and passionate, while Armey is right. I also think Newt is far more capable of pulling off any kind of an agenda. Armey spent his time in charge fighting with Archer over flat tax vs. sales tax. Armey, fighting for small-l libertarian principles, comes off on TV as mean and ornery. Newt, shamelessly kissing up to the Christian right, comes off as likable. I guess I'm rooting for them to get together and apply Newt's passion to Dick's plan. Whether it takes a loss of the House to make that happen or not, I don't care. I do hope that the R's keep the Senate. A divided Congress is better than an all D Congress.

Bob Smith writes:

As a student of economics/theology/history, I would argue that the best argument for representative republican democracy is the War of the Roses. Actually, I'm channeling W. Churchill's "History of the Engllish Speaking People." From the usurpation of Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV) to the death of Richard III by Henry Tudor (Henry VII) the flower of the English nobility are either slaughtered in battle or executed. The only aspect of rule by representative republican democracy that is superior to rule by aristocracy is this: the issue of succession. While a moral argument can be made for RRD, it doesn't guarantee superior leaders or superior decisions. I don't think I need to list examples here. I agree with Mr. Charlton, most successful societies are democratic, but I believe that it's due to our/their avoidance of societal bloodshed and economic dislocation on a fairly regular basis, rather than some sort of moral superiority.

Ragerz writes:

Kling writes:

"The libertarian view is that private institutions, both for-profit and non-profit, are better at problem-solving than government institutions."

To which I ask. Better for whom? Better for the people who end up unemployed to stop inflation?? Better for the people who have inadequate medical care due to lack of resources while resources are devoted for a private jet so Oprah can commute from California to Chicago? Are private institutions better at solving the problem of national defense? Are private institutions better at solving the problem of crime? Are private institutions better at solving the problem of externalities? Are private institutions better at enforcing property rights? Are private institutions better at enforcing contracts? Better for whom???

"Democracy does not lead to particularly good choices." Well, what exactly constitutes a "good choice?" The examples of institutions that lead to "good choices" according to Kling are chess tournaments and tennis tournaments. But do they really lead to "good choices." I would say they lead to "irrelevant choices" instead. In the bigger scheme of things, who really cares who happens to be better at chess or tennis in the year 2006??

Next, Kling asserts that he is fond of the scientific method as a means of making good decisions. But that isn't exactly right. The scientific method along with non-scientific creativity may result in a new invention, such as a nuclear weapon. But the scientific method certainly does not tell us whether it would be "good" to use a nuclear weapon. Science is not about "ought," rather it is about "is." As far as "ought" goes, science is not particularly useful.

Overall, Kling has chosen institutions that make either irrelevant decisions, or make decisions about "is" as examples of institutions that make "good decisions." In both cases, he has chosen institutions that make "positive choices," ie. Who is the best chess player, how do we understand how the world is. He has not given us any examples of institutions that make good normative decisions. Guess what, good normative decisions are a lot harder than good positive decisions.

Overall, Kling's point is irrelevant. Unless he shows us a non-democratic institution that makes superior normative decisions, he has utterly failed to make a relevant argument about the merits of democracy. His argument that we should focus on "damage control" is entirely dependent on the assumption that as a normative matter, we are better off accepting the status quo. That all government actions will make us worse off, from a normative perspective. But as has been shown, Kling has utterly failed to make a normative argument.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Ragerz writes: "Better for the people who have inadequate medical care due to lack of resources while resources are devoted for a private jet so Oprah can commute from California to Chicago?"

Kinda begs the question of whether the resources that are used to keep you connected to the Internet might be better used to help the kids of Elbonia who will probably have to eat their dogs to survive this winter. Doesn't it?

Also begs the question of whether the pilots, airplane mechanics, fuel suppliers, catering companies, etc. would be better off if you parked Oprah's jet and turned it into a hospital for the undercared. I'd suppose not.

If you would just ask, "what can we do about the poor?" and invoke a comparison to the well off, there is a whole bunch that libertarians have to say. But if you insist on invoking government force to play Robin Hood, well, you're the enemy... And if history is a guide you're probably not going to be very efficient and only marginally effective at helping the plight of the poor.

Ragerz writes:


Whether you agree in government redistribution or not, you still must agree that the question "Better for whom?" is a valid question when evaluating the statement, "Private institutions make better decisions."

Finally, you cannot say that libertarians really are against Robin Hood. They are for Robin Hood, as long as it benefits them.

Why should X be coerced into paying taxes to provide police protection to protect the property of Y? Perhaps X is perfectly happy with his own ability to protect his own property, and does not wish police protection himself. Yet, most libertarians would advocate the coercive taking of property from X to pay for police protection.

Or how about this. Why should X pay taxes to help pay for a court to settle a contract dispute between A and B? Perhaps X doesn't use contracts much, and if he does, would never think of enforcing them in court, relying instead on the honor and reputation of those with whom he deals. Nonetheless, most libertarians would believe it is quite right to coerce X to pay for a court system to enforce contracts.

These are all Robin Hood mechanisms. They take from X to benefit someone else. So, if you want to see "the enemy," maybe you should look in the mirror and reflect on the degree that you yourself advocate "stealing" from your neighbor.

- Ragerz, the ex-libertarian

Brad Hutchings writes:


The problem with your argument is one of context. Having a court system that gives us a semblance of rule of law rather than law of the jungle is far less expensive per person than guaranteeing "adequate medical care". Perhaps your concept of equity would require that rich people have posses of armed thugs rather than posses of Harvard Lawyers. I'd prefer the latter as poor people sometimes have a chance against lawyers when the law is on their side, but they always have the same terrible reaction to bullets.

A sensible libertarian would look at your suggestion that Oprah's jet is a poor use of resources when some people don't have adequate medical care and be opposed to that level of suggested redistribution, but be comfortable with funding the court system. Funny you bring up the court system, because a popular recent reform is "loser pays", a reform that moves more and more litigation to privately funded arbitration, and to some degree offsets the costs of providing the courts. Perhaps you would apply the same concept to health care. Call it "sick people pay". I'm sure it would be popular, especially among the poor.

But the mistake that you make in your criticism of small-l libertarians is that you think we all have to agree with David Friedman's anarcho-capitalist approach. It's an interesting worldview, but frankly, I'd be happy if in the next 2 years, we had private accounts for Social Security, repealed No Child Left Behind, and at least recognized the age at which all people who are younger will get absolutely screwed by the Medicate unfunded mandate. Let's move some power out of government and into the hands of the people. That would make my small-l libertarian heart bleed a little again.

Oprah can keep her plane of course. She drives a Pontiac, right? Now, if you'd suggested George Clooney's plane (that's a link if you can't see it), I might be with you.

Ragerz writes:


Okay, so if I understand you correctly, it is not that you are against Robin Hood redistribution. It is that you are against it when Robin Hood costs "too much."

Which is fine, except then you shouldn't call me "the enemy" when your principles don't fundamentally differ from mine. At most, our differences amount to a question of what is "too much" redistribution, rather than whether or not we should have redistribution. That is merely a question of degree, not a matter worthy of labeling someone your enemy.

As far as Oprah goes, I am not really advocating taking away her private jet. Rather, the focus of my point is that when you say that private institutions make "better decisions" allocating resources, the question arises, "better for whom?" A further question arises, "better in what contexts?" Apparently, Kling feels that government allocation of resources is in fact better when it comes to enforcing property rights. So, the question arises, what principles seperate this context from other contexts where Kling would claim that private institutions make "better decisions."

Kling has really failed to back up his claim that democracy leads to unusually poor decisions, or delineate any principles that would lead us to differentiate the contexts when government decisions making is superior to decision-making by private institutions. You have likewise not done so. All I know is that you favor coercing X to pay to protect Y's property, but you don't approve of coercing X to pay to provide Y with preventative medical care. There is no reason to think that protecting Y's property from theft is more important than protecting Y from preventable diseases. So, I presume that is not a matter of the importance of protecting property versus health that distinguishes the two cases in your mind. From what I gather, it is simply a matter of you thinking that it costs "too much" to pay for preventative medical care, compared to protecting property. But then, you have failed to really articulate how much is "too much." What is the value you attach to the life of Y, if Y happens to avoid a preventable disease due to access to government-subsidized preventative care? How does this compare to the value of protecting Y's property? And how do we know when something costs "too much?"

Overall, while I do not approve of Oprah's decision to waste scarce social resources commuting from California to Chicago via private jet, she in particular would be far from my first target of criticism. At the very least, she has devoted a significant portion of the considerable social resources she controls to good causes. As of right now, I am not advocating any policies to redistribute wealth from people similarly situated to Oprah, despite the evidence of a large amount of wasteful consumption of social resources. I am merely using this example to point out that Kling has a huge gaping hole in his article to the extent that he has failed to flesh out what exactly constitutes a "better decision." And I further noted that Kling needs to address these issues from a normative perspective. It is one thing to say that chess tournaments and tennis tournaments make decent positive decisions concerning who is better at chess or tennis. Likewise, it is one thing to say that the scientific method provides better positive explanations of the physical world. It is quite another to show that there is a better mechanism to make normative decisions other than democracy.

Brad Hutchings writes:


And my point is that if you have an opinion on Oprah's use of "social resources" one way or another and you want to translate that into political action, I'd similarly like to target your use of "social resources" in both time and material to post such drivel and redirect it to saving Elbonian children. If we're gonna play that game with Oprah, then let's play it with you ;-). They are her legally acquired resources to dispose of as she wishes, not yours to regulate.

And we do not necessarily agree except on magnitude of government redistribution. I am saying that given the context of today, I would be happier with much less, not _happiest_ with some particular achievable state which is less. I might be even happier with even less, but politically, I support what gets me happier, not necessarily happiest. That's called being practical.

Ragerz writes:


Here is why I disagree with you. As opposed to me taking my own time to make a silly and trivial post, Oprah's conspicious consumption consumes the time of others. You may argue that she "provides them with employment" but I would argue she does no such thing. This is like saying that the tax code "provides" employment to tax lawyers. On some level this is true. But on a deeper level, all the tax code is divert the efforts of these lawyers from a useful to a useless activity. Instead of producing something truly valuable, they are simply playing games with the tax code. If the tax code were simpler, it is not the case that all these tax lawyers would lose their jobs and be unemployed forever. Rather, their efforts would shift to more productive uses. Likewise, if there were less Oprah's galavanting around in private jets, the engineers and mechanics efforts would be shifted to more useful tasks. As anyone who studies macroeconomics realizes, the rate of unemployment is purposely, albeit indirectly, manipulated to control inflation. In this environment, it is not correct to attribute to any single employer the creation of jobs. Employers exist in a system whereby if any particular employer ceased to exist, their employees would become unemployed and thereby help keep labor markets from becoming too tight. Something that the Federal Reserve is going to ensure happens to somebody when inflation is on the horizon anyway. (And inflation will always be on the horizon if unemployment becomes too low.)

The point here is that Oprah's conspicious consumption has consequences that extend far beyond herself. Her extravagant consumption is actively controlling how many people spend their working lives. She (and much more significantly, those similarly situated to her) thereby makes these people's efforts unavailable for better uses.

In an economy, it is not all about one person. Someone like Bill Gates controls tremendous social resources. But his efforts alone were not sufficient to create those resources. The thing we call Microsoft is not the product of one individual, it is the product of a very large team.

It comes down to this: With power comes responsibility. It is not as if one's actions and inactions do not have consequences for oneself and others. This is true even when I waste time commenting. But it is orders of magnitudes more significant when you talk about a single individual determining how others will be employed.

It is one thing for a person to control their own time. That is called autonomy. It is very much another for them to control other people's time. That is called power.

"They are her legally acquired resources to dispose of as she wishes, not yours to regulate."

This point is a bit silly. The law allows regulation, just as it allows property acquisition. This is a mere statement of your desired result lacking in normative justification.

-Ragerz, the ex-libertarian

P.S. Your point about how me spending my time here commenting is well taken. Occasionally, I get in the mood to make such comments. However, recognizing that the importance of such comments is de minimis compared to other things I could be doing with my time, I will be shifting to other activities. My heavy commenting here lately is an aberration.

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