Arnold Kling  

The Soldier and the Capitalist

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How does the liberal elite view the American military? It seems to me that they view the military as a group of basically evil men, inclined to torture and commit war crimes. It would be better if we could do without a military, but they are ok as long as a good guy from the liberal elite is President, selecting their missions and controlling their excesses.

How does the liberal elite view entrepreneurs and business leaders? It seems to me that they view capitalists as a group of basically evil men, inclined to exploit workers and rip off consumers. It would be better if we could do without capitalists, but they are ok as long as good guys from the liberal elite are in power, delegating tasks to markets only when appropriate and regulating capitalists to control their excesses.

To me, the main insight of economists like Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, is that differences in the inclinations of people to do good or evil are not so large. Instead, institutional differences matter more. Conveying that insight is a challenge.

Responding to that challenge, Russ Roberts' new novel, The Price of Everything, is now available. I praised it here and here. Let me praise it again. Roberts' first chapter plunges right into the issue of the morality of price gouging after a natural disaster. This issue is as current as today's news, as Russ notes regarding Tropical storm Fay.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (33 to date)
john writes:

I think your point is interesting, especially that about the liberal view on businesses. But, hardly any liberals I know (myself included) think that the military is anything less than a group of loyal Americans following a (misguided) President's orders. Please don't make a caricature of us...

burger flipper writes:

Wow.
This post really makes me want to hear the views that led you to label yourself, cheekily I think, "a xenophobe about Islamic radicals."

Arnold Kling writes:

John,
Military recruiters have been persona non grata on college campuses since long before the Bush Administration.

I don't know how all liberal elites view the military but the difference seems to be that the military are given weapons and authorized to murder people. As are the police. Any contempt towards the military and police seems like a good thing to me.

Once we convince them to be like entrepreneurs and businessmen then they'll be libertarians, basically.

john writes:

I don't want to go off from your main point based on that one example, but I think many liberals try to push off military recruiters because:

a) They generally don't like war, so they don't want to encourage students to join the military. That doesn't mean that they dislike anyone who chooses to join the military, but they often think that the military is not being used properly.

b) They have animosity toward Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

c) (Liberal) Professors are more likely to push students into careers that are similar to their own. My guess is that many colleges wouldn't encourage students to go into business if it weren't for the hefty alumni donations that they get in return.

I understand your point--that liberals generally don't agree with the way the military is used, and, for that matter, violence in general. But in a world where there are many violent people, most liberals respect the military and what they volunteer to do.

MouseJunior writes:

This member of the liberal elite tends to believe that (at the enlisted level) the military consists in large part of assholes who desperately need the regimented, hierarchical structure of the military to stay out of jail.

Of course, that would be the result of my non-elite youth: born a military brat, grew up on a series of bases around enlisted men and women and their kids, and spent my first few years post-high school working at odd jobs on bases.

But hey, I'm part of the liberal elite now, so I was obviously hallucinating the first 22 years of my life and am wrong.

Chuck writes:

I liked Ezra Klein's discussion of difference between liberals and libertarians. It does not address the military or 'capitalists' so much, but it touches on the notion that institutions matter:

DO SOCIAL DEMOCRATS AND LIBERTARIANS DISAGREE ON HUMAN BEHAVIOR?

Tyler Cowen seems surprised by my assumption that he and I have divergent beliefs about human behavior.... Namely, as I understand Tyler's worldview, he thinks individuals are a whole lot more rational and economically capable than I do. I think folks, in many circumstances, need a bit more help, and that, as beings fairly aware of our own irrationality, lapses in long-term attention, and assorted other deficits and shortcomings, we often smartly conclude that the whole is stronger and wiser than the one, and build communal institutions that sacrifice some autonomy but create structures better fitted to the messy and occasionally disappointing ways in which we actually engage the world.

This comes out strongly in health care, which is where I also tend to interact with the libertarian view the most. As far as I can tell, most libertarians appear to believe that if you just rip away all cost insulation, forcing individuals to pay costs they can barely burden, that threat of financial ruin will sharpen their minds and lead to better health decisions. I tend to think it will just lead to their financial ruin, and because most of us know that we're not nearly as assiduous as we should be about saving for retirement and putting money in our health savings accounts, we're wise to understand that we do a poor job planning for risk, and so should preemptively enter into agreements that radically reduce the level of insecurity in our lives. If we can add in some incentives and penalties encouraging smart behavior and discouraging poor decisions, that's all for the good.

But it is, at base, a disagreement over the likely behavior of humans, and how we should respond to it. The Cato employees of the world -- Tyler is not one, incidentally -- simply have a much more optimistic take on the individual's mastery over his sphere. We are, with a bit of an assist from price signals, doctors, stockbrokers, bond traders, pension planners, and much else. I on the other hand, see more in the way of frailty and shortcomings, and am instead deeply optimistic that our self-knowledge of those vulnerabilities allow us to stand together and protect each other against not only the vicissitudes of a dangerous world, but occasionally, against ourselves....

Posted by Ezra Klein on January 21, 2008 10:53 AM | Permalink

http://www.prospect.org/csnc/blogs/ezraklein_archive?month=01&year=2008&base_name=do_social_democrats_and_libert

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Ezra says "we often smartly conclude that the whole is stronger and wiser than the one, and build communal institutions that sacrifice some autonomy but create structures better fitted to the messy and occasionally disappointing ways in which we actually engage the world."

Translated: "'we' often conclude that government 'solutions' should be forced onto people. Those 'solutions' may suck, but tough luck, 'we' won't allow you to opt-out because 1) you are probably stupid and 2) 'we' really need your tax dollars to fund our lame government projects."

dick king writes:

John, "don't ask, don't tell" is an excuse, not a reason.

The service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega is an arm of Boy Scouts of America, which openly forbids gays at all levels, including APO. APO has been in business since long before this was a sensitive issue, and it's generally recognized as doing good work, so it seems to survive at liberal institutions. For a while, every time I read about a campus expressing hostility to military recruiters or ROTC I looked at the APO website to see whether they had an APO chapter. Most of these colleges, like most colleges in general, do have a chapter.

-dk

spencer writes:

Do a couple of google searches.

One, criticism of the administration on torture.

Two, criticism of the military on torture.

When I did I got 5.9 million hits on the administration and only 0.6 million hits on the military.

While this is only the first step, it suggest your
caricature of liberals has little or no basis in fact.

Chuck writes:

@Mr. Econotarian

Very engaging, thanks for the thoughtful reply.

spencer writes:

Price gouging after a natural disaster represents a market failure.

You only have this "gouging" when there is no competition.

I find it hard to understand the libertarian view that a situation with a complete absence of competition represents a fantastic example of markets at their best.

But who am I to disagree with economists believing someone using a complete monopoly to earn massive economic rents represents a great example of free markets at their best.

I always though this type of behavior was libertarians main criticism of government.

Sorge L. Diaz writes:

I take issue with this:

"To me, the main insight of economists like Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, is that differences in the inclinations of people to do good or evil are not so large."

Let's not forget psychopaths. There is a minority of humans for whom doing evil is as easy as getting out of bed in the morning. (There may also be people for whom doing good is as easy as getting out of bed in the morning.)

Perhaps I'm being pedantic. I think Prof. Kling is right in his larger point that institutional arrangements matter more than intentions. But I want people to remember that the inclination to do evil varies greatly from person to person. Our institutions should account for that fact.

(Sorry if I'm rambling here; I've been thinking about this issue for a while.)

Sorge L. Diaz writes:

Burger Flipper:

You write:

Wow. This post really makes me want to hear the views that led you to label yourself, cheekily I think, "a xenophobe about Islamic radicals."

I'm likely even more of a "xenophobe" than Prof. Kling. I've read the canonical texts of Islam, and, to put it bluntly, the Muhammad of the scriptures was a moral monster. The religion largely takes after its founder.

Best regards;

8 writes:

Instead, institutional differences matter more. Conveying that insight is a challenge.

Liberals might argue that since the military rewards killing, and the business world rewards greed (opening innocent rubes to predation), the institutional incentives are bad. On the health care debate, mention free market healthcare and what pops into their head is profit motive & greed. I don't see how it's materially different from the conservatives argument that giving government bureaucrats power leads to bad actions. The only difference between government and market is that bad people in the market eventually go out of business or go to jail, and they have to pay for the harm or death they cause. Government bureacrats get promoted and politicians get re-elected for their death and destruction.

Dain writes:

There's a kernel of truth to the left liberal's suspicion that business people are more selfish and less "pro-social". Economist Bruno Frey did some work on this topic, albeit in Switzerland:

http://www.bsfrey.ch/articles.html

Dain writes:

Oh, and on Ezra Klein's comments.

The assertion that people are not as rational as the economics profession assumes, thus the government must correct their errors, is erroneous. The government is made up of those same irrational people. I believe Will Wilkinson calls this the "Fallacy of Asymmetry".

Unless Ezra Klein wants to claim that people in government are smarter. But that would only make the conservative charge of "elitism" stick. So I know he won't go there.

Boonton writes:

Military recruiters have been persona non grata on college campuses since long before the Bush Administration.

Step 1. Remove from that list colleges that banned recruiters because of the ban on gays in the military.

Step 2. So what? Certainly a man of your intelligence and extensive knowledge of the intersection of economics and politics must know the influence small minorities can have on public policies. That the most powerful country in the world has a national subsidy for mohair does not mean the typical American is a fanatic for domestic mohair producers, it simply demonstrates a tiny lobby can get a goody for themselves passed if everyone else is more or less focused on other things.

At best the support you give for your sterotype only indicates that 'liberal elites' (which I guess you mean college campus groups....no liberal elites in the mass media? Ahhh well) are simply not gung ho much on the military so they don't do more to stop smaller groups from impelmenting policies like the above.

dick king
The service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega is an arm of Boy Scouts of America, which openly forbids gays at all levels, including APO. APO has been in business since long before this was a sensitive issue, and it's generally recognized as doing good work, so it seems to survive at liberal institutions. For a while, every time I read about a campus expressing hostility to military recruiters or ROTC I looked at the APO website to see whether they had an APO chapter. Most of these colleges, like most colleges in general, do have a chapter.

I suspect many college students would be surprised to know APO is an arm of the boy scouts (and why not? people associate the boy scouts with grade school things. Simple branding would dictate that APO appear different just like the edgy films of Disney are distributed under the Miramax brand). APO, I suspect, dodges the anti-gay stance of the boy scouts by taking advantage of ignorance. Also, I suspect APO has no policy against gays itself...that helps. Try to imagine how APO would fare on campuses if they tried to adopt the Boy Scouts of America's policy on gays.

Lord writes:

Should I assume you think the military are just the mindless mercenaries of the state and officials are evil by their inherent position and power? Frankly, it wouldn't surprise me if you did. I am sure not only institutional differences matter but leadership as well.

Adam writes:
Price gouging after a natural disaster represents a market failure.

I think you've got that backwards. The reason that there is no competition is not because the market failed in any way, but because of the massive destruction which occurred.

The increase in price is a sign that the market is functioning properly, because that's how markets are supposed to respond to sudden and dramatic changes in supply and demand. It is this change in price that signals individuals to enter the market, and thus restore competition.

If, however, "gouging" continued after competition was restored, then you would have an argument for a market failure.

frankcross writes:

While this post makes liberal elites look like they have nutty opinions about the military and business, I think it really shows that you have nutty opinions about liberal elites.

The ban on military recruiting has zero to do with torture and war crimes (your theory) and is limited to gay rights.

Moreover, a small segment of liberal elites may view capitalists as basically evil, but this is by no means the general opinion. There are more than there should be, but the number of communists and socialists among liberal elites is pretty tiny, I suspect.

Dr. T writes:

Many of the commenters above must have lived in a different United States than I. Liberals hated the military in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. This was NOT because the military banned homosexuals. It was primarily because there still was a draft and secondarily because liberals see no need for a military (until the invaders are at their doors). In the 1980s and later, when there was no military draft, the banning of homosexuals became the liberals' excuse for disparaging the military. If the military had reversed the ban in 1980, liberals would have found another excuse to hate the military.

Robert S. Porter's comment above is typical of the liberals I know: "...the military are given weapons and authorized to murder people. As are the police. Any contempt towards the military and police seems like a good thing to me."

Our soldiers are murderers. Our police are murderers. The murders they commit are endorsed by the state. How can observant and intelligent adults believe this? They cannot, so most liberals must be unobservant, unintelligent, or both. What's weird to me is that liberals readily ignore the flaws and failings of governments and government programs (even when such failings cause deaths) EXCEPT those departments or agencies with armed persons (military and police).

Snark writes:
Robert S. Porter's comment above is typical of the liberals I know

I was hoping no one would dignify his comment with a response. But since you have, I would suggest that it's not so much the case that ordinary liberals are idiots as they are intellectually dishonest. Most of the liberals I know seem to be emotionally attached to the policies they advocate, judging their success or failure on whether or not they're enacted into law (with little or no regard for their actual impact on society). Liberal elites, OTOH, are much more treacherous, as they typically exercise a position to influence policy outcomes while remaining fully insulated from their effects.

Prentice writes:

Price gouging after a natural disaster is natural, allowing the price system to naturally fluctuate, and helps the people; if there is a shortage of gas, the price must go up to communicate the information about supply and demand to the populace. Sure, gas will be more expensive, but there will still be enough for everyone to get some, because everyone will only buy what they need. If however the price is kept down, then only those who can buy the gas first buy it, purchase as much as they need, and the supply gets used up so that many others are left with no gas whatsoever.

Remember, one cannot control prices. Prices just communicate information about the supply and demand of certain resources. In such a disaster, everyone can either have some gas and pay a high price money-wise for it, or some can have all the gas they want with most people getting no gas. You have to pay some way.

It was the price controls on gasoline in the 1970s that caused the constant shortages of gasoline and the long lines at gas stations. When Ronald Reagan ended the price controls, the gas lines disappeared.

I would not say all liberals despise the military or businesses, but the very Left-leaning ones do. It's almost a given in the media that all corporations are evil and all soldiers who come out of wars are messed up.

I was hoping no one would dignify his comment with a response.

Cry me a river. As hard-core libertarian I find it funny that you imply I'm a liberal when I'm not. I don't understand why you conservatives think police and military abuses are better left ignored. Though the police and military have a legitmate role, they are both flagrant abusers of their power and any contempt towards the ingrained attitudes of the instutions should be welcomed by all right-thinking individuals.

Boonton writes:

Dr. T

Many of the commenters above must have lived in a different United States than I. Liberals hated the military in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. This was NOT because the military banned homosexuals. It was primarily because there still was a draft and secondarily because liberals see no need for a military (until the invaders are at their doors).

This nicely reveals the real issue here, both you and our blog host are over the hill. I don't know what liberals you're talking about from the 50's and 60's. The liberals of the 50's and 60's were getting the US into Korea and later Vietnam. The radical left in the developed in the late 60's and early 70's as a result of that. In fact it used to be an old Republican slogan that Democrats got us into wars (WWI, II, Korea, and Vietnam).

This also nicely illustrates the disconnect between generations. I would say the opposition to Vietnam did create a lot of hostility to the military. What is missed, though, is that we are now 30 years after Vietnam. People entering the prime of their lives today were infants then. People who were only 20 then are approaching retirement today. Kling and T, like old dogs, both see events today through the prism of the past but this is a very deceptive way to view reality. Some have argued that WWI happened because decision makers approached the situation as if it wsa part of 19th century Great Power tension.

What evidence do you have the 'liberal elites' today so hate the military when Obama leads McCain in donations from the military? Huh? The criticism against torture is directed at the administration, not the military. In fact, claiming that military members want to torture people undermines the liberal criticism of the Bush administration who would rather dismiss the torture issue as involving only a few bad apples (in other words, blame the troops).

This is the problem with age. For some people, left or right, it is always going to be 1968 instead of 2008.

Snark writes:
As hard-core libertarian I find it funny that you imply I'm a liberal when I'm not.

I didn’t imply that you were a liberal. I was addressing Dr. T’s generalization of liberals as being unobservant and unintelligent, which makes me wonder why you’d feel the need to lash out.

I don't understand why you conservatives think police and military abuses are better left ignored.

Most of us don’t. In fact, we become incensed and outraged when the military or police abuse their power and/or authority to the detriment of those they are sworn to protect and serve.

Though the police and military have a legitmate role, they are both flagrant abusers of their power and any contempt towards the ingrained attitudes of the instutions should be welcomed by all right-thinking individuals.

It is this type of commentary that I take issue with. There are, unfortunately, a small minority of individuals that slip through the cracks and violate the rules of conduct. But on balance, most serve with honor and distinction and deserve our support and respect.

To hold the institutions (instead of the bad apples) in contempt, as you do, shows a flagrant disregard for the legitimate role they play in society.

spencer writes:

The Cold War was fought and won by liberal policies and liberal politicians, including Reagan. All Reagan did was continue the cold war policy of containment originated by Truman.
Conservatives of the 1950s were strongly opposed to US intervention in Greece and other major Cold War conflicts. I suggest you kids actually study some US history.

prentice. After a natural disaster there is a limited supply of gasoline in the area. You can ration it by several methods of which price is one. Rationing by price just means those who can pay the higher price get the supply.

Higher prices are not needed to induce Wal Mart, Home Depot, CVS,Exxon or other modern Americn corporations to resupply disaster areas as rapidly as is humanly possible.

You argument that prices are needed to resupply things after a disaster is a simple introductory economics view of the world that does not apply at all to the modern American economy.

Arguing that Exxon or other require higher prices to resupply disaster areas is not a libertarian argument, it is a Markist argument.

... "liberal elite" ... "liberal elite" ... "liberal elite" ... "liberal elite" ...

I think this post is more about promoting a liberal/conservative dialectic than about an empirical search for the best models of reality. It would be great to see you attach probabilities to these different expressed beliefs, in the Cowen/Hanson model.

Boonton writes:

snark

Most of us don’t. In fact, we become incensed and outraged when the military or police abuse their power and/or authority to the detriment of those they are sworn to protect and serve.

I'm not sure it makes sense to join the two. The police interact with the general public on a day to day basis and the opportunities for corruption and abuse are numerous (keep in mind abuse can be minor such as letting a good looking girl go with a warning but scrutinizing your car for tickets if the cop doesn't like your looks). At least in the US the military does not interact with the general public and its use is normally quite limited. From a libertarian POV I don't think the military itself is of much concern, rather it is the gov'ts use of the military as well as the taxpayers obligation to pay for it. This is in contrast to other countries like Pakistan where the military seems to act as a branch of the gov't, periodically using coups as an option to veto policies.

In brief, the rank and file cop can do a lot of damage to individual liberty that is not approved by his commanding officers or the gov't. The rank and file military person cannot and does not as a rule do that type of damage...at least in 'normal' times.

Snark writes:

Boonton,

I don’t disagree with any of the differences you’ve pointed out. At the same time, I don’t think it’s inaccurate to generalize by saying that the police “protect and serve” the community while soldiers “protect and serve” their country. Nevertheless, I see no justification for holding either institution in contempt based on the inexcusable actions of those who violate the codes of conduct, be they rank-and-file or brass.

It is this type of commentary that I take issue with. There are, unfortunately, a small minority of individuals that slip through the cracks and violate the rules of conduct. But on balance, most serve with honor and distinction and deserve our support and respect.

To hold the institutions (instead of the bad apples) in contempt, as you do, shows a flagrant disregard for the legitimate role they play in society.

You continue to pretend that the rot doesn't seep to the core. The institutions themselves are corrupt. The police continue the drug war and the military continues the literal war. Both of these are abhorrent. Are you really going to argue that right thinking, moral people can serve beside individuals who are abhorrent and serve the institutions which perpetuate such immoral wars?

Until there is systematic change in how the military and police are run I am not willing to pretend, like you, that there isn’t a problem.

The largest flaw in your argument is that you think that the problem is merely that some "violate the rules of conduct". The issue is that even the "rule of conduct" are corrupt.

Snark writes:

Robert S. Porter,

I can appreciate your disdain for the drug war and the war in Iraq. But I believe your condemnation of those responsible is misplaced. You should, instead, set your sights on the politicians who pass the laws or agitate for war, not on the police or military, which are simply tools used by governments to impose their will in such matters.

Further, I suffer from no pretense that corruption doesn't exist to some degree within any institution. However, I maintain in this case that it is limited to a small percentage of individuals, and that the rules governing their codes of conduct (insofar as they are complied with) are appropriate.

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