Bryan Caplan  

Corrupt Bargains

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A standard complaint about libertarians is that they want to commodify the sacred.  I've often heard, for example, that selling organs is just plain wrong.  Money has no place here (unless "here" is Iran); the only legitimate motive for an organ donation is supposed to be compassion.

Here's what I don't get: Why don't these squemish scruples apply to political logrolling?  The bailout is 451 pages long because it is full of outlandish "sweeteners" for fence-sitting politicians.  Why aren't people horrified by these bribes?  Whether or not the bailout is a good idea, shouldn't politicians be voting their consciences, not selling their vote to the highest bidder?

I suppose many people will give the Bismarkian response that "Politics is the art of the possible."  But that just begs the question.  In the market, many people want to outlaw unseemly transactions even if they have good consequences.  Why do they hold politics to a lower standard?


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
John Samples writes:

The same goes for politicians seeking to buy votes. Recall Obama's "tax rebate" tied to gas prices. Absent the rhetoric, Obama was saying: "Vote for me and I will give you $1,000." He offered the additional advantage of taking the money to fund the bribe from the oil companies who are widely despised. But Obama was bribing voters. Had he offered only $5 at a precinct, he would have gone to jail. Offering a larger sum to more people leads to the White House.

Mark writes:

Ask those same people who are against commodifying organs how many kidneys they have.
If they have two, they either have inconsistent beliefs or enjoy watching people suffer and die.

Flob writes:

a. Financial policy isn't sacred.

b. Some government actions are believed to be a necessity for the country, which excuses a lot.

Steve Roth writes:

Most people do object to political logrolling, don't they? Though they accept some level of it as inevitable. I'm curious--is there more or less of it now than there was in 1950? 1900? 1850?

John Samples: "But Obama was bribing voters."

Which is what the Republicans have been doing--to the tune of trillions in debt--since the rise of Reaganomics. "I'll give you a tax cut. Vote for me. And hey: tax revenues will go up!" (Scurry off to borrow the money from China to pay for those votes.)

Reagan. Bush. McCain. Selling Country First.

Greg writes:

Things like organ donation evoke more of a taboo response. You might as well ask why people are against polygamy and cannibalism. There are arguments against those that homo economicus might accept, but no one argues those. It's just considered wrong (although not in all countries and cultures, for polygamy), period. People have no such taboos about log-rolling, which as you imply is inseparable from the political process in any case.

I think the organ donation example is one where libertarian thinking will hopefully change people's lives for the better. Drug policy is perhaps another example. In contrast, I find railing against log-rolling hopelessly utopian, along the lines of positions against pre-marital sex or alchohol consumption. People just don't act like that. Maybe it would be more useful to start by assuming that log-rolling is essentially a given of human nature, like those other behaviors. Starting there, what can we do to minimize the negative impacts?

Jesse writes:

Bryan --

So when libertarians argue that limiting campaign contributions is equivalent to limiting free speech, who exactly are they arguing with?

This post is hilarious. Who spends more time defending the role of money in politics, free-market-loving libertarians or do-gooder leftists who think that money corrupts? When I go to read Caplan at the Cato website there is a helpful link to a book called "The Fallacy of Campaign Reform."

Is there a name for the cognitive bias that drives people to attribute negative traits to their political opponents, even when doing so makes no logical sense? Is there some expert around who recently wrote a book about irrationality?

8 writes:

How can a Northwest politician expand logging rights without logrolling?

Will writes:

Jesse: There is a big difference between allowing people to give their own money to someone they believe in, and letting the government steal from the many to give political handouts to the few. Hopefully you are able to see why supporting the former increases liberty, and supporting the latter decreases it.

David R. Henderson writes:

I'm just delighted that Bryan used the term "begs the question" correctly.

Jesse writes:

Will, I am not taking sides in any of these debates, so let me try again.

As a matter of principle, virtually everyone opposes pork, except when they benefit from it, in the same way that no one approves of Congress in general but everyone approves of their own Congressman.

Bryan is suggesting that those people who view money as a corrupting influence in society are perfectly happy with pork. This allows him to feel morally superior to his hypocritical opponents, but I don't see any reason to think why the charge is true.

But let us put aside this moral superiority angle. The argument continues as before if Bryan simply says, "People who oppose selling organs have no problem taking money for the work they do -- why is this???" A better question. Here is my attempt at an answer.

People carry out a wide variety of different relationships with others in society. In different types of relationships, different types of behavior and transactions are appropriate. For example, a man may give a woman he is sexually interested in a gift. But different types of gifts are appropriate if the man and the woman are strangers, if they are dating, if they are engaged, if they are married, if the woman is a lap dancer at a strip club, if she is a prostitute. Note that it not simply the case that money always corrupts and devalues -- money is actually quite prominent in "sacred" married relationships, for example. According to this answer, it is considered simply inappropriate for someone to give his organs to someone else in exchange for money.

But this is very far from fully satisfactory, because of course the question is now why is it considered inappropriate to sell your organs? I think Greg gets it right above -- it provokes an unsettling taboo response, which is probably not grounded in reason, although people may attempt to rationalize it by invoking weak slippery-slope arguments.

I also hope that libertarian thinking can create some progress on this issue.

Frejus writes:

"The bailout is 451 pages long because it is full of outlandish "sweeteners" for fence-sitting politicians. Why aren't people horrified by these bribes?"

You've obviously never worked in the private sector negotiating a contract with other companies. This is the norm--it's the way the free market works. Companies all have a legion of lawyers creating reams of paper. Even your complaint about 451 pages--similar to other conservative and libertarian complaints about the size of legislation--is ridiculous. The computer programs on which we are typing right now--e.g. a browser--are millions of lines of code.

Every system has details in its procedures and implementations, and that includes regulation.

So basically--no issue. Or should I say you've not identified anything unique to government. It's how the real world works.

Lord writes:

The market resorts to politics, but politics is not supposed to? The market for politics would support a higher standard, but power trumps principle.

Ajay writes:

Hypocrisy springs eternal.

Kien writes:

If everyone were equally wealthy, there might be a reasonable case for allowing people to sell their own organs. However, we live in a world where some people are unimaginably wealthy, while others are incredibly poor. In such a world, we are likely to see the poor sell their organs to the rich.

Like so many other things in life, banning commercialisation of human organs is a "second best solution" to an imperfect world (where not everyone is equally endowed).

On the question of sacredness, what libertarian can contemplate a world where a rich person might buy a human kidney so that he can indulge in a meal of fried human kidney?

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