David R. Henderson  

Motives and Outcomes

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In a comment on my post yesterday, Will Wilkinson defended his parallel between Republicans and Democrats. I had granted him that there were parallels in their hypocrisy. But he went further, writing:

I think some libertarians and conservatives are annoyed by my specific example of this pattern because they genuinely think federalism is instrumental to freedom. But one can accept that this is generally true, as I do, while also accepting that arguments for decentralized government are often motivated by the desire to protect illiberal local policy.

I grant that desire. But commenter John Thacker pointed out the problem with Will's reasoning, writing:

So the ends protect liberty especially in the long-run (mostly through the power of exit), the means protect liberty and use arguments of liberty, but some people might have unseemly motives?

Thacker's point reminds me of two things. One is Adam Smith's famous quote about motives:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

In other words, we don't judge merchants to be bad because they're out to promote their own interest. In fact, we depend on their being out to promote their own interest. So why should be judge politicians and potential political allies differently?

It also reminded me of my one critical comment in my 1987 Fortune review of Robert Higgs's great book, Crisis and Leviathan. I wrote:

And he [Higgs] dismisses what in his own view is the most fundamental retrenchment of government power in our time -- the abolition of the draft in 1973. Richard Nixon, Higgs argues, did away with the draft for reasons of political expediency rather than out of any regard for individual rights. Higgs is probably correct about Nixon's motives. But so what? If politicians start offering us additional freedom because their political self-interest dictates it, isn't that a refreshing reversal? Like Higgs, I would prefer to see our leaders whittle down the government on principle. But I'll take freedom any way I can get it.

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COMMENTS (15 to date)
bjk writes:

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Michael Stack writes:

I see Will's point differently. I think Will is saying that some conservatives and libertarians pretend to be reasoning from some set of principles that lead them to say, "Federalism is good, and hey - look here! These just happen to be principles (those of federalism) that lead to favorable policy outcomes."

Instead, they support federalism precisely because they believe it will bring their favored policies, not out of some devotion to federalism itself.

Nothing wrong w/ that of course; however, don't expect the federalism argument to convince people who don't agree with the policies you're trying to enact.

Thomas DeMeo writes:

The problem with your point is that you seem to be saying we shouldn't care about motives, only results. Unfortunately, the results are that decentralized government often produces illiberal local policy.

As is pointed out over and over on this blog, once any structure is set in stone, it is inevitably exploited. The best we can do is create a dynamic tension to adjust periodically.

RL writes:

DH argues: "we don't judge merchants to be bad because they're out to promote their own interest. In fact, we depend on their being out to promote their own interest. So why should be [sic] judge politicians and potential political allies differently?"

This seems a strange argument. We depend on merchants promoting their own interest because we know they do so in a system that is "designed" such that their doing so is beneficial to us. Why should we judge politicians differently. Because we know their promoting their own interest is NOT routinely beneficial to us.

David appears to see some logical error in judging merchants and politicians differently, else I miss his point completely. Yet surely he wouldn't argue: "We depend on [merchants] being out to promote their own interest. So why should we judge pickpockets differently?" Perhaps DH could clarify the point I seem to be missing.

Randy writes:

"In other words, we don't judge merchants to be bad because they're out to promote their own interest. In fact, we depend on their being out to promote their own interest. So why should be judge politicians and potential political allies differently?"

When I hire a merchant we have a mutually beneficial relationship. It doesn't bother me that the merchant benefits as long as I do.

My relationship with a politician, however, is not mutually beneficial. They insert themselves by force into my life to benefit themselves at my expense. I judge them on the basis of the relationship.

David R. Henderson writes:

RL,
I'm happy to clarify. Will Wilkinson judged conservatives badly because their motives were bad even if, as he admitted, the policies they pursue--devolving power to local governments away from state governments--would create more freedom.
I don't presume that politicians pursuing their own interests will benefit us. But when politicians, by pursuing their own interests, do benefit us--as in the Nixon draft case--I'm happy about it and would have happily allied with Nixon on that issue, as some of the men I have admired--Martin Anderson, Milton Friedman, Allen Wallis, Alan Greenspan, and William Meckling--did.
Best,
David

Eric H writes:

Judging politicians and merchants as self-interested actors seems like a wise thing to do. Choosing to believe that a politician checks his self interest at the door upon assuming power is naive, especially now when vast quantities of wealth can be politically transferred with ease.

I'm struggling to understand the mechanism or entity that would correct locally illiberal policy in the absence of federalism. Presumably federal and local powers are separated so that the likelihood of a confluence of their interest in illiberal policies is reduced.

Thomas DeMeo writes:

You are not acknowledging what illiberal local policy really means, because you keep saying that decentralized government nonetheless works to increase freedom. That may happen more often than not, but it can also leave a significant number of people with less freedom. If you were black in 1950, I'm sure you would see decentralized government as an obstacle to freedom.

8 writes:

This is why libertarians don't win elections.

There's another word for tyranny of local prejudice: culture.

David R. Henderson writes:

Dear Thomas DeMeo,
I do acknowledge that local governments can have (indeed, do have) illiberal policies. Nothing I said contradicts that. But then that would have to be the argument Will Wilkinson makes. He could argue that one of the nasty effects of devolving power to local government is that it will use that power in oppressive ways. But that's not the argument he made. He argued based on motives, not outcomes. Thus my post this morning.
Best,
David

Eric H writes:

Thomas--

I don't think it's fair to African Americans to consider them knee-jerk opponents of decentralized government simply because they lived at a certain time and place. I wouldn't be surprised if many southern blacks consider institutionalized racism a product of centralized government. Furthermore, one doesn't have to stretch to describe places like Mississippi and Louisiana in the 1950's one party states.

Remember too that the federal government was "ahead" of the states in terms of racial discrimination, but it wasn't that far ahead. There was a decent chunk of time in which state and federal interests were pretty closely aligned as far as racism was concerned.

My point is that now, no rational person considers state-sponsored racism a "liberal" local policy. Just because something is thought up and acted upon by a free people doesn't mean it's good. If those free people are self-interested actors working to preserve their own interests, it shouldn't be a surprise that they work to consolidate political power. Our situation in America thankfully provides some safeguards to hamper that impulse, namely the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Furthermore, is it inconceivable that some black Americans would understand the value of a decentralized government in allowing them to live the way they want to live?

I agree with David; I think one of the most important things we can do is educate ourselves so that we can take advantage of politicians' self-interest when the opportunity arises. If Nixon was going to end the draft, what serious opponent of conscription would try to stop him?

I wonder if a parallel can be drawn between Nixon's draft policy and Clinton's NAFTA policy. I don't think many free-traders frowned on NAFTA simply because Clinton signed it. At the time, I thought Clinton did so for political gain. Then again, I know that trade agreements are contentious amongst libertarians for a variety of reasons. I would like to know what David thinks.

Chris writes:

I would also caution here that one's profession or occupation constrains one's self interest. For example, the famous butcher, baker, and brewer must serve their fellow man by engaging in voluntary exchange. They don't have the power to regulate other shop-keepers or collect taxes. A politician on the other hand commands significantly more power over others through regulations, laws, and taxes. This is why the motives of politicians are much more critical than other economic actors.

Thomas DeMeo writes:

David- I was responding to the quote from John Thacker you cited, and your response to RL. In both cases, the claim was made that the policies conservatives pursue--devolving power to local governments away from state governments--would create more freedom, despite the motivations.

I understand your point. Occasionally, good things come from bad motivations. However, a singular event (such as Nixon's abolition of the draft) is one thing. A set of ideas which are applied by an influential class of thinkers over decades is quite another. Over time, we can expect more bad than good from bad motivations. We also can expect that bad motivations often mean appealing arguments will be made on one level to obfuscate corruption on another.

RL writes:

David H.,

Thanks for the cogent response. I think the confusion arose because I took you to be making a subjunctive claim--that analogous to the market, we have (somehow, thus my confusion) REASON TO EXPECT (justification in belief) that actions by politicians acting in their own self-interest will tend to benefit us, as we have reason to expect that butchers, bakers, and brewers acting in their own self-interest will tend to benefit us.

You were not making this general claim, merely the empirical claim that it is possible that in some instances politicians acting in their own self-interest MAY benefit us.

I concur, and note similar statements may be made about correct time-keeping and stopped watches...:-)

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

"In other words, we don't judge merchants to be bad because they're out to promote their own interest. In fact, we depend on their being out to promote their own interest. So why should be judge politicians and potential political allies differently?"

Merchants may promote their own self-interest, but it generally won't be at the expense of their business. They know that if they mess up, they'll lose their business and with it their source of income. Unlike politicians, they are in it for the long haul, and I suspect many of them would like to leave their businesses to their children.

A politician's self-interest is different. They're not in it for the long haul. Even if they screw the pooch and end up getting thrown out of office, they know they'll end up as consultants, publish their memoirs or get paid to speak at luncheons.

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