Bryan Caplan  

Billion Dollar Bribe

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Suppose you had a billion dollars to spend in Washington to advance liberty.  What's the biggest libertarian policy reform your billion could buy?  How precisely should you spread your money around?

Remember: Many obvious strategies would lead to bad publicity and serious pushback.  Your answer should take account of this feedback.

Extra credit: Suppose you had a billion dollars to spend in Washington to advance statism.   How does the optimal strategy change?  If there's a big asymmetry, explain its source.


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COMMENTS (41 to date)
OneEyedMan writes:

Reduce income tax withholding so that almost every American ended up paying a few percent of their income on tax day. Too little withholding would be reversed when too many people couldn't pay. But less might work. Since many people confuse the level of their taxes with the amount of the check they write on tax day, this would give everyone the impression their taxes are higher and motivate lower taxes.

Could you reform America's policies on the taxation of foreign income with this much money? A decent exit is an effective check on government action and it would be a difficult policy to reverse when the constituency was established.

Could you legalize Marijuana with this sum? Maybe. That unlocks lots of savings, people get a new freedom and thousands stay out of jail.

When you say advance liberty, need it be American liberty? If the liberty can be a mix of American and foreign then get the Free Trade Area of the Americas passed or end the embargo on Cuba. Both of those would increase freedom and prosperity with little push-back.

eric mcfadden writes:

I would probably suggest hiring a bunch of ex-gwot military dudes to wage a war against the state. The bribe is not getting blown up on the way to vote for the next "buy america" bill in exchange for survival. A La, Ragnar Danneskjöld. A billion dollars is chump change compared to what the looters can take. Bullets and explosives are cheap.

Billy writes:

I'm not so this would work. Money matters but ultimately, the elected officials in Washington do what their constituents tell them. If you want to change minds in Washington, you first have to change the minds of the voters.

Matthew Gunn writes:

The observable problem: government steals from the many and gives to the few (farm subsidies, Medicare, etc...)

The root cause: Breakdown of Coase theorem. Bargaining cost is high, and government provides concentrated benefits while harm is diffuse.

Can modern technology though increase the observability of harm and reduce bargaining costs? Transparency ideas:

* Require the federal government and all agencies to provide detailed accounting data in standardized, machine readable format. (Would allow the creative use of automated tools. Imagine federalbudget.google.com)

* Require that each agency make available an estimate of cost and benefits for ALL regulation in a standardized, machine readable format.

* People receive a phone bill, cable bill, utility bill, why not a government bill? Require each year that taxpayers be sent a bill with the TOTAL cost of government to the person (FICA taxes, income taxes, estimates of regulatory costs), and where the money goes by major category.

michael writes:

Too easy. I'll just take the Hayek cop-out and give it all away to like minded people. Works for both sides.

Emergent order FTW.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

Perhaps you would make bets on a prediction market that the most authoritarian members of congress (as determined by who supports the most liberty restricting bills) won't die within the next year and then wait for someone to short your bet.

me writes:

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RL writes:

To answer your question seriously, we need a time constraint. If you want the billion$ to get us freedom in the next 5 years, different methods suggest themselves than if you want the billion$ to get us freedom in the next generation...

RL writes:

I wonder if the Koch brothers have spent a billion yet? If they have, that suggests a billion$ is not enough...

Jayson Virissimo writes:

A billion dollars might be enough to create the technology that would allow transactions using an anonymous encrypted commodity indexed private currency. It could really change the way taxes are collected (or not collected).

E. Barandiaran writes:

Since you're willing to spend only one billion and want quick results, I assume the best you can do is to lecture some 900 great intelectuals over a period of a year. They should be intelectuals opposed to what you are teaching. You pay each of them one million dollars to attend the lectures (pay them in advance to take into account your feedback problem). The remaining 100 millon dollars are to pay the best lecturers you can find and other expenses (including publicity of everything you are doing). It's good for teaching both ideologies.

Torben writes:

Keep the money. Don't be naive enough to think that you can 'advance' liberty through brinbing Washington.

Les writes:

Pass a constitutional amendment to strictly limit Congress to the following activities, and only the following activities:

1) Fund the military to protect us from foreign aggression;

2) Fund the justice system to protect us from crime and enforce secure property rights and contracts.

3) Limit federal income taxes to 10% of previous year GDP and prohibit federal budget deficits.

Extra credit: the opposite strategy is to fight and defeat the above constitutional amendment. The big asymmetry is due to whether or not our political representatives represent voter interests or their own political interest.

Blackadder writes:

You would want to go after an issue where special interests are strong enough to prevent change but weak and/or unpopular enough that they couldn't reestablish their perks once they lost them. The group that springs most readily to mind would be teachers unions. So you should use the money to support Democrats who favor school choice (basically telling them that if they go along you will protect them from the unions).

Eli writes:

To avoid the pushback and keep the price down, I'd choose something esoteric with consequences that would not be understood by most policymakers or the public. A couple ideas:

1) Make contracts with an arbitration clause unenforceable in state courts and arbitration decisions unappealable in state courts. This would substantially reduce the cost of private arbitration because it would allow those who wish to use a private court system to do so without having to keep lawyers around to document everything for appeal.

2) Eliminate the taxation of capital gains on currency transactions. This would allow people to modify their currency holdings without penalty and could increase the use of private money, the first step toward free banking.

Taras Smereka writes:

Bribe the secret service to kidnap the president and put him in a trash can.

JPIrving writes:

Build a seastead

Bruce Bartlett writes:

What is desperately needed in Washington is a libertarian lobbying force on Capitol Hill. The special interests all have lobbyists, but the libertarian position is never represented, thus causing the statist position to win by default. Think tanks can't do real lobbying because it would violate federal law. And in general libertarians disdain lobbying as an inherently evil activity. The result is to allow statism to advance without any meaningful opposition.

I would add that such a libertarian lobbying operation, which could operate very effectively on just the annual interest on $1 billion, would have to be willing to make the kinds of deals that lobbyists make--organizing coalitions among those that may be anti-libertarian most of the time but for whatever reason support the libertarian position in a particular instance.

Most libertarians won't do this. They think "principle" is the only factor that should govern legislative activity. This is a view that is doomed to failure. Unless a libertarian lobbying operation was free to play the game the way it is played, it would be a waste of time and money.

Andrew writes:

Probably the best use of $1 billion would be:

1. Lobbying for structural policy changes that help constrain state or federal governments (think Prop 13 tax limitations, or constitutional amendments limiting federal spending);

2. Lobbying for federal and state tax policies that make taxes more visible and thus costly (such as the elimination of federal and state withholding, or requirements that retail prices be posted as including state-local sales taxes);

3. A state-local initiative to lobby for simpler processes for business formation, and the elimination of state corporate income taxes.

4. Lobbying for labor law changes that phase-out state-local government employee unions, which wield tremendous power and preserve bad spending indefinitely.

5. Policy work and lobbying to shift the largest items in the federal budget into private hands -- Social Security and Medicare. At the state level, a push for privatizing public schools would take tremendous pressure off the need for high property taxes.

quadrupole writes:

The problem of pushback and popularity limits extensively what could be actually accomplished. I think the following two ideas have a shot:

1) Taxpayer directed spending. Lobby for a constitutional amendment allowing taxpayers to direct how their personal tax dollars are distributed among government programs. I suspect this would be popular (everybody believes the government wastes their tax dollars on xzy, they just don't agree on what is wasteful).

2) Lobby for the FairTax. Among other things it has the lovely feature that it is (effectively) collected by the states, so one can ask questions like 'wouldn't it just be better to cut x% and let the states increase their tax by that % and let the state's do it'.

Peter Twieg writes:

Fund voucher/charter school initiatives on a state-by-state basis. Those are some of the few libertarianish policy shifts which actually have a shot, I think.

A seastead would also be neat to fund. Just an offshore place for something like medical tourism. Maybe pushing prediction markets would be useful too, I'd like to imagine (in fact, I'd put a billion dolalrs on it!) that their adoption would push policy in a libertarian direction.

Ryan Vann writes:

I'd definitely do a seastead sort of deal, maybe a tropic island stead (to generate some cash, I could put a resort or two on it). I would also selectively invite like minded people, with decent assets to buy parcels and see if we could create a libertarian society.

Alex J. writes:

To promote liberty I would spend the money creating a freely accessible medical database and expert system, an AI doctor on the web. It would be hosted in some tiny nation(s) to evade liability and licensing restrictions. The site would help people diagnose their own illnesses. It would recommend further tests with stats to let you know the expected value of the additional information. Insofar as possible, it would recommend treatment or medications. Possibly we could tie in with Mexican or Caribbean pharmacies to make some money back. The site would use statistics and publicly available medical studies to make it easy(er) for people to make informed decisions about their health without needing to deal with the formal medical sector.

It would help Americans see beyond the current boundaries of our medical system and also help people in poor areas get access to much more medical knowledge than they otherwise would.

To reduce liberty, I'd give the money to some large bureaucracy and let the institutional incentives go to work. Perhaps I'd endow resentment studies professorships across the land. Or I could just give the money to the New York Times to keep them in business for a while longer.

The Sheep Nazi writes:

Ah, a billion dollars, divided by five hundred thirty eight Congress critters times two thousand dollars a night for a decent DC hooker times about a hundred and fifty days a year when they're actually in session, carry the two...hmmm. That's roughly six years' worth of blessed relief all around. We could do worse.

ab writes:

Lobby hard for payroll tax elimination, lower corporate income taxes, and a restructuring of regulations. In addition to highlighting the benefits of such changes, do it during a celebrity sex scandal so that many constituents are distracted thus raising the possibility of the legislation passing.

For statism, I'd probably employ a similar strategy spreading propaganda about a "class war" and making the usual statements about how government can end the class war through typical statist policies.

Do I pass?

R. Richard Schweitzer writes:

So far the most effective move would not be to "spread it around," but to follow the Soros example and fund a Tax Exempt organization which could gather in other funds.

It would then engage in the "seduction" of our real government (which is made up of the unelected staffers, etc.) by providing means of rotating in and out of service with financial gains and status upgrades for each step so long as the basic objectives are either fomented or preserved whilst the person is in service.

This is basically the "Soros Modus" which is supplemented by some socializing privileges with those of public reknown, in order to carefully craft a sizeable segment of the new Political Class.

So, the systems would be quite similar.

R. Richard Schweitzer

Sridhar Loke writes:

I think $1Billion is too little to make any significant long term change. So, my (good) idea would be to split that amount into two. One part could be used to raise funds for the cause.

The 2nd one should be used to start an "anti special interest" lobby group. Just the name is sufficient to make sure that the propaganda against the cause is minimal. The lobby group should have a motto to support "common consumers" and should focus on attacking and new protectionist bills that help select manufacturers and hurt the consumers. The negative impact on consumers should be heavily advertised to common public in order to make sure they understand that any politician supporting any such bill is clearly robbing the common consumer.

The lobby group should highlight how the domestic industry is inefficient and how the representatives of those industries are doing nothing to improve themselves but rather relying on politicians to bail them out at the expense of everyone else.

While there are several other "statist" activities that could be addresses, I believe this would help the common people understand the true cost of protectionism. That would, hopefully, pave the way for other libertarian principles to be accepted in the longer run.

For the extra credit, I would take the $1 billion and spend it on myself. The state and the current forces are doing enough to expand "Statism". I would just wait for a year or two and take cerdit for the increase of the role of state, just like the state takes credit for everything good that they it doesn't deserve.

Jeff Harding writes:

Definitely the Soros model. It would be a unique opportunity to fund a series of TV ads to influence public opinion and raise money through the Internet as does MoveOn. This would put pressure on Congress and then you send in your lobbyists. The only difference is the MoveOn has a larger philosophical base than do the libertarians. So, a broader message based on common free market issues would be needed to bring in conservatives.

steve writes:

I would have to agree with R. Richard that the Soros model would appear to be the most effective known strategy.

But, I would primarily fear that it wouldn't work as well for libertarians since it goes against the grain of the beuracrats immediate basic interests unlike Soros's apparent goals.

I think I would modify the strategy to target state governments instead of Washington with the hopes that the state beurocrats will often find there own interests opposed to those of Washington. Ultimately, the goal would be developing more polycentric power centers in addition to reducing the overall size of government.

GU writes:
"Lobbying for structural policy changes that help constrain state or federal governments (think Prop 13 tax limitations . . ."

Prop. 13 is terrible policy. It incentivizes people to stay in their houses even when it is inefficient (to avoid paying higher property taxes on moving to a more efficient (w/o taxes) property).

Moreover, Prop. 13 doesn't really cap taxes, it just shifts them onto new homebuyers—precisely the group that can least afford to pay them in most cases.

If you want to cap property taxes, do it for everyone, not just established and usually wealthier homeowners. And at the federal level, which is what Bryan was asking about, spending is the problem. Starve the beast has been falsified—the feds will deficit spend, inflate, etc. regardless of tax receipts. Real spending cuts are what is needed at the federal level.

Sorry for the off-topic post, but the "Prop. 13 is good tax policy" meme needs to be killed.

Matt writes:

Don't spend it in Washington, DC; give $100 million each to the secession movements in Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont, Washington State, and Texas. Spend the rest of the money on a national umbrella organization that would coordinate a national agenda of secession followed by reconfederation. The Federal government is unreformable; it'd be easier to start over with a blank slate that doesn't have 200 years worth of convoluted justifications for "legally" violating obvious constitutional restrictions.

David C writes:

Excellent question. I'm surprised at the answers. Most have revolved around institutional changes to advance long-term libertarian interests, but little thought is given as to which libertarian interests to advance. Do you tackle health care, the military, education, etc.?

My suggestion would be immigration reform. The only opposition to the reform is general public sentiment. There's no major companies making money off of illegals. It would help out a whole bunch of people in a way that the welfare state never could by giving them the ability to move up in America.

As for statism, privatizing the jail system would probably be best. It would create a whole new lobbying organization dedicated to continuing to grow the size of government.

Patri Friedman writes:

Spending it in DC would be a terribly inefficient way to advance liberty. Comparable to cutting emissions as a way of fighting global warming.

The problem is not that libertarians don't spend enough money lobbying. It's that the incentives of democracy don't produce freedom. To think you can fight long-term systematic bad incentives with a short-term infusion of cash is to be totally ignorant of public choice theory.

Use it for structural activism - buy a third-world country, build a seastead, start a charter city.

Patrick writes:

I'd use it to update Thomas.gov to something more 21st century like database that can take advantage of networks of people working on it. Something that makes it easier for networks to allow a more easily searchable and linkable database in a variety of formats, along with seeding new software projects to better interact with it. I want something that can, in almost real time, be able to see legislation as it's happening. All the deals. All the language and revisions. Everything. A database that can show how everything interacts, and how changes would affect us and the code of law. The goals of this project would be better access to the legislative process by the people, better more cleaner version of laws, and a more in depth knowledge of just what is being passed.

Then I'd establish a strong network for individuals throughout the country who would work on a small small portion of each bill that comes through to make sure that it was integrated into our database, see changes to the bill as it goes along, and be able to provide good explanations of what the bill is doing.

The ultimate goal is to remove barriers that exist between the public, the law, and the law making process. Right now, laws are difficult to interact with, often in archaic and specific language, and the impact of any given change is difficult to see. There are a lot of people who do care about these small changes, and many do have either the time or the expertise to go through these complicated bills and make them understandable. Building the tools to enable these people would be a great help towards building political pressure to prevent anti-liberty legislation. It's one thing to say to our congressmen that we want this or that, it's entirely different when you can point to a specific subsection of a piece of law, and be able to give a nuanced reason why you're in favor or against some small change that will impact us in a big way.

Then I'd spend 950 million dollars on something nice for myself.

Actually, Julian Sanchez talked about the importance of microlevel versus macro level constraints and changes with regards to civil liberties. Too often we focus on macro level constraints for civil liberty expansion, are there any microlevel ones we can be working on? How can we influence those?

E. Barandiaran writes:

Teach to fish. Don't give fish away. Read my proposal again--you can do it in DC but also anywhere you like.

Evan writes:

Personally, I do not think that the majority of these suggestions would truly advance liberty. I think they attempt to tackle pet projects or already held political positions. I agree with many of these proposals, but I do not think they all truly advance liberty.

I am inclined to agree with the Soros advertising model for libertarian positions. But, for me, they should focus on what is possible, politically and fiscally. In other words, they should be eye catching and extremely practical. For instance, a solid one billion dollar advertising campaign to privatize the post office could be extremely effective. Along with that could come political pressure to make sure political candidates take a stance on the issue. Bigger issues like aggressive war, income tax rates, and statist health care delivery systems are fishes too big to fry with only one billion.

I also agree with the suggestion about pursuing a more concerted effort towards school vouchers in a specific region. One billion could go far in that realm.

Mike Kenny writes:

Maybe you spend the money paying an army of libertarian journalists to report on politicians. Show how the sausage is made. A billion dollars could pay 40,000 dollars on average to 25,000 journalists for a year's work.

Unit writes:

I would burn it. Thus reducing the amount of money in circulation and making everyone a little richer.

Joe Cushing writes:

I would start a campaign to teach people about liberty. Ultimately Washington would be forced to change. The reason we have big government is because people think it is good for them. People want "the government" to provide for them wile they give no thought as to where that money comes from or they think they can get more from the government than they pay in. I would push the public to demand a constitutional amendment limiting the size of government to a certain percentage of GDP--like maybe 10%.

Troy Camplin writes:

Sunset Law that made every extra-Constitutional law cease to exist after 10 years, meaning every single law on the books would have to be voted on again. And again. That would eliminate most laws over time. THe it would be increasingly likely that only the good ones would remain.

Jack O'Connor writes:

Could $1 billion accelerate the Free State Project enough to allow New Hampshire to secede from the Union?

My guess is that the worst case post-secession scenario would be a total embargo by the American federal government. (As opposed to military reannexation, which would hopefully lack popular support.) That worst case would be ameliorated somewhat by New Hampshire's Canadian border and Atlantic coastline.

The hope would be that New Hampshire's secession would make it more prosperous (America's response probably being the deciding factor) and spur other states to do the same.

I agree wholeheartedly with Matthew Gunn's analysis above, but I don't think that observing and quantifying harm will automatically internalize it. The surest way to internalize the cost of government is to make sovereignty local, and perhaps the best way to do that is a secession cascade.

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