Arnold Kling  

Political Freedom and Economic Freedom

Further Adventures with Econ V... Keynesianism vs. Pump Priming...

I have seen some discussion of the issue of the extent to which libertarians would trade off political freedom for economic freedom. I think some of the pieces were written by trolls, so I will not reward them with links.

I want to divide the measure of political freedom into at least two parts.

1. How does the government treat dissenters?

2. How fair are the elections?

I care a great deal about (1) and very little about (2).

On (1), I cannot imagine life in a country where dissidents are imprisoned or shot. The police state apparatus is horrifying. I cannot say enough bad things about governments that create an atmosphere where people fear to speak their mind.

On (2), I have shown a revealed preference not to care. I live in Montgomery County, which might as well be Communist as far as the local elections go. I mean, one party always wins--the Democrats. And within the party, the candidates nominated by the teacher's union always win, just as the candidates nominated by the Communist Party always won elections under Communism. Anyone who wants to live in a real democracy would not live here. But I have not moved. Ergo, I must not care much about real democracy.

To go on a bit, I don't care much about (2) because I don't think that elections are a good way to settle things. I think that competition in markets is a much better way to settle things.

I am not afraid of tyranny of the majority. In fact, I probably would prefer tyranny of the majority to what we have. The majority would have not wanted TARP, or Obamacare. What we have instead is elites who claim the mantle of a democratic mandate, and who then use the power of the state to force me to accept their policies. What I want instead is the ability to choose which elites from whom to take guidance on each issue, just as I can choose what type of cell phone to buy or which gym to join.

Democratic checks and balances are too weak for my taste. I think market checks and balances are more powerful. When the public did not like the Edsel, or New Coke, those products failed. It will be a great day when the public has that kind of power relative to the elites in government.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Andy writes:

I personally am very worried about the tyranny of the majority. The majority thinks, or has thought very recently (within your lifetime):
* Schools should organize "voluntary" prayer sessions
* It should be illegal to burn the flag
* Different races should not be allowed to marry
* Drugs should be illegal
* Immigration should be reduced
* The government should raise tariffs to "protect" American jobs
and many many more things that impinge directly on freedom.

steve writes:

I agree with everything you said here.

I would just mention one thing. I think the strongest possible check that can be placed on any form of government is a low cost right of exit.

Heck, eliminate the federal government and turn the states into seperate countries. California could be a peoples Republic and Massachusets a Kennedy monarchy. My bet is that they would over time become freer societies then what we have today so long as the borders remained just as porous as they are today.

Of course that's the rub, keeping the borders porous isn't an easy thing to do.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I don't understand your point about Montgomery County. Nobody really accuses it of being guilty of gerrymandering, do they?

If not - then is your argument just that uncontested districts aren't democratic? That seems odd.

I'm sure your argument has more to it than that, but I'm not quite sure what it is. Are you suggesting that something unfair is going on in Montgomery County such that if it were fair the election results would be different?

I've always figured a lot of Democrats just live in Montgomery County (I used to live there myself - that was always my assessment). I'm not sure why Democrats choosing to locate in a place and choosing to vote makes it "unfair" even if it is homogenous.

Arnold Kling writes:

What makes it unfair is how political power is exercised. The teachers' union picks who will run as a Democrat, and then the voters pick the teacher's union slate because they assume that Democrats are always right. It makes a mockery of the concept of democracy. Voters are not the ones making the choices.

Nathan Smith writes:

I am a fan of your idea of people choosing which government to live under, but I think you're taking it implausibly far in your suggestion that one could choose one's government without moving. When disputes arise, there must be clear answer to the question of whose jurisdiction applies, otherwise who will resolve the dispute?

Federalism and freedom of migration, however, are good ideas in part because it allows people to "vote with their feet" for which government they want to live under. But there are high "transactions costs" associated with that choice, and there's no escaping them.

PrometheeFeu writes:


I would place a little more value on fair elections. Yes, teacher unions may look like they get to appoint officials, but they are constrained in their picks. If the teachers were to pick someone who advocated a policy of "murdering everyone who disagrees with the democratic party platform and imprisoning their family", it is pretty unlikely that person would get elected.

I think the mistake that many people make is to believe that elections are made to allow "the people" to govern themselves. In reality, free and relatively fair elections serve as a feedback mechanism so if it gets bad enough that "the people" might rise up and violently oust the regime in power, instead "the people" just vote them out of office. Elections are not like the steering wheel on a car. They are more like the pressure valve on a steam engine.

Pandaemoni writes:

Suppose, hypothetically, that 90% of computers ran Microsoft Windows. Would that mean there's not a free market in business operating systems?

After all, Microsoft would decide what features the product should have, computer owners assume Microsoft makes good decisions (or at least adequate ones) and then they buy that product. I am not sure I would conclude that buyers are not the ones making choices. (And a voter can split a ticket, if they want to, I cannot "unbundle" the various features of an operating system and take only the ones I want.)

While I understand being frustrated that voters follow the lead of the union, and I can sympathize with the notion that voters do so because they aren't analyzing their choices in the way you feel they should (or that I might feel they should), I am not sure that that makes the election "unfair" in a fundamental sense. In fact, may well be that the voters do make informed choices, and that it is a product of our bias that we think "they would choose differently if they were better informed."

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

In the operation of most American politics, dominant minorities are more prevalent than majorities.

Illini writes:

Politics can often be influenced within single parties. Think about the emergence of capitalism within Communist China.

I live in Illinois, if I ever wanted to become a politician, I, though I identify much more closely to republicans, would easily choose to run as a democrat and would probably be able to win, all things equal.

Another Daniel writes:


I agree wtih the previous Daniel. As a fellow resident of Montgomery County (Silver Spring), if the populace votes for the candidate put up by the school boards, that's hardly enough to justify a claim against democracy (other than the claim that you feel that your fellow voters are unwise).

Also (of course I'm not asking for an exact number), how much brutalizing of protestors would I have to show that has taken place in Montgomery county before you would move?

David Friedman writes:

"I am a fan of your idea of people choosing which government to live under, but I think you're taking it implausibly far in your suggestion that one could choose one's government without moving. When disputes arise, there must be clear answer to the question of whose jurisdiction applies, otherwise who will resolve the dispute?"

I agree that there has to be an answer to what law applies to a dispute, but that answer doesn't have to be, and in real legal systems sometimes is not, determined by where the parties live. In the U.S. at present, a contract might specify that disputes are to be settled under the law of state X, even though neither party lives there. Historically, there have been lots of societies with polylegal systems, in which the applicable legal rules depended on questions other than geography. To take only one example, I don't believe that Welshmen in Wales were under English law until about the 16th c., although Englishmen in Wales were. How that particular system handled disputes between a Welshman and an Englishman I don't know, but there are a variety of possible solutions to that problem.

One can imagine a modern legal systems in which each person gets to choose which of N law enforcement agencies he is a client of, and each pair of such agencies agrees on the legal rules to apply to disputes between their clients. You don't get to choose whatever law you like--just as, on an ordinary market, you don't get the choice of buying things that nobody is selling. But you do get to choose among a variety of different legal systems. Without moving.

And, as on ordinary markets, the providers of legal systems have an incentive to offer ones that people want to live under.

For a more detailed description of such a system, see my Machinery of Freedom.

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