Arnold Kling  

Moral Authority, Continued

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Note Chris Dillow's cynical take:


Crony capitalism, then, is the only feasible form of capitalism.

Matt Mitchell writes,


My colleague Adam Thierer has assembled an interesting compendium of expert opinions on regulatory capture. The quotes show experts interested in grappling with incentives, not lecturing on the basis of moral authority. It is telling how many of the experts are more-naturally categorized as left-of-center than right-of-center.

So, I clicked through to the interesting compendium. Yes, Thierer catches Lawrence Lessig saying something right. But he could have quoted this, from the same op-ed:

President Obama should get Congress to shut down the FCC and similar vestigial regulators, which put stability and special interests above the public good. In their place, Congress should create something we could call the Innovation Environment Protection Agency (iEPA), charged with a simple founding mission: "minimal intervention to maximize innovation." The iEPA's core purpose would be to protect innovation from its two historical enemies--excessive government favors, and excessive private monopoly power.

...With a strong agency head, and a staff absolutely barred from industry ties, the iEPA could avoid the culture of favoritism that's come to define the FCC.

I hear that as saying, "With sufficient moral authority...."

Similarly, Thierer finds nice quotes from Thomas Frank, and he could have included others. And yet, Thierer leaves out this:


If the new missions of the regulatory agencies are defined clearly and their operations made transparent, it will limit the ability of some future regulator to mess things up.

Again, I hear "With sufficient moral authority..."

Or, listen to the recent podcast discussion between Russ Roberts and Joseph Stiglitz. They agree that rent-seeking through government is a problem. But Stiglitz says that political changes (he mentions campaign finance reform) can turn that around. He says that "we have done it before," talking about the evils of the 1920s that the New Deal served to correct.

Again, I hear, "With sufficient moral authority..."

In Thomas Sowell's terms, this represents the unconstrained vision, and the vision of the anointed. The anointed see the world, or believe that they see the world, with moral clarity, untainted by personal interest. Their vision is unconstrained, in that they do not accept that human frailty constrains the ability of government institutions to solve problems. With sufficient moral authority....

For those of you who missed it, here is my earlier post on the Moral Authority Test. My claim is that when the left and the right get together to denounce crony capitalism or rent-seeking, they may appear to agree. However, there is a fundamental difference. If moral authority is an independent historical force, which can operate through the institution of government, then it is our duty to devote ourselves to the causes of those who have moral authority. On the other hand, there are those of us who believe that government is an institution that is constrained to be flawed, because agents of government cannot possibly be fully informed (see the widely-unread Unchecked and Unbalanced, or The Era of Expert Failure) and because no incentive structure is robust enough to overcome the flaws inherent in the monopolistic character of government.

I am afraid that the two sides are doomed to talk past one another.


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
MG writes:

Arnold, another way in which Sowell's views illuminate this debate is as follows. As debated, cronyism is being framed as a mostly moral/values failure. If you believe that accept campaign finance reform can produce a governing body of un-self-interested politicians with the right intentions, then the moral problem can be fixed. But are we better off? This requires that we also care about results more than intentions. Will campaign finance reform also produce politicians with the ability to pick winners and losers? We take a risk that they won't do any better, and likely worse. And for how long will a form of governance that concentrates so much power in so few and similarly-minded people will perform morally?

Duncan Earley writes:

Both the left and right agree that Crony capitalism needs solving. The left say that more regulation is needed. The right say that will just cause more Crony capitalism. So what is the solution?

Joe Cushing writes:

Duncan Earley,

Seasteading: I think it is hopeless to get a libertarian society in America. The solution is to create new land on the open sea and inhabit that. Then when that becomes corrupt, do it again. 2/3 of the planet is ocean. Eventually land based nations will come to dominate the seasteads. That's when it's time to make a settlement on the moon and when that becomes corrupt--Mars. Hopefully when Mars becomes corrupted by the desire to take from one person in order to give to another, we will have warp drive and can settle in other solar systems.

Simone Simonini writes:

Is Lessig's approach terribly different from your ideas about principal-based regulation?

Peter writes:

Why does capitalism get the blame for govt intervention?

Why not "crony government, then, is the only feasible form of government"?

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