Bryan Caplan  

Dear Nationalism

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Dear Nationalism,

We've grown up together.  In a sense, you and I have been together our whole lives.  In a deeper sense, though, we've never been together.  I've tried to let you down easy a hundred times.  But subtlety doesn't work on you, Nationalism.  I don't want to hurt you.  But Nationalism, you're constantly hurting me.  The only way to protect myself, I'm afraid, is to tell you how I feel, loud and clear.

I know that I was born inside "your" national borders.  But I don't love you, Nationalism.  I don't even like you.  I don't want "patriotic solidarity" with you.  I want you to leave me alone.  Stop acting like you own me.  Stop calling me.  I don't want to be with you.  The mere fact that I haven't fled the country doesn't turn my "No" into a "Yes."

Do you know what you're like, Nationalism?  You're like medieval Religion.  In the bad old days, authorities assigned people a religion - and effectively forbade them quit.  Sometimes quitting was itself a crime.  In other cases, Religion expelled its exes from the country.  The common theme: Religion didn't take no for an answer.

In hindsight, the past abusiveness of Religion is plain.  But you're no better, Nationalism.  Violation is a way of life for you.  You're as unwilling to take no for an answer as the intolerant Religion of yesteryear.

Nationalism, I know you're itching to lecture me about how you're better than all the other Nationalisms out there.  That may be true, but it's no excuse for the way you treat me.  Stop talking like you own the house I live in, the air I breathe, or me.  You don't.  You never did.  Frankly, Nationalism, you make my flesh crawl.

Am I cruel?  No crueler than I have to be to make my wishes known.  There are plenty of fish in the sea, Nationalism.  Lots of them love you already.  Go have patriotic solidarity with them.  Just leave me out of it.  Goodbye.



COMMENTS (44 to date)
vikingvista writes:

I tried a similar speech on my neighborhood mugger. I think you'll get comparable response from Nationalism.

Mark E.V. writes:

Being a Trotskyist without rejecting capitalist notions of property rights, how's that working out for ya?

Hugh writes:

Writing a letter to an "'ism" doesn't make a whole lot of sense: who's going to reply?

I think you should write a "Dear Nation" letter. At least then people know where you are coming from and, hey, you might get a reply.

Pajser writes:

You do not have the problem with nation. You can easily leave the nation. You have the problem with national ownership of the territory. Because, even if you leave the nation and you stay in USA, you still must pay taxes, obey the law and so forth as long as you're on its territory.

It is exactly the same problem you have with your landlord, if he requires that you obey his rules. He is the owner, he is the boss. He doesn't take No for answer.

You can criticize national ownership of the territory, radical leftists do that all the time. But it is much harder from libertarian point of view, because you do not want to criticize property rights generally. How can one criticize national ownership of territory, and ensure that his argument cannot be applied on private property as well?

Greg Heslop writes:

@ Pajser,

Could you not argue the case for private and against collective property rights based on the widespread problems of collective action associated with the latter? Collective-action problems have implications also for moral philosophy.

I am thinking that individuals face very many ethical problems and have limited time, and so they will attempt to solve those problems which are of greatest importance and on which their action is likeliest to be pivotal.

So if property is privately held, this ensures that whatever moral thought one gives problems associated with one's private property is certainly going to matter, but if property is collectively held, one's efforts at its ethical use are unlikely to matter much.

Thus, the moral case for free immigration (or whatever one wishes to call it) gets no fair hearing because the vast majority of "property owners" face vastly more important problems, to which they rightly devote much more time. The more the sphere of collective property expands, the more moral thought is diluted.

mucgoo writes:

@pajser
If you leave the USA and ever want to return you better keep paying taxes.

Eric Dondero writes:

[Comment removed for multiple policy violations. --Econlib Ed.]

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

@Greg Heslop,

Strictly speaking, the national territory is not owned. It is simply occupied by the nation.

Ownership requires a framework of laws but the national territories are held by pure might of the occupier.

Now, a privately owned land within the national territory is secured by the laws of the nation. This is precisely what gives the nation a super-say over all the private property owners in the nation.

So Caplan is benefiting from security and the framework of laws provided by the nation. Is he securing or capable of securing his property against whatever world throws against him? Against invaders, against nuclear-tipped missiles?

James writes:

Bedarz:

If someone extorts me to buy a cookie and I then eat the cookie, I'm still being extorted right? It's the same for whatever the government provides.

I'm doubtful that Caplan could secure his own property. However, if hiring humans is an effective strategy to that end, Caplan could do that. On the other hand, if hiring humans is not an effective strategy then the government isn't really providing the security you speak of.

MikeP writes:

How can one criticize national ownership of territory, and ensure that his argument cannot be applied on private property as well?

The same way it was done before.

Private property allows individual actors the maximum control of the product of their capital and labor, and property over land is no exception. Critically, economic efficiency is maximized the more costs and benefits can be internalized. So the extent that rights over property, including land, internalizes costs and benefits is the extent of societal wealth and individual freedom. Empirically, there is very solid historical evidence that the more private property rights are recognized, the more wealthy and free a society is. And the more government abrogates private property rights, the less wealthy and free a society is. In those cases where governments grant themselves all authority over property, the results have been truly hellish.

There is absolutely no analogy for "state property over territory". The rule consequentialist argument for property is based on decentralized individual decision making. This is not merely orthogonal to any argument for government control: it is directly opposed to it.

Becky Hargrove writes:

I get that the context seems naive, but I like this post.

gbalella writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for ongoing policy violations. --Econlib Ed.]

Handle writes:

Dear Bryan Caplan,

Hi, it's Nationalism. I don't know why you had to call the rest of your roommates by this abstract collective term when you posted your 'breakup notice' on our refrigerator. You could just move to another apartment, you know? And this is especially odd for a Libertarian who is supposed to regard the individual as the fundamental unit of analysis. But, whatever, me and the other folks read your letter and they all asked me to tape this response next to yours.

First, look, the feeling is totally mutual. You've never been a very good roommate. We respect that you just want to be left alone in your sublet room and and never come out and socialize with the rest of it, and you pay your share of the rent and internet bill on time, so that's fine. But we'd prefer to live with someone who has more natural friendly feelings towards us and who we feel we can trust.

Whenever we try to figure out how we're going to set the house rules and share common spaces and chores and get along harmoniously, you are always arguing against the very 'legitimacy' of our efforts. Look man, I know you don't like scrubbing the toilet, but somebody's got to do it, the rest of us do it without grumbling about oppression and coercion because that's fair and reasonable, and once a week is not too much to ask!

Look, if it were up to me, I would make it easy for you to go get your own apartment, or to break this big mansion up into a duplex so you could hand out with your Virginian friends on your own half, and you could call yourselves by your own ism over there. More power to you! You should be helping me try to convince the rest of the roommates that this is a good idea, instead of undermining the very concept of 'isms'.

Because what you call 'Nationalism' the rest of us roommates call trying to get along with each other as well as possible and as more than just strangers no closer to each other than to anyone else in the world. Social cohesion and the elements which contribute to it is very important to the rest of us, even if it's not to people like you. Why should your views prevail over what most of your neighbors want and feel they benefit from?

Look, no one likes being pressured to conform to any community standard, we get it, it's part of the inherent frustration and tension between the individual living in a community. But that doesn't mean the standard itself is not a solution to a coordination problem that it social welfare / utility improving. The standard that helps a majority people will occasionally rub a minority the wrong way, but with some special exemptions for discrete and insular minorities, that is what happens both under democracy (we know you're not a big fan), but also out of a net social welfare analysis.

Ben Kennedy writes:

I am fascinated by stories of temporary armistices in war, notably the Christmas Truce of WWI in 1914. There is something hauntingly sad about ordinary troopers with ordinary lives and absolutely no qualms with each other putting down their guns and burying their dead, then a few days later getting back to blowing each other up at the behest of their political leaders. Go Nationalism.

Jeff writes:

Bryan,

Your open borders advocacy is an attack on the traditional concept of the nation state, as you well know. So who is aggressing against whom here? Who won't leave the other alone?

Matt H writes:

Brian,

Please read rule of the clan. I think the nation-state is a necessary evil. Without it we don't live in a libertarian utopia, we live in chaos in which the most powerful bands take what they want.

In the world with no nations the most united, likely ethnically and culturally homogenous group wins. Libertarian private property owners are killed and no one provides them with justice, because they have no clan.

Have a nice day!

Pajser writes:

Greg: "Could you not argue the case for private and against collective property rights based on the widespread problems of collective action associated with the latter? Collective-action problems have implications also for moral philosophy."

But you do not claim that collective action problems are so big that they invalidate all collective actions, do you? If you don't, then you do not argue against collective property rights, but against overuse of collective action. Which is as principle acceptable even to most rigid Stalinists.

If you believe that there is no beneficial collective action under the sun, look at my answer to MikeP bellow.

MikeP: "Private property allows individual actors the maximum control of the product of their capital and labor, and property over land is no exception."

Yes, you wrote that, but I thought I already answered you. You claim that private property allows maximal efficiency, while in fact it allows practically zero economic efficiency, if there is no state to limit private property rights. For those who didn't read my answer: every industrial production, mechanized agriculture and transport generates some chemical and electromagnetic pollution. If every individual is allowed to ban pollution of his property, it is enough to find few anarcho-primitivists, religious fanatics, psychopats ... who do not allow any pollution of their property (because pollution is not only negative externality, it is aggression) and they can stop whole industry on USA territory. Existing solution for the problem is that state nationalize some individual property rights and then allow reasonable pollution.

So, either you accept state property, and there is nothing left to prove for me, or efficiency of private property is practically zero, in which case it is easy to show that state can organize economy more efficiently.

MikeP writes:

Yes, you wrote that, but I thought I already answered you.

And I already responded.

Existing solution for the problem is that state nationalize some individual property rights and then allow reasonable pollution.

That is not the existing solution at all. I seriously doubt you can find language anywhere in Anglo-American jurisprudence or US legislation or regulation that talks about the state nationalizing individual property rights.

Rather the solution is that the state mediates some individual property rights conflicts with the goal of maximizing freedom and wealth. Thus, for example, harmless radio waves are not part of the bundle of property rights in land because they in no way affect or are bound to the land. And unavoidable pollution on neighboring property can be fully compensated for in a Coasian bargain from the profits of a factory even over the objection of psychotic holdouts.

None of this requires any semblance of state property rights over state territory.

Greg Heslop writes:
"But you do not claim that collective action problems are so big that they invalidate all collective actions, do you? If you don't, then you do not argue against collective property rights, but against overuse of collective action. Which is as principle acceptable even to most rigid Stalinists."

My claim is that, if one wants to argue that private property is morally more justifiable than is collective property, a finding to the effect that private property rights are much less likely to lead to morally heinous results than are collective ones would constitute an argument against the latter and in favour of the former.

Since moral thought is diluted when no individual is very likely to be pivotal in a decision - as is the case for collectively held property - I believe that what I proposed in my first response to you above is such an argument.

I don't think I need to argue here that the problems of collective action are big enough to invalidate any idea of collective property. They are certainly big enough to justify drastic reductions in what the state ("the collective") is allowed to decide (i.e. reductions in collective property).

My argument supports shrinking the realm of collective property. I am not sure how far, but certainly, collective property should not extend to issues pertaining to migration.

Josh Terry writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for rudeness. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Dr Danicka Springfield Mason-Bagwell writes:

You almost never blog about specifically anarchism that I can recall. This is pretty close.

"If you don't like it, then you can just get out".

Where am I supposed to live, the ocean?

"Should have thought of that before you were born and raised as a citizen."

If there's option A, and then there's option-give-up-everything-you've-ever-known-or-loved, that's a good hint the decision might not be strictly voluntary.


Joshua writes:

What is nationalism? There's a lot of things I don't like that I think fall under that umbrella:

  • The idea that god loves Americans more than persons of other nationalities.
  • The idea that because I am an American, I am somehow better than a person from another country.
  • The idea that we must submit to the will of our leaders with little question just because they are OUR leaders.
  • The idea that we must love this group more than any other group or leave our homes.
  • The idea that I can not pay a person of my choosing to work for me simply because they are not American.

Am I happy to be an American? Absolutely, but I'm not proud of that fact any more than I'm proud of my ethnicity, my gender or any other accident of birth. I think America is a wonderful country as far as countries go, but I just don't understand the fervent patriotism that is often demonstrated by my fellows.

Pajser writes:
MikeP: "Rather the solution is that the state mediates some individual property rights conflicts with the goal of maximizing freedom and wealth. "
It would be true if every individual owner agreed about mediation. But it isn't the case - the state will define allowed pollution even for those who do not want any mediation. So, it is not only mediation. It can be legally formulated on different ways, but it is essentially, nationalization of some property rights.
"And unavoidable pollution on neighboring property can be fully compensated for in a Coasian bargain from the profits of a factory even over the objection of psychotic holdouts."
What happens to anarchoprimitivists who do not want to bargain? Polluter ignores their property rights? Possible, but then we do not have property rights, we have the right of the strongest.
Greg Heslop: "I don't think I need to argue here that the problems of collective action are big enough to invalidate any idea of collective property. They are certainly big enough to justify drastic reductions in what the state ("the collective") is allowed to decide (i.e. reductions in collective property)."
You don't know that a priori. You must list arguments pro and contra for every proposed political decision to estimate whether collective action is overall beneficial or not, where you can include argument you have against collective decision on your side. You cannot disqualify political process on the base of that argument, but you can use it in political process to influence decision in more libertarian direction. However, if conditions change, it is rational that state reconsider its previous decision. And it is possible only if state still owns the territory. Still, you have your argument; not against state ownership of the territory but for more libertarian laws.

Is it possible to turn the importance of pivotal role of individual against private property? Many individual actions have externalities. Externalities are small, numerous and noone has pivotal role (or he doesn't he have that role) in development of the consequences. Under assumption that pivotal role is important, people do not invest time and effort to understand the externalities. Isn't it rational, solely on the base of pivotal role argument to appoint someone to calculate cost and benefits of externalities and limit private property if he finds benefits for society are higher than cost? Such person would have pivotal role.

Mercer writes:

I think you should move to Brussels if you hate nationalism so much.

MikeP writes:

What happens to anarchoprimitivists who do not want to bargain? Polluter ignores their property rights? Possible, but then we do not have property rights, we have the right of the strongest.

You seem to think property rights over land are whatever the owner of the land says they are. Airspace over land? The land owner's to restrict. Radio waves crossing the land? The land owner's to restrict. Nominal but not unhealthy pollution? The land owner's to restrict. And the only alternative you see to such an absolutist formulation is that the state has property rights over its territory.

I'm sorry to fell your strawman, but I don't believe in absolutist property rights. That's why my prior comments explicitly expressed a rules consequentialist viewpoint.

If someone figures out how to fly an airplane high over someone's property, or pass radio waves through someone's property, or build a modestly polluting factory with great enough producer surplus that the 95th percentile neighbor is happy with a Coasian bargain, the holdout property owner cannot rightfully induce market failure simply by overstating the cost of these activities to him. He needs to prove the cost before he can prevent these activities. Hence the state's role here is adjudication among the conflicting rights.

Note that nothing in this construction requires the state to have any property interest in this whatsoever. It is individuals' property rights that are being adjudicated, not the state's.

Brendan writes:

Except Anglo-Saxon nationalism has a reason to be proud for it because of the culture it contributed like common law, property rights, and decentralization.

MikeP writes:

The comments are getting downright amusing.

Bryan is not stating a problem with the fact that nations exist or with the product of nations. He objects to Nationalism -- i.e., the holding of the collective defined as a nation above other collectives and, specifically, above individuals.

"Anglo-Saxon nationalism" is almost a self parody, as its name combines two conquering peoples that were completely conquered by a third and a fourth, and then ascribes the subsequent contributions to nationalism. The cultural contributions cited would be better called "Islandism", since the only thing in common were that they arose in Britain. (Don't forget Scotland's part in those contributions!)

How about "Briton-Roman-Anglo-Saxon-Dane-Norman-Pict-Scot nationalism"? That's at least more accurate.

Taeyoung writes:

Lovely having you, good bye! Where will you be going? Hong Kong? Canada? Lichtenstein? Hope you find a land that conforms better to your prejudices -- that's the wonderful thing about living in a world of so many different polities, after all. If you can persuade others you're not more trouble than you're worth, you can find pretty much anything you want.

Oh, but do remember to pay the wealth tax on the way out -- a disagreeable business, but our government will extract its pound of flesh as you walk out the door.

Thaddeus writes:

I read it in the voice of Allen Ginsberg, it kind of reminds me of his poem America; feels like you're addressing the same people. Though his a bit more poetic...

Pajser writes:

MikeP: "You seem to think property rights over land are whatever the owner of the land says they are."

Owner is one who has the right to use the land, and the right to decide whether others will use the land. Flying above the land is questionable, you are right, because it is really not clear how "tall" is the land. But any physical contact with land without permission of land owner is breaking of the property rights.

You propose that individual owner has something to prove according to someone elses criteria. Lets say that "legislative body" defines criteria. Let us imagine that the legislative body is initially 100% libertarian and it proclaims "individual owner has all property rights." It turns that evil individuals use their property rights to turn off cell phones. Then, legislative body proclaims "everyone can use cell phones." Obviously, individual owners lost one property right over land. But who has that property right now? Owners of cell phones do not - if they do, one of them will again ban use of the cell phones. Cell phone owners have only right to use the land. Legislative body has that property right. On the base of that right it decided whether cell phones can be used. It is nationalization.

Admittedly, not much of nationalization. But enough for my claim that efficiency argument can be turned against private property.

MikeP writes:

It turns that evil individuals use their property rights to turn off cell phones.

I'll take this to mean that they place on their property a device that jams cellular signals crossing their land.

Then, legislative body proclaims "everyone can use cell phones."

From a rule consequentialist standpoint, this is not the role of the legislature. This determination would be the result of common law derived from courts adjudicating cases brought by those who thought they were wronged by the jamming. But I'll grant that the result is the same: property owners cannot jam cell phone signals crossing their land.

Obviously, individual owners lost one property right over land. But who has that property right now?

I would argue that no one lost any property right over land. Some jerks find out that cell phone signals cross their land and intentionally go out of their way to block those signals. But before cell phone signals existed, it never occurred to anyone to block such signals. Therefore doing so is not exercising a property right over land.

Indeed, those who brought cell phones -- and radio transmission in general -- into being effectively invented new property rights, namely, the right to transmit over a certain frequency over a certain large geographic area. People who intentionally block those signals because they happen to harmlessly cross their land are violating that new right.

Just as human ingenuity brings new resources from nothing, so human ingenuity might bring new property rights from nothing. These rights accrue because a newly invented property exists to protect. They do not accrue from transfer of existing property rights in land in some zero-sum rights game.

And, once again, nothing here requires the state to have any property right whatsoever. By adjudicating in favor of the cell phone company, the state merely recognizes the cell phone company's right to transmit a harmless signal across the aggrieved party's land.

MikeP writes:

Of course, the hypothesis that evil individuals use their property rights to turn off cell phones makes this case pretty black-and-white.

Let's instead say the jamming was an accident. Let's say that a property owner has a ham radio transmitter on his land that is unintentionally interfering with cell signals crossing his land. Now we have an interesting case.

The ham radio operator was there first. He is actually doing something useful. Everything he is doing happens on his land. Nonetheless, millions of dollars of "can you hear me now" reliability is lost because of his hobby.

What's the likely result here? The cell phone company buys a narrow band filter to place on the ham radio transmitter so it no longer interferes with cellular signals. The ham radio operator still has his radio. And the cell phone company has their millions of dollars of useful signal. This would likely be the result whether or not the case went to court: it's the obvious Coasian solution.

But if it went to court, the judgment would add to case law that would end up finding that noisy ham radio transmitters were a priori violating the more valuable rights of cell phone operators, no matter where they were bought or where they were set up. Cell phone companies could then bring suit against ham radio manufacturers that sold noisy transmitters. And the economically efficient result would come to fruition.

And, critically, yet again, all this happens without any state right in property at all.

LR writes:

I just love stereotypes based on pre-1950s research on the Spanish Inquisition. Of course, all research on the topic was "settled" at that time and has not been conducted in earnest since.

Oh wait: http://www.amazon.com/The-Spanish-Inquisition-Historical-Revision/dp/0300078803

Otherwise, great "letter." Economic nationalism is destructive.

Greg Heslop writes:
"You don't know that a priori. You must list arguments pro and contra for every proposed political decision to estimate whether collective action is overall beneficial or not, where you can include argument you have against collective decision on your side. You cannot disqualify political process on the base of that argument, but you can use it in political process to influence decision in more libertarian direction. However, if conditions change, it is rational that state reconsider its previous decision. And it is possible only if state still owns the territory. Still, you have your argument; not against state ownership of the territory but for more libertarian laws."

I agree that my argument, if it works, is not necessarily an argument against any idea of collective property. But talking just about the issue of immigration, I believe my argument suggests that private property owners' decisions should take precedence over those of owners of "collective property".

"Is it possible to turn the importance of pivotal role of individual against private property? Many individual actions have externalities. Externalities are small, numerous and noone has pivotal role (or he doesn't he have that role) in development of the consequences. Under assumption that pivotal role is important, people do not invest time and effort to understand the externalities. Isn't it rational, solely on the base of pivotal role argument to appoint someone to calculate cost and benefits of externalities and limit private property if he finds benefits for society are higher than cost? Such person would have pivotal role."

I don't think this objection works. My argument claimed that private property makes individuals more invested in decisions of moral importance which are relevant to their property. So any externality which comes out of how I use my property will affect how I use my property, since I am concerned about moral issues.

For instance, the smoke that invades my neighbour's garden when I barbecue, if I were ever to barbeque, is an externality which comes out of the way I use my property. I might choose to restrict my activities based on this knowledge. But if, say, one million people controlled the grill and none of them had more than a proportionate say in how the grill should be used so that the appearance of thick smoke in the neighbour's garden could not be traced to one particular individual (not even traced by that individual), I would expect moral thought to be severely diluted as a result.

To the extent that externalities cause problems in the real world, it may be due to individual property owners' thinking their contribution to the externalities morally unimportant (or they may be ethically challenged).

MikeP writes:

Pajser,

This morning NPR had a very timely piece on drone operators trying to claim a slice of altitude they could freely fly in. The fact that that slice exists was introduced by examples exactly analogous to my two cell phone interference examples.

The question at the core of the battle: who owns the air?

It's a question that goes back to the middle ages, to a Latin phrase that translates to "he owns the soil owns up to the heavens." In England, this phrase was the law of the land for centuries, and it worked well when disputes involved simple things like overhanging tree branches and lopsided buildings.

Here is your position: that private property in land means a property right over every conceivable thing, known or unknown, that can be conceivably bound to or measured by that land.

But once hot air balloons and airplanes came into the picture, things got a lot more complicated. In 1926, Congress created what we now call the FAA, and declared that the air above 500 feet is the public domain.

This is the trivial case. Someone invents something useful that causes no harm to someone's use of their property in land, so they are allowed to use it -- even at the cost of part of a prior formulation of a property right that has no use and was never exercised.

And note that the high altitudes are public domain -- not state property, but a commons. The state does not require a property right at all: it merely adjudicates others' property rights.

But what about the air below that?

Thomas Causby was a chicken farmer in North Carolina who lived near a tiny airport. During World War II, the army took over the airport, and suddenly big military planes were flying over Causby's chicken coops all the time. The planes scared Causby's chickens. They flew into the walls of the coop and they died.

Causby sued the government, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In the end, the Court sided with Causby, ruling that landowners own the sky above their homes up to at least 83 feet.

Here we have the interesting case. The new devices that fly in the air are actually interfering with a prior exercised use of the land below. And here is where the state's role to adjudicate conflicting rights really comes into play. The courts decided that the right to property in land meant aircraft have to stay at least 25 meters above it.

Again, no claim by the state of any property right over its territory is implied or required.

dL writes:

Dear Handle (aka Nationalism):

Please be advised to cease and desist with your conflation of war, mass murder, mass imprisonment, mass deportation, mass spying, totalitarian social control, arrogation of global jurisdiction, mass looting, doublethink and manic sociopathy with "the community."

Sincerely, "The Community"

P.S. The regime is not civilization and never has been. Rather, the orientation of the regime is war, a fact that is so plainly obvious except to the blinders of Nationalism.

Pajser writes:
Greg: "I don't think this objection works. My argument claimed that private property makes individuals more invested in decisions of moral importance which are relevant to their property. So any externality which comes out of how I use my property will affect how I use my property, since I am concerned about moral issues."
But you don't have pivotal role. Your argument is that without certainty that individual decision matters, individual is not interested in the problem. For instance, individual sells tobacco in his shop. He have heard about externalities, but he does not have pivotal role. If he stop selling tobacco, the consumer will buy it in other shop. Under your assumption, people who sell tobacco do not invest much time in thinking about morality. But individual appointed to regulate tobacco trade think more seriously about subject, because his decision matters.
Mike P.: "Indeed, those who brought cell phones -- and radio transmission in general -- into being effectively invented new property rights, namely, the right to transmit over a certain frequency over a certain large geographic area. People who intentionally block those signals because they happen to harmlessly cross their land are violating that new right."
I agree that radio transmission, when invented, had potential to develop into completely new domain of the property rights. But I don't think there was no overlap with property rights existing before. Owners of the land had the right to prevent physical contact with their land, even if it is harmless. One cannot trespass my land without my permission because it makes him more efficient and he doesn't hurt me. Hence, every judgment on the base of property rights had to be against emitters. That is where we disagree. You believe that court can make pro-emitter decisions without new, property restricting law.
Greg Heslop writes:
"But you don't have pivotal role. Your argument is that without certainty that individual decision matters, individual is not interested in the problem. For instance, individual sells tobacco in his shop. He have heard about externalities, but he does not have pivotal role. If he stop selling tobacco, the consumer will buy it in other shop. Under your assumption, people who sell tobacco do not invest much time in thinking about morality. But individual appointed to regulate tobacco trade think more seriously about subject, because his decision matters."

The individual externality-generating property-holder does care about his contribution to the common pool problem, a contribution for which he is certainly pivotal. It is true, however, that he may be very unlikely to cut back on his externality-generating activities if his contribution is very small, since he will (rightly) think that his contribution makes no-one worse off.

But this problem is just as bad when it comes to collective decision-making (if not worse since externality problems can often be solved through privatization), since individuals, in their capactity as partakers in a collective decision, are not nearly as morally invested as they are when they take care of their own property. This means that the appointed regulator is likely to be the one most appealing to the extremely diluted moral thought of the average voter.

I suppose if, say, ten or twenty (at most) individuals were drawn randomly from the population to make a collective decision for the entire population, they may be sufficiently morally invested. I recall reading a proposal similar to this one before. It may have been on this blog, but I cannot find the source.

Pajser writes:

Greg:

If you are satisfied with pivotal role in contribution to the solution of some externality problem, then there is a symmetry with voting. Individual who doesn't drive car because such pollution causes small number of cancers has pivotal role in his own decision, but in outcome - number of people who'll get cancer - likely not. Individual who votes for restriction of the car use contributes to the outcome. He has pivotal role in his own contribution. Whether his contribution will be pivotal in outcome - likely not.

"This means that the appointed regulator is likely to be the one most appealing to the extremely diluted moral thought of the average voter."

Actually, it is true only for small number of politically charged issues. The state make thousands of complicated decisions daily, and few voters have the clue about these decisions. They only want that these are made by uncorrupted experts, who have, in that case, pivotal role. So, pivotal role can be used in support of the reduction of private property.

Greg Heslop writes:
Actually, it is true only for small number of politically charged issues. The state make thousands of complicated decisions daily, and few voters have the clue about these decisions. They only want that these are made by uncorrupted experts, who have, in that case, pivotal role. So, pivotal role can be used in support of the reduction of private property.

I'm not sure about this. If few people have any idea what's going on, why would they - not being pivotal - even begin to check whether decisions really are made by uncorrupted experts? Better excert their moral efforts where they are likely to make a difference. Meanwhile, those experts are captured by pressure groups (although this may not always be a bad thing).

Relatedly, how pivotal is an individual elected politician likely to be? Far more than the typical citizen, surely, but how often does his vote really matter ("tip the scale") in the assembly? Maybe their moral thought is also diluted by the facts of how decisions are made? (Or maybe not.)

Pajser writes:
Greg: "I'm not sure about this. If few people have any idea what's going on, why would they - not being pivotal - even begin to check whether decisions really are made by uncorrupted experts? "
It is the bright side of collective action. Issue is simple, there is consensus that corruption and incompetence is bad. Hence, for each case of corruption or incompetence brought to voters attention, by media or personal experience, voters need only to react on "gut level" - and ruling party loses some votes. In the best political systems people made, one can disagree with government policy, but there is little remaining incompetence and corruption in government.
"Relatedly, how pivotal is an individual elected politician likely to be? "
For instance, in parliamentary systems, leader of the ruling party is usually prime minister and he also controls the parliament. (Members of parliament and his party who do not obey his decisions are expelled from party and have little chance on next elections.) He has pivotal role in most important decisions. But one of his incentives is to be popular in party and public. So, one can say that he is not "truly pivotal" but then we need some term for that.


catcatcat writes:

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Greg Heslop writes:
"It is the bright side of collective action. Issue is simple, there is consensus that corruption and incompetence is bad. Hence, for each case of corruption or incompetence brought to voters attention, by media or personal experience, voters need only to react on "gut level" - and ruling party loses some votes. In the best political systems people made, one can disagree with government policy, but there is little remaining incompetence and corruption in government."

I think this is much too rosy a picture. I can easily come up with examples of corruption and incompetence among politicians being positive forces in the world. For instance, if it is very difficult to start a new business, a small bribe can save an entrepreneur plenty of time. It would be better to make it easier to start a new business, but failing that, bribery is probably "good". If the relevant politician is too incompetent to do his job, that saves the bribe and so would be even better.

Whether incompetence and corruption are "bad" really depends on what legislation there is to begin with, issues on which, again, no-one has an incentive to spend a lot of moral thought.

"For instance, in parliamentary systems, leader of the ruling party is usually prime minister and he also controls the parliament. (Members of parliament and his party who do not obey his decisions are expelled from party and have little chance on next elections.) He has pivotal role in most important decisions. But one of his incentives is to be popular in party and public. So, one can say that he is not "truly pivotal" but then we need some term for that."

Thanks for the info. I may look further into these things in future. But based on what little I do know, I would say expulsion for disagreeing with heads of parties is not very common, and that such disagreement will sometimes benefit the politician. (Maybe this varies by country?)

I think your final two sentences that I quoted may turn out to be quite important. If even the PM is not "truly pivotal", maybe many common circumstances make his opinion rather inconsequential?

Also, as you say, the PM must appeal to the public, whose every individual member has very little incentive to excert moral thought when making the decision on whom to elect as Prime Minister. This sounds to me like a situation conducive to generating Prime Ministers of less-than-average ethical judgement.

sevi writes:

Thanks for writing this...

As a Catalan living in Scotland I needed to hear something like this!

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