David R. Henderson  

A Partial Defense of David Friedman

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Scott Alexander, about whom both David Friedman and co-blogger Bryan Caplan have raved, has a lengthy book review of David's The Machinery of Freedom. As I write this, there are 479 comments on his post and I looked only at about the first 100 or so to see if anyone was making the point I want to make. I didn't find it, so I'll make it here.

I don't want to try to defend David's belief in anarcho-capitalism from Mr. Alexander's critique, because I suspect David will do a better job than I would, partly based on David's awesome intellect and partly based on the fact that I'm not sure anarcho-capitalism would work either, which is why I'm not an anarcho-capitalist.

I do want to defend David from one of Alexander's criticisms, however. Alexander quotes the following from David's book:

Suppose that one hundred years ago someone tried to persuade me that democratic institutions could be used to transfer money from the bulk of the population to the poor. I could have made the following reply: "The poor, whom you wish to help, are many times outnumbered by the rest of the population, from whom you intend to take the money to help them. If the non-poor are not generous enough to give money to the poor voluntarily through private charity, what makes you think they will be such fools as to vote to force themselves to take it?

Alexander has a semi-good critique:
I think I have a good answer to this question. Nobody's vote makes very much difference, so people are happy to vote for signaling/psychological reasons rather than financial ones. If casting my vote to help the poor makes me feel like a good person, but losing money in redistribution schemes makes me poorer, well, my vote 100% determines whether I feel good or not, but only 1/300-million determines whether I get poorer. This might also be profitably mapped onto construal level theory, ie Robin Hanson's Near Mode vs. Far Mode.

As I said, it's semi-good. After all, we do have many programs that help the poor, as Alexander goes on to point out.

But why the "semi?" Because it isn't enough to vote for politicians (we rarely get to vote directly to help the poor) who say they will implement programs to help the poor. If we're voting for "signaling/psychological reasons," then we are unlikely to put much time into actually making sure that the programs work. And we're also unlikely to put much time into defending the poor and near-poor from the predatory state. Many people have written about how predatory the Ferguson, Missouri city government is and so I won't take time to give you the links. And I've written about how the drug war does a lot to put people in the bottom one percent.

The argument has often been made that helping the poor is a public good. There's something to that. But if the government sets up programs that ostensibly help the poor, we simply shift the public good problem. Now the public good is monitoring the government. Just as we had an incentive to free-ride on the charitable activities of others, creating too little charity, so also when the government runs programs, we have an incentive to free-ride on the monitoring activities of others, creating too little monitoring.


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
TMC writes:

I think that it's more that people want to help the poor, but don't want to be the sucker who's doing ALL of the good. When you vote for redistribution it is everyone or no one.

Dan Hill writes:

The only problem with this whole discussion is that the mass of voters are middle class and are voting mostly for policies to transfer money to themselves. The political trick is to dress it up as helping the poor, so it serves the dual purpose of signalling that "I'm not just voting for this out of self-interest."

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I think TMC is right although it's also that people think others ought to support the poor. So it's not just avoiding being a sucker, it's policing shirking of these responsibilities.

I would think, though, that the monitoring problem is at least as easy to solve as the poor provision problem. There is always more public clamoring for disciplining state actors than providing for the poor in my experience.

Matt Skene writes:

As a practical issue for libertarians, I think this is further reason for us to start paying more attention to moral concerns about helping those in need. "You're not entitled to my money" is probably true, but indicative of a petulant immorality that is hard to stand up for. "We've got this covered" is an impressive response of adults who have proven they don't need the government to solve social problems. The calling card of libertarians really ought to be "make government useless" rather than "get rid of government programs even though lots of people have become dependent on them." The libertarian vision of private efforts solving social problems won't continue to appear utopian if it's actually put into action. It will also make compassionate people more willing to embrace libertarianism.

John T. Kennedy writes:

David, I don't see anything in your rebuttal/criticism that contradicts the passage you cited from Alexander. It doesn't appear to be an argument for why people should vote to help the poor, it appears to be an explanation of why they do. And it sounds much like arguments in Bryan's _The Myth of the Rational Voter_.

I'll get around to reading Alexander's whole piece though.

John T. Kennedy writes:

Reading on I think he is making the error you claim, it just isn't illustrated in the passage you cite.

Tom West writes:

Just as we had an incentive to free-ride on the charitable activities of others, creating too little charity, so also when the government runs programs, we have an incentive to free-ride on the monitoring activities of others, creating too little monitoring.

Nothing to add here, except my that's an excellent point. And moreso with the decline of media who had budgets to perform often expensive investigations when either officials or programs had gone off the rails.

JK Brown writes:
Under these circumstances, it may be asked, if all that is so evident, how do you account for the fact that any responsible statesman can give in his adherence to such a cause? Well, there are, it seems to us, several reasons why a statesman maybe led astray into these devious paths. In the first instance, let us point to the fact that the country is betrayed into Socialism. English politicians are generally hand-to-mouth gentlemen. They rarely care to inquire into the remote consequences of their legislative acts. A politician who looks beyond his nose is dubbed "a doctrinaire." And, consequently, this hand-to-mouth legislation has produced a large amount of Socialistic legislation in the past. Many of the measures which are mooted now only seem the natural development of the measures which were passed yesterday. That is one reason. But there is another. There is a great deal of Socialistic opinion in men's minds at the present time. There never was an age with less firmness of purpose and more frailty of belief. Many doctrines which used to be thought of as founded upon rocks are now thought to be on sand. "Freedom of Trade " used to be regarded as almost a sacred Liberal doctrine. No hand is now thought impious that is laid upon this old corner-stone. The conditions of the poor, as compared with the wealth and luxury of the rich, are not more deplorable than they used to be: as a fact, they are less so; but the contrast is better seen and more thoroughly appreciated. All these things have led to the founding of much popular hope upon State help, and may well account for the adoption of Socialism as a creed even by ex-Cabinet Ministers. p8.

Socialism and Legislation, The Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review, January 1886.

What that passage says about English politicians can be said about the average voter today.

J Bowman writes:

Away from the main topic.

Helping the poor a 'public good' argued by some: on what basis?

A good, as far as I understand the word, is a tangible thing which is produced and is transferable (in exchange).

Help is an intangible like harm - if helping the poor be a public good, then so be harming the poor. However if 'aid' is substituted for 'help' it may be recognisable as a generic good... food, clothing, medicines, money.

However such things are excludable and rivalrous so aid cannot be a 'public' good.

Helping/aid is called charity - another abstract.

It certainly is possible to make plenty of money out of charity, just look at the fat bank balances of 'charities', the six figure salaries their executives receive and generous expense accounts and money spent on corporate capture.

There are also private enterprises engaged by the State to 'redistribute' wealth and they certainly make a profit.

But back to the main topic: why do people vote for compulsory donations to de facto State charity rather than give themselves a warmer fuzzier, feeling from voluntary contribution to private charity?

Surely they vote for the former on the clear understanding they will be a net recipient of State charity, because that is precisely what the politicians promise them with their various State sponsored programmes from education, healthcare to infrastructure and jobs.

Tom West writes:

But back to the main topic: why do people vote for compulsory donations to de facto State charity rather than give themselves a warmer fuzzier, feeling from voluntary contribution to private charity?

How about the obvious - most human beings are by their very nature empathic. Seeing human suffering causes them suffering. The closer and more exposed they are to that suffering, the more that suffering causes them unhappiness.

Sure, helping others directly gives a little ego-boo, but that's dwarfed by the fact the fact that the alleviation of suffering in others is in itself a strong positive, and taxes are perceived as the most efficient way to alleviate that suffering.

C'mon, that's human nature 101. It's not universal, but it's so wide spread that if you're don't understand that, you're missing a major motivation of many, if not most, human beings.

Zeke5123 writes:

I don't buy the prisoner's dilemma offered in the comments here and at SSC. People don't vote for charity/abstain from personal charity because state charity solves a collective action problem. People vote for charity because their vote is meaningless and therefore low cost, but giving to charity actually has a cost.

AS writes:
I think that it's more that people want to help the poor, but don't want to be the sucker who's doing ALL of the good. When you vote for redistribution it is everyone or no one.
Coercing others to contribute to your goals is still coercion. Do-gooders are free to form voluntary clubs to achieve their goals. The problem with voting on charity is it presumes that everyone has the same preferences over the State's role in charity. Only if the voting is unanimous does it respect differences in preferences over public goods. But right now a majority coalition who prefers public charity can simply steamroll an opposed minority. Worse yet, because of the skewed distribution of tax collections, the burden of public charity is placed disproportionately on those who didn't even vote for it. When others are footing the bill, it's very easy to vote for more charity (or more any expense). That is a moral hazard problem.

If people directly felt the consequences of their vote... such as those vote for program X are opted in to it and those who opposed program X are opted out.

Tom West writes:

Coercing others to contribute to your goals is still coercion.

Of course it is, but given that there aren't any societies that don't practice coercion in one form or another, people are pretty much universally on-board with both imposing and having to pay taxes for programs they don't personally support.

It's worth a reminder that it *is* coercion, but don't expect anyone outside of Libertarians to get bent out of shape about it.

Daublin writes:

If you give a dollar to a local soup kitchen, then you can be pretty sure that you're doing a dollar of good to help out actual poor people.

If you give a dollar to Washington, it's extremely unclear what becomes of it. You might even cause that same poor person to go to jail.

For this reason, I am extremely skeptical of people who shout "the POOR" as their basis for needing a large government in Washington. Why are such people turning to Washington first, rather than as a third or fourth priority solution? Why aren't they spending their own time and money on the poor, first, before they start reaching into my wallet? How do they even know I'm not already doing my share?

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