David R. Henderson  

Abigail Hall's Case Against Supporting Politicians

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In a blog post yesterday, "Standing with Rand? Maybe Take a Seat," Independent Institute Research Fellow and recent George Mason University Ph.D. Abigail Hall makes a case against supporting Rand Paul, but then generalizes and makes it a case against supporting any politicians.

Although I once was a fan and supporter of Rand Paul, I am not now, and so I won't defend him here. But Abby goes further, writing:

Arguing that "more libertarians" or "the right people" in office will bring the changes they desire is like asking the fox to guard the henhouse. It's placing trust in the broken and backward bureaucratic system they claim to despise and magically expecting it to achieve a different result.

So she seems to be saying that one should put zero resources into supporting politicians who agree with you on some important issues. It's hard to see how this is an optimal strategy.

Some would argue that one shouldn't give money even to politicians who share your views because of the free-rider problem. The resources you can give to a politician aren't important enough to get him elected and, besides, you can free ride on the contributions of others.

But Abby makes clear that that's not her argument, as the quoted passage shows. Her argument is that supporting politicians is futile.

Now, if she were to argue that there are many ways to work for freedom and she has chosen to be a teacher, a scholar, and a blogger to influence the way the world works, then I get that. And, because I know her a little, I think she will be a first-rate teacher and scholar and is already a good blogger.

She might also argue that she finds politicians repulsive. I get that too. I don't find them all repulsive, but I understand why many libertarians do. But then that comes down to her preferences. That's not a good universal argument against supporting politicians.

Here's the basic economic argument against her view. Think of many of the margins on which one can affect policy: writing op/eds, blogging, teaching, researching, protesting, resisting, writing letters to politicians, and trying to get certain politicians elected, to name a few. Basic production theory says that you use each method up to the point where ratio of the marginal product to marginal cost is the same. It would be a very strange production function which gave the result that the ratio of the marginal product of working for a politician to the marginal cost was everywhere below the ratios of the other MPs to their MCs.

Abby is essentially arguing that it's a corner solution. But then she needs to say why. She hasn't.

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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory

COMMENTS (21 to date)

David writes:

It would be a very strange production function which gave the result that the ratio of the marginal product of working for a politician to the marginal cost was everywhere below the ratios of the other MPs to their MCs.
Isn't something implied by "politician"? By the difference between political and economic means? Politicians (political entrepreneurs) are not operating in the same problem space as free-market economic entrepreneurs.

MG writes:

"Abby is essentially arguing that it's a corner solution. But then she needs to say why. She hasn't."

This was a great post. I had read Abigail's blog before, and found it..."frustrating". Reading your criticism brought everything home -- and incidentally, led me to discover what are "corner solutions" -- in theory. (This is economic pedagogy at is best!)

Now, questions for Abigail or anyone who can frame this discussion as a corner solution. First, what are the goods being traded off (I assume that support for Rad Paul is one)? Second, how (and why) is there a binding budget constraint? I think that one can find, at the margin, a few synergistic ways to support a pol, that does not take away from almost any other higher valued good (from that "list" of comparable other things one could do).

Working through all of this, I can only conclude that her (all-or-nothing) proposition involves undue (in my humble opinion) prejudice towards politics -- i.e., zero tolerance. I understand how one can deem something "bad at all costs", but in politics, is it not sufficient to compare bad to the alternatives to justify some demand?

Michael B. writes:

Something most people leave out when talking about the effectiveness of politics is just how little elected officials do. Less that 1% of officials are elected and bureaucrats can't exactly be fired very easily. Most are career. It's not like elected officials truly can control things in such a system. Maybe in the days when an incoming president would fire everyone and bring in their own staff, significant political change was possible, but not today. Because of this, fighting the political game isn't likely to succeed much, except at the margins. Fighting in the culture (not referring to mass campaigns of conversion and persuasion, but more like Uber or gays coming out of the closest en mass during the 2000's) can possibly have a wider effect. I'd love to see research on it though before I accept it as fact. That isn't to say that people shouldn't vote, though. Even tinkering at the margins has some value.

Greg G writes:

Abby says that "supporting politicians is futile." Futile compared to what? Does she doubt that the politicians who attract the most support are the ones that win? Does she doubt that there really are some quite spectacular differences in how well various nations are governed?

When I look around the world today and look at that portion of human history we have seen so far, it seems obvious to me that constitutional democracy provides, and has provided, the best results. And this remains true no matter how far it falls short of some pie-in-the-sky libertarian fantasy.

If Abby doesn't think that constitutional democracy is the best way to settle political issues she ought to say what system she thinks would be better. Given her lack of understanding of the above I do agree that the system will probably not be harmed by her lack of participation.

Roger Koppl writes:

I think she makes a pretty clear structural argument, David. Any politician you might name is, ipso facto, a politician. Odds are, then, that this person will respond to incentives as Buchanan noted, and the incentives are bad in our current system. And if you think you're looking at "one of the good ones," you're probably mistaken for reasons Hayek explained in "Why the Worst Get on Top." Thus, Abby seems to argue, no politician is worth betting on. Corner solutions are not so implausible IMHO. How many households of median income, for example, would rent a Ferrari every once in a while?

We could also expand a bit on the argument, drawing out a point that may have been implicit in her argument. It is hard to assay the quality of a politician. Even if we allow that some politicians are better than others, they are so hard to judge ex ante that it's never a good bet to invest in them.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Roger Koppl,
That’s well said and I think your argument is actually better than Abby’s.
At first, I liked your median income/Ferrari analogy. Now I don’t. The reason is that I’m not saying, within the analogy, that median income families should buy Ferraris. But some people should. As I said in my post, if Abby wants to argue that that is not what she wants to do, that’s fine. But that doesn’t necessarily generalize.
It IS hard to know which politicians will do what, and their promises are often not good guides. So I think that justifies not making large investments in politicians. I don’t think it justifies zero investments in all politicians.

Sure, politicians respond to incentives, but they are not interchangeable independent homogeneous factors of political production. Assume a legislative opportunity concerning fracking on federal lands and two possible politicians, one with the trust of numerous wealthy oil company executives and the other with the trust of numerous wealthy environmentalists. Heterogeneity in networks means they won't face identical incentive structures, and won't produce the same actions.

I have mostly cured myself of my childhood belief in thinking support of politicians is the answer. It is a sloppy means to temporary ends; the real action is in social change. Still, since my life is not indefinitely long, a string of temporary improvements is not worth nothing.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Michael Giberson,
Well put. I agree.

David R. Henderson writes:

My friend Edward Lopez, the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Capitalism at Western Carolina University, weighed in on this on Facebook. He gave me permission to quote him, with minor punctuation changes:
Couple of reactions from the highways of WV and PA. 1) Treat politicians as policy reactors not policy makers. They're optimizing given their own preferences and the constraints imposed on them by the preferences of the body politic (informal institutions) plus constitutions and other formal constraints plus events as they unfold. David seems to need to do much more to account for constraints, not just preferences. Rather than corner solution, this is the key economic tension. 2) History offers numerous examples of institutional changes toward freedom and markets. A large share of these changes were effectuated at the hands of politicians whose preferences (and prior voting records) are nothing close to libertarian or classical liberal. Abby's point needs to reconcile with this history in some formal way beyond cites and praise for Hayek and Buchanan. 3) At issue, not so much in Abby's tee off but at this point in the discussion, is whether supporting liberal politicians is necessary to support liberal reforms. Hayek said no. I tend to agree, and this is part of my reason for never voting for politicians. However, I also understand that the fight for liberty requires a multi faceted approach with a lot of division of labor. Ultimately we need the madmen in authority to act as though they are on the side of freedom. So, many good wishes to the likes of Matt Kibbe and others in the trenches. Hopefully my work is a useful input there.
The work he is referring to is “Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers,” co-authored with Wayne Leighton. I like the book a lot.

paul writes:

@ Michael Giberson, true, the specific actions will be different but the tendency will be that most the actions will increase the power of the state. For example, crony capitalism with oil or reduction of property rights by the environmentalists. I think its the "monopoly" on law that drives the institution of government toward statism. I vote not for the possibility of change but just to publicly signal my politics.

David R. Henderson writes:

I like it when a discussion, where people seem to start from different points, actually reaches a conclusion where they both agree. At the end of a lively discussion on FB this morning, Abby Hall wrote the following (and I’m pasting it in with her permission):
I never said anything about being completely out of politics. At no point did I advise that libertarians or liberty-minded people completely abstain from political activities if they so choose. The point that I was looking to make is that, if people expect Paul or any other political actor to bring about sweeping reform they will be disappointed. What the insights of Hayek and Buchanan tell us about incentives and institutional structure illustrate why this will be the case. The motivation behind the piece was what I said toward the end, that people of a libertarian mindset claim to read and appreciate these two scholars without understanding the conflict. They point out the problem with the political process without recognizing they are falling into the same game.

I agree with this.

BZ writes:

First point:
As an LP minion, I often look at the political and campaigning process as a kind of blogging / teaching / whatever. That gut feeling has turned into firm conviction in the last 10 years.

So, sometimes the point of supporting a candidate isn't *primarily* to see them elected, much less to care about how they will behave in office.

Second point:
The last 10 years has also taught me that I have NO IDEA what the potential benefits of writing a blog, protesting in Washington, supporting a campaign, running for local office, etc ultimately are, only that they are probably positive.

Therefore, I'm in what I call the "Brian Doherty" camp of political strategy: Advocate All Of Those Methods ; e.g. try everything and cross your fingers.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

This is from a post at LibertyTalk:

4. What do the speakers mean by "political entrepreneurship," and how does it differ from other sorts of entrepreneurship? What type of entrepreneurship do you think we will see the most of in the future, and why?

My take is not so much what they mean, as an activity they are trying to describe.

Entrepreneurship is motivated, objective oriented activity, called an enterprise. The speakers classified two objectives: economic and political.

As a reader of NWW I take it that Arnold Kling would observe the efforts to form or enlarge a coalition as an enterprise, that could be designated political entrepreneurship

All entrepreneurship involves motivating others, almost universally for the objective of an enterprise. It is in the motives of the entrepreneurs that the enterprises differ, in the selection of their ends and means.

In economic enterprises, the motives are not limited to exclusively economic objectives. They may be for other forms of personal aggrandizement. Similarly, political or social enterprises do not exclude economic gratification motivations. However, it is the principal change in conditions (economic, political or social) that result from the enterprise which determine its classification.

Still, political enterprises have economic results and economic enterprises have political results which almost always produce changes of some type.

That is where we look to the predominant motivations of the actors for the differentiations.

What has been regarded in the past as economic entrepreneurship will be more prevalent to the extent that capitalism and "Open Access" are the prevailing conditions. As Open Access continues to be constrained, there is likely to be a rise in political entrepreneurship.

khodge writes:

Don Boudreaux frequently says pretty much the same thing over at Cafe Hayek (also a GMU product).

The cognitive dissonance is absolutely astounding: How can they be so un-reflectively critical of government and politicians while working at a bureaucrat's bureaucracy - the university - is beyond comprehension.

The problem with government is that it has to keep peace among 350+ million citizens with virtually nothing in common whereas GMU only has to keep 45,000 relatively homogeneous employees and students happy.

Take Steven Landsburg as a counter-example. I'm sure he has made the observation that, in fact, one voice is irrelevant in an election and thus it is a poor economic decision to vote but at least he has the good sense to enjoy the sport.

Thomas Sewell writes:

1. Politicians respond to incentives.
2. Our current political system incentivizes decisions/behavior by politicians which does not match libertarian goals/ideals
3. The current incentives are the results of individual people influencing other people and through them laws and institutions

If individuals with a more libertarian bent spend less time/resources influencing other people than before via politics/politicians, then the incentives will shift even more towards anti-libertarian end points.

Is the above controversial to anyone? Am I missing something here?

I suppose there is a substitution effect of lost opportunity to perhaps do something more effective, like teaching, etc... as suggested above, but it would be unusual for the point of diminishing returns for something like that to start at 0.

khodge writes:

Thomas Sewell
Premise 2: If it is the system that incentivizes then the system must change.

What is that political system and what is the mechanism that puts it in place?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Thomas Sewell,
Good reasoning.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

@ Thomas Sewell:


4. The "individual people influencing other people" do so by forming coalitions of interests for concentrated benefits and dispersed burdens.

5. Politicians and the "adminstrators" they depend upon respond to deterrents (more than to some incentives).

6. Deterrents can be created by coalitions of interests to avoid those burdens.

Alternate Conclusion:

Libertarians would waste time and efforts on trying to "influence" others to create incentives to "influence" politicians in the shaping of legislation. Creating deterrents, influencing others to create deterrents will be the more effective use of time and efforts. The Conservative "Tea Party" movements have demonstrated this.

The most effective word in securing the perimeter is --- HALT !

@Thomas Sewell
I believe you are seeing the visible hand which can shape human institutions, i.e. the Constitution, the cycle of elections, and the state-focused mainstream media. But what you are missing is the invisible hand which shapes human institutions. Of course I cannot blame you for seeing what is visible and not seeing what is invisible; it takes time and effort to learn new perceptions.

Unless I am mistaken, you are assuming that the way society changes is the way that is taught in government school: through public education and elections. There is some truth in that.

But other stuff is happening. There is a strong trend toward centralization of state power. Government grows. Surely I suppose you see this trend, but it is overlooked in standard education.

People habituated to look to the state-centered means of solving problems tend to look ever more consistently in that direction. They look through mainstream media to the state for solution to more and more problems, problems which originally had their solutions in voluntary society.

I've written more about this: bias in mainstream media, the origin of free and prosperous nations, questioning our assumptions about how our needs get filled.

Thomas Sewell writes:

From some of the above responses, it seems I didn't clearly articulate what I meant in this premise:

3. The current incentives are the results of individual people influencing other people and through them laws and institutions

Khodge: This is how the current system was formed. By individuals acting on their beliefs/desires over an extended time period. There is too much change required to accomplish alone, so influence of others is necessary for any significant changes. If you desire to replace the current system, then it's going to require the influence of others, even if all you want to do is carve out a small ancap area for yourself in the world.

Schweitzer: A deterrent is a form of incentive. i.e. someone wants to live and thus are deterred by an armed sentry shouting HALT! The Tea Party recently successfully shifted the incentives faced by Republican politicians by the use of primaries, just as modern and historical 2nd amendment supporters previously shifted the incentives related to gun control.

Hammer: You're reading something into what I wrote which isn't present. I can see where the context of the overall discussion could lead you in that direction, but nothing I wrote limited "influencing other people" to only relying on statist means. I meant it much more inclusive than that. It's individuals acting to influence others which ultimately lead to the results we end up with. The more engagement and influence from libertarians toward less-libertarian individuals, the more likely libertarian ideals will shape State and non-State institutions alike.

It's strategically foolish to declare certain types of engagement and influence off-limits, unilaterally disarming ourselves by refusing to use the tactics our opponents constantly put to effective use. That's also why I consider anyone currently pulling others into a more libertarian direction as an ally, even if we'd later argue about what to do next once we accomplished a tenth of our goals.

Defend your freedom by whatever means necessary. If you're ultimately willing to kill to protect your freedom, shouldn't you be willing to make a friend, make a speech, or write a book or a blog post, or convince someone to reject a regulation, or contribute some of your hard earned resources to someone else's efforts to protect freedom? We can certainly discuss what the most effective use of our individually volunteered resources for defense of our liberties is, but at the end of the day, as long as you're working towards more freedom, I'm going to be happy with your individual choice as to how because you're contributing toward the same goal I am fighting for.

(Khodge): "Don Boudreaux frequently says pretty much the same thing over at Cafe Hayek (also a GMU product). The cognitive dissonance is absolutely astounding: How can they be so un-reflectively critical of government and politicians while working at a bureaucrat's bureaucracy - the university - is beyond comprehension."
I asked this question of Dr. Boudreaux's fans, and their answer is ...
Why engage in political activity in a mass democracy? Why pick up roadside litter? What do we get from political discussion? More generally, why not murder for her provisions the solitary stranger whom you meet on the trail? Is it just a fear of discovery? In a million years, what difference, after all, will your decision one way or another make?
For all their strident passion, Dr. Boudreaux's fans appear demoralized (literally, "de-moralized") to me. Perhaps that explains their incivility.

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