Thursday, February 15, 2018

What kind of government is most likely to promote human flourishing?



One way to approach this question is to rule out those kinds of government that are least likely to enable people to live lives that they value.

We can begin by ruling out those kinds of government that exercise absolute power in a cruel and oppressive way. There is no need to explain why that kind of despotism is inimical to human flourishing.

If you ask yourself how we can avoid being ruled by a cruel and oppressive despot you will probably begin to sketch out some constitutional rules requiring fair elections and preventing concentrations of power in a few hands. There is a fair chance that the constitutional rules you specify would describe liberal democracy. So far so good.

However, some written constitutions that appear to embody ideals of liberal democracy end up as a fa├žade for oppressive government. So, I have to ask myself why some experiments in liberal democracy been more successful than others.

Before I can attempt to answer that I need to explain what I have previously described as democracy’s basic problem – which could also be described as the tragedy of democracy because of its similarity to the tragedy of the commons (see my preceding post). Democracy’s basic problem arises because of inherent tendencies for the responsibilities of elected governments to expand beyond their capacity to cope. That results from a combination of two factors. First, the perceived benefits to individual voters of proposals for an expansion of government responsibilities in areas of particular interest to them exceed the additional costs they incur as a result of those proposals. Second, when an individual elector sees others declaring their support for political parties which promise additional spending or regulation in their particular fields of interest, it is natural for her to feel that her interests will likewise be better served by behaving similarly. (Democracy’s basic problem is further explained in Chapter 8 of Free to Flourish.)

Democracy’s basic problem could be expected to result in an ongoing expansion of government spending, an increasing regulatory burden constraining growth in productivity, higher tax rates on those least able to protect themselves politically (e.g. foreign investors) with adverse effects on investment incentives, and expanding fiscal deficits with public debt growing beyond the capacity of the government to service it.

Those trends obviously can’t continue indefinitely. At some stage, the government’s bankers will refuse to advance additional credit. That means that funds will no longer be available to fund social services or to pay government employees. Civil disorder is likely to ensue. It is open to speculation who the main characters will be in the next act, as the political theatre turns into a democratic tragedy. Voters may resort to electing demagogues whose policies will cause further deterioration in the economy. In the final act it is quite common for the generals to take over the reins of government to restore order.

Thus, on the basis of that reasoning it might appear that democracy is unlikely to be a sustainable form of government over the longer term.

So, how come some democracies have survived for well over a century?

One possible explanation, which could be described as the Schumpeterian explanation, after the economist Joseph Schumpeter, is that this has been achieved by constraining democracy to ensure that “the effective range of political decision should not be extended too far”. (Again, there is more discussion of this in Chapter 8 of Free to Flourish.)

Another possible explanation (not adequately discussed in Free to Flourish) is that the culture of some countries has fostered normative conditions that have prevented democracy’s basic problem from emerging with irresistible force. In his book, Why I, too, am not a conservative, James Buchanan identified two norms that underpin liberal democracy:

·         that a sufficient proportion of the population can make their own choices and prefer to be autonomous rather than dependent on others; and

·         that a sufficient proportion of the population enter relationships with others on the basis of reciprocity, fair dealing and mutual respect.

The first norm needs to be met for people to be able to cast their votes to achieve outcomes that they prefer, whilst exercising restraint in the demands that they make on others through the political process. The second norm needs to be met to ensure that those who depend on transfers from the public purse do not consider those transfers to reflect successful exploitation of others through the political process, and that those whose tax payments fund those transfers do not consider themselves to be exploited.

Buchanan concluded:

Generalized or widespread failure of persons to adhere to these norms, along with widespread recognition that others also disregard the standards, will insure that the liberal order itself must fail, quite independently from any institutional safeguards.” (p 28)

As early as the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville expressed similar concerns in Democracy in America about the implications for democracy of the emergence of a culture of dependence on government.  In his discussion of the “sort of despotism that democratic nations have to fear” he suggested that democratic governments might take upon themselves full responsibility for the happiness of citizens, reducing each nation “to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd”.  Tocqueville remarked:

It is indeed, difficult to conceive how men who have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed; and no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring from the suffrages of a subservient people. … The vices of rulers and the ineptitude of the people would speedily bring about its ruin … ” See: Democracy in America, Book 4, Chapter 6.

Tocqueville doesn’t seem to have mentioned norms of reciprocity (or even adherence to the golden rule) explicitly as one of the factors that had led to maintenance of democracy in America, but he emphasised the importance of “the manners and customs of the people” and “the whole moral and intellectual condition of a people”.

Vincent Ostrom commented as follows:

In light of the meaning to be assigned to the manner and customs of the people, we can understand why Tocqueville identified religion as the first of their political institutions even though religion took no direct part in the government of society. The place of religion was important to the whole moral and intellectual tradition of a people when complemented by the place of families, friends, neighbors, and schooling in the shaping of what might be called "habits of the heart and mind." The place of habits of the heart and mind is critical to the possibility that societies of men might establish systems of governance appropriate to the exercise of reflection and choice as ways of coping with problems of conflict and conflict reso­lution.” Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies, p 14.

Most readers will probably have gathered by now that I think that adherence to the norms that underpin liberal democracy has now diminished to such an extent that this form of government is in deep trouble, even in the western countries where it has been sustained most successfully in the past. So, we are faced with an ongoing struggle to avoid a democratic tragedy, with adverse implications for human flourishing.

However, such prognostications don’t help us much in answering the question I began with. The best way to move toward an answer, it now seems to me, is to follow the lead of Vincent Ostrom and to ask what forms of governance are likely to emerge when it recognized that each person “is first his or her own governor and is then responsible for fashioning mutually productive relationships with others” (p 84).

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

How can people who approach issues from different ideological perspectives have useful policy discussions?


Like the ideological opponents of free markets, the birds of Edinburgh show little respect for the founder of Economics 

In my view there is a lot to be said for attempting to develop a coherent ideological position – a system of ideas and ideals - that can be applied to public policy issues. Those who insist on approaching every issue with an empty mind, refusing to draw upon a priori reasoning and lessons learned from previous experience, are severely handicapping themselves.

It is important to note that having a coherent ideological position does not necessarily imply being ideologically blinkered. An ideological commitment can be consistent with being sufficiently openminded to consider the possibility that it could be appropriate to depart from a general principle in a particular instance. For example, people who have an ideological commitment to free markets are often open to persuasion that government regulation might be warranted in some instances.

Ideologies are not necessarily heavily laden with values.  In my view that applies particularly to the free market ideology favoured by many economists. As a result of their training and work experience economists tend to acquire objective knowledge about the operation of markets that leads them toward a system of ideas and ideals that is relatively favourable to free markets.

Many non-economists have an anti-market bias. As Bryan Caplan implied a few years ago in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter (discussed previously on this blog) some people have a strong ideological attachment to false beliefs.  More generally, however, it seems to me that the anti-market bias among non-economists is attributable to lack of understanding of the functioning of markets. Few people are so wedded to conspiracy theories about market behaviour that they are unwilling to consider economists’ explanations.

During my work career as an economist, I had many difficult policy discussions with engineers, who seemed to have acquired an ideological commitment to planning that led them to favour government regulation. From their perspective free markets appeared to be chaotic and planned solutions appeared to promise order. However, they were able to appreciate that actual outcomes that were likely to emerge from chaotic political and administrative processes might not be superior to market outcomes.

The most difficult policy discussions I have been involved in have been with Greenies whose ideological opposition to free markets is based on the view that capitalism leads to bad environmental and social outcomes. The main problem in these discussions is not a difference in values; we all want to avoid environmental and economic catastrophes. It seems to me that the main barrier to communication is that the Greenies have an ideological commitment to the belief that better outcomes will follow automatically if the regulation they favour displaces markets and voluntary cooperation. 

In thinking about how economists could have more useful policy discussions with Greenies it occurs to me that there is not much to be gained by talking to them about externalities. They might support proposals for limited intervention to correct specific externalities, but they actually see no virtue in limited intervention. They see market failure as pervasive and believe that superior outcomes can be produced by burdening governments with massive responsibilities.

I wonder whether it might be useful to begin a policy discussion with Greenies by considering the tragedy of the commons. When I re-read Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article with that title I was reminded of its shortcomings with regard to population projections, but his warnings about the potential for common pool resources to be over-exploited have a fairly solid foundation in economic reasoning.

Hardin wrote:

“The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy. …
Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit - in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

However, as Elinor Ostrom demonstrated, it is by no means inevitable that use of common pool resources will end in tragedy in the absence of government intervention. She found that some communities of individuals have been able to manage common pool resources with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time “relying on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market”.

The methodology adopted by Elinor Ostrom in her research strikes me as highly relevant to the question of how people who approach issues from different ideological positions can have useful policy discussions. In the preface to Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Elinor Ostrom wrote:

"Instead of presuming that the individuals sharing a commons are inevitably caught in a trap from which they cannot escape, I argue that the capacity of individuals to extricate themselves from various types of dilemma situations varies from situation to situation. The cases to be discussed in this book illustrate both successful and unsuccessful efforts to escape tragic outcomes. Instead of basing policy on the presumption that the individuals involved are helpless, I wish to learn more from the experience of individuals in field settings. Why have some efforts to solve commons problems failed, while others have succeeded? What can we learn from experience that will help stimulate the development and use of a better theory of collective action – one that will identify the key variables that can enhance or detract from the capabilities of individuals to solve problems?"

Some advocates of smaller government (including myself) are fond of pointing out that the logic of the tragedy of the commons applies to interest group politics as well as to physical resources. When goods such as education and health services are converted into common pool resources there is an incentive for interest groups to attempt to increase their share at the expense of other groups and the general public. More generally, when interest groups view the coercive power of the state as a common pool resource to be used for the benefits of their members, the adverse impact of tax and regulation on incentives for productive activity is likely to result in outcomes that will be detrimental for everyone. The incentives facing individual interest groups in that situation are similar to those facing individual fishermen – when their collective actions results in over-fishing, that is detrimental to all.

However, it is reasonable for the advocates of big government to ask why the tragedy of the political commons has not resulted in the failure of all experiments in representative government. If we apply Elinor Ostrom’s research methodology we have to acknowledge that some countries have been more successful than others in coping with the common pool resource problems associated with interest group activity. The reasons for this seem to me to be an important topic for research and discussion.
It strikes me that people who approach issues from different ideological perspectives would be able to have more useful policy discussions if they could turn their attention to what they can learn from the actual experiences of people in different institutional and policy settings.