Category: Political Science

The ideological shift of the libertarian movement on pandemics

In the midst of his libertarian phase, Milton Friedman wrote:

As already noted, significant neighborhood effects justify substantial public health activities: maintaining the purity of water, assuring proper sewage disposal, controlling contagious diseases.

Yet today many libertarians shy away from the actual execution of this for Covid-19.

Here is a 2014 Reason magazine symposium on Ebola, by .  Of those four I know Bailey a wee bit (not well), but from the entries and bylines and the very title of the feature — “What Is the Libertarian Response to Ebola? How a free society should respond to a communicable disease outbreak” — they would indeed seem to be self-described libertarians.

All four, as I read them, are willing to accept the idea of forced quarantine of individuals.  Not just in extreme lifeboat comparisons, but in actual situations that plausibly might have arisen at that time.  If you don’t already know, Reason, while not mega-extreme, typically would be considered more libertarian in orientation than most of the libertarian-leaning think tanks.

Maybe I was napping at the time, but I don’t recall any mega-scandal resulting from those proclamations.

Here is my earlier Bloomberg column rejecting the notion of forced quarantine of individuals for Covid-19, mostly on rights grounds, though I add some consequentialist arguments.  I would not trade in the American performance for the Chinese anti-Covid performance if it meant we had to weld people inside their apartments without due process, for instance, as the Chinese (and Vietnamese and others) did regularly.

To be clear, Ebola and Covid-19 have very different properties, and you might favor forcible quarantine for one and not the other.  Whether those differences in properties should matter for a rights perspective is a complex question, but still I am surprised to see that quarantine was — not long ago — considered so acceptable from a libertarian point of view, given the current pushback against pandemic-related restrictions.

(Speaking of shifts, here is Will Wilkinson on GBD.  While I agree with many of his points, I am curious where Will stands on forcible quarantine of individuals on a non-trivial scale.  He does say he favors a “supported isolation program,” so maybe he favors coercive quarantine but he doesn’t quite commit to that view either?)

I am surprised most of all how little interest current libertarians seem to have in the following “line”:

“A unregulated Covid-19 response would have been much, much better. We would have had a good vaccine right away, and tested it rapidly with a Human Challenge Trial. It would be sold around the world at a profit, with much quicker distribution and pandemic resolution than what we are seeing today. This pandemic was awful, but the market would have kicked butt cleaning it up.”

I am not here claiming that view is correct, only that a strong libertarian ought to be amenable to it.  And yet I hear it remarkably infrequently, even though I think most committed libertarians would agree if you posed it to them as a direct question.

It is at least 20x more fashionable to obsess over the costs of lockdowns, combined with various denialist claims about the severity of the problem.

As for masks, how about this?:

“Masks? Masks are great, of course they are a public good.  Markets are great at producing and maintaining value-maximizing voluntary norms such as mask-wearing!”

I cannot help but think that the views above in quotation marks would have been the dominant libertarian response in the 1980s or 1990s, and that the various brews appearing today are yet another sign of our Douthatian decadence.

A reader emails me about Brexit

I will not do a further indentation, this is all from the reader, an EU national working for the UK government:

“…of course I am writing to disagree with you, because for once I think I understand an issue – Brexit – better than you do.  So against your changes that have made you more pro-Brexit, below are four ways in which Brexit is still as costly. or more costly, than we may have originally thought.

  1. Politics in the UK have changed and the UK is less likely to take advantage of the opportunities of Brexit/ The fact the UK government is happy to agree to non-regression on EU labour and environmental regulations, and is most interested in policy space on subsidies and fishing is a bad sign.
  2. Brexit has made the liberal bloc in the EU less powerful and will make EU regulations worse. For example, the Copyright Directive would not have passed the Council had the UK voted against (see here). That the UK voted for it (so it’s also UK law too) tells you something about how likely the UK is to resist bad ideas on internet regulation.
  3. EU free movement is an underrated source of labour market flexibility – the complete lack of paperwork is quite attractive. Post Brexit immigration policy won’t help, particularly since with a national wage threshold, the loss of EU migrants will affect areas outside of London more: nearly half of the non-EU migrants that come for work live in London, but only a third of EU work migrants do (see here).
  4. Being outside the EU makes it more costly for the UK to disengage from China, especially if it also wants some autonomy from the US. Attitudes to both China and the US have changed a lot since Brexit, so whatever its merits the UK government will be using industrial strategy to become more independent from the China and maybe also the US.”

TC again: here is my Brexit column he was responding to.

Are the elites worse than you think?

Here is a new and important paper by Joshua D. Kertzer, noting that it mainly confirms what I observe every day (aren’t those the very best research studies?)  Here is part of the abstract:

…political scientists both overstate the magnitude of elite-public gaps in decision-making, and misunderstand the determinants of elite-public gaps in political attitudes, many of which are due to basic compositional differences rather than to elites’ domain-specific expertise.

My rewrite of his sentence is that elites are arguing from their class and demographic biases (a bias can be positive, to be clear), not from their expertise.  That lowers the marginal value of expertise, at least given how our world operates.  I recall earlier research blogged by Alex showing that if you are a French economist, your views are more influenced by being a French person than by being an economist.  And so on.

This is one of the very most fundamental facts about our world, and elites are among the people least likely to have internalized it.

Have a nice day.

How to build Haitian state capacity

Strengthening state capacity in low income countries requires raising tax revenue while maintaining political stability. The risk of inciting political unrest when attempting to increase taxes may trap governments in a low-tax equilibrium, but public goods provision may improve both tax compliance and political stability. To test these questions empirically, I partner with the national tax authority and a local mayor’s office in Haiti to cross-randomize both tax collection and public goods across one of the country’s largest cities. Effects are measured both via administrative data on tax revenue as well as through novel measures of political unrest. In the paper’s main result, I show that hand-delivering property tax invoices reduces individual tax compliance by 48%, and increases independently observed measures of localized political violence by 192%. In contrast, providing a valuable and visible public good (namely municipal garbage removal) increases tax compliance by 27%, and reduces localized political violence by 85%. Importantly, public goods provision significantly mitigates the adverse effects of tax collection in neighborhoods receiving both treatments. A cost accounting exercise suggests that providing the public good in this setting could pay for itself within the first year. These findings suggest that it may be possible to peacefully shift to a new equilibrium of higher tax compliance with a sufficient initial investment perhaps financed through foreign aid or other transfers.

That is a paper from Benjamin Krause, a job market candidate from UC Berkeley.  Here is his home page and CV.  He was also four years Chief of Staff to Sean Penn, check out the vita.

Why I changed my mind about Brexit

I wouldn’t quite say I am for it, and I still wouldn’t myself have done it, but the decision is no longer looking like such a mistake.  Since 2016, in matters of defense, Covid control, and migration, the EU has been anything but stellar.  Here is the link to my Bloomberg column on this topic.  Here is one excerpt:

Then there is the rise of illiberalism in Hungary, and to a lesser extent Poland, which is perhaps the EU’s biggest problem right now. The EU is seeking to withhold aid from those nations for weakening their independent judiciaries, and they are in turn threatening to veto the union’s $2.2 trillion budget and recovery package, which requires unanimous support. In response, the EU is considering approving that package outside its normal procedures.

More likely than not, a compromise will be found. But you have to wonder how long a well-functioning EU can tolerate a non-free nation such as Hungary. The EU certainly does not appear on the verge of kicking Hungary out (Germany, for one, would not welcome such a move, given its strong interests in Eastern Europe). But the challenges to the EU model presented by nations such as Hungary are much worse than they were in 2016, when the Brexit referendum was held.

Even if the EU succeeds in pushing Hungary around — and I hope it does — it is not necessarily a good outcome for the U.K. Such a policy would require weakening the EU’s unanimity requirements on many decisions, and that is something the U.K. should feel uncomfortable about. If Hungary can be pushed around, so can the U.K.

Finally, southeast England is emerging as a global technology center, especially in artificial intelligence and biomedical research. That’s great news for the U.K. But how does it square with the EU’s long-term pursuit of tougher regulations on tech companies, higher privacy standards for platforms and apps, and more stringent regulations on AI algorithms?

Will the U.K. find its interests represented by such a process? Will it be able to develop AI innovations and products without requiring prior permission from Brussels?

Of course we do still need to worry about Ireland, but perhaps this will end up being a nudge in the right direction…

My excellent Conversation with Zach Carter

Zach is author of the recent book The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes, which has been on many year-end “best of” lists.  Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Zach joined Tyler to discuss what Keynes got right — and wrong — about the Treaty of Versailles, how working in the India Office influenced his economic thinking, the seemingly strange paradox of his “liberal imperialism,” the elusive central message of The General Theory, the true extent of Keynes’ interest in eugenics, why he had a conservative streak, why Zach loves Samuel Delaney’s novel Nova, whether Bretton Woods was doomed to fail, the Enlightenment intuitions behind early defenses of the gold standard, what’s changed since Zach became a father, his next project, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: [Keynes is] sympathetic to his own ideas and wants to promote them. But to me, there’s a discord. Milton Friedman spends, what, 45 minutes talking to Pinochet, has a very long record of insisting economic and political freedom come together — maybe even too simplistically — writes against the system of apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia, calls for free markets there. And people give Friedman hell over that.

Keynes writes the preface for the Nazis and favors eugenics his whole life, and that’s hardly ever mentioned.

CARTER: I don’t know that the way that Keynes talks about eugenics is as salient as you suggest. The best article that I came across on Keynes and eugenics is by this guy — I think David Singerman. It’s in the Journal of British Studies. It’s a pretty in-depth look at the way Keynes came to eugenics and what he did and did not support. It’s very clear that Keynes didn’t support eugenics in the way that Americans sterilizing poor Black workers in the South were interested in eugenics.

Keynes was broadly interested in it from the perspective of birth control. This is a time when eugenics and genetics are not as clearly defined as they are today, so he’s thinking about heritability of eye colors — how he gets involved in this stuff. He never really supports anything other than birth control.

When he actually has power as a policymaker, he just doesn’t do any of this stuff. He is working on the Beveridge plan. He is working on financial stuff that is much more egalitarian than what we think of him when we think about eugenics.

COWEN: But he is chair of the British Eugenics Society for eight years late in his career.

CARTER: He doesn’t do much there. There are big debates that are happening within that society, and he’s mostly sitting them out. Singerman goes into this in much more detail. It’s been a while since I read the article, but Singerman seems to think that this is a useful way of understanding Keynes’s worldview, but not that Keynes is some guy who’s going around wanting to sterilize people and do the things that we think of with the eugenics movement in the United States.

COWEN: I don’t think he wants to sterilize people, but he has those essays on population, which are not put into the collected works. They’re not mentioned by Roy Harrod. He is greatly worried that the people from some countries — I think including India — will outbreed the people from Britain, and this will wreak havoc on prices and wages, and it’s a big crisis. He even says, “We need to worry not only about the quantity of people, but the quality of people in the world.”

A very good episode, definitely recommended.  And here is Zach on Twitter.

Voting Rights, Deindustrialization, and Republican Ascendancy in the South

Here is a new paper from Gavin Wright:

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 revolutionized politics in the American South. These changes also had economic consequences, generating gains for white as well as Black southerners. Contrary to the widespread belief that the region turned Republican in direct response to the Civil Rights Revolution, expanded voting rights led to twenty-five years of competitive two-party politics, featuring strong biracial coalitions in the Democratic Party. These coalitions remained competitive in most states until the Republican Revolution of the 1990s. This abrupt rightward shift had many causes, but critical for southern voters were the trade liberalization measures of 1994, specifically NAFTA and the phase-out of the Multi-Fiber Arrangement which had protected the textiles and apparel industries for decades. The consequences of Republican state regimes have been severe, including intensified racial polarization, loss of support for public schools and higher education, and harsh policies toward low-income populations.

The last sentence strikes me as misleading and inappropriate (in multiple ways), but still the research is of very real interest. Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Misaligned incentives for incarceration in the United States

The incarceration rate has increased substantially in the United States between the 1980s and the 2000s. In this paper, I explore an institutional explanation for this growth: the fact that costs of incarceration are not fully internalized. Typically, prison is paid for at the state level, but county employees (such as judges, prosecutors or probation officers) determine time spent in custody. I exploit a natural experiment that shifted the cost burden of juvenile incarceration from state to counties, keeping overall costs and responsibilities unchanged. This resulted in a stark drop in incarceration, and no increase in arrests, suggesting an over-use of prison when costs are not internalized. The large magnitude of the change suggests that misaligned incentives in criminal justice may be a significant contributor to the current levels of incarceration in the United States.

That is from the opening of a new JPubEc piece by Aurélie Ouss, via the excellent Samir Varma.

Radio and riots

Although the 1960s race riots have gone down in history as America’s most violent and destructive ethnic civil disturbances, a single common factor able to explain their insurgence is yet to be found. Using a novel data set on the universe of radio stations airing black-appeal programming, the effect of media on riots is found to be sizable and statistically significant. A marginal increase in the signal reception from these stations is estimated to lead to a 7% and 15% rise in the mean levels of the likelihood and intensity of riots, respectively. Several mechanisms behind this result are considered, with the quantity, quality, and the length of exposure to radio programming all being decisive factors.

That is from a recent paper by Andrea Bernini, a job market candidate from Oxford University.  We forget sometimes that arguably the internet is a more peace-inducing institution than was radio.

The political economy of Swine flu vaccine allocation

Previous research has isolated the effect of “congressional dominance” in explaining bureaucracy-related outcomes. This analysis extends the concept of congressional dominance to the allocation of H1N1, or swine flu, vaccine doses. States with Democratic United States Representatives on the relevant House oversight committee received roughly 60,000 additional doses per legislator during the initial allocation period, though this political advantage dissipated after the first 3 weeks of vaccine distribution. As a result political factors played a role in determining vaccine allocation only when the vaccine was in particularly short supply. At-risk groups identified by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), such as younger age groups and first responders, do not receive more vaccine doses, and in fact receive slightly fewer units of vaccine.

That is from an Economic Inquiry paper by Matt E. Ryan.  Via Henry Thompson.

Why conspiracy theories are on the rise

There are certain ideas that are highly seductive, so much so that even “WEIRDOS” occasionally dabble in conspiracy theories. So why weren’t conspiracy theories a bigger part of life in the late 20th century? I believe this is because the media was almost completely controlled by WEIRD people. The news desks at ABC/NBC/CBS stuck to the mainstream version of events, unless they had clear evidence that the official were lying (say after the Ellsberg Papers came out.) So there was no major institution to form and disseminate conspiracy theories. These theories did exist back then, but never gained enough traction to have a big impact on society.

The internet changed everything. More specifically, it democratized information sharing all over the world. There are no more “gatekeepers”. Because less that 10% of the world’s population is truly WEIRD, the internet has made conspiracy theories the dominant epistemic style of the 21st century. Just as the 21st century will be a low interest rate/high asset price century (as I predicted years ago), it will also be a century of widespread conspiracy theories. I doubt whether I’ll live along enough to see another president who is generally accepted as legitimate.

That is from Scott Sumner, there is more at the link.

Post-Covid, is the U.S. falling behind China?

I don’t think so, as I argue in my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

If you are wondering whether China or the U.S. with its allies is more likely to make a big breakthrough, in, say, quantum computing, ask yourself a simple question: Which network will better attract talented immigrants? The more that talent and innovation are found around the world, the more that helps the U.S.

And:

Perhaps most important, the European Union has evolved from seeing China primarily as a customer to seeing China primarily as a rival. Even Germany, a longstanding advocate for closer ties with China, has become more skeptical. Furthermore, most European nations have ended up agreeing with the U.S. that Chinese telecom giant Huawei be kept out of the critical parts of their communications infrastructure.

It is also worth noting that GPT-3 came out of the Anglosphere, not China, even though we have been hearing for years that China may be ahead in AI.

Asking for a friend

What is the current take on foreign interference in the 2020 presidential election?  I hardly hear anyone mentioning this.  Was there much?  And if not, why not?  Our sagest minds were warning of this for years, and I heard several nat sec experts warn me of this but a few weeks ago.  There have been hundreds of media articles about the topic.  So what is up?  I see a few options:

1. There was lots of foreign interference (again), but things turned out OK so it is not a major issue.  “Never mind.”

2. President Donald Trump ensured election integrity through vigilance, good policy, and cooperation with Vladimir Putin.

3. Local election authorities were alert this time around, and they choked off each and every instance of foreign election interference.

4. The major tech companies were alert this time around, and they choked off each and every instance of foreign election interference.  They didn’t even let the Russkies spend 60k on Facebook ads.  Those are such great companies.

5. Foreign election interference was never much of a significant issue to begin with.  “Never mind.

6. Foreign powers are now all, in each and every country, committed to free and fair American elections, and they acted accordingly.

To be clear, I am not asking which is true.  I am asking which one I am supposed to believe.

Right-thinking Henry Olsen on Trump voter fraud

Mass voter fraud should be relatively easy to detect, even if it might be difficult to prove. Since we elect presidents through the electoral college, political operatives trying to nefariously produce a victory would focus on states critical to an electoral college majority. Thus, if fraud were behind President-elect Joe Biden’s win, we should expect to see significantly higher turnout increases in key states when compared to the nation as a whole. Furthermore, we should expect to see higher turnout increases within those states in Democratic areas than in Republican areas, since those regions are places where Democrats are more likely to be able to hide any stolen votes. Finally, we should expect to see significantly larger shifts in voter margins toward the Democrats from other, previous elections as the fraud alters the area’s normal voting patterns.

None of these early warning signs of fraud appear in the results.

There is much more detail and argument at the link.  Via Ross Douthat.

The first global election?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the closing bit:

What kind of bargain is it for the country for the U.S. election to be the object of such global interest? We Americans may be flattered by the attention, but it is not clear that it is such a good thing. For one thing, it gives foreigners a greater incentive to try to manipulate U.S. elections.

Another possible problem is that political coalitions will, over time, be defined globally rather than nationally and locally. Is your presidential candidate attracting support from the wrong factions in France, Germany or South Sudan? On one hand that could be useful information, but it could also prove misleading. Foreigners support U.S. presidential candidates for their own reasons, and it could be distorting to have so many outside parties involved. That’s what happened in the Brexit debates, in which a pro-Brexit position was (and remains) all too quickly identified with populism, anti-globalization and support for Trump. The Brexit debate might have been more sane if it had been more local.

What if, come the next U.S. presidential election, most of the social media debate is among non-Americans? What if much of the world ends up with a common, one-dimensional political spectrum, rather than each country having its own (mostly) independent politics? We may be about to find out.

I’ll say it again: American soft power is rising, not falling.