Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Voting is not a privilege; It is a right – And not a very important one.

First, let me dispose of some issues irrelevant to my subject here. This blog is not about the question of whether or not voter IDs are a good thing, or whether or not a reform of the voting system is desirable and fair. I don’t care so much about this, because I don’t think voting is all that important. But, hey, yes, let’s by all means make sure that voting is accessible to all adult citizens on an equal and transparent basis. Let’s get rid of the dirty tricks, etc.

“Liberals” reading my stuff sometimes see their own issues as my targets, without paying attention to what I am really saying. They allow their presumptions about me to dictate what they think I must be saying. I suppose, given the proximity and media-prominence of the impending election this is understandable, if regrettable. And, indeed, this blog was, in part, inspired by the usual sentiments regarding voting.

For example, It is not correct to claim that voting is a privilege. It is not a privilege. It is a right. And so is the right not to vote. There is surely nothing admirable about voting for the sake of voting when none of the alternatives are desirable to you – especially if they are all equally undesirable. And exercising your right not to vote, to sit on your hands, at least makes a statement to this effect.  So we should stop mouthing this judgmental platitude.

We might be less prone to do so if we realized that in actual fact the right to vote is much, much less important than certain other rights, and not realizing this has resulted in a perversion of our values when it comes to judging domestic and foreign policy. What I aim to establish here is that we accord much too much respect and importance to the establishment of political-democracy and much too little to economic-democracy. The context is primarily foreign policy – the values and principles we try to spread around the word.

Nothing I say here is original. In fact, it is somewhat chutzpahdick of me to even trot it out again. It is painfully familiar to many – certainly most economists, political scientists, political philosophers, and similar folks. So I beg their forgiveness. It is not, however, familiar to most people. Somewhere along the way in the last one hundred years or so the idea of political-democracy, the right to vote for those who form the government, at various levels, became identified with the very essence of freedom. This is the conventional wisdom today. And it is to the vast majority for whom this appears to be the case that this blog is directed. It is a challenge to the conventional wisdom, an invitation to engage in, perhaps difficult, reflection to consider my claim that what you believe on this is wrong, dangerously wrong.

It is dangerously wrong because this is only one side of the coin. Along with the veneration of the right to vote has come the denigration of the right to trade, to protection of one’s property, the right to spend one’s money as one sees fit, in short, economic-democracy.

Right about now I am in danger of losing a portion of my audience. Seeing these terms about economic freedom, some will conclude that this is a familiar and irrelevant rant from an economic conservative with ridiculous and insensitive claims about the importance of economic freedom. Sad to say these days it takes only a little discomfort with views expressed to provoke people to turn off. I hope you resist this impulse.

Think about it. What really matters most to the majority of the world’s population living in poor or modest economic circumstances under arbitrary and mostly brutal dictatorships? The right to vote for a limited slate of candidates once every now again, or the right to trade, move, spend, read, speak, freely? Of course, you say, the latter, but the former is necessary for the achievement of the latter. No it is not., Not only is it not necessary, it is not sufficient either. The right to vote is not a cause of economic or personal freedom. It is, if related at all, a result, a not-so important result. In other words, if you really care about personal freedom for most people in the world you should be emphasizing the liberalization of the economy – most importantly – the freeing of trade, the opening of closed markets. It is quite simply the attainment of a high degree of economic freedom that is responsible for the achievement of prosperity and the personal freedom that comes with it. Prosperity is impossible without economic freedom. If you don’t believe that find me a counterexample.

A graphic and vital example of this is how the simple process of exchange enriches in so many ways. At its most basic, trade is a positive-sum game in which both parties gain. I give up something I value less for something I values more, so I experience an increase in value. And the person who sells to me gives up something he values less for something he values more (things he can buy with the money I give him). Value goes up for him. By the simple act of exchange for mutual advantage, value is created. Unlike the amount of mass-energy in the world, value can be both increased and decreased. In fact, value can be increased without limit. We call that economic growth. And it begins with simple exchange.

But, exchange, trade, is much more than just that. The process of trade is conducive to many other profound benefits over time. It is provocative of innovation in production, it is provocative of artistic innovation; because of increases in productivity, wealth, value, it is responsible for the spread of literacy (people do not have the time to learn to read or to read when they are devoting all their time to surviving), and of individual reflection that brings one to the realization of what freedom is and how it is to be achieved and maintained. Only then does the right to vote matter much at all. Without a commitment to the fundamental values and institutions that support the achievement of a modicum of prosperity, the  right to vote is not much use at all. To encourage people to think that if they have to right to vote for a government who promises to make them rich they will be free, is the height of irresponsibility when you know that all that said government will do is try to make itself rich at their expense. The responsible thing to do is to help people gain the realization that prosperity comes from the bottom-up in the right circumstances and the best that governments can do is allow it to develop.


It is simpler than it might seem. Everything flows from basic property-rights. In fact, correctly understood, property-rights encompass all individual rights and individual rights are the basis of freedom. It starts with self-ownership (property-rights over oneself) – individual autonomy. No one should be able to own anyone else. Can we agree on that? Then, by extension (says John Locke) we can assert a right of ownership over that which we create or come by voluntarily trough trade or gift. It is property-rights all the way up.

And this works if and only if such property-rights are sufficiently secure. Ambiguity surrounds human affairs and judgement in ownership disputes is called for. Such judgement must be seen to be fair, equal and universal. In other words, we need abstract rules (laws, customs, norms, etc.) that apply to everyone equally – that is, everyone, the president as much as the peasant (at least in sufficient measure). Rules needs to be apart from the rulers who enforce them. Such a society is said to be governed by ‘the rule of law’ and not by the rule of men (humans).  Where do these rules-laws come from? That is another matter of course, about which volumes have been written. Suffice it to say that they are the stuff of long-term social evolution and consitutionalization. If we are to maintain the kind of freedom we are talking about here they cannot be arbitrary and they cannot be ephemeral. They must be durable, respected in the abstract, not subject to opportunistic tinkering.

To summarize, property-rights under the rule of law is the ticket to freedom, real freedom. That is economic freedom, and it extends to all manner of individual rights, including freedom of speech and expression generally. Don’t touch me and don’t touch my stuff without my permission – applicable to everybody equally. If we care about freedom and about world poverty we should be doing what we can to bring about these social institutions. Not easy, maybe not even possible in most places. But starting with freedom to trade is a viable strategy. Help people to help themselves and they will realize the ingredients of freedom in time.

One other thing. Political freedom without economic freedom is useless – actually a dangerous diversion. If there is no private ownership of resources, or if the latter is not secure, then political freedom is an  illusion at best. No one can marshal the necessary resources to be a viable opposition without private property guarantees. Witness Russia - one sad and prominent example of many.

So when president Kennedy said that the Vietnam intervention was “to make the world safe for democracy” he was way off target, unless he meant economic-democracy, aka, economic freedom. The people of Vietnam today have a much greater measure of economic freedom than they did then, but not so much of political-democracy. And they are much better off. A result of opening up of trade and investment and migration, not a result of war.

And when president Bush proclaimed that an aim of the Iraq adventure was to bring democracy to Iraq, he was equally off target. The proclaimed aim of the Iraq intervention was ‘nation building’. You cannot build a nation by securing for people the right to vote. When they have achieved a measure of freedom the right to vote won’t matter that much. Why did president Bush not embrace the aim of economic freedom? Why does no president put this front and center? Because it is not political expedient to do so. Because political-democracy is venerated and economic-democracy is denigrated. Political-democracy is a false god. It is time to depose this false god.


This cannot be done solely with an understanding of the importance economic-democracy. One needs, in addition, a sober understanding of the problems that attach to political-democracy in its various forms.

Quite simply, the political vote is a blunt, inefficient instrument for getting what you want as an individual. It is a 0-1 choice for a proposition given to you. More often than not, that proposition is a candidate, the embodiment of a bundle of promises, some of which matter to you some of which do not, and on some of which your candidate has the right ideas (or so he/she says) while on the others he/she is wrong (on your terms).  There is no sense in which you get anything significant of all of what you want to be happy by exercising your vote. Your vote does not even matter. And even if it did, you exercise it once every long period for the confounded package as a whole, not for any of its constituent parts.

What emerges from the political process that we refer to as representative democracy – the political-democracy of our foreign policy pronouncements – is a dictatorship of minority special interests. Politicians are political entrepreneurs who buy votes by promising special favors to economically powerful people who reward them in various ways, legal and extra-legal.  Those who marshal enough power in this way get to dictate to the rest of us about things over which we have no control. The more things are subject to choice by politics, the less choice there really is.
You do not get the yellow tie you want by voting. You do not get the house you want by voting, or the car, or the food you like to eat, or the books you like to read, or most of what makes your life comfortable and meaningful. The dollar vote is a much more flexible instrument than the political vote. Increasing the ability of people to vote with their dollars will ultimately increase the dollars they have to vote with. That is what we should be doing. That is what we should be emphasizing.


One final word on “inequality”. It’s all the rage right now. Doesn’t the system characterized by economic freedom that I am talking about produce large and unacceptable inequalities between people? The answer to that is not so simple. First, it refers to economic inequality. Equality before the law, equality of individual property-rights, etc. are part of the system. What some refer to as economic inequality are simply the different outcomes of different choices. Presumably there is nothing unfair about that. I will share a secret with you. Academic employment does not pay as much as some other things I might have done. I chose this, was free to choose it, and I earn less as a result. Guess what? I am happier than I would have been earning more in a job I liked less. That is a large part of it.

Yes, but what about really poor people? They don’t have many options at all. True. Their problem is not inequality though. It is poverty. It is not clear that economic freedom does produce more inequality in a meaningful sense. It does produce more diversity of outcomes. Some measures of inequality count this as more inequality. If so, then it is part of the package and not a bad thing. In really poor countries there is inequality of a different kind. There is typically a small proportion of the population, the political elite, that is fabulously wealthy, and the rest of the mass of the population who are all equally, miserably poor. Now that kind of inequality is something to get energized about.

As for us, we can achieve that kind of inequality-equality in the U.S. if we want. We just have to decide whether we prefer to be unequally rich or equally poor.

Equality of outcome is another false god. The ridiculous concentration of the wealth at the very top, notwithstanding the Oxfams of this world’s preoccupation with it, inequality is not the problem; poverty is. And poverty worldwide though still a problem, is at an all-time low.


Our economic policies, our foreign policies, our social policies, all are bankrupt. But we will not be able to change them until we change the terms of discourse at the very top. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Our Debt to Spinoza

I have just finished reading Irvin Yalom's The Spinoza Problem.
I am not inclined to review the book, save to say that while I found it very interesting and learnt a lot from it, I also found it contrived, pretentious and anachronistic. The author is a well-known psychiatrist and much of the substance of the book indulges his psychiatric predilections in an ultimately unconvincing way. Still, the interested reader will definitely learn a lot about Spinoza and about the monster Alfred Rosenberg, the ideologue of the Third Reich, who seems to have had an interest in Spinoza. So reading this book provoked thoughts about Spinoza, his ideas and the time and context in which he lived by contrast with our own time and context. And it is this that I want to deal with here. 
Living in Amsterdam in 1656, Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza was brutally excommunicated by a committee of Jewish leaders and forbidden any kind of interaction with members of that community. For him, one of the greatest philosophers of the Western tradition, indeed perhaps the first 'modern' thinker, it was a disaster. He was caught between his love for his community and his inability/refusal to dissemble about his true beliefs. He was cast into a social wilderness, forever sad and lonely – but not completely so, for he lived the rest of his short life in the stimulating company of like-minded thinkers. But his life as a Jew was over.
Today large numbers of Jews (who knows how many?) hold views that in large part agree with those held by Spinoza and they do not lie about them (not to suggest that they comprehend the profundity of his work). They live comfortably within Jewish communities and participate in communal affairs in many ways according to their choice, according, one supposes, to whatever they feel comfortable with and enjoy doing. Secular Jews have come to revere Spinoza, the Jew, - a prominent street in Israel is named after him.
Meantime these secular Jews are the targets of diverse religious Jewish outreach groups who, far from excommunicating them - which would carry no practical consequences for them - seek to attract them to their congregations; never questioning their beliefs or their right to have them and write and speak about them.
The Amsterdam Jewish leaders got their power from tradition, but, moreso, from the government of the Netherlands. The government that welcomed Jewish refugees from the hell of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions into Holland, was a government that was, in part, driven by religious (Calvinist) laws. They placed conditions upon the tolerance of the Jews and gave their leaders the power to enforce those conditions - among which was the punishment of heresy - indeed the leaders had an obligation to punish it. The Dutch would tolerate Jews, within limits, but not atheists or Catholics. So Spinoza had to be banned. The survival of the Jewish community was seen to depend on it.
Today the survival of these religious-orthodox outreach groups depends on their ability to attract adherents, including non-believers, upon whom they must be careful not to make too many demands. The difference? They have no power and obligation to compel. Religion and state are separate and religious beliefs are seen as personal matters.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of this development - the 'secularization' of society - a development recommended by Spinoza whose thinking contributed mightily to it. Without it the transition from a zero-sum to a positive-sum society might have been impossible.
Is it not this that holds back much of the Islamic world today?