Tuesday, June 07, 2011

One dollar, one vote

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is calling for big tax cuts. (My, what an innovative idea.)

In order to offset any lost tax revenue — and to tackle the deficit — Mr. Pawlenty calls for something called “The Google Test” to determine whether the government should be involved in a program.

“If you can find a good or service on the Internet, then the federal government probably doesn’t need to be doing it,” Mr. Pawlenty says.

Hm, let's see what we can find on Google nowadays. I can find this. And this. And this. And this and this and this. Oh, those aren't goods and services available for sale you say? Well, how about this or this or this.

The point being (not that this should come as a surprise to anyone who hasn't been living in a cave for the last ten years): you can find freakin' anything on Google. Of course the private sector will step up and provide any service that the government doesn't for which there is demand. But you might not like the terms.

Here's the problem: we as a society are not willing to let people suffer the consequences of their actions, and with good reason: sometimes the consequences of your actions affect the people around you. Want to ride a motorcycle without a helmet? If you splatter your brains on the sidewalk it's not just you that suffers. It's your kids. It's your employer (or your employees). It's whoever gets stuck with the job of scraping you and your motorcycle off the pavement and disposing of them. And if you should be so unfortunate as to survive the accident, people seem generally unwilling to muster the cold-heartednes to let you die if your insurance premiums aren't up to date, or your pockets aren't deep enough.

So we build emergency rooms and make rules that they can't turn you away if you can't pay. We fund police and fire departments in the recognition that if your neighbor's house is robbed or burns down, you suffer too. We build schools because if your fellow citizens are uneducated, you suffer, because they vote.

Unless, of course, they didn't.

The idea of one-person-one-vote that we Americans claim to hold in such high esteem is actually a fairly recent innovation. When our country was founded it was one-landowner-one-vote. Then it became one-white-make-one-vote, then one-white-person-one-vote.

Most of us like to think that these are settled issues. But it is in our nature as humans to seek power and influence, and unlike wealth, where trades can produce winners on both sides, power and influence are zero-sum games. The whole point of having power and influence is to get other people to do what you want instead of what they want. Someone has to pick the vegetables, clean the sewers, fight the wars. How do you decide who draws the short straw?

It turns out there are lots of ways, some better than others. You can create a government and have it make the decisions. You can create a free-market economy and let that decide. Or you can create a system where some people are left with no alternative but to do the dirty work or starve.

That is what the Republican program of dismantling government is heading towards. If you replace government with the free market, then you replace one-person-one-vote with, effectively, one-dollar-one-vote, which some people (generally those with lots of dollars) genuinely consider to be a good thing.

I have to hand it to the Republicans though. Their marketing is brilliant. If they presented their agenda at face value they'd be run out of town on a rail. So instead they wrap their anti-democratic ideals in the flag and convince people that it's patriotic to fight the wars for starvation wages (and put up with being abandoned afterwards).

But it's not patriotic to pay more taxes. Oh, no.

I genuinely don't understand why anyone who isn't a millionaire would fall for this transparent scam. But they do, and by the tens of millions. I wish I did understand it because if I did I'm pretty sure I could make a lot of money.


Don Geddis said...

I generally agree with the post, overall. But I don't think the motorcycle helmet is a good example. That violates libertarian ideals.

Or, to put it another way, there's a huge difference between an imposed externality like your (good!) example about the neighbor's house burning down (which might cause yours to burn too), vs. a parent caring for his kids. Your helmet argument starts a slippery slope of all possible consequences. For example, why should a parent be "allowed" to take a low-paying job, if they are capable of working a much higher-paying (but perhaps many longer hours or otherwise unpleasant) job, which would make the kid's lives better? Do the kids have a "right" to the parent's efforts?

I also find the final logic, while not necessarily wrong, kind of ironic: we're unwilling to let you die, we know we're going to pay for your medical care, so since we can't stop ourselves, we're also going to force you ahead of time to wear a helmet. What about the guy who says: "Just leave me the f*** alone? I don't want the helmet, and I don't want you to pay for me. Why does your lack of self control allow you have to power and authority over me? You're the one with the problem."

I'm really strongly against victimless crimes: drugs, prostitution, helmets. I think it's really, really important to distinguish that class, from issues that directly affect neighbors (e.g., fire).

But in any case, I think the rest of the post stands, even without the helmet example.

Ron said...

> why should a parent be "allowed" to take a low-paying job, if they are capable of working a much higher-paying (but perhaps many longer hours or otherwise unpleasant) job, which would make the kid's lives better?

That's an easy one. It's because there is a wide range of opinions about what constitutes a "better" life. So we let individuals make their own choices.

By way of contrast, there is a very broad consensus that allowing people to splatter their brains on the sidewalk with impunity is a bad idea.

The drug issue is also different from either of those. There is broad consensus that letting people get addicted to crack and heroin is bad for everyone and ought to be discouraged. Where the consensus breaks down is on the question of whether or not prohibition is the right mechanism for keeping people from becoming substance dependent. Forcing people to wear helmets, annoying though that may be, is in fact an effective mechanism for reducing the number of people who splatter their brains on the sidewalk. Whether prohibition is effective or not is far less clear. (Actually, it's pretty clear that it doesn't work, and in fact makes the situation worse. But that doesn't change the consensus that society should somehow discourage people from becoming addicts.)

> What about the guy who says: "Just leave me the f*** alone? I don't want the helmet, and I don't want you to pay for me. Why does your lack of self control allow you have to power and authority over me? You're the one with the problem."

In an ideal world, I would require that person to post a bond to be used for disposing of his remains and that of his motorcycle, and for providing some minimal level of support to his dependents. But this is far from an ideal world.

Don Geddis said...

Well, I disagree with you on this political point. I much prefer John Stuart Mill's Harm Principle from On Liberty:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.

But in any case, my main point is that you can have an even stronger argument in your original post, using only examples that do cause (direct) harm to others, without needing to dive into this potentially controversial political debate.

Ron said...

The harm principle is one of those things that works better in theory than in practice. What constitutes harm? If you play your stereo loudly and I am bothered by it, is that harm to me? What if you keep me from sleeping at night? If you get yourself addicted to drugs and end up panhandling on the street, does that harm me? What if I'm a business person and your panhandling is driving my customers away? If a drug dealer approaches your children and offers them free heroin, is that harm to you? (Rothbard would answer that last question with an unequivocal "no." I'm pretty sure the vast majority of Americans would disagree.)

Don Geddis said...

I think the point is, that you can sanction the actual externality, but not voluntary behavior prior to it. Panhandling (or noise) either is, or isn't, a problem to be prohibited. But whatever you (as a society) decide about that issue, what you don't get to do is prohibit drugs because "they often lead to panhandling". (Or prohibit allowing teenagers in any house, because that also "often" leads to loud noise.)

Helmet laws don't come close to this smell test. The actual behavior of riding a motorcycle without a helmet harms nobody at all. Some tiny fraction of such riders will get in an accident. Some small fraction of accident victims will have a different outcome, than they would have if only they had been wearing a helmet. And it isn't even clear that net lifetime costs to society are negative; without helmets, more riders die, and dead people aren't especially expensive. (This is similar to the unfortunate finding that funding preventative care isn't a route to saving money in medical care, since -- in general -- keeping people alive longer increases, rather than decreases, lifetime medical costs.)

Ron said...

Very well, I concede the point. Helmets were a bad example.

Don Geddis said...

Wow. When starting an argument on the internet (as I did), one doesn't usually expect such a definitive resolution. Credit due to you!

Ron said...

When you're wrong as often as I am, being able to admit it becomes a valuable skill :-)