Friday, January 20, 2012

Crooked Timber Liberals Do Not Advocate Selling Votes

It's true!  But I sure did get tricked!  The Crooked Timber Liberal, John Holbo, recently posted this fascinating blog entry on selling votes.

Here was my response...and then his response...and then my response...and...?

*****************************************************

Xerographica

John Holbo, I literally did a double take when I saw this in my google reader. I was like..."What...is this really coming from the Crooked Timber website?" When I was reading your article I kept waiting for the..."Now here's why this would destroy society as we know it..."

My point is...you have my vote...which I wouldn't sell for anything less than $10,000 dollars.

The goal of voting is to determine which side cares the most. It surely wouldn't make sense for the side that could care less to win. People get confused though and think that just because one side has more numbers it automatically means that they care more. Yet...it's fairly reasonable to say that one person who would sell his/her kidney for an additional vote obviously cares more about the issue than one person who would sell his vote for only $1.

That's why limiting campaign contributions would be as counterproductive as limiting how many hours people could volunteer for a cause that they care about. Time is money.

So the question shouldn't be: Do you care about an issue? Rather...it should be: How much do you care about an issue? That's why we have the common expressions..."put your money where your mouth is" and "actions speak louder than words". It's one thing to just "like" a cause on facebook and it's another thing to volunteer for that cause in real life.

Not too long ago Jason Brennan wrote a book on the ethics of voting. In his book he argues against "bad" voting. Of course..."bad" voting for a libertarian isn't necessarily the same thing as "bad" voting for a liberal...and vice-versa. Here's my comment on his BHL blog entry (you have to sort the comments from oldest to newest). In my comment I argue why it's perfectly reasonable for people to sell their votes.

Also, here's my 10 topic Self-Ownership Survey where I juxtapose the issue of campaign contributions with children's suffrage, procreation licenses, consensual slavery, etc. in order to encourage people to evaluate where they stand with regards to self-ownership.

The bottom line is...if it was easy for people to think objectively about voting then we would have embraced universal suffrage from the get-go. As it is...people automatically evaluate voting issues in terms of the outcomes that they desire.

*****************************************************

John Holbo

Xerographica: “My point is…you have my vote…which I wouldn’t sell for anything less than $10,000 dollars.”

I’m not surprised, nor horrified, that some people actually think it makes sense, my little scheme. I would be surprised if some propertarian-libertarian hasn’t worked out the details long ago.

But just to be clear: I strongly disapprove of this scheme. But I think it wouldn’t actually be much worse – if at all – that the system we’ve got. I do think this is a big mistake: “Yet…it’s fairly reasonable to say that one person who would sell his/her kidney for an additional vote obviously cares more about the issue than one person who would sell his vote for only $1.”

This is reasonable, but willingness to spend large amounts of money is not a good indication of intensity of preference if some people are very poor and others very rich.

*****************************************************

Xerographica


John Holbo, well...you broached the topic in a well thought out manner...so you still have my vote. But...I'm going to have to drop my selling price to $500.

Sure, it's a given that people have different levels of disposable time/money. But are you truly going to argue that you can generalize other people's values based on how much disposable time/money that they have? If so...do you have any evidence to support your generalization? Many many many people have claimed that a correlation exists between wealth and values but none have been able to substantiate their claims.

"This is reasonable, but willingness to spend large amounts of money is not a good indication of intensity of preference if some people are very poor and others very rich."

Are you familiar with the Bible story of the widow's mite? Many small sacrifices can certainly equal a few large sacrifices. Otherwise...Obama probably wouldn't have been elected. This the long-tail concept. We're not looking at averages here...we're looking at totals. In terms of voting the question is..."which side cares the most?"...not..."which side on average cares the most?".

If opportunity costs are not a good indication of intensity of preference...then what are the alternatives? What are the opportunity costs of completely foregoing an integration of intensity?  How can we determine the best possible use of limited resources unless we allow people to choose one thing that they value over another thing that they value?

Would you be fine giving your kidney to somebody with two perfectly healthy kidneys? That is an example of the inefficient allocation of limited resources. If it doesn't make sense on the individual level...why would it make sense on the national level?

Now, would it make sense for me...a completely stranger...to decide for you how you can best use your kidney? Can resources truly be efficiently allocated by proxy?

Speaking of kidneys...during the C-Span lesser known New Hampshire presidential candidate debate....Vermin Supreme stood up and lifted up his shirt to show everybody the scar he received from having donated his kidney to his mother. While doing so he preached why everybody should donate their kidneys. Because...it's all about convincing. For a real dose of of poignancy mixed with humor...check out his blog entry where he talks about giving his kidney to his mother rather than his friend who also needed one. It's all about opportunity costs.

The hard part to convey is that if we allowed people to directly allocate their individual taxes then the outcome might be a viable form of socialism. Once we integrate intensity (reveal preferences) then we would solve the incentive problem and the problem of allocative inefficiency. The incentive problem would be solved because a government organization's revenue would be directly tied to its productivity. Nobody would choose to waste their hard-earned taxes anymore than you would choose to waste your kidney. The allocative inefficiency problem would be solved given that taxpayers would consider the opportunity costs of their tax allocation decisions. The result would be a taxpayer division of labor.

*****************************************************

Latro

I find it interesting that we focus a lot on the freedom/right/duty to vote and not on the freedom/right/duty? of being able to present your platform and yourself as alternatives in the political process.

The whole “you cant ban donations and all that, thats against freedom of speech”. What about the freedom of having your ideas about how to run the country taken as seriously, as it should be your right as a citizen, as the ones of the mega-rich-backed candidates?

In short, why dont we (everywhere, I’m not American but the problem is similar everywhere), give to each candidate – defined as whoever wants to be one – and party – same – the same means of communication, the same alloted time, the same OBLIGATORY presence in debates, and all that, as to ensure all voices get the same, equal treatment and the deciding citizens can vote fully informed?

*****************************************************

Xerographica

Latro, guess you missed the the C-Span debates on the Lesser Known New Hampshire candidates? Sure, I'd want Vermin Supreme to receive the same amount of exposure as Obama and Ron Paul...but for me to advocate changing the process would reflect my inability to consider the process objectively.

The process is one of survival of the fittest ideas. I obviously have my own hare-brained ideas regarding changes we need to make. Would I like to see them discussed on C-Span and CNN? Of course I would...because I don't believe that my ideas are truly hare-brained. But why should C-Span or CNN spend their limited time discussing topics that have not been vetted by bloggers?  It's an issue of opportunity cost.

On my blog entry on Vermin Supreme...in the second youtube video...here's what Dan Rather had to say about giving air time to Vermin Supreme...
But as a reporter, I am under no obligation to pay any attention to him. We've got a very valuable, small amount of air time at abc-news...I wish we had more. And that air time ought to be devoted to bringing to the public the plans, the hopes, the dreams, the aspirations, the qualifications of people who are serious about it. And people who if they get to be president of the United States may do something for this country. I should spend our time on Vermin Surpreme? Not a chance.
Do I disagree with Dan Rather's assessment?  Certainly...but that's part of the process.  Our current system works to vet ideas.  As Milton Friedman said...."If we can't persuade the public that it's desirable to do these things, then we have no right to impose them even if we had the power to do it."

*****************************************************

John Holbo

Getting back to xerographica: “You certainly aren’t the first to suggest that there is a correlation between wealth and values…but you would certainly be the first if you were able to substantiate your claim.”

I’m not sure I fully understand this. (I did click through for a quick look.) Presumably if you study income and party affiliation and so forth you can find some meaningful correlations. Probably the Pew values survey would be a good place to look. But my argument and attitude doesn’t depend on any particular social science results. Consider three ways of allocating votes.

You get more votes the longer you are willing to sit in a chair in a room for hours on end with nothing but nothing to do.

You get more votes the longer you are willing to do the downward-facing dog.

You get more votes the more you pay.

These are all potential methods of measuring intensity of preference. In some ways they are all better than the system we have got, because they all attempt to measure intensity at all, whereas one person-one vote does not. That said, they are all obviously flawed. The first will skew voting to people who don’t have jobs or things they really need to do that keep them from sitting in a boring room doing nothing. The second will skew voting to yoga practitioners. The third will skew voting to rich people. Now do I know for sure that, say, yoga practitioners have different values than everyone else has, so that this skew will be a problem? No. If I had to guess, yoga skews left. But maybe that’s totally wrong and there is no correlation between being good at the downward-facing dog and any kind of political value that anyone might be called upon to express with a vote. All the same, I’m not inclined to adopt a system that gives a group disproportionate representation, for an irrelevant reason, even if that disproportion does not clearly create a problem. The basic equality proposition underlying one person-one vote, and also the pragmatics of it, suggest that you should not be giving someone more votes than someone else gets for an obviously irrelevant reason.

*****************************************************

Xerographica

John Holbo, have you read this article by the progressive Cait Lamberton...Your Money, Your Choice?  In the article she makes a case for tax choice.
Further, taxpayers’ allocations reveal a strong preference for more butter and fewer guns. Thus, allowing taxpayers some choice in where their taxes go may slowly shift the nation’s spending priorities toward more socially productive investments.
Do you think she still would have written the article if the taxpayers' allocation decisions had been skewed to the right...as in more guns less butter?

Would allowing people to sell their votes skew the results to the left or to the right? Would allowing children to vote skew the results to the left or to the right? Did allowing women to vote skew the results to the left or to the right? Did allowing minorities to vote skew the results to the left or to the right?

Do you want an accurate reflection of interests...or do you want equality of representation? If you want equality of representation then why not write a blog entry on the benefit of giving each social group one vote? In your post you could consider the following questions...

Do gay people and atheists think it's fair that Christians can engage in tyranny of the majority? Do minorities think it's fair that white people can engage in tyranny of the majority? Do young people think it's fair that old people can engage in tyranny of the majority? Do rich people think it's fair that poor people can engage in tyranny of the majority? Do smart people think it's fair that dumb people can engage in tyranny of the majority?

You're either going to have tyranny of the minority or tyranny of the majority. It's not fair...but tyranny is an inherent feature of voting. One group is always going to impose its interests onto another group. The question is...who should do the imposing...the group that cares most...or the group that cares less?

Just like we should support free-speech even when it has an unfavorable skew....we should not let the possibility of an unfavorable skew diminish our support for people's right to try and protect their interests. As a nation we shouldn't be afraid to take a close look in the mirror.  What's kind of funny is that each side is concerned that the reflection will be skewed to the other side. As individuals we have trouble fathoming something as complex as the values of an entire nation...which is why we developed the left/right heuristic.

As a pragmatarian I have no desire to try and shift our nation's spending priorities in any one direction. My goal is for our spending priorities...aka supply... to accurately reflect interests...aka demand. Just like it doesn't make sense for you to give your kidney to somebody with two perfectly healthy kidneys....it doesn't make sense for our nation to purchase more guns when there's a demand for more butter.

The selling votes concept, combined with pragmatarianism, would have a much narrower application. People's tax allocation decisions would determine the scope of government and their votes would determine social issues. There would be no need to vote on guns vs butter because the allocation of public goods would accurately reflect exactly how much society values those public goods. Instead, we would vote on things like whether polygamy should be legal.

*****************************************************

John Holbo

Xerographica: “That being said…I don’t get the feeling like you’ve made a real case…or any case…for equality…in the sense that it trumps revealing intensity. That’s kind of the equivalent of a libertarian that holds “liberty” as argument enough.”

It’s true that I haven’t made the case for equality, but that’s because if you don’t accept the basic proposition that people should be given equal political rights and equal representation, I don’t see why you want to devise a better democratic voting scheme at all. Democratic voting only makes moral sense on the assumption that, basically, we want equality for citizens. Attempts to reveal intensity of preferences are not alternatives to valuing equality, in my sense. Such attempts only have a coherent motive as refinements – not replacements of – attempts to realize basic political equality, plus liberty. You want to give the people what they want. And you are starting from a baseline of equality of persons.

You write about ‘efficiency’. It is more efficient if we can measure intensity of preference better? But efficiency for what? Why do you want to measure this stuff? Presumably because you want to have a more refined, nuanced sense of what ‘most people really want’. But why would you care about that unless you think that what most people really want is morally important? And why would you think that unless you think that, given that everyone is equal, what most people really want is what we need to go for, in most cases.

I mean, if you are a divine right of kings monarchist-type, you won’t believe any of this equality guff, but then you won’t care about revealed preferences of anyone but God and the king either. Just for example. So what gives?

You give the rich more votes if you think the rich deserve more political power, for being rich. Just like you give more votes to yoga practitioners, if you think doing yoga makes you a spiritual aristocrat more deserving of wielding political power. You don’t do either of these things, ideally, if you don’t believe these things. Even if you think it would be politically harmless – a wash at the ballot box – you don’t go generating random aristocracies. It’s just bad design, at best.

A simple question: do you think that selling votes, as a scheme, is superior in any way to the more votes for more downward-facing dog scheme? If so: why?

*****************************************************

Xerographica

John Holbo, I just purchased your book...Reason & Persuasion: Three Dialogues by Plato...for $32.50 from Amazon.  And I intentionally kept your Amazon tag in the above link.  Rather than just thinking of it as me "purchasing" your book...let's think of it as me "voting" for you...and Amazon...and Pearson Education...and...

Take a few moments to trip out on that.  Right here we see Bastiat's opportunity cost concept...and Hayek's partial knowledge concept in action.  We see allocative efficiency...and the invisible hand...and pragmatarianism...all in action.  I just voted for you.

Wealthy people are wealthy because many people voted for them.  When I purchased your book on  Amazon we both voted for Jeff Bezos.  Why should Jeff Bezos be able to buy 10,000 more votes than we ever could?  Because we...and millions of other people...voted for him.

If you didn't like how Jeff Bezos was voting with his money...then you would be able to boycott Amazon and encourage others to do the same.  If you were allowed to directly allocate your taxes...then you would be able to boycott any war that we ever engaged in.  On the other hand...conservatives and libertarians would be able to boycott the government's war on poverty.  Then again...liberals would be able to boycott the government's war on drugs.

The eternal question has been...what should the government do?  What is the proper scope of government?  What are the proper duties of government?  What should the responsibilities of government be?  The answer to this fundamental question is simple.  The government should do what we pay it to do.

Why did I purchase your book?  Well...because we're having this discussion...because you're seriously considering an idea that I really value...because you're exceptional among Crooked Timber Liberals for doing so...because I should read more Plato...

Now...my blog, which is dedicated to allowing taxpayers to directly allocate their taxes, only has 4 followers (errr...now 5).  Does that mean that pragmatarianism isn't a valuable idea?  It's very well possible.  I could certainly have wasted many hours barking up the wrong tree.

Did the people behind the Magna Carta ever stop and wonder if they were barking up the wrong tree?  I mean...they were challenging the divine right of kings.  The thing is, we've been challenging authority ever since Eve ate the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (see my post on the Devil's Advocate for Public Goods).

I don't want to just keep replacing kings...I don't want to just keep replacing presidents...I don't want to just keep replacing congresspeople.  I want to directly integrate everything you know...and everything I know...and everything Jeff Bezos knows...into determining exactly what the government should do.  Along those same lines...I want everybody to be able to boycott anything the government does that they believe it should not be doing.

So to answer your simple question...selling votes is superior to the downward facing dog scheme because you and I voted for the people who can buy votes.

*****************************************************

John Holbo


Thanks for buying the book! I hope you like it.

*****************************************************

John Holbo

“selling votes is superior to the downward facing dog scheme because you and I voted for the people who can buy votes.”

OK, I’ll respond quickly to this. It seems to me circular. In a world in which people have been downward-facing dogging (on behalf of) the candidates for some time, the people to whom (for whom) one downward-face are also the people to whom (for whom, one behalf of whom) one has downward-faced in the past. Just as the people who buy votes are the people who bought votes in the past, ex hypothesi. But ‘we’ve always done it this way before, so it must be a good way of doing it’ is not an argument, especially not when we are arguing hypothetially about things we actually haven’t done before. (If this is not your argument, then I don’t see what you your argument is.)

The only difference, it seems to me, is that there is no market in selling instances of performance of the downward-facing dog. Whereas you can sell votes. But there is no particular reason why that should making selling preferably. Our interest in settling an optimal voting system is not a desire to create a commercial industry, per se.

*****************************************************

Xerographica

John Holbo, your argument is that it's not fair for the founder of Amazon.com...Jeff Bezos...to be able to purchase more votes than you or I would be able to.  My counter argument was that you "voted" for Bezos by selling your book on Amazon and I "voted" for Bezos when I purchased your book on Amazon.

We didn't literally "vote" for Bezos given that he is not running for office.  We figuratively voted for him by making him that much more wealthy.  

The question is...would you still have sold your book on Amazon if you knew that Bezos was going to use your money to purchase literal votes that were against your interests?  We can see that the beauty of your idea is that it would establish a culture of ethical consumerism.

Like pragmatarianism, your idea would allow us to objectively discern the proper scope of government.  There's no need to debate the proper scope of Jeff Bezos.  Why is that?  It's simply because we've all used our money to figuratively vote for exactly what it is that Jeff Bezos should be doing...running Amazon.com.  

If we allow people to sell their votes...and directly allocate their taxes....then the government would simply do what we pay it to do.  Would you pay the government to do something that it was bad at doing?  No...nobody would  We would all only pay the government to do what it was good at doing.

If anybody disagrees with something that the government is doing then they would have the freedom to engage in ethical consumerism by boycotting that government organization.  If you support the concept of ethical consumerism in the private sector...then why wouldn't you support applying the same concept to the public sector?  Wouldn't you value the freedom to boycott unnecessary wars?

*****************************************************

Alex
Just like we should support free-speech even when it has an unfavorable skew….we should not let the possibility of an unfavorable skew diminish our support for people’s right to try and protect their interests.
If we’re to take this principle to its logical conclusion, presumably you would have no objection if e.g. impoverished people hired your neighbours to come redistribute your property. After all, they’re only trying to “protect their interests”.

*****************************************************

Xerographica

Alex, how is that the logical conclusion?  The context of my statement is the current system.  It refers to people spending their time and money to try and modify the current system.  With the current system what you described is illegal (well...at least in terms of the private sector).

If you want what you described to be legal...then even though it's against my interests...I wouldn't want to limit your right to spend as much time/money as you wanted to try and protect your interests.

Just to be clear...my issue isn't the taxing...it's the spending.  I could care less if there was 100% public ownership of the means of production...as long as 1. taxpayers were allowed to directly allocate their taxes and 2. people were allowed to sell their votes.

Socialism really could work...as long as we solved the incentive problem and the partial knowledge problem.  By allowing 1. taxpayers to directly allocate their taxes and 2. people to sell their votes we would definitively solve both those problems.

Would the outcome be socialism...or anarcho-capitalism...or somewhere in between?  I have no idea...nobody could truly know the outcome.  That being said...what I'm fairly certain of is that if there was a shift...then the shift would benefit our country as a whole...completely irrespective of the direction the shift took.

*****************************************************

Mike Huben 

Xerographica (@98) wrote:
“There’s no need to debate the proper scope of Jeff Bezos. Why is that? It’s simply because we’ve all used our money to figuratively vote for exactly what it is that Jeff Bezos should be doing…running Amazon.com. ”

No, it is because we have long ago decided the proper scope of businessmen like Bezos, and decided that they should not be able to compete coercively: we don’t need mafias. By centralizing and democratizing government, we prevent wasteful combative competition that would lead to positive feedback.

*****************************************************

Xerographica

Mike Huben, last year on your blog entry...What is Libertarianism?...I provided specific examples to refute your arguments.

Sure...I agree that we don't need mafias...but you're going to have to offer some specific examples of how Jeff Bezos would have anything to do with mafias. How is Bezos offering to buy your vote in the same league as mafia extortion? Is he going to send thugs to your house to beat you up if you didn't want to sell him your vote? Would he really risk going to jail for one vote?

Would legalizing the sale of kidneys help or hurt the black market for kidneys? Would legalizing drugs help or hurt the illegal drug trade? Did ending prohibition help or hurt the mafia?

Was it easier to corrupt a king or corrupt congress? Would it be easier to corrupt congress or corrupt millions and millions of taxpayers and/or voters?  The more centralized that power is...

1. the easier it is for the corrupter...given that all the eggs are in one basket
2. the greater the likelihood for corruption...given that there will be many many many offers
3. the greater the negative impact of corruption...given that all the eggs are in one basket.


*****************************************************

John Holbo

“My counter argument was that you “voted” for Bezos by selling your book on Amazon and I “voted” for Bezos when I purchased your book on Amazon.

We didn’t literally “vote” for Bezos given that he is not running for office. We figuratively voted for him by making him that much more wealthy”

The big problem here is that we didn’t vote for Bezos, literally or figuratively, for office, by making him more wealthy. The reason we didn’t vote for him for office, in virtue of our purchase, has nothing to do with the fact that he’s not running for office. (He could have been, and we still wouldn’t have been.) By buying a product from Amazon, we reveal a preference for the product, not for Bezos in office.

So your counter-argument is really a counter-premise, like so: wealthy people are, in virtue of their wealth, inherently more deserving of wielding political power. Period. End of story. That’s fine, insofar as that makes clear where the rest of us get off the bus: namely, with this first step.

Making the point from another angle …

Suppose we change my downward-facing dog case around a bit: everyone gets votes to the extent that are musicians who sell dance records. By buying their records, you ‘vote’ for them. The problem here – which is precisely analogous to the Bezos problem – is that it’s simply false to say that, literally or figuratively, you vote for them FOR OFFICE by buying their records. At most you vote for them as being pretty good dance music creators. By buying from Amazon I may, figuratively, vote for Jeff Bezos as the guy most likely to sell me what I want for a reasonable price (this is already a stretch, but let it go.) But there is a long way to go between this and Jeff Bezos FOR SENATE, or whatever office he may seek.

*****************************************************

Xerographica

John Holbo...how is it a problem that Bezos isn't running for office?  You figuratively voted for Jeff Bezos to be one of America's Best Leaders.  Another leader on that list is Jeffrey Sachs...what difference does it make whether Sachs is a professor or a senator?  What difference does it make that Lady Gaga and Bono aren't politicians?

They either do...or they don't...represent a portion of your interests.  Do you have any idea how many different people represent some portion of your interests on a daily basis?  That's why I really struggle with the idea that one congressperson can effectively represent the interests of half a million people.  That's a joke...which is why it was funny when the comedian Daniel Tosh said, "The idea that any of these candidates represent my interests is absurd."

It's perfectly fine though if you believe that congresspeople do an excellent job at functioning as our personal shoppers for public goods.  Maybe Daniel Tosh, myself...and nearly everybody else I know...are extremely exceptional.  If that's truly the case though, then why would you be hesitant to allow consumers to figuratively vote for congress?

One of your interests is clearly to try and protect the interests of those who are unable to protect their own interests.  But is your interest in this area so exceptional that nobody else would figuratively vote to protect it?  Do you think that just because conservatives are skeptical of the government's ability to truly help people in need that it means that they don't care?  Isn't it possible that perhaps people are more complex than that?

If you don't want to disproportionately empower the rich...then you can't just get off the bus.  That's not where this story ends.  You need to stay on the bus long enough to understand where your money is going and how it is being used.  Like I said....that is the beauty of your pseudo-proposal.  It doesn't allow you to dissociate yourself from the indirect consequences of your consumption decisions.

*****************************************************

John Holbo

Xerographica, I am afraid I just don’t get it. Obviously I get the idea that the current system has problems. My objection to what you are proposing is not based on the assumption that the current system is excellent, or that the people running it are unusually excellent at their jobs. But what I don’t get is why Bezos and Gaga are peculiarly suited to overcome existing problems, simply because they are rich. Their riches would allow them to buy votes. Fine. But why is it valuable to enable them to do that? Why are we more concerned to reveal the political preferences of Bezos and Gaga than the man on the street?

“Do you have any idea how many different people represent some portion of your interests on a daily basis?”

I would assume: a lot. A huge number. But why is this relevant?

“why would you be hesitant to allow consumers to figuratively vote for congress?”

Well, I would need to be told why it is supposed to be a good idea. Again, doesn’t it just come down to a kind of axiom: wealthy people are more worthy of wielding political power. Obviously if that’s true, then consumerism plus selling votes becomes a kind of glorious engine of political virtue. Because it makes some people rich, ergo makes them worthy of wielding political power, while at the same time making them politically powerful. But why should I buy the main premise?

*****************************************************

Xerographica

John Holbo, we are not more concerned to reveal the political preferences of Bezos and Gaga than the man on the street.  The concept that I'm failing to convey is how the political preferences of Bezos and Gaga reflect a portion of the preferences of the people on the street.  If we want correct political answers then we need to integrate everybody's social and economic preferences.  Politics is simply a reflection of economic and social preferences.  The more accurate the reflection the more accurate the answers.

Let's consider the question of what the private sector should produce.  How many different people does it take to come up with this answer?  It takes every single one of us.  If we took your preferences out of the equation then would the answer still be correct?  No...it wouldn't be.  It would be extremely close to being correct but it would still be wrong.  Each person we take out of the equation the more incorrect the answer becomes.

This is the basic premise of why socialism fails.  Socialism is resource allocation by proxy.  Unlike capitalism...it only allows you to indirectly communicate your preferences.  If it was just a 1 to 1 ratio it wouldn't be so bad.  For example...I would give you all my money...and communicate my preferences to you...and you would buy me what I wanted.  The economy wouldn't work as well but it probably wouldn't fail.  But what about a 1 to 2 ratio?  Or a 1 to 3 ratio?  Or a 1 to 100,000 ratio?

Everybody has some information but nobody has all the information.  This is not a new concept.  Socrates said, "...it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know."   Buddha expressed this in terms of the blind men each feeling different parts of an elephant.  More recently...Hayek referred to this as the "Fatal Conceit".  You don't have to agree with this concept...but it helps at least to understand it...given that it's the very foundation of conservatism and libertarianism.  The irony is that conservatives and libertarians do not realize how they are nearly as guilty of this "Fatal Conceit" as liberals are.  For more on this see my post on a taxpayer division of labor.

If we understand that it takes every single one of us to correctly answer the question of what the private sector should produce...then it shouldn't be much of a stretch to understand that it would require every single one of us to correctly answer the question of what the public sector should produce.  That in no way implies that we should all be forced to literally vote...it simply conveys the value of allowing people to directly communicate their preferences via the selling of their votes and the direct allocation of their taxes.

*****************************************************

John Holbo 

Xerographica,

I guess I fail to see the relevance. I understand why it would be nice if election and voting revealed voter preference in richer fashion. But, given that people have unequal economic endowments, it won’t work. All you are doing is revealing, disproportionately, the preferences of those with lots of money. It’s as bad as the downward-facing dog scheme. It’s a measure of preference-intensity, but obviously badly skewed. This was the point of the post. It’s every bit as bad as the system we’ve got. And surely any utopia we devise ought to be less bad than that!

” The irony is that conservatives and libertarians do not realize how they are nearly as guilty of this “Fatal Conceit” as liberals are.”

I would say the irony is that they are guiltier, but we can let it go, for argument purposes. Granted, we’ve got a knowledge problem. The existing system tries to deal with it with one man-one vote. Your system seems to me no better because although it is more sensitive, in a sense, it is badly skewed. So the sensitivity all goes to waste, in effect.

We are, actually, recapitulating old debates. It has standardly been argued that the rich are more politically virtuous and should disproportionately wield power. (You are playing theme and variations on this timeless line.) The poor shouldn’t vote because they are too dumb and uninterested and uneducated about general issues. One of the main arguments against that is that is that the poor may not know a lot of things, but they know one thing. What bothers them. If you strip them of the franchise, their grievances will be neglected and will fester and that’s bad. Likewise, if you let them sell their vote, you are – as likely as not – actually making the knowledge problem worse. It’s now harder, not easier, to get information about what the poor want, in a political policy sense.

At this point you could argue that we are still getting information from the sale of votes. And that’s true. But the signal is thinner than it has to be. And the system is set up in such a way that the signal will be ignored, not attended to, by those with political power. So, to repeat, I don’t see how you have proposed any solution to the knowledge problem. You keep saying: the Buddha thing. Yeah, I get it. (When you get your copy of the book you’ll see that I actually drew a cartoon elephant to illustrate the parable. The concept is stock and familiar.) But now what?

*****************************************************

Xerographica

John Holbo, do we have different interpretations of the parable of the blind men and the elephant? My interpretation is that we all have unique but extremely limited perspectives. Based on my interpretation of the parable it would be counterproductive to group people together based on their net worth. Yet, your argument seems to indicate that all the rich people are touching the elephant's left ear while all the poor people are touching the elephant's tail.

Am I misinterpreting the parable or is there a disparity between the parable and your argument? If we all have unique perspectives...how would allowing us to directly communicate our perspectives skew the outcome towards any arbitrary grouping of people? In my opinion...allowing people to directly communicate their perspectives would skew the outcome towards reality. In other words...it would correct the skew of misrepresentation.

In terms of our argument...the elephant represents the proper scope of government. We argue over the scope of government like blind men arguing over what it is that they are touching. It's conceited for one blind person to think they can "see" more than another blind person. This conceit is the basis of socialism...and dictatorships...and monarchies. It requires humility for me to accept that maybe I'm wrong and maybe you're right. This humility is a two way street that leads us towards political tolerance. In other words...while I might disagree with who you sold your vote to...or how you allocated your taxes...I would strongly support your right to do so.

*****************************************************

John Holbo

“My interpretation is that we all have unique but extremely limited perspectives.”

That’s pretty much it. My concern is that your proposal deals poorly with this state of affairs, but you seem to think your proposal deals well with it.

“Yet, your argument seems to indicate that all the rich people are touching the elephant’s left ear while all the poor people are touching the elephant’s tail.”

No, the problem is that I’m a bit more skeptical than you about whether we can know a thing like that. You are assuming we know that rich and poor are more or less equally distributed around the elephant. Law of averages. They aren’t clumped or clustered in any way, preferences and interests and values-wise. I say we don’t know that. How could we?

I guess maybe it comes down to this: you think there can’t be any harm in disproportionately enfranchising the rich because, after all, there are rich men and women, and Republicans and Democrats and so forth. I think there perfectly well could be. There’s one study, linked above, suggesting as much. But my point doesn’t depend on being convinced by that one study. The abstract problem is this: I’m basically handing over political power to a minority. Do I know that this minority will represent everyone’s interests and preferences optimally? No, I think I don’t know that. (Nor do you. You are sizing up the elephant and you figure the rich are pretty well distributed over it’s surface. But, again, what makes you so special that you can see the whole beast?) So the proposal is unattractive. It’s a bold shift to a new system that … doesn’t seem any better than the old system. No worse, maybe, but no better. It’s not worth a bold revolution to meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

*****************************************************

John Holbo

I think we’ve actually come full circle now, which feels like a conclusion (at least to me). You started by saying (once you realized we disagreed): “You certainly aren’t the first to suggest that there is a correlation between wealth and values…but you would certainly be the first if you were able to substantiate your claim.”

You took me to be on the wrong side of the knowledge problem because of this. But to me that gets the evidential presumption wrong. It’s your job to prove that there isn’t such a correlation, not my job to prove that there is one. So you are actually the one on the wrong side of the knowledge problem.

Why is it your job, not mine? Well, you’re trying to engineer a robust machine for revealing preferences here. It’s the job of the engineer to give reasonable assurances that it won’t blow up. It’s not good enough for the engineer to say that no one has yet proven that it will blow up.

*****************************************************

Xerographica

John Holbo, every day you have no choice but to consider the costs of the things you want...yet for some reason the burden is on me to prove to you that voters should be forced to consider the costs, as well as the benefits, of the things that they want from government.

A while back Obama's favorite analogy was how the Republicans drove the "car" into the ditch.  Do you really think it's simply a matter of which party is behind the wheel?  How can one party know our preferences more than the other party?  Without knowing our preferences they might as well be driving while blindfolded.

If you want proof...then see how long you can make it without looking at price tags.  The fact of the matter is that opportunity costs are just as essential in the public sector as they are in the private sector.

Also...in terms of handing political power over to a minority...can you do me a favor and tell me more about this political power that you have in the first place?  Personally I have no political power...so being able to sell my vote...or directly allocate my taxes...would be a positive gain for me...and nearly everybody else.

Our gain would of course represent somebody else's loss...specifically...538 congresspeople.  How small a minority are they?  I don't know them...they don't know me...yet I'm supposed to expect that they will represent my interests better than I can?  I think not.  If I had to choose between 150 million taxpayers each representing their own interests or 538 congresspeople trying to represent the interests of 300 million people...it wouldn't even be a contest.  Everybody would benefit from A) 150 million people considering the price tags on all the public goods that they want and B) 300 million people considering the price tags on their votes.

Speaking of price tags...your book arrived yesterday.  I think it's well worth the $30...but my girlfriend did not.  Eh...she's more into the beat poets than philosophy.  What is the value of your book to society?  It's simply the revenue that your book generated.  What is the value of any public good?  It's simply the revenue that it would generate if people were allowed to directly allocate their taxes.  We all benefit by considering the price tags on the things we want...and we all stand to lose by ignoring those price tags.  The only people that benefit when the "car" ends up in the ditch are the politicians in the opposite party.  How perverse is that.  I wonder how many more times the keys will have to pass back and forth before people start noticing a pattern.

*****************************************************

reason 

“Speaking of price tags…your book arrived yesterday. I think it’s well worth the $30…but my girlfriend did not. Eh…she’s more into the beat poets than philosophy. What is the value of your book to society? It’s simply the revenue that your book generated….”

No this is not true. This argument ignores consumer surplus and externalities. Think about water or air. Their value far exceeds their price.

*****************************************************

Xerographica

reason, the overall point though is that it wouldn't make any sense if we allowed 538 congresspeople to decide how many copies of John's book should be printed. There's absolutely no logical basis for believing that resources can be efficiently allocated by proxy.  It just doesn't work for any resource.

I'm sure you would vote for John's book...but whether you'd actually purchase his book offers an infinitely more accurate reflection of your own unique and valuable perspective. If you haven't purchased his book it means that you have better things with greater positive externalities that you could spend that $30 on. If you have purchased his book it means you were willing to forgo those other things that you value. The greater the quantity of unique and valuable perspectives that determine the answer...the more accurate the answer will be.

How many copies of John's book should be printed? How much money should be allocated to public education? How much money should be allocated to national defense? How much money should be allocated to public transportation? How much money should be allocated to everything that Rachel Maddow wants? How much money should be allocated to all those awesome things that Obama listed in his state of the union address?

All those questions should not be answered by 538 congresspeople. Instead...they should be answered by millions and millions of consumers each with their own valuable and unique perspectives. It's a fatal conceit for 538 congresspeople to think that they can answer any of those questions more accurately than our entire nation can. Don't get me wrong...if you're happy with congress's answers then I wouldn't try and stop you from giving them your taxes any more than I would try and stop you from believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy or God.  But if I'm going to concede that maybe you're right and maybe I'm wrong...it's going to cost you the same exact concession.  Once we both make that same concession then we would each allocate our own taxes and sell our own votes according to our own unique and valuable perspectives.

None of us knows what the exact outcome would be of allowing people to sell their votes or directly allocate their taxes...but it would defy everything we know to argue that our country as a whole wouldn't positively benefit from the efficient allocation of limited resources.

*****************************************************

Xerographica

John Holbo, quite frequently I'm really envious of people with great illustration skills such as yourself. Here's what I would draw if I had your skills...

Obama, Romney and Ron Paul would all be blindfolded and fighting over the keys to a car (which would be in the background). A fourth person, representing the American public, would be standing there without a blindfold on. The illustration's caption would read..."Aren't you tired of being a passenger? How many more times will you have to push the car out of the ditch before you decide to take the keys?"

*****************************************************

John Holbo

Xerographica,

“It’s a fatal conceit for 538 congresspeople to think that they can answer any of those questions more accurately than our entire nation can.”

Yes, but it’s not MY conceit, so its fatality – which I grant, for sake of argument – is by the by.

We keep coming back to the same point. You keep suggesting that the reason I should accept your proposal is that it would be so much better of we could, as you say, put the citizens themselves in the driver’s seat. But my objection is not that this is undesirable but that I do not have any particular reason to believe your proposal would tend to bring this about. It looks to me like you are selling me a blender on the grounds that I need a refrigerator.

“John Holbo, every day you have no choice but to consider the costs of the things you want…yet for some reason the burden is on me to prove to you that voters should be forced to consider the costs, as well as the benefits, of the things that they want from government.”

The burden is on you, just as the burden is on someone who proposes, say, a dictatorship of the proletariat, as a solution to the problem of how to reveal everyone’s preferences.

The analogy is apt. The idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat is that this one group, only a subset of the citizenry, will be optimally expressive of the interests of the whole population. Your idea is sort of the same on the other end of the income scale: not a dictatorship of the rich, but a promise that one group – the rich – which is only a subset of the citizenry – will, if given predominant political power, adequately express the interests and preferences of the whole citizenry.

Both idea have been tried. Various communist revolutions. The history of aristocratic representative government in Europe. (Historically, your proposal is the norm, in representative government. Only those with money – with property/land – wield political power.) The track record is poor in both cases. So, yes, the burden is on you, as it is on the communist, to show how and why the next time will be better.

There is another problem, incidentally. Market forces can ‘decide’ that the iPhone is awesome: everyone buys it. But market forces cannot design and build iPhones. For that you need designers and engineers and so forth. Probably that’s 500 people at least. And now we are back to the fatal conceit. How can 500 people presume to think they know what everyone wants? Well, they do and they don’t. It’s a fatal conceit in many cases. Companies go bust. Still, the solution is not to have millions of consumers each contribute some small bit of the engineering design and etc. process.

Now we go back to politics as usual. 500 people – congresscritters – are supposed to ‘build a product’ – i.e. a piece of legislation. They hope that it, like the iPhone, will be popular not unpopular. If it isn’t, they will be voted out … is the idea (though not the sordid reality, we may grant). Now what are you proposing, to change this? Somehow we can eliminate the middle-man of representative government? The millions of citizens themselves will write the legislation themselves? But that doesn’t seem practical. No more so than it would be practical for Apple to fire its designers and engineers and replace them with its consumer base, in some diffuse way (thereby presumably greating saving on design costs.) So what are you proposing?

*****************************************************

Xerographica


John Holbo, ok, you're right that I should bear the burden of proof.  Why should citizens be in the driver's seat?  Because they know what they want.  Are they capable of expressing their wants?  Yes, they clearly express their wants in the for-profit sector and in the non-profit sector.

In other words...the demand for public goods should determine the supply of public goods.  It's really as simple as that.

Historically my proposal has been the norm?  During what part of history have consumers ever been in the driver's seat?  First the king was in the driver's seat...but then some barons took the keys away from him when he kept driving the country into war.  After a while the barons became parliament and then parliament became congress.

Like I mentioned to "reason"...I'm not proposing to eliminate congress any more than I'd propose to dissuade people of their belief in Santa Claus or God.  What I'm proposing is that believers show tolerance for us non-believers.  If they believe that congress knows their interests better than they do...then so be it...they can give all their taxes to congress.  Personally, I'm highly skeptical that congress can know my interests despite never even having met me.  In other words...I'm skeptical that congress is omniscient.  What I'm proposing is simply that people have a choice to sell their votes and directly allocate their taxes.

"a promise that one group – the rich – which is only a subset of the citizenry – will, if given predominant political power, adequately express the interests and preferences of the whole citizenry."

The challenge is to see citizens as consumers.  If we applied your argument to the private sector then we would expect that transportation options would only consist of private jets and Rolls Royces...which would reflect a failure for the rich to adequately represent our interests.  But if you can see citizens as consumers then you'll understand that we don't need representatives to adequately express our own interests and preferences.

Consumers would have a choice which government organizations received their taxes and they would have a choice if and who they sold their votes to.  If you weren't happy with other people's choices then you would  bear the burden of convincing them why your choices were better.  Why should you have to convince them?  Because maybe they are right and maybe you are wrong.  That's the biggest challenge...for people to accept the possibility that they might be wrong.  This humility is essential to foster a culture of political tolerance.

To summarize...consumers would be coerced into paying taxes...but they would have a choice which government organizations received their taxes and they would have a choice whether to sell their votes or not...and if you disagreed with their choices then it would be up to you to convince them otherwise.

*****************************************************

Henri Vieuxtemps

"it wouldn’t make any sense if we allowed 538 congresspeople to decide how many of John’s book should be printed"

This example doesn’t sound very convincing. True, it would be difficult for the congresspeople to guess how many copies need to be printed, but by selling the book for $30 you’re not going to arrive at the right number either. Presumably, you need to print as many copies as many people might be interested in reading or browsing the book, and the $30 pricetag (an equivalent half-day labor at the minimum wage) is a serious distortion.

Arguably, the congresspeople could administer a poll and come up with a better number, no?

*****************************************************

Xerographica

Henri Vieuxtemps, for me the question is whether the public sector and/or the private sector should supply John's book.  Let's imagine that taxpayers could directly allocate their taxes...

In order for the public sector to supply John's book there would have to be a Department of Literature (DoLit).  The DoLit wouldn't sell books...it would just give them away based on an income qualification.  This income qualification would be determined by how many taxpayers allocated how much of their taxes to the DoLit.  The more revenue that the DoLit received the higher the income with which you could qualify to receive your X amount of books per week/month/year.

Let's say though that your income was well above the income qualification so you wouldn't be able to receive any books.  Would you still allocate any of your taxes to the DoLit?  Well...that would depend on how much you valued increasing the accessibility of good literature to lower income families.

The people who worked at the DoLit would want to keep their jobs...so their goal would be to keep taxpayers satisfied.  Would they publish John's book?  I don't know...their jobs would be at stake though so it would behoove them to engage in due diligence.  Would John want the DoLit to publish his book?  It might depend on how much money they offered him...or maybe he would just want to get his name out there...or maybe he would just want to donate his book to help support the DoLit.

As a pragmatarian...I don't have a personal preference for the public or the private sector...as long as taxpayers are allowed to directly allocate their taxes.  If taxpayers are not allowed to directly allocate their taxes then if I was going to err it would be on the side of the sector where people strive to keep their jobs.

From the above example though...we can see that everybody would benefit from John having the opportunity to decide whether he wanted the public and/or private sector to publish his book.

From this perspective we can then ask...what value would congress bring to the table?  As a society we either do...or we do not...value increasing the accessibility of good literature to low income families.  If we do value it then we are the best judges of whether the public and/or private sector should be responsible for supplying books to low income families.  If we do not value it then the public sector shouldn't be spending our taxes on something we do not value.

*****************************************************

This discussion is continued here...John Holbo's Critique of Pragmatarianism

3 comments:

  1. ."If we can't persuade the public that it's desirable to do these things, then we have no right to impose them even if we had the power to do it."

    EXACTLY!

    But, this argument works against your Pragmatarianism and any government effort.

    I often post that all politicians are evil, and of course, this raises the ire of a lot of people.

    But the reasoning is irrefutable.

    A politician is a man who believes that he can use violence on the non-violent and innocent to enforce his ideas.

    If such an idea held such merit, this politician could have used reason - that is, reasoned men would agree that such a policy is sound and correct by the actual reason presented.

    If such an idea is well reasoned, but not accepted, it cannot be the reasoning, but the failure of presentation - that is, the failure of rhetoric.

    But by no measure can we claim a politician has a failure of rhetoric - my God! He is able to get thousands and thousands of people to vote for him! This is NOT an example of a failure of rhetoric by any measure!

    Therefore, such a man - whose rhetoric is incredible, yet, unable to convince men of reason of the worth of his ideas MUST MEAN HIS IDEAS ARE WORTHLESS.

    Thus, such a man can only resort to violence to enforce them.

    Therefore, all politicians - as they believe violence is a means to enforce their irrational ideas - are evil

    ReplyDelete
  2. Xero,

    ..."What are the proper duties of government? What should the responsibilities of government be? The answer to this fundamental question is simple. The government should do what we pay it to do."....

    So if I pay a murderer and a thief to do "things".. this justifies the murder and the theft?

    No, the question truly is NOT merely what do I expect for my larcenous money.

    The question is:

    "What is the proper role of government?"

    Which is more clearly stated as:

    "What is the proper role of violence?"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Black Flag...you say that the state is violent...yet you don't support the idea of being able to boycott the government organization(s) responsible for violence.

      Which do you think the state will be more inclined to listen to...your words...or your money?

      You say it's the TRUTH that the state is violent...so would you really be the only one boycotting the relevant government organizations? Are you the only victim of state violence? If not...why wouldn't all the other victims of state violence join you in boycotting the relevant government organizations?

      Delete