(This essay is an elaboration of Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems).
Imagine that I offered each person in a group the following deal: You can agree to give me $30, and in return I’ll give $10 to each and every person in the group, including you. I’ll give the $10 to everyone, whether they paid $30 or not, for each person that does pay $30..
Each person is faced with an offer to pay $30 dollars in return for, to him or her individually, $10, a bad deal for that individual (a loss of $20). But since everyone else in the group also each gets $10, for any group with a membership of more than three people, it is a bigger return to the group than cost to the group. If there are 10 people in the group, and everyone makes the deal, they each pay $30 and each get $100 in return, for a net gain of $70. However, if one doesn’t pay, he or she gets $90 outright (9 people taking the deal times $10 to each person in the group) while each of the others only get a net gain of $60 ($90 minus the $30 paid in). The individual incentive is not to pay in, even though everyone is better off the more people who do, with everyone coming out ahead if 3 or more people pay in. Those who don’t pay in, however, always do better than those who do (the “free rider problem”).
This dynamic is a major underlying force in the generation of social institutions, which to a large degree exist to overcome this collective action problem. There are many scenarios woven throughout our collective existence in which people benefit from some form of cooperation (even those forms that establish the rules for competition, such as the enforcement of property rights in service to the functioning of markets), but are tempted by individual incentives to cheat or fail to act cooperatively. Our laws, our contracts, our governments, our social norms, our ideologies, all are laden with mechanisms that have evolved with the purpose of creating mutual commitment mechanisms, enforced either externally by social institutions or internally to one’s own psychological make-up. Combined, they form social institutional technologies which are robust sets of memes self-replicating and spreading throughout our shared cognitive landscape (see the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).
It has always been a dynamic at the heart of intertribal and international relations, in which sovereign societies must strategically interact in a world with limited international legal enforcement mechanisms. With increasing political, economic and cultural globalization, and information, communication and transportation technologies make the world ever smaller and more tightly integrated, examining these dynamics is one critical component of understanding the shared geopolitical landscape in which we live.
“The War of the Woods”:
Imagine that long ago, two countries, Apestonia and Pulgalandia, had a forest on their border. Both countries desperately needed the wood in the forest, because it was both their primary building material and their fuel. Each country was faced with the choice of either dividing the forest evenly, or attacking the other and trying to get more of the forest for themself.
There are 1000 acres of forest between the two countries. If the two countries agree to draw their border right through the middle of it, they can each have 500 acres of forest, which they both desperately need.
But if one attacks quickly while the other one is planning on sharing the forest evenly (and so isn’t prepared for war), the one that attacks will capture 700 acres of the forest, 300 acres will be burnt or destroyed during the fighting, and the other will get zero acres. Since they are militarily evenly matched, if they both attack each other at the same time, 400 acres of forest will be destroyed in the fighting, and they’ll each end up with 300 acres of forest.
Here’s a table that summarizes these choices and outcomes:Pulgalandia
Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate(attack) Cooperate
(don’t attack) Apestonia: 500 Acres
Pulgalandia: 500 Acres Apestonia: 0 Acres
Pulgalandia: 700 Acres Don’t Cooperate
(attack) Apestonia: 700 Acres
Pulgalandia: 0 Acres Apestonia: 300 Acres
Pulgalandia: 300 Acres
Each country faces the following logic: “We don’t know what the other country will do. If they decide to cooperate (not attack first), we will get 500 acres if we also cooperate, but 700 acres if we don’t (if we attack unprovoked). Therefore, if they cooperate, we are better off not cooperating (attacking). If they decide not to cooperate (to attack), then we will get zero acres if we cooperate (don’t attack), but 300 acres if we don’t (if we attack). Therefore, no matter what the other country does, we are better off attacking.”
However, if both countries follow that logic, they each end up with 300 acres, though if they had cooperated and split the forest, they would have each ended up with 500 acres. So, while each country has an incentive to attack, if they can find a way to commit one another to cooperation, they both benefit.
So, even though they have a conflict over the forest, they have a shared interest in finding a way to commit one another to cooperating for mutual benefit. This is often the case, with war being costly in blood and treasure, and peaceful coexistence (and even mutually beneficial exchange) being far more conducive to general prosperity.
Historically, real tribes and countries have faced this challenge. Some have said, “Okay, let’s agree to cooperate, and to make sure no one cheats, we’ll exchange hostages.” And then each country would send an important member of their own society (often the ruler’s daughter to be raised by the other ruler as his or her own) to go live with the other society, so that if either cheats, that hostage can be killed in retaliation. Later, countries sent the children of royalty to marry the children of royalty in other countries, sort of as “permanent hostages,” but also to bind the countries together so that they can act more cooperatively.
In the modern world, we’ve developed a much more elaborate system of international diplomacy, with embassies in each other’s countries, and treaties, and international organizations (like the United Nations). The European Union, whose roots go back to post-WWII efforts to create economic ties that would diminish the chances of resumed warfare, is perhaps the most advanced example of emerging international political economic consolidation
Not just internationally, but within nations, overcoming this collective action problem is a big part of why we’ve created many of the social institutions we’ve created. Our Constitution, our laws, even our religions, have developed in many ways to help make it easier for people to commit one another to mutually beneficial actions even when they have individual incentives to cheat or act in non-cooperative ways.
With modern technologies, modern weapons (such as nuclear weapons), modern transportation and communication technologies, an increasingly global economy, increasingly global environmental and natural resource issues, all nations in the world face many collective action problems. Our increasing political globalization is a complex tapestry of conflict and cooperation woven within this underlying logic.
So far, we’ve assumed that the countries were equally matched, and looked at the cost-benefit analysis of each when considering whether to attack the other or to live in peace. But what if they weren’t evenly matched? What if one was militarily stronger than the other? How would that change things?
If Apestonia were more powerful than Pulgalandia, then Apestonia would capture more forest than Pulgalandia would if the two went to war. If Apestonia were to attack first, perhaps it would capture the whole forest against the weaker Pulgalandia, losing only a small portion (let’s say a tenth) in battle. This outcome can be seen in the lower-left square of the two-by-two table, in which Apestonia attacks first and captures 900 acres, while Pulgalandia ends up with zero.
Conversely, if Pulgalandia attacks first, it will gain the advantage of surprise, but will still be facing a superior force, and might manage to capture and control 300 acres against Apestonia’s 500, 200 being lost to the destruction of war. This outcome is summarized in the upper-right square.Pulgalandia
Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate
(don’t attack) Apestonia: 800 Acres
Pulgalandia: 200 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres
Pulgalandia: 300 Acres Don’t Cooperate
(attack) Apestonia: 900 Acres
Pulgalandia: 0 Acres Apestonia: 600 Acres
Pulgalandia: 100 Acres
If they both attack each other at the same time, more forest will be lost to the destruction of battle, and neither will have the benefit of surprise, but Apestonia will still come out ahead. This is reflected in the lower-right square.
Because of the difference in power, when they negotiate a peace in which neither attacks, Apestonia can demand more of the forest than Pulgalandia. This is reflected in the upper-left square.
The logic that the two countries face is still similar to the logic that they faced when equally powerful. Neither knows what the other will do. Apestonia says to itself, “If Pulgalandia cooperates (doesn’t attack), we can get 800 acres for also cooperating (not attacking), or 900 acres for attacking. If Pulgalandia doesn’t attack, we are better off attacking. If Pulgalandia does attack, we can get 500 acres for not attacking first (only reacting to their attack), and 600 for attacking first, so, again, we are better off attacking. No matter what Pulgalandia does, we’re better off attacking.
Similarly, Pulgalandia is better off attacking no matter what Apestonia do. They say to themselves, “If Apestonia doesn’t attack first, we get 200 acres for also not attacking, but 300 for attacking, and if Apestonia does attack first, we get zero acres for not having attacked at the same time but 100 acres for having attacked at the same time. Either way, we’re better off attacking.”
But they both know this, and both know that they’d be better off not attacking one another. So, just as before, they need to invest in some way of committing one another to cooperation.
But the pay-offs can look different as well. It may be that, while the weaker Pulgalandia has incentives to attack no matter what the stronger Apestonia does, Apestonia gets a stronger benefit from cooperation. In the chart below, Pulgalandia still is better off attacking no matter what Apestonia does, and Apestonia, knowing that, knows it has to attack to get 550 rather than 500 acres. This is reflected in the table below:Pulgalandia
Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate
(don’t attack) Apestonia: 800 Acres
Pulgalandia: 200 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres
Pulgalandia: 250 Acres Don’t Cooperate
(attack) Apestonia: 650 Acres
Pulgalandia: 100 Acres Apestonia: 550 Acres
Pulgalandia: 200 Acres
But the most Pulgalandia can possibly get is 250 acres, if they attack before Apestonia does. Apestonia can just say, “look, we’ll give you 300 acres, 50 more than you can possibly get by attacking us. We’ll keep 700, which is more than we can get in any other way. If you attack, even while we are planning on cooperating with you, you lose 50 acres. You have no reason to attack, and we’re both better off than we can otherwise be.”
This is reflected in the table below, in which neither country has any incentive to do anything other than cooperate:Pulgalandia
Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate
(don’t attack) Apestonia: 700 Acres
Pulgalandia: 300 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres
Pulgalandia: 250 Acres Don’t Cooperate
(attack) Apestonia: 650 Acres
Pulgalandia: 100 Acres Apestonia: 550 Acres
Pulgalandia: 200 Acres
This is an illustration of how power is exercises among nations, even without having to exert any military force at all to do it. Nations know their relative power to one another, and when they negotiate treaties and deals they negotiate agreements that favor the more powerful. When the United States was formed, the more powerful (populous) states made sure that their power was reflected in the new government (by having representatives in Congress proportional to their population). When the United Nations charter was drafted, the most powerful nations insisted on forming a “security council,” that had far more power over the organization than other nations did.
Weak nations sometimes have the power of threatening to create problems for stronger nations, and thus get concessions to keep them calm. But nations also sometimes have leaders or governments that cease to act rationally, like the current government of North Korea seems to not be acting rationally.
Of course, if, in the end, the United States, worried about an irrational nuclear armed North Korea, gives them large amounts of aid to keep them from causing problems, then it will have turned out that North Korea’s “craziness” was pretty smart after all…. Strategies that “trump” rational considerations can be very rational strategies, including various ways of binding oneself to a limited range of options in order to increase one’s own bargaining power, or behaving in ways which make an opponent question one’s rationality in order to make them more accommodating for fear of erratic responses.
The scenarios presented above are highly simplified, leaving out many factors, such as uncertainty (real actors in such situations don’t know what the exact outcomes of various combinations of choices will be), more complexity in available options (not just binary choices), more interacting actors (not just two), more conflated issues being bargained over (not just a single resource), more costs and benefits to be considered (not just the amount of that single resource gained or lost), factional conflict across levels (different interest groups and political parties vying for different outcomes due to differing material interests and political ideological orientations), less centralized decision-making (not a single ruler making unlimited autocratic decisions, but rather in various ways collective decision-making processes impinging on the negotiations between actors constituted in that way), and various intrusions of emotional and irrational considerations, that even rational actors have to take into account.
But the complexity of the real world does not mean that abstraction from it is not a helpful tool in understanding underlying dynamics. Rather, it is a way of isolating individual dimensions of those underlying dynamics, gradually adding in enough of the complexity to begin to capture a deeper and subtler understanding of how our social institutional landscape really functions.
There is much ado about President Obama’s recent statement “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” The overwrought right is abuzz with angry indignation. How dare he! they shout in unison, aghast that this evil communist could so thoroughly declare war on private enterprise. Let’s take a closer look.
First, it helps to have the entire quote before you:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
It’s a bit impolitic, a bit overstated. But how far off is it?
As I said in The War of American Interdependence, there are two cognitive frames in competition here, one which thinks that we are fundamentally, ontologically “individuals,” fundamentally mutually independent, and one which recognizes that we are fundamentally, ontologically members of a society, fundamentally interdependent. We think in languages we didn’t individually invent, using concepts and conceptual tools we didn’t individually invent. Every aspect of our lives implicates and depends on countless others, no matter how much of a rugged individualist one may be: Few frontiersmen built their own firearms, and, if some did, they did not mine the ores that provided the materials for it. And whatever they did, in almost all cases, they learned how to do it from others.
Most of us rely on one another to a far greater extent than that: Most of us don’t grow our own food, or, if we do, we don’t build the tractors and drill for the oil and do myriad other things involved in the enterprise. Most of us don’t make our own clothes, or build our own homes, or make our own tools, or produce our own electronic devises, or, if we do some, we certainly don’t do all. The market isn’t an expression of our mutual independence, but rather a social institutional form which helps deepen and facilitate our fundamental interdependence.
Our laws, as well, are an expression of our interdependence. We forge them in the light of what that interdependence demands of us. The developments of the modern era that led to market economies and popular sovereignty framed by written constitutions with carefully delineated rights and powers are part of the evolution of our interdependence. The concept of “liberty” itself is an expression of our interdependence, of the discovery of both increased vitality and increased humanity achievable by freeing up individual initiative and creativity to as great a degree as possible, while still recognizing and working within the framework of our fundamental interdependence.
Obama was talking about exactly that. It’s not some crazy idea, it’s not even really debatable: It’s a fundamental fact of our existence. We thrive through coordinated efforts and actions, through participation in a society with divisions of labor and mutual reliance on one another. The ideology currently in vogue which attempts to erase that fact from our awareness is pernicious and destructive; it attempts to redefine private wealth as attributable to nothing other than private actions, when that’s simply not true. Ben Franklin, unsurprisingly, got it right: Wealth is as much a function of the laws and markets and other social institutions that we forge together, and of the efforts of countless others channeled through those social institutions, as it is of individual effort, because without the former our own efforts have no framework within which to achieve their ends.
So, no, even in the more exceptional rather than more common instance in which a business is built up without any element of relative privilege (the differential material and social inheritances that we draw at birth) having advantaged the entrepreneur, they are not solely responsible for the creation and success of that business; the myriad other human efforts that it implicitly depended on are as well. And the market does not magically reward all of those efforts in ways which serve the ultimate goal of continuing to create the most robust, fair, and sustainable political economy human genius is capable of.
Those who are adamant that human genius cannot intrude on some imaginary pure and absolute individual “liberty,” that to do so is “social engineering” or “communism,” are rather remarkably ignoring how that individual liberty was legally constructed in the first place. Our own Constitution is an act of “social engineering,” and, in the way that too many now use the word, a “communist” plot. Indeed, the framers had to argue that we needed a government strong enough to facilitate effective collective action in our collective interests, “The Federalist Papers” frequently seeming to forecast the later invention of “game theory” and the recognition of what has since come to be called “collective action problems.” (See Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems).
The right claims to rever our Constitution and our Founding Fathers, and yet can’t seem to recognize that both acknowledged our interdependence. Art. I, Section 8, Clause i of the United States Constitution empowers Congress to tax and spend in the general welfare, meaning that “what’s mine” isn’t just mine; the public also has some claim on it. How much of a claim isn’t specified; that’s for us, as the popular sovereign, to determine and redetermine, in the light of growing knowledge and udnerstanding.
And as for the Founding Fathers, their views differed. Jefferson’s and Madison’s are frequently cited, but Ben Franklin’s are generally ignored, even though Franklin alone among them helped to draft and sign every single one of our founding documents and was the undisputed senior American stateman at the birth of this country. Franklin maintained that any private wealth beyond that need to sustain oneself and one’s family “is the property of the public, who by their laws have created it” (Walter Isaacson, “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life,” Page 424, quoting Franklin).
It’s not about denigrating individual effort and initiative, or failing to respect the vital role they play in our shared social existence. I can only speak for myself, but I’ll tell you clearly: I respect and admire individual effort and initiative, and recognize it as absolutely vital to our collective welfare. It’s not about failing to recognize the need to frame our shared social existence in ways that take that into account, and work to liberate rather than stifle such individual effort and initiative: I am adamant that it is imperative that we recognize the importance of that dimension of our shared existence in every public policy debate.
But it is not the ONLY dimension that we need to consider; it is not the ONLY value that we must respect and maximize. Our nation today has the highest gini coefficient (statistical measure of economic inequality) of any developed nation on Earth, and the statistical reality of one’s socioeconomic status at birth predominantly determining throughout life is inescapable (see http://www.americanprogress.org/kf/hertz_mobility_analysis.pdf). This is not only unjust, but also systemically dysfunctional: The two most catastrophic economic collapses of the last 100 years in America were immediately preceded, by a matter of months, by the two highest peaks in the concentration of wealth in America in the last 100 years, in 1929 and 2008, respectively.
Such gross inequality of opportunity and in the distribution of wealth hurts us all, and violates fundamental American values of fairness. It is one of the challenges facing us as nation, that we have to meet and address as a nation. It’s not wrong to remind those who succeed by some combination of individual effort and good fortune, facilitated, in either case, by our entire social production function, that they succeeded by virtue of their membership in this society, and that their success does not come without reciprocal responsibilities to the society that made it possible.
And that was very clearly and explicitly Ben Franklin’s view as well as mine (in fact, his was a stronger statement of it), so if you want to vilify me for daring to recognize that the public has some claim on private wealth, be sure to vilify him as well.
(This essay originated as a response to a Libertarian commenting on another Libertarian’s Facebook page, making the familiar argument about why Jeffersonian democracy, emphasizing minimal government, was both the intention of our Founding Fathers, and is the best form of government possible.)
As you might have gathered, I like the dialectic, so here’s both the antithesis to your thesis, and the synthesis of the two:
Adams, Franklin, and Hamilton wanted stronger central government than Jefferson did (thus, the first incarnation of our perennial, unintended and undesired,l two-party system was Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans v. Hamilton/Adams’ Federalists, the latter pretty much meaning the opposite of what it does today: a strong federal government). The country was a product of these competing views, and has continued to be carved on the lathe of a similar dichotomy throughout its history, to excellent effect. The Constitution itself was the first victory for the “stronger federal government” side, requiring convincing a population that considered each state a sovereign…, well, “state,” in the original and still used sense of a sovereign political unit.
These arguments to a reluctant public were made, most cogently and famously, in The Federalist Papers, a collection of essays by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay arguing for the need to create a sufficiently strong central government. This was in response to the failed Articles of Confederation, which did not provide a sufficiently strong central government.
The history of the country ever since has been one of a punctuated growth in power of the central government. I know that I just stated your major contention, but I don’t see it as a necessarily bad thing, or a betrayal of our founding philosophy: It is, rather, the articulation of lived history with founding principles, since the latter guided the process and form of the former. We retained strong protections for individual rights within the context of that strong federal government: Free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to organize, freedom of press, freedom of religion, protections from police (i.e., state) overreach into our private lives.
In fact, the stronger federal government has been primarily responsible for, and grew in response to the demand for, the extension of those protections of individual liberty; extending them to categories of people to whom they had been denied, and extending them to protect people from the overreaches of individual states as well as the federal government.
The genealogy of Libertarianism, and the argument on which it depends, while exalted by its association with Jefferson, is in fact characterized more by its defense of inequality and injustice (see also The History of American Libertarianism). From the ratification of the Constitution to the Civil War, it was the argument of slave owners resisting the abolition of slavery, the southern statesman John C. Calhoun famously arguing in Union and Liberty that a commitment to “liberty” and to the protection of “minorities” required the protection of the “liberty” of the “minority” southerners to own slaves! This argument was the argument of the “states’ rights,” small federal government ideological camp. That camp lost by losing the Civil War and by the abolition of slavery.
From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Era, the states’ rights, small federal government ideology was invoked to preserve Jim Crow and resist the enforcement of Constitutional guarantees to protect the rights of minorities (in the modern sense of the word), especially African Americans. That camp lost by a series of Supreme Court holdings (most notably Brown v. Board of Education) and the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (by which President Lyndon B. Johnson knowingly and willingly lost southern whites, who had until then formed a major branch of the Democratic Party, to the Republican Party, where they have since resided, and continue to comprise a large portion of the adherents to this perennial ideology).
Contemporary Libertarianism is the logical next step in this progression, after having resisted the abolition of slavery in the name of “liberty,” and the passage of Civil Rights legislation and Court holdings in the name of “liberty,” it now opposes the further confrontation of the legacy of that racist and discriminatory history by insisting, falsely, that “we’re all equal now, so any attempt to address, as a nation, the injustices still embedded in our political economy and culture is a deprivation of the liberty of those against whose interests it is to do so.” In other words, just as in those previous incarnations throughout our history, this particular concept of “liberty” still means “my liberty to screw you.”
Libertarians, conveniently, don’t see it this way, because it is a passive “screwing,” one that involves leaving in place institutionalized, but not legally reproduced, inequities and injustices. It is, as it has been before, the insistence that “we’ve done enough, and need do no more,” just as the defenders of slavery considered acquiescing to a national constitution was enough, and the defenders of racism considered acquiescing to abolition was enough, modern Libertarians think that acquiescing to a formal, legal end to racial discrimination is enough,and that it is an affront to their “liberty” to attempt to address as a nation, as a polity, the non-legally reproduced but deeply entrenched inequality of opportunity that persists in our country (see, e.g., The Paradox of Property).
This national commitment to ever-deepening and ever-broadening Liberty, including equality of opportunity without which liberty is, to varying degrees and in varying ways, granted to some and denied to others, involves more than just the African American experience: It involves women, Native Americans, gays, practitioners of disfavored religions (such as Islam), members of ethnic groups who are most highly represented in the current wave of undocumented immigration (such as Hispanics), basically, “out-groups” in general. It’s no coincidence that Libertarianism is so closely linked to Christian Fundamentalism and militant nationalism: It is an ideology that focuses on a notion of individual liberty that is, in effect and implementation, highly exclusive and highly discriminatory. (There are, it should be noted, branches of Libertarianism which are more internally consistent, and, at least, reject these overt hypocrisies, while still retaining the implicit, passive, retention of historically determined inequality of opportunity described above.)
History has demanded increasing centralization of powers for other reasons as well: an increasingly complex market economy with increasingly difficult-to-manage opportunities for centralized market actors to game markets in highly pernicious ways (due to information asymmetries); increasingly pernicious economic externalities increasingly robustly generated by our wonderful wealth-producing market dynamo (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems and Political Market Instruments); in general, a complex dynamical system that is highly organic and self-regulating, but not perfectly so, and without some pretty sophisticated centralized management is doomed to frequent and devastating collapse.
(This is why, by the way, every single modern developed nation, without exception, has a large administrative infrastructure, and had in place a large administrative infrastructure prior to participating in the post-WII explosion in the production of wealth. The characteristic that Libertarians insist is antithetical to the production of wealth is one of the characteristics universally present in all nations that have been most successful in producing wealth.)
The tension between our demand for individual liberty and minimal government, on the one hand, and a government adequately large and empowered to confront the real challenges posed by our increasingly complex social institutional landscape on the other, is a healthy tension, just as the tension among the branches of government is a healthy tension. We don’t want one side of any of these forces in tension to predominate absolutely: We want the tension itself to remain intact, largely as it has throughout our history. Through it, we took the genius of the Constitution, and extended it to constraints imposed on state and local as well as federal government, recognizing through our experience with the institution of slavery that tyranny doesn’t have to be vested in the more remote locus of government, and the resistance to it doesn’t always come from the more local locus of government. And through it, we took the genius of the Constitution, and extended it through the lessons of history and the pragmatic demands placed on our national self-governance by the evolution of our technological and social institutional context.
The pragmatic, moderate, flexible, analytical implementation of our ideals that has resulted, protecting the true liberties that we treasure, extending them to those who were excluded, deepening them in many ways for all of us, and allowing, at the same time, for us to act, as a polity, through our agent of collective action (government), in ways that serve our collective interests, is what serves us best, and what we should remain committed to, with ever greater resolve.
…but everything is politics.
On the one hand, the almost exclusive focus of highly engaged, intentionally political activity is electoral politics and governmental decision making proper. On the other hand, the implicit recognition of the paramount importance of public opinion pervades that same narrowly conceived arena. The hot-button issues of campaign finance reform and corporate power, for instance, are firmly rooted in that implicit recognition, for, in the final analysis, campaign finance and corporate political power is entirely a function of the ability to influence public opinion. (“Follow the money” if you doubt that conclusion.)
Human history is a story of the dynamical tapestry of human cognitions and emotions (see e.g., The Politics of Consciousness , Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, Bellerophon’s Ascent: The Mutating Memes (and “Emes”) of Human History). Politics is one slice of that dynamo, the slice which involves everything from forceful subjugation to sophisticated mass persuasion. The more democratic a society is, the more salient is the latter modality. Despite the flaws in our own American democracy, it is sound enough that mass persuasion is at the root of all political decision-making.
But we tend to address that paramount challenge of swaying public opinion on too superficial a level, issue by issue, candidate by candidate, fighting against impenetrable fortresses of confirmation biases, with drawbridges raised at first sight of the party or issue-position already opposed. We tug back and forth between ideological and partisan camps, while deeper forces are constantly shifting the ground beneath us.
Those deeper forces are in a largely unconscious struggle of their own, between, on the one hand, reason and goodwill, and, on the other, irrationality and belligerence. One of the principal challenges facing reasonable people of goodwill is to turn that unconscious struggle into a conscious one, to engage in it not just candidate by candidate and issue by issue, but on a more fundamental level. When, for instance, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke before the Lincoln Memorial, what made it so momentous, what made it so effective, was that it wasn’t an appeal just to pass a piece of legislation or elect a particular candidate, but rather an appeal to rise to the heights of our better natures. And that is a very powerful appeal indeed. (See The Power of “Walking the Walk” and The Foundational Progressive Agenda )
I’ve written about Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives, using stories and narratives, without reference to specific policy issues or specific candidates or specific political ideologies, to disseminate and inculcate a framework invoking shared underlying values conducive to the forces of reason and goodwill. My archetypal example of a meta-message has always been Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (which I adapted as such in A Political Christmas Carol), but I did not know until recently that that was exactly how Dickens had intended it.
In Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, by Sylvia Nasar (author of A Beautiful Mind), the author describes how Dickens had written A Christmas Carol as an intentional response to Thomas Malthus’s An Essay On The Principle of Population, which had been the intellectual basis in opposition to England’s public welfare system and a move in the direction of greater cruelty and callousness exemplified by work houses and other memorable relics of Victorian England. Dickens believed, and history has borne out, that we are capable of reaching for and achieving greater heights of humanity than the callous indifference that characterized so many in his time and place, and, shockingly, so many in our own as well.
And who would deny that, while it may be impossible to attribute any specific political achievement to the immense success of his wonderful little tale, it has almost certainly played a role in those gradual, invisible shifts of the ground beneath our feet, keeping them at times from moving as far as they might have in the direction of greater callousness, and perhaps even nudging them at times in the direction of greater kindness.
We can’t all write such wonderful stories, but we can reiterate and amplify on them (as I did in A Political Christmas Carol), disseminate them, facilitate their reverberation through our collective consciousness. Politics, at its most fundamental level, isn’t as much about candidates and elections, or public debates about specific issues and the governmental processes which determine what public policy will be regarding them, as it is about what people think and believe, what people feel, what forms the substance of human consciousness.
So for those who live as though politics is everything –eating, drinking, and breathing what we narrowly conceive of as political engagement– please remember that there is much more beyond those explicitly political endeavors of ultimately deeper and broader significance to how our futures are formed and down what channels the currents of history flow. While some throw all of their weight and all of their passion into the tug-o-war between competing ideologies regarding competing candidates and policy positions, the real struggle, and the more momentous movement of humanity possible within it, lies largely unattended by any conscious and organized effort. Imagine the untapped potential of devoting just some small fraction of our passion and energy to that deeper challenge, tunneling under the ideological fortifications that deny entry to reason and humanity, collapsing those walls with subtler and more strategic assaults upon them.
(See A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill for a complete discussion of how to go about this.)
I’ve frequently encountered the argument that any reference to the legacy of history, to continuing evidence of a racially differentiated distribution of wealth and opportunity, is irrelevant because: 1) “I’ve never owned any slaves;” 2) everyone has the opportunity to succeed in America today, and it’s entirely the fault of those who don’t succeed if they fail to take advantage of that opportunity; and 3) the statistical trends are a result of sub-cultural problems that are the fault of the people who are suffering from them. All three of these rationalizations contain errors that are easily demonstrated.
One commenter insisted that the past is remote and irrelevant, that it is full of discredited ideas and so why should we turn to it to understand anything about the present or future? My answer was that disredited past ideas and well-evidenced past realities are two distinct things, that I am not arguing that we should be bound by past beliefs —far from it— but rather that we should be informed, in part, by past realities.
I do not oppose developing state-of-the-art new ideas and insights. Indeed, that’s what I live for. I’m a student of the ever-evolving explosion of human consciousness and its products. But those are all part of a historical process. They do not just exist in the present; they emanate from the past.
Even aside from the persistence of racist attitudes, of actual prejudice and discrimination (which are far more prevalent than some are willing to admit), there are other mechanisms by which past prejudice and discrimination continue to have present consequences. Children inherit from their parents a variety of legacies which are differentiated by history, passed down through the generations, legacies which include material wealth, social and institutional connections and privileges, and habits of thought and action adapted to and conducive to the social and material context of previous generations. Those who inherit more material wealth, richer social and institutional connections and privileges (such as ivy school “legacies,” in which the children of alumni receive preferential treatment in admissions considerations), and are socialized into the patterns of thought and action incubated in and conducive to socio-economic success, are clearly advantaged over those who inherit less material wealth, poorer social and institutional connections and privileges, and are socialized into patterns of thought and action adapted to and reproductive of relative poverty.
Paradigms persist even when we are no longer invested in their persistence. It is not enough to eradicate racist laws, or even racists attitudes, to eradicate the effects of racism. It requires a social investment, based on a recognition of a social responsibility.
There is an economic concept called “path dependence,” which refers to the tendency to remain in sub-optimal paradigms due to the up-front costs of paradigm shifts. For example, if there is new physical plant that produces something far more efficiently than what had heretofore been used, any calculation of the benefits of replacing the old with the new includes the huge up-front costs involved, and, even if there are huge long-term benefits to be gained, if the up-front costs are onerous enough, those benefits might never be pursued.
This can take many forms, from changing physical plant, to changing forms of government or economic systems, to changing understandings of reality. All of these confront various kinds of path-dependent resistance.
Here’s a very simple (and trivial) example: The “QWERTY” computer keyboard arrangement (named for the first five letters, from upper left, on the computer keyboard). If, for some purpose, someone needed to know why computer keyboards, in the present, are arranged that way, they would not be able to discover the answer by limiting themselves to consideration of present reasons why it might be so. The reason, rather, lies in the past: It minimized the jamming of mechanical typewriter hammers. It is a present reality, determined by past circumstances.
There are limitless other examples, in limitless arenas: The human spine has its shape because we evolved from walking hunched over (from four-legged, going further back), to standing upright. The spine wasn’t designed from scratch, but rather took its form from successive developments that built on previous conditions. And it is a sub-optimal design, leading to a lower back that is weaker than structurally necessary. The past is present in the present.
The notion that meeting current and future challenges requires thinking in the present and in no way benefits from understanding the past relies on a false dichotomy: Acting in the present and understanding the past are not incompatible, and, in fact, to do the former well, you have to include the latter in your approach.
Those “vague events of the past that really have no bearing” (as one commenter put it) are not so vague, and not so irrelevant. Such assertions conveniently ignore the statistical fact that the two most historically oppressed racial groups in American history, African Americans and Native Americans, are far more represented among our impoverished than random chance would allow. Why? Surely those who deny the relevance of this fact aren’t explicitly arguing that those racial minorities just happen to have an excessive amount of non-meritorious people among them, that they are “inferior” races. But it’s hard to see how their argument can be based on anything other than an implicit assumption to that effect.
The argument that members of those races have individually failed to take advantage of the opportunities available to them doesn’t address the statistical reality that so many more individuals from those races have failed in this way than individuals in the race that historically oppressed them. What a coincidence that the descendants of those who were enslaved and conquered are, on average, so much “less meritorious” than the descendants of those who enslaved and conquered them. Just highly improbable random chance, no doubt, and in no way involving those vague and irrelevant facts of history.
And the argument that it is a subcultural phenomenon begs the question: Why these subcultures and not others? Will those arguing this position really stand by the claim that it’s just a coincidence that the subcultures burdened with these problems just happen to encompass the populations we massacred, enslaved, and oppressed for centuries? Or will they admit that, to the extent that a mediating cause of social problems borne by these populations is subcultural in nature, the development of such subcultural dysfunction has as a first cause the centuries of oppression in which it was incubated?
The argument that some once disadvantaged ethnic groups have prospered, so why don’t these, doesn’t cut it either: There are many variables in play, and they lead to a wide variety of outcomes. Two major factors come into play: 1) No other disadvantaged population was ever quite so extremely and enduringly disadvantaged as the two I’ve named, and 2) the fact that there are circumstances in which countervailing factors overcome the liabilities of prejudice and discrimination doesn’t negate the existence and salience of prejudice and discrimination. In the case of generally new waves of exploited and impoverished immigrant groups who then prosper later, combinations of economic factors, less entrenched discrimination, and cultural characteristics particularly conducive to success can all come into play.
Just as some formerly underprivileged groups prosper, so do some individuals from underprivileged backgrounds, not because all is well and everyone has an equal chance, but because other factors intervene to counterbalance the injustices that really do exist. An individual might have gotten lucky by having exceptional talents, or exceptional mentors, or other bits and pieces of countervailing good luck.
But these bits of greater good fortune overwhelming an unjust situation don’t excuse the perpetuation of the unjust situation. There were slaves that escaped and prospered as well; that doesn’t mean that slavery was just fine, because, after all, some born into it prospered. The injustice isn’t erased by some fraction of those who escape it. And the fact that our current distribution of wealth and opportunity is unjust is conclusively proven by statistically significant differences in average outcomes for large populations on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender.
The purpose of understanding the past isn’t to change the past, or to apportion blame, or to cultivate a sense of guilt and a sense of victimhood, or to suggest that descendants of victims of injustices necessarily deserve reparations beyond a commitment to erasing the legacy of those injustices, or to suggest that any inequality itself is unacceptable. The ultimate goal isn’t to recognize the role of history in forming the present, but rather to mobilize that knowledge in service to humanity today and tomorrow.
Who cares why the keyboard is as it is, or the human spine is as it is, or the inequitable distribution of opportunity in America is as it is, unless there is some present use for that knowledge? In the former two, there really isn’t, because we are willing (or have no choice but to) accept the current state, and so how it became so is of little practical relevance. But, if there were a question of fundamental justice involved, of human rights and human dignity, then it would be relevant, as it is in the last mentioned case.
Letters on a keyboard aren’t conscious and don’t care where they’re located. Human beings are, and do. The “QWERTY” of the distribution of wealth and opportunity has a relevance that the “QWERTY” of the location of keys on a keyboard doesn’t. And the relevance of the history that created that distribution of wealth and opportunity is that it exists, that the injustices of history have not been erased by time, that they are still embedded in the chances of birth. A commitment to our most basic values compels us to face that fact and deal with it responsibly, rather than deny it and pretend that each person fares only according to his or her own merit and effort, despite the overwhelming evidence that that just isn’t so.
It is not merely, or even primarily, to demonstrate the relevance of past racial discrimination to current inequitable distributions of wealth and opportunity that we should be informed by this presence of history, but rather to demonstrate the existence of social and economic injustice itself. I might be inclined to argue that those who are impoverished in America, or struggling in circumstances characterized by poorer than average opportunities to thrive, regardless of their race, are by-and-large victims of ill-fortunes that were not their own making, and did not enjoy a true equality of opportunity such as we, as a people, should be striving to realize. I might be inclined to argue that our policies for addressing these injustices shouldn’t be racially targeted, or race-conscious, but rather address the problems themselves that are disproportionately borne by members of some formerly oppressed races, and by doing so address the injustices at their root, as they occur, rather than superficially by the categories in which they most prevalently occur.
But the people who deny that the injustices of the past have any relevance to the injustices of the present are doing so to argue that there are no injustices in the present, or at least no injustices of a kind that incur any social responsibility borne by us collectively as a people and a nation. They argue that those who are poor are poor because they lack merit, lack resolve, lack something that those others who are not poor have, in complete defiance of the evidence.
The number one predictor of future wealth is the wealth into which one is born: If you are born into a wealthy family, you are likely to become a wealthy adult; if you are born into a poor family, you are likely to become a poor adult. There is far less social mobility than our mythology pretends (indeed, less even than in the more liberal countries of Western Europe). When one’s fate is largely determined by the socioeconomic class into which they are born, there is less difference, in terms of social justice, between our current political economy, and the more unabashedly inequitable systems of the past. Obviously, the ideal of equality of opportunity is far from being a reality in this country.
One of the fundamental challenges facing us as a people is to recognize this, and continue to strive to remedy it. In America, too many people hide behind a political philosophy that allows them to “have their cake and eat it too,” to enjoy the benefits of living in a society without undertaking any of the moral responsibilities that that incurs (see The Catastrophic Marriage of Extreme Individualism and Ultra-Nationalism for a discussion of a different aspect of this overly-convenient and pernicious blend of individualism and nationalism). It is time we once again heeded John Donne’s famous admonition that
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
“Property” is a concept concerning the relationship of people to one another regarding objects that have value. It refers to who is included in the circle of people with a legal right to utilize or dispose of the object(s) in question, and who is excluded. The object, at least in any direct sense, is unaffected by these relationships (of course, it may be affected in terms of how it is utilized, destroyed or exhausted). While at first glance it might appear that property rights define the relationship between individuals and objects (both tangible and intangible), it really defines relationships among people by identifying who can and can’t exclude which others from access to or utilization of those objects (sometimes with the assistance of third parties authorized to enforce these rights).
Two essential truths about property are in tension with one another:
1) A market economy depends on well-defined property rights, and preferably extensive private property rights (in the right to access and to exclude others from access is vested in a single individual), and a hybrid, predominantly market economy is the most robust producer and distributor of wealth yet discovered; and
2) Property is theft, especially historically.
Most Americans bristle at the second observation, usually assuming that it implies a denial of the first, even when both are stated. But the second observation is clearly accurate, though a bit paradoxical itself (how can property be “theft,” if “theft” presupposes the existence of property?). As a “first cause,” when a human being or group of human beings first encounters land or other objects that they lay claim to, this is the creation of property. Calling this first encounter “theft” is a bit of a stretch: It can be depicted as “theft” from all other would-be claimants, since it is held by force against others unable to exert superior force, such that its possession isn’t a function of first encounter, but rather a function of greater might. But the “theft” really occurs once the force is exerted.
For the sake of argument, let’s consider this first creation of property to be the one instance in which property is not theft; if those who encounter first can hold it, let’s say they are entitled to do so. All other involuntary transfers, when someone takes property by force from another, can then be considered “theft,” and any subsequent transfers of such stolen property can be considered exactly that.
From prehistory into the modern age, territories have been possessed, defended, conquered, and expanded primarily by means of force. Probably no current tract of land is possessed primarily by the decendents of those who first encountered it. Probably every or virtually every current tract of land is either possessed by someone who is descended from, or was originally purchased from someone who was descended from, some individual or group who took that land from others by force. Thus, all land is stolen property.
There is a line from my novel, set in an ancient civilization, in which a warrior of non-noble birth who is leading an up-start army against the nobles of his own land tells his gathered soldiers before the decisive battle, “if we lose this battle, the nobles will shackle us in chains and label us criminals for doing ourselves what their great-grandfathers did for them.”
It’s not difficult to extrapolate from this objects other than land, since such objects are ultimately derived from the land in various ways (from mined ores, logged timber, and so on). If the land on which resources are found is all stolen property, then the resources exploited upon it are as well.
But that is then and this is now: Given that well-defined property rights, and particularly private property rights, are a cornerstone of a robust economy from which everyone, to varying degrees, benefits (in relation to the alternatives), what difference does it make? The difference it makes is that we stop pretending that property is a god-given right, and that its distribution at any given moment can be defended as somehow inherently just. Of all of the virtues that private property legitimately can be defended as providing, fairness is not, and never has been, one of them.
One of the defining characteristics of private property is the right to give it to whom one wishes at any time, including the right to devise to whom one wishes upon one’s own death. That means that people are born into an inequitable distribution of originally stolen property. Every baby at birth is born into a property-context not of their own making, not to their own credit or fault, which yet determines a great deal of what their opportunities will be. Such determinations are not just due to the direct material implications of the differential property-contexts into which people are born, but also into complex consequences of the property differentials, such as social and professional networks that parents have, the traditions and habits and attitudes associated with the possession and preservation of property that they transmit through socialization, and so on.
Many on the right today want to pretend that the persistent disproportionate poverty of some categories of people –most notably, Native Americans and African Americans– is due to failures of their own. But, while there are complex mechanisms by which this occurs, it is clear that the First Cause of that persistent disproportionate poverty is the fact that people from these categories are born into long chains of unpropertied lineage, chains that began with the theft of the land from those who occupied it when the Europeans arrived, and the importation and conversion of others from another land into property themselves.
There is another complexity, perhaps more salient but even less obvious, that renders the conceptualization of private property as inherently just and equitable a ruse to protect what is in fact quite unjust and inequitable: The fact that property, and wealth, are produced by social processes that involve complex, articulated in-puts and result in socially institutionalized distributions of the product of those processes. In other words, the political economy by which we produce and distribute wealth doesn’t distribute it fundamentally on the basis of merit, as some conveniently mythologize it to be, but rather on the basis of privilege, as has been the case throughout human history.
This system of distribution primarily on the basis of privilege functions through a variety of mechanisms. One such mechanism is that the occupations that receive the highest remuneration are the occupations that require the longest education. Since such education is expensive, it is more easily accessed by those who have the money to invest in it. Since wealth is inherited, and few have earned much on their own prior to entering into such advanced education, it is the wealth of one’s parents that determines the ease of access to the educational opportunities which position one to remain wealthy in the future.
But there are subtler aspects of this system as well, subtler mechanisms embedded within it. Not only are inequitably distributed material endowments transmitted from generation to generation, but so too are the inequitably distributed skill sets and cultural adaptations that are associated with that inequitable distribution of material endowments. Parents teach children how to cope with the world that the parents encountered and understood, and, even as times and opportunity structures change, the sub-cultural adaptations to past circumstances remain embedded in the lineage of socialization transmitted from generation to generation.
While some social mobility exists, and some individuals rise out of the most opportunity-deprived circumstances to achieve phenomenal success against the odds, the actual statistical rates of social mobility are far lower than what many imagine them to be, and the exceptional cases both fewer and less accessible than many imagine them to be. For every exceptional case, there are some set of particular circumstances that applied in that case to make it exceptional (e.g., the good fortune to find an exceptional mentor, an unsually fortuitous genetic endowment, etc.). The underlying fact remains that the opportunities available, on average and in the aggregate, between those born into poverty and those born into wealth are inequitably and unjustly distributed.
So the challenge becomes how to preserve the robustness of markets, which depend on the existence of private property, and at the same time mitigate the inequities and injustices inherent in the existence of private property. This is really what the development of the wealthiest nations, particularly over the last 80 or so years, has been all about: Spiralling toward some balance of robust markets dependent on clearly defined private property rights, and administrative interventions that both preserve the health of those markets and increase the equity of opportunity faced by members of society despite the inequities inherent in private property rights. (The fact that such interventions not only can be used to increase the justness of distribution, but also are necessary to maintaining the functioning of the market economies at all, is evident throughout the historical record, in which periods of underregulation have led to spikes in the concentration of wealth followed by catastrophic market collapses, most notably in 1929 and 2008.)
Though the two necessary functions of government in a modern predominantly market economy (i.e., preserving the efficiency and well-functioning of markets, on the one hand, and increasing the equitability of the distribution of opportunities and benefits produced by those markets, on the other) are closely intertwined, I am focusing only on the latter in this essay. The question is how best to mitigate the inequities of markets without undermining them (and, indeed, whenver possible, enhancing and invigorating them).
There are two areas which rise to the fore: 1) Improving real access to education, at all levels; and 2) heavily taxing inheritance. In fact, education, at all levels, should be completely publicly funded, and the way in which it can be completely publicly funded is through inheritance taxes with gradually rising marginal rates approaching 100% at the extreme heights of personal wealth. Obviously, this is politically impossible in America today, but is approximated in most other developed nations to varying degrees, with unambiguously beneficial results.
There is more involved in improving real access to education than simply making it free to all at all levels. It would also involve community development and related up-front investments which would increase the ability of those who are currently born into lower socio-economic strata to succeed in school, so that the opportunity available is a real one rather than merely a formal one. That is something I discuss in my essays on education (see. e.g., Education Policy Ideas, Real Education Reform , Mistaken Locus of Education Reform, School Vouchers, Pros & Cons, West Generation Academy, American Universities: Two Dimensions on which to Improve).
However we move forward, however we address the myriad challenges and opportunities facing us, it’s time we did so by letting go of the mythologies which insulate social injustice from scrutiny, and instead confronted our world and our social systems as they are, with both strengths and weaknesses, both virtues and shortcomings. There is much that works well and should be defended, preserved, and built upon. And there is much that doesn’t, which should be examined, analyzed, addressed, and improved upon. That is what the human endeavor is all about.
This Week With Christiane Amanpour hosted an excellent debate this morning, with conservative pundit George Will and Congressman Paul Ryan on one side, and Congressman Barney Frank and Clinton Administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich on the other, over the fundamental, perennial issue of the optimum size and scope of government. First, please note that I did not frame it in the conventional way, with “small government” (SG) on one side, and “big government” (BG) on the other, because that is the frame created by SG advocates to mislabel their opposition. The real debate, as I see it, isn’t between SG advocates and BG advocates, but rather between SG advocates and advocates of “No Presumption Pragmatism” (NPP).
The legitimate concern is that NPP may tend toward limitless growth in government, but it is not therefore the case that those who are advocates of “no presumption pragmatism” are advocates of big government. Rather, it might be that there is an un-met challenge facing NPP that, if met, is a preferable path to either dogmatic SG advocacy or a careless, unrestrained-government growth version of NPP.
But there is an inherent tension between wanting government to perform an endlessly growing list of functions, and wanting government to be a minimalistic agent in our national affairs. ABC News’ John Donvan summed up that aspect of the debate nicely:
In the following introductory comments and opening salvos in this incarnation of The Debate, the participants lay out the parameters nicely, challenge some assumptions, redefine some positions, and offer some compelling insights and arguments:
Paul Ryan does an impressive job advocating his position, arguing that adhering to strict principals that generate optimal outcomes is superior to overreliance on government to take care of all challenges and address all issues, the latter error leading to a sprawling and cumbersome burden on human creativity and enterprise rather than an effective reduction in social problems and increase in human welfare. Barney Frank and Robert Reich respond that the government is too big in some ways and too small in others, and that reducing one’s position on the issue to an anti-government presumption fails to address the real challenges of managing a popular government.
Frank points out that many SG advocates are perfectly happy to rely on government to impose their will on others, advocating restrictions on women’s reproductive rights and a lack of definition of civil rights for gays and lesbians, while opposing the use of government in the productive manner of addressing “public goods” and “public bads,” not defined by arbitrary moral convictions, but rather by the real effects of our inevitable interdependence on our individual well-being. Reich reiterates that the question isn’t the size of government, but rather what factions of the population government is assisting or failing to assist.
Paul Ryan’s argument that smaller government is inherently more efficient and more effective than big government simply ignores the inevitable fact that any government function costs money, that, in a complex modern economy, there are a plethora of inescapable and quite expensive government functions that must be performed (e.g., regulating information-intensive markets such as financial and energy markets, which are easily gamed at potentially catastrophic public expense, but costly to monitor effectively); that the majority of the government programs targeted by SG advocates (with the notable exceptions of Social Security and Medicaid) actually involve piddling expenditures in relation to these large inescapable costs that government must be able to meet; that advocacy not to meet those inescapable costs is advocacy for a wildly self-destructive public policy; and that many of those piddling expenditures are in programs which research strongly demonstrates reduces far larger future costs that occur in their absence (such as those we currently incur in our enormous criminal justice system, far larger and more expensive, per capita, than those in other developed countries, incarcerating a far larger proportion of our population).
Since, in reality, there are expensive functions that a modern government must perform, and since, in reality, some social welfare programs have been strongly demonstrated to be cost effective over time, all things considered, what we as a polity really need to do in this debate is to transcend both the “big government is bad” platitude and the “every problem has a direct government solution” habit, and move into thinking more systemically, more intersectorally, and engage, in ever larger numbers with ever more commitment and knowledge, in the real challenge of using government as a disciplined and effective agent of our will, a portal into the organic processes of which we are a part, through which the essential functions of consciousness, of collective decision-making, of necessary oversight, of intentionality and value-driven intervention, can be implemented.
The debate in response to the audience question at the end over bailouts v. limiting the size of banks so that none are “too big too fail” is, as Robert Reich pointed out, an example of an information-intensive issue on which the relative positions of “conservatives” and “liberals” is not quite clear. The conservatives in this debate favored limiting the size of banks, while Frank on the liberal side argued that we require a different paradigm that allows for the existence of big banks in order to be internationally competitive. Though this Great American Debate historically began, in many ways, over a very similar question (should we have a national bank or not?), in its modern incarnation, it’s less ideological than technical, both sides admitting to the need to rely on economic analysis rather than blind ideology, neither side having the definitive solution to what is in reality a very complex problem.
The next segment deals with economic inequality and collective responsibility:
Elizabeth Warren’s introduction to this segment of the debate is, I believe, a very eloquent expression of the fundamental truth undermining the extreme SG/Libertarian argument: We are interdependent members of a single society, our political economy not being, never having been, and simply not capable of being, a mere market place for exchanges among atomized individuals, but rather an arena of coexistence in which some aspects of our shared lives are coordinated through market exchanges, but some aspects are necessarily coordinated in other ways as well.
These “extra-market” aspects of our shared existence aren’t just cultural, aren’t just a matter of family relationships and community relationships and voluntary organization memberships, but are also political and economic, involving our collective decision-making apparatus, our laws, and the ways in which a modern capitalist economy is populated with corporate actors whose own internal structure is hierarchical rather than “free market” based, and which wield enormous political power as a result.
The distribution of wealth and opportunity in America is clearly not a function of some mythical perfected meritocracy, but, as in all times and places throughout human history, is primarily a function of historical injustices reproduced through the chances of birth and the inherited opportunities and burdens that come with them. Our current legal system, evolved through periodic cleansings of the codification of those injustices, has certainly diluted the effects of those historical injustices, but their remaining legacy is clear to see, and is, in fact, a statistically undeniable current reality. Whatever policies we implement or decline to implement today, doing so with blithe disregard for the realities that currently exist is indefensible on both pragmatic and moral bases.
Paul Ryan’s response to Christiane’s opening question about economic inequality bordered on disingenuous: He blamed “current economic policies” for that growing disparity, despite the fact that the disparity has grown with the greatest acceleration, as it has in previous historical epochs, with the growth of deregulation and the success of SG political advocacy. This trend can clearly be seen in the three eras of most obscene concentration of wealth in America: The era of “The Robber Barons,” the “Roaring Twenties” of the Hoover Administration, and the current Reagan and post-Reagan era.
Ryan also, as he did throughout this debate (and as is an endemic deficiency in his ideological camp’s position), acted as if there is no other nation in the world with which we can compare our policies, to determine which kinds of policies really do increase social mobility and decrease economic inequality, and which ones really do exacerbate the lack of social mobility and the increase in economic inequality. The inconvenient fact is that a comparison to the social democracies of Western Europe and Canada demonstrates what the historical record I mentioned above also demonstrates: Social mobility is increased through social democratic government interventions in the economy, economic inequality is decreased, and prosperity is not undermined.
Paul Ryan argues that any attempt to decrease social inequality inevitably serves only to impoverish the wealthy rather than enrich the poor. This is an assumption and a fallacy. Historically, in fact, our political economic institutions have evolved in large measure to decrease social injustice (including economic inequality) without undermining the productive engine from which we all benefit. We’ve been successful enough at the latter goal that we consider merely slow growth to be economic failure, and periods of economic stagnation to be a crisis, and have, on average, maintained a fairly constant and sustained continuing growth in overall economic prosperity. While we’ve met that side of the challenge rather soundly, we not only have failed to address the increasingly inequitable distribution of the wealth thus created, but have actually devolved into a debate over whether we should care about that failure or not.
Ryan and Will represent the more “urbane” branch of their ideological movement, counterfactually insisting that their position decreases inequality and increases social justice, rather than that inequality and social injustice don’t matter. Unfortunately for Ryan and Will, the history of our own nation, and a comparison to other nations, demonstrate that the truth is the precise opposite of what they are claiming it to be.
Robert Reich added the observation that both the marginal tax rate on the wealthiest, and economic growth, were astronomically high under Dwight D. Eisenhower, debunking the assertion that they are antagonistic to one another.
George Will argues that Big Government always favors the wealthiest and most powerful, because it is most responsive to those who can pay expensive lobbyists and make large campaign contributions. Well, yes, government is skewed in favor of those with greatest political economic power, which is why the anti-government, deregulation movement has been so successful: It favors those with the greatest political economic power. To argue against using government to favor the interests of the less powerful on the basis that any government action is somehow inevitably going to favor the more powerful is a bizarre tautology, especially given the historical fact that disenfranchised groups have with some regularity successfully organized to gain power and legal protections throughout our history (e.g., women, African Americans, workers, environmental activists, etc.)
George Will then brought up the interesting observation that (therefore) the welfare state in America is primarily a transfer of wealth from the poorer young to the wealthier elderly (in the form of social security and Medicare). But this is a surprisingly sloppy representation, since neither the young nor the elderly are monolithic in their economic condition. I do agree, however, that social security and Medicare should be means tested; as a nation, we simply can’t afford to subsidize the wealthiest with public programs designed as safety nets.
But it is completely disingenuous to argue that the primary reason for that intergenerational disparity in wealth is due to Social Security and Medicare. The fundamental reason is insufficient government regulation of a market successfully exploited by a small minority of citizens over the course of their lives, such that they accumulate astronomical wealth by old age, creating the disparity that Will cites.
Ryan, however, made a potentially good point that Big Federal Government concentrated in Washington creates a convenient geographic and institutional nexus of power for corporate America to influence the political class. However, ironically, the policies that are most implicated in anti-BG advocacy are those policies that are most antagonistic to corporate interests, such as improved public health and safety standards, improved environmental standards, and expanded social services and programs for the neediest. The success of corporate lobbyists isn’t primarily the increase of government action to their benefit (though there is, of course, some of that), but rather the decrease of government action to their benefit (i.e., deregulation).
I do believe, however, that we need to move toward a paradigm of government facilitated public empowerment to carry out some of the functions currently embedded in governmental bureaucracies. Government can serve best to channel resources and pass legislation that will fund and guide local efforts. We need to think and act more systemically, in a more decentralized way, rendered coherent and conscious through our central agency of collective action (i.e., government), but utilizing all of the social institutional material on the ground in pursuit of social problem solutions and social institutional improvements.
The audience question that opens the next segment is very timely for me, since just yesterday I received my first “photo surveillance” ticket in the mail:
Paul Ryan’s repetition of the notion that economic equality automatically grows with economic growth is well answered by Barney Frank, who pointed out that economic growth is a necessary but not sufficient condition of wide-spread economic well-being
In fact, aggregate economic growth and economic equity (distributive justice, which is one aspect of social justice) are neither diametrically opposed nor perfectly compatible. There is a tension between them, in which some policies could indeed increase aggregate growth at the expense of distributive justice, some policies could increase distributive justice at the expense of economic growth, and some policies increase both economic growth and distributive justice at the same time. Obviously, the last category has the most to recommend it, but there are also times to accept trade-offs between aggregate growth and equitable opportunity to partake of the wealth produced by it.
As a thought experiment, consider the extremes: Few would support an arrangement by which one person accumulates ten times our current GDP every year, but everyone else is left in abject poverty. And, similarly, few would accept an arrangement in which there is absolute equality of abject poverty. There is clearly some balance to be struck between these two values.
Of course, Paul Ryan is right on target in the gist of his last remarks at the end of this segment: We need to end crony capitalism, eliminate subsidies to the rich, and address our economic challenges systemically. Those observations, however, do not belong to the larger ideological package that he is advocating, and, in the final analysis, are not compatible with it.
And on to the closing arguments:
Diminutive Robert Reich’s joke during his closing argument, reminding the audience that he has worked in government most of his life and then standing up and asking, “Do I look like Big Government to you?” struck me for a moment as funny but irrelevant, until I reflected on it a bit: Government is a human institution, comprised of human beings, acting in human ways. It is how we use it (and how we fail to use it), and what we do with it that defines its value. It is a vehicle of human will, not an external imposition, and it is, and should be, exactly as “big” as we are.
But, despite all of my arguments above, the take-home lesson from this debate, for everyone, should be that there is a legitimate debate to be had. From there, we can begin to acknowledge that no platitude suffices, and that the question is not one that can or should be answered with a slogan or reductionist philosophy. The responsibility of popular sovereignty, of self-governance, is that we govern ourselves wisely, succumbing to the manias and oversimplifications neither of the left nor the right. The more of us who take that step, who seek to transcend blind ideologies and embrace the challenge of being reasonable people of goodwill working together in a complex and subtle world, the better off we all will be.
A post on (former Denver mayoral candidate and current Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President) James Mejia’s Facebook page about a drunk driver totaling his parked car reminded me of my similar experience about nine and a half years ago, and the lesson I learned from it about the moral and ethical deficiency that comes from the commodification of responsibility.
This essay forms a counterbalance to my essay on Political Market Instruments, which was more favorable toward another form of commodification of responsibility: the commodification of collective or shared responsibilities that serves the purpose of addressing the collective action problems involved. The potential benefits of some degree of commodification of shared responsibilities is that it converts the burden of meeting them into a monetarily lucrative one, and allocates that burden according to who can best bear it, transforming the value of meeting it into a tradable commodity. The commodification of personal responsibility, conversely, serves to insulate the individual from the moral or ethical dimensions of their obligation, reducing it to a market transaction in which an undue burden can fall on an innocent victim of another’s error.
When my wife and I moved to Colorado, we stayed with friends in Lakewood while looking for an apartment, our car parked on a quiet residential street. In the wee hours of the morning we all heard a commotion, and discovered a drunk driver had totaled my old but reliable Plymouth. State Farm, the young drunk driver’s father’s insurance company, tried to low-ball me (not considering the value of work done in Mexico for which I had no receipts, for instance, and offering me a settlement of about $1000, which was insufficient to buy a running car to replace the one I had), it being inherent to their business plan to try to pay the least possible, despite the fact that, morally and ethically, when a drunk driver totals your parked car, they really have a pretty unambiguous responsibility to make sure they make it completely right.
To the father’s enormous credit, when I wrote him a nice note about my predicament, he kicked in an extra $1000! So, in this particular instance, the outcome was a model of an individual taking personal responsibility despite the commodification of that responsibility insulating him from it. But it’s clear that that is exceptional, that the norm is to let the insurance company handle it, and that voluntarily assuming the moral responsibility which the insurance company insures people against is a rare occurrence. (In fact, the father mentioned in his reply to me that virtually everyone he knew counseled him to let the insurance company handle it.)
The system could certainly be tweaked to diminish this defect, without either eliminating the indispensible service of insurance or making its cost exorbitant. One way to diminish it, for instance, would be, in circumstances of absolute responsibility by one party for a harm suffered by another, a requirement that insurance companies accept the highest independent estimate of the value of the property destroyed (with perhaps some government certification of the those qualified to make such assessments, to prevent collusion between victims and those doing the assessments), since the injured party, morally and ethically, should get “the benefit of the doubt.” In general, when one person has an unambiguous moral responsibility to make another whole after inflicting some injury on them, their insurance company covering such liability must be held to the same moral standard that society would hold the individual. That is not currently the case.
Of course, we do have a recourse in place to ensure this result: Legal action. Unfortunately, legal action comes at a a cost to all involved, in time, stress, risk, and just general imposition. It is expensive, a form of transaction costs which get in the way of arriving at optimal solutions by making the process of arriving at them more costly than the benefits of arriving at them. There is also, in this case, grossly unequal institutional power between the insurance company and the individual challenging it, with the resources the insurance company has at its disposal to defend against legal action far outstripping the resources the individual has at his or her disposal (not to mention that accessing legal counsel may impose a cost on that individual that that individual should not have to bear.) Therefore, whenever possible, we, as a society, should prefer, whenever possible, to implement more seamless, costless mechanisms to arrive at optimal outcomes.
The commodification of responsibility, whether of the collective responsibility commodified by Political Market Instruments, or of the personal responsibility commodified by liability insurance, is not necessarily a bad thing. We only need to be careful that we are not erasing, or insulating the individual or collective from, any portion of that responsibility in the process.
Social institutional innovation, like technological innovation, has an evolutionary quality to it: New instruments fumblingly addressing new challenges or opportunities sometimes grow up into highly elaborate systems that take on a life of their own. Market economies in general are an archetypical example of this phenomenon: From places where people came together to exchange their wares, markets have evolved into highly complex and robust networks of global transactions, implicated in a velocity of wealth production and transmission that would have boggled the minds of ancient merchants. Therefore, as we stand on the threshold of inventing new kinds of market instruments which trade in artifacts of administrative regulation, even those of us anchored to the dusty tomes of law and economics might benefit from stretching our imaginations a bit, and contemplating what may lie beyond the horizon.
For the purposes of this fanciful conversation, let’s refer to all present and future market instruments that trade in artifacts of political regulation or aspiration as Political Market Instruments (PMIs). The question posed in this essay, therefore, is: If the challenges involved in current tradable regulatory instruments are increasingly surmounted, and the range of PMIs is extended into other realms, such that the trading of such instruments becomes commonplace, what might such markets evolve into?
In order to explore this question, we need to consider what kinds of goods or services PMIs would commodify. Current and recent uses, including global warming abatement, renewable energy credits, and pollution reduction, are examples of a broader category of challenges called “collective action problems,” which have been discussed extensively, in various forms, in the economic, social scientific, and even mathematical literature. Global warming, for instance, invokes the need to create viable international accords through which a preferable global energy and GHG emissions regime can be developed, implemented, and enforced. The challenge emanates from the fact that nations individually bear the costs of contributing to such a regime, but collectively reap the benefits. Simplifying the matter somewhat for this initial discussion, all have an incentive to arrive at an optimal agreement and see it enforced, though all also have an incentive for not complying with the agreement to the extent that they can get away with non-compliance.
Here’s a simple thought experiment which illustrates the nature of collective action problems well enough for the average high school social studies student to understand. Imagine that I make the following offer to a group of thirty people, of which you are a member: For each of you that chooses to pay me $10, I will give each and every person in the group (including you) $1, regardless of whether those other members of the group chose to pay the $10 or not. To avoid discussing any complexities at this point, let’s say that the decision is made in secret, no member of the group ever knows what any other individual member chose to do, and all members agree that their only goal in this exercise is to maximize their own individual wealth. If each individual acts in his or her own rational self-interest, since accepting the offer costs him or her $9, no one would choose to do so. However, if everyone does accept it, each person is made $20 richer. No matter how many people accept or reject the offer, those who chose not to take it will always be better off than those who chose to take it. In other words, rationally doing what best maximizes one’s own individual wealth (in this scenario) leads to an outcome in which everyone does worse than they would have done had they been able to enforce a cooperative agreement.
Real world collective action problems are generally much more complex, in which, just as in market exchanges, there are a variety of comparative advantages (differing concessions or contributions which each is best positioned to make, such as Brazilians being better positioned to offer deforestation reduction, and Americans better positioned to offer industrial CO2 emissions reductions). And they occur on multiple overlapping and nested levels and regarding multiple issues, with myriad collective action problems coexisting intranationally, internationally (among nations as the actors), and transnationally (across national boundaries by non-state actors).
Social institutions arise primarily in response to such collective action problems (and, relatedly, in response to time horizon problems resulting from the devaluation of future consequences leading to insufficient foresight in decision-making processes), and utilize four distinct modalities in order to align individual to collective (and immediate to long-term) interests: Hierarchies, markets, norms, and ideologies. Hierarchies are systems of legitimate authority relying on formally codified and enforced rules. Markets are decentralized systems of multilateral exchange, usually facilitated by some form of currency. Norms are informal rules mutually enforced through decentralized social approval and disapproval. And ideologies are internalized beliefs and values enforced through self-policing and auto-sanctioned by cognitive dissonance (in the form of self-inflicted feelings of guilt or shame). Individual social institutions generally are comprised of some or all of these modalities, usually in combination, developing interdependently both within and across individual social institutions.
PMIs are essentially a hybrid institutional mechanism, comprised primarily of the hierarchical element necessary to regulatory regimes, and the market element which facilitates an efficient allocation of resources and burdens. Governments or international commissions imbue PMIs with their value by creating scarcity (in the case of compliance allowances) or subsidized demand (in the case of off-sets or RECs). The benefit of creating an accounting and exchange mechanism for political concessions and accommodations is the same as creating one for the exchange of goods and services: Like money, it frees actors involved in an exchange from what Edgeworth called “a double coincidence of wants,” that is, the necessity of two actors each having something the other wants more than they want what they themselves have. And, like money, it permits multilateral, geographically and temporally decentralized exchanges among a potentially unlimited number of actors, facilitating the achievement of collectively beneficial arrangements with greatly reduced transaction costs. PMIs are a mechanism for duplicating this innovation in the context of political rather than economic exchange.
Differences among nations, among their individual conditions and priorities, provide opportunities to make political exchanges which help both to facilitate such agreements, and to distribute responsibilities and benefits in accord with each nation’s particular circumstances. The expanded PMI model I am contemplating explores both the potential and the limitations of exchanging political concessions among multiple parties to arrive at mutually beneficial outcomes.
The simplest illustration of the PMI model involves three parties negotiating over three issues. Country A wants a concession from Country C, but has nothing to offer Country C in return. Country B wants a concession from Country A, but has nothing to offer Country A in return. And Country C wants a concession from Country B, but has nothing to offer Country B in return. No bilateral agreement can be arrived at among any combination of these three nations. But if it is worth it to A to make the concession to B in return for the concession from C, to B to make the concession to C in return for the concession from A, and to C to make the concession to A in return for the concession from B, then the three of them can negotiate a tri-lateral exchange that satisfies all of their needs. (In this case, the transaction costs are manageable, and PMIs are not required.)
Similarly, it may be possible at times for numerous nations to arrive at an agreement through such “circular exchange,” under circumstances in which no subset of that group could have arrived at any mutually beneficial agreement. At its most complex (and traditionally most difficult to accomplish, as discussed below), a PMI model aspires to facilitate a tangled web of multilateral exchanges of concessions of varying magnitude implicating numerous unrelated issues, such that the removal of any party to the negotiation or any concession being made would unravel the entire agreement. This frees the parties from the necessity of having bilaterally reciprocal interests, and permits the kind of decentralized, multilateral pattern of exchange typified by markets.
The basic premise of the PMI model is that the more parties and issues that can be conflated in a single negotiation, the more optimal the agreements that can be arrived at through a multilateral exchange of concessions on those issues among those parties. The logical conclusion would be that, therefore, conflating all issues and all parties into a single negotiation leads to the most optimal agreement possible. The limiting factor has been that the larger the number of negotiating parties and issues on the table, the higher the transaction costs of coming to a multilateral, multi-issue agreement. The PMI model, therefore, is currently useful to the extent that it can reduce transaction costs enough that the benefits accrued from the arrangement arrived at exceed the transaction costs spent to arrive at it, and to the extent that there is no other non-PMI-facilitated deal that any subset of the parties could have arrived at which would have given them a better benefit-to-transaction-cost ratio.
This is still an onerous obstacle. However, just as various innovations developed historically to reduce the transaction costs involved in economic exchange (money being the most critical one), the PMI model is not immune to future innovations which might reduce the transaction costs involved, and thus increase the range of its applicability. Such innovation begins with a precise analysis of the anatomy of the transaction costs imposed by political (or contractual) negotiations. The least intractable transaction costs involved in multilateral negotiations are coordination costs: Getting the parties to the table, so to speak. Coordination costs are most salient early in such negotiations, and have been greatly reduced, in international relations, by the proliferation of international institutions and treaties.
Bargaining costs, which involve determining the exact nature of the agreement and the precise division of costs and benefits, are somewhat more significant. Bargaining costs are incurred during the actual negotiation process, when the parties involved try to exchange their way to a multilateral agreement that is satisfactory to each and every one of them. At this stage, the negotiations most closely resemble a traditional bartering market, with all parties both sellers and buyers bartering around a single stall.
Finally, and sometimes most intractably, multi-party agreements are beset by defection (or enforcement) costs. Defection costs are those costs incurred by monitoring and enforcing the agreements arrived at during the negotiations. Improving the salience of the multi-party negotiations, and extending its range of applicability, necessarily involves finding ways to reduce all of the aforementioned transaction costs implicated by it.
The potential benefits of pursuing a PMI approach are myriad. As more activities or concessions are brought into a single market, coordination and bargaining costs are almost eliminated, and even enforcement costs are greatly reduced by creating a much larger shared investment in the integrity of the system. To the extent that successful multilateral political exchange agreements are implemented through it, it increases international interdependence, produces oversight commissions with enough authority to ensure the value of the PMIs, and thus provides an incremental back door into some limited though significant degree of global federalism. To the extent that political market solutions can be implemented, they have strong reverberating effects throughout our integrated social institutional and technological subsystems, creating new markets and new entrepreneurial opportunities, and increasing the ideological and normative association of the development and distribution of sustainable energy technologies with political and economic opportunity in general.
In fact, the development of commissions with the authority to ensure the value of PMIs is both a major benefit and a major challenge. Contractual arrangements within jurisdictions are made possible by a legal structure under which they can be enforced. International agreements are made difficult by the paucity of such enforcement mechanisms on the global level. But international commerce, more than perhaps any other historical force, has integrated sovereign nations into a single interdependent global system. Commodifying political exchange requires more oversight than commercial exchange, but also provides more incentives to create it than traditional international negotiations do, by creating more, and more distributed, opportunities to profit from international political exchange.
Despite the potential for PMIs to improve international and transnational cooperation, they would face all of the challenges already encountered by existing regulatory instruments, and to a far greater extent. The determination of the relative value of seemingly unrelated political concessions would be difficult, but fully established markets are particularly good at accomplishing that (their respective market values would determine their exchange rates). Ensuring the integrity of the instruments (preventing leakage, ensuring additionality, etc.) would grow in magnitude of difficulty as the markets become more multifaceted and extensive (though that could also reduce the problem in the long run by bringing more measurements of more changes in more places into the system). The transaction costs involved in every incremental step in establishing such a market will be enormous.
One benefit of such a comprehensive system is that the universal scope and coverage essentially eliminates the problem of leakage, since there is nowhere for any abated public bad to leak to. Just as the concern about leakage has pushed focus on off-set markets from individual projects to sectoral and nation- or province-wide abatements, it would be one force pushing the expansion of PMI markets in general.
Another obstacle for PMIs, already contemplated in regards to existing instruments, is the perverse incentives they can create. If, for instance, we incorporate deforestation avoidance into international carbon markets, then their value is a creature of past deforestation. When a market values the cessation or reduction of the rate of a destructive activity, it implicitly retroactively values having initially increased the rate of that activity in order to necessitate its reduction. In the context of enduring markets for the abatement of past destructive activity, such perverse incentives pose a serious challenge that must be decisively addressed. Many things we might want to incorporate into future and more comprehensive PMI markets -such as improvement in human rights, military de-escalation, and reduced trade barriers, to name a few- would all have current positive value as the result of the negative value of past or continuing actions and policies. Designing mechanisms to prevent the incentive to create problems in order to trade in their correction would be a fundamental challenge for establishing authentic value-generating PMI markets.
It’s worth noting that in our current international political bartering system, this problem already exists. In the lead-up to international treaty negotiations, countries frequently amp up certain misbehaviors in order to have more to trade with. The increased robustness of PMI markets would only increase the robustness of the problem. And, presumably, at the time of establishment of any new abatement PMI, the baseline set for reduction targets would precede any amping up that may have occurred in anticipation of the creation of such markets.
Stretching our imaginations to the utmost, PMIs could trade in a vast array of political goods. As stated above, there are many public bads that we all have a shared interest in abating: human rights violations, military build-ups, trade barriers, and domestic criminal activities with international consequences (e.g., drug cartels), to name a few. And there are many public goods or broadly shared aspirations that there is either already a shared interest in encouraging, or a potential for some degree of international consensus: improved worker conditions and salaries; more political, economic, and cultural freedom; more open borders; and stronger guarantees of protection for foreign nationals abroad, to name a few. In each case, measures would have to be created (such as a “human rights abuse index”); a target would have to be set for abatement markets (either by reference to a baseline, or by some other aspirational standard) and a system for ensuring the integrity of instruments measuring incremental gains in public goods would have to be established; and monitoring, reporting, and verification systems would have to be in place. As such markets proliferate, the ability to identify and implement new areas amenable to new PMIs would continue to emerge.
Though the notion of trading in human rights abuse abatement, or organized criminal activity abatement, may seem odd, and could certainly raise some moral hackles, it is essentially the same idea as trading in GHG emissions abatement: creating markets for the diminution of some undesirable activity. Given the fact that the obstacles are daunting enough for GHG emissions abatement markets, and that the problems facing them grow exponentially as the scope and coverage is expanded to more issues and parties, the path from the present to this possible future would be a long and tortuous one, with many seemingly insurmountable challenges and as-yet-unforeseen technical innovations defining the way. Whether such a future will ever come to pass is far from certain, but that some future which currently appears equally improbable will come to pass seems almost inevitable (assuming continued human survival).
Such speculation may seem to be an unwarranted flight of fancy from our current vantage point, just as to the ancient Greeks, not unfamiliar with the wonders of the agora, contemplation of the exotic financial instruments being traded today would have appeared equally untethered from reality. The preceding discussion is not intended as a blueprint of how to implement an imminently practicable policy instrument, but rather as an added perspective regarding how to contextualize current innovations in terms of potential long-term historical significance. The question isn’t whether current institutions will evolve to surmount obstacles seemingly insurmountable today, but rather which institutions and in what ways. The lathe of trial and error which will produce those innovations is more productive when we experiment with an eye to future as well as present possibilities. I believe that in a comparison between taxes-and-subsidies and tradable instruments as means for internalizing externalities (specifically carbon taxes and carbon cap-and-trade regulation), while both should be used, each in circumstances most appropriate for it, a less obvious (and perhaps still very slight) added weight needs to be accorded to tradable instruments, due to their dramatic long-term potential for facilitating mutually beneficial cooperation, particularly in the Hobbesian paradise of international relations.
1See, e.g., John Von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (Princeton University Press 1944); John Nash, The Bargaining Problem, 18 Econometrica 155 (1950); Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, 162 Science 1243 (1968); and Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action (Harvard University Press 1965)
2See, e.g., Kenneth Boulding, The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth, in Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy (Henry Jarrett ed., 1966).
3See, e.g., Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, 162 Science 1243 (1968); and Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action (Harvard University Press 1965)
4I utilized this illustration as a high school social studies teacher, using classroom currency points.
5The actual results in my classroom experiment varied considerably, though there were always some students who accepted the deal and some who rejected it.
6See, e.g., Robert Axelrod, An Evolutionary Approach to Norms, 80 American Political Science Review 1095 (1986); and Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge University Press 1990).
7Steve Harvey, Institutionalizing the Production of Supranational Public Goods: The Shifting Locus of Interest Group Lobbying in Europe (August 1994) (unpublished paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association in Los Angeles, CA).
8F.Y. Edgeworth, Mathematical Physics, (Kegan Paul 1881).
9This is precisely what the famous Coase Theorem postulates. See Ronald H. Coase, The Problem of Social Costs, 3 J.L. & Econ. 1 (1960).
10See Douglas D. Heckathorn and Stephen M. Maser, Bargaining and the Source of Transaction Costs: The Case of Government Regulation, 3 J.L. Econ. & Org. 69 (1987).
13Admittedly, such discussions quickly run into the issue of cultural relativism v. universal human (and non-human) rights, and the related issue of “imperialism” or hegemony v. cultural and political self-determination, but this issue is implicit in all discussions of international law and international standards of conduct.
(The following is a slightly extended version of my response to an op-ed by Vince Carroll, Putting Fat Cats In Their Place, in today’s (10/30/11) Denver Post: http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_19211159?source=bb.)
Vince Carroll is absolutely correct that we must consider not only the distribution of wealth, but also the absolute growth of wealth, when discussing issues of our economic well-being as a nation and a people. Certainly, if everyone is getting wealthier, then why should we worry if that is accomplished by means of a system in which the wealthiest get astronomically wealthier while the further down you go along the spectrum of income and wealth, the less robust the growth of wealth becomes (less robust even as a proportion of existing income and wealth, meaning a lower percentage of a lower base number)?
There are several reasons why:
1) The growth in household incomes that Carroll cites is due to an increase in two-worker families, and a decrease in stay-at-home moms. In reality, there has been a decrease in real individual average income in that same time period, an anomaly in the modern era of ever-expanding wealth which corresponds precisely with the rise of income-concentrating deregulation.
2) We have an economic system demonstrably less efficient than some others in existence (e.g., Germany, the Netherlands, etc.) at striking an optimal balance between absolute growth and distribution of the fruits of that growth, resulting in far greater levels of impoverishment, infant mortality, homelessness, violent crime, incarceration, mental health problems, and numerous related problems, than have been achieved by other nations that have struck a more sensible balance.
3) Extreme income inequality reduces economic vitality by constricting the breadth and depth of economic activity. The more concentrated wealth is, the less disposable income, in the hands of fewer people, is available to contribute to the consumer engine of our economic vitality.
4) Carroll disregards the role of deregulation (from the 1980s onward) in generating this economically debilitating concentration of wealth, how that deregulation has been implicated in every major economic crisis since its inception, how it has now undermined the consumer engine of our economy in dramatic and enduring ways, and how, as a result, our economy is in a period of stagnation following contraction, with a no-longer-growing pie still obscenely concentrated in far too few hands.
5) Carroll disregards the various costs not measured by traditional economic indicators, referred to in the economic literature as “externalities” (those costs and benefits of economic transactions that affect those who were not parties to the transaction, in either positive or negative ways), which, while helping to author the huge concentration of wealth in America over the past 30 years, also have helped to do so on the back of the population at large by reducing public health, safety, and welfare, and placing increasing burdens of accumulating and devastating negative externalities on future generations across the globe.
6) Extreme income inequality has many other socially destructive consequences, even aside from the ones listed above. It undermines national solidarity and cultivates inter-class resentments, creates subjective feelings of relative poverty, and undermines democracy by concentrating both the means of affecting public opinion (and thus determining the outcomes of elections) and the power to determine the economic well-being of the vast majority of the people of the nation into the hands of a small, corporation-beholden-and-embedded economic elite.
One must look not only at this “snapshot of reality,” but also at the trends revealed over time, and the consequences of such trends. Even if all of the present reasons for considering how equitably distributed wealth is did not exist, a trajectory of accelerating concentration of wealth is clearly untenable in the long run.
Today, 1% of the nation’s wealthiest command 40% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 80% command less than 15% of the nation’s wealth. In 2007 (see http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html for an overview of 2007 income distribution figures), the top 1% commanded slightly less than 35% of the nation’s wealth (already considered an indicator of astronomical inequity). The current growth trend in capital concentration has been underway since 1980, coinciding precisely with the Reagan-coined “government is the enemy” paradigm of the right; in 1979, the top 1% commanded just over 20% of the nation’s wealth, having fluctuated since WWII between 20% and, in a rare outlier in 1965, 34%.
The last time the concentration in wealth in the hands of the wealthiest 1% of the population exceeded 40% was in 1929, on the eve of The Great Depression, when policies similar to those advocated by the Libertarian Right today had been successfully championed under the Hoover Administration.
If the challenge is to “get it right,” all things considered, then our grotesque and accelerating concentration of wealth in America, accompanied by the highest-among-developed-nations rates of poverty, hunger, homelessness, violence, incarceration, and other social ills, is indeed an indicator of having failed to do so.
Yes, we do not want to seek “equality” in a vacuum, engaging in the folly of imposing an equality of impoverishment. But we as a nation are not teetering on the edge of that particular folly; rather, we are over the edge of the opposite folly, which we insanely avoid addressing by pretending that it doesn’t exist.