1. Jim Otteson discusses the welfare state. The comments are depressing. I think arguments against intervention are easier: even if we grant interventionists’ moral assumptions, we can usually show that the proposed intervention actually hurts the people it is alleged to help (market failure yields to public choice). Re: “what should we do about the poor,” a good first step is “quit making policies that make their lives harder.”
2. Bryan Caplan defends pacifism, which I’ve recently adopted. Caplan’s point is worth applying to all sorts of proposals for the use and application of force. Too often, we take worst-case scenarios and then assume that we’re choosing between best-case responses. We have to be clear(er) about the incentive-and-information problems inherent in government action. Here’s Caplan: “‘Unite and join an army’ always sounds good. But what exactly is this army going to do? Judging from virtually every army around, it’s going to recklessly endanger large numbers of innocent bystanders. And what are the odds its actions actually improve matters, rather than provoking reprisals and worse? My complaint is that proponents of war “hope for the best” rather than facing these hard questions.” If I can summarize, I think Caplan’s main objection to arguments for war is that the people making them are making unwarranted assumptions and then not thinking very hard about them.
2a. Chris Coyne’s ongoing research about this is absolutely essential on this. His book After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy is excellent. He presented his paper “Delusions of Grandeur: On the Creeping Militarization of U.S. Foreign Policy” at APEE, and I look forward to reading it.
2b. Ralph Raico dissects twentieth-century wars. This was the first book I read in its entirety on my iPad. Some of the thought experiments and counterfactuals are fascinating, and they illustrate some of the problems that arise when governments try to drum up support for war against Eurasia or Eastasia.
3. My paper “Inputs and Institutions as Conservative Elements” (ungated here) gets some love from Aid Watch. Speaking of Chris Coyne (2a, above), we finally sent a heavily revised version of our paper on the Memphis Riot of 1866 back to a journal last week. The version that appeared last summer in the Mercatus Center’s Working Papers series is still current, however, as we’re planning to turn this into a book eventually. Comments are always welcome.
4. Rhodes alum Hardy Green spoke last night about his book The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills that Shaped the American Economy. I just gave the book a (very) quick skim, and the presentation and book are making me grapple with the way I use case studies and non-statistical information. The phrase “Company Town” calls to mind a history of sometimes-brutal exploitation of workers who had nowhere else to go. They “owed their souls to the company store” as they worked for monopsony wages and paid monopoly prices. There is no shortage of stories about hard lives under the mountains of West Virginia and in the mill towns that dot the American past. Colorful stories lend themselves to incorrect interpretation, however. When it is available, statistical evidence helps us develop clearer answers to questions like “did workers in West Virginia coal towns have exit options?” Price Fishback–who studied under Robert Higgs at the University of Washington–summarizes evidence suggesting that the answer is “yes” in this paper that appeared in the Journal of Economic Literature in 1998.
Yes, statistical data can sometimes mislead, it often isn’t as useful as some of us would like to think, and statistics are sometimes badly misused. While I don’t have statistical data to confirm this, I fear that a lot of public policy is made on the basis of reports issued by people who know how to type commands in programs like Stata but who really don’t know what they’re doing. Recall Hayek’s discussions of statistical data in “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” which I’m discussing in my Classical & Marxian Political Economy class in a few hours. He points out that the knowledge that generates spontaneous order in a market economy cannot be known by a single mind, cannot manifest itself as statistical information independent of market exchange, and therefore cannot confront central planners as data. When we are looking for explanations of specific historical events or patterns and when we are looking to test historical hypotheses like “were workers in company towns mobile or immobile?” statistical information can be extremely useful.
5. Speaking of options, Bleeding-Heart Libertarian Matt Zwolinski discusses “repugnance” arguments against policies like open immigration and kidney sales or in favor of policies like minimum wages and the like. It brought to mind my post from a couple of weeks ago in which I discussed immigration as a solution to the sweatshop problem.