Thursday, March 19, 2015

libertarian countries?

A few days ago MR addressed an interesting question that I have a great deal of personal interest in: for which country should you vote with your feet if you're libertarian (or social conservative or progressive, but I have less interest in those.) My guess is the United States but with the desperate hope that I'm wrong. Unfortunately, Tyler answers the same.

I could rant in depth about the sadness of this truth, but what really intrigued me about this post was the plethora of comments suggesting alternative answers like Singapore where government spending is only around 15% of GDP*. I don't understand use of government spending as a percentage of GDP as a proxy for libertarianism, at all.

Yes, taxation is the government exercising its monopoly on theft, yadda yadda yadda, but I see that as a necessary evil. I don't feel like my freedoms are being fundamentally violated when the price of doing something is manipulated a bit. I do feel like my freedoms are being fundamentally violated when every 5 minutes I run into another government regulation. Clearly Singapore is very very bad on this dimension, so even if taxes are low, I would rank it very low as a libertarian paradise.

There are two types of laws that I think should be avoided as much as is practically feasible. 1) Nanny laws and 2) preventative laws. Nanny laws are those that try to prevent people from hurting themselves. Preventative laws are laws that make things illegal that might lead to negative externalities if done carelessly or wrong, rather than only making the externality itself illegal. Like, banning dogs in a national park because some people might let their pets attack koalas. I realize that it's often not feasible to rely on only the harm itself being illegal, but regulation in Australia (and the U.S., but less so) is so far from that grey area it's flat out ridiculous.**

So, if my criterion for libertarianism is a commitment to avoid these sorts of regulations, is the US still the answer to the question? Please tell me it's not!

To be clear, snarky answers like "move to Somalia" are not wise enough to be wise-ass. Obviously what I'm looking for is a government of a stable, developed country that chooses to make respect for these freedoms a priority. So underdeveloped countries where the government is entirely preoccupied with more urgent material issues don't count if there's no way of knowing whether they'll adopt a more Norwegian or Texan*** approach as soon as everything else is under control.

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*For comparison, the US is over 40% and France is over 55%. Insanity...

**In a cafe a few days ago, I saw a sign on an outlet stating that due to workplace safety regulations, the outlet was not available to customers. My hope when I moved here is that a country this large with so few people must not have too many reasons to regulate every step you take, but based on the nanny state's extent they seem to be expecting half of China to immigrate here soon.

***And yes I'd love to move to a state similar to Texas in this regard, but that set doesn't overlap Matt's acceptable set.

Monday, March 9, 2015

don't argue from premises you know are false

People cling to any facts that help them argue their opinions, and they refuse to admit any downside to their opinions. But tradeoffs are ubiquitous and denying the existence of a gray area, while it may help you feel more confident in your opinion, it makes your argument less convincing. It obviously hurts your credibility when you bury your head in the sand, but more insidiously, it distracts from the fundamental, important reasons why you hold your view.

In other words, if you support X because of A, and someone else opposes X because of B, you can argue that A is more important than B. If you instead argue that you shouldn't oppose X because B isn't true, anyone who believes in B will ignore you completely and miss the more important issue of A. But people do this even when the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that B is true!

Examples:

  1. I suspect that making immigration to the U.S. will hurt the wages of some low-skilled Americans. But I favor freer immigration anyway because it's overwhelmingly clear that it will make people better off on average, and therefore it's the right thing to do if you care about humans equally. By fixating on small findings that show that in certain special circumstances, unskilled labor immigration helps unskilled American laborers, you allow yourself to be dismissed as soon as any contrary result (which will surely turn up) is found.
  2. I suspect there is probably some health cost to smoking marijuana. I support its legalization anyway, because I strongly believe people should be allowed do whatever the heck they want that doesn't hurt anyone else. Arguing that marijuana should be legal because it's safe undermines this more important issue and, if this argument becomes widely accepted, it will undermine other arguments for legalization of activities that pretty obviously do have (victimless) costs.
  3. I'm pretty sure that increasing the minimum wage will usually reduce overall employment. I don't support minimum wage increases, but for those who do, take note: I can't take you seriously when you claim that the law of supply and demand doesn't apply to labor. It may be true that in certain special circumstances minimum wage increases won't have this effect, but I'm guessing you don't want to restrict minimum wage increases to those scenarios, so stop fixating on those iffy findings as the basis of your argument.
  4. I have no idea what the nature/nuture breakdown is on homosexuality. Nor do I care, when it comes to politics. Equal rights for non-heterosexuals is the right thing regardless of whether sexual orientation is chosen or occurs from birth. Saying "I didn't choose to be this way, so don't discriminate against me!" gives your opponents an opening they shouldn't have: to fixate on any minor correlation between sexuality and upbringing as evidence of choice.
  5. I am an environmentalist not for economic reasons. When we figure out ways to thrive as a species without the natural ecosystem, I will still be a conservationist, because this (sort of, if you can call that a reason). So while in many situations conservation can be easily motivated by economics, I don't want to fixate on that logic because I also want biodiversity and wild lands and beautiful landmarks to be preserved purely for their own sake even if someone managed to argue that it would be worth more in dollars to convert one to a mine.
  6. I'm sure that global warming is happening and that it's causing major problems (already, yes). If you don't like certain political solutions to these problems, then argue why. Don't just deny the problem. It makes you sound crazy. It also immediately cuts you out of the decision making process because everyone trying to address it disagrees with your entire premise that the phenomenon isn't real.
  7. There are all kinds of nutty inconsistent things in the Bible. I couldn't care less. By arguing about them, I imply that I'm not religious because of some contradiction in a particular text, which allows any religious person to dismiss me immediately by coming up with an alternative way to interpret that contradiction (or an alternative text to believe in).
The list can go on infinitely of course.

I understand the temptation of these arguments. If someone objects to opening borders because it will hurt unskilled Americans, it's hard to change the topic entirely to fundamental human rights. We respond to immediate sub-issues. And why do we cling to facts that might be useful in those irrelevant side issues? Because we cling to any facts that make our views a lighter shade of gray.

The truly puzzling thing about this phenomenon is that we continue to do this even when we scoffingly dismiss people who do so on other topics. Democrats scoff at Republicans who claim that tax cuts increase tax revenue based on the Laffer curve, but then they claim minimum wages increase employment based on the equally tenuous finding that in some strange circumstances, however rare, that might be true. I guess I'm forced to conclude that motivated reasoning is so powerful that we don't even realize how selectively we interpret facts and how black and white we're pretending things are.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

ethics reviews gone wild

My next door office neighbor, Paul Frijters, is in the news right now due to being ridiculously harassed over alleged unethical experimental methods. The study used RA's of different races to try to board buses with empty fare cards in order to examine whether drivers are more likely to let white and east asian people ride for free (they are). At issue is whether it is ethical to "defraud" the transit system in such a way.

Note that the RA's did not request a free ride. It was entirely up to the busdrivers how to respond to the RAs having an empty card. And of course the transit system didn't lose any money from the study in the first place because these RAs wouldn't have been taking these 2km rides at all otherwise... But most importantly, the study went through the proper ethical clearance channels and was approved. It's abundantly clear that the reaction of the transit system to the proof of some degree of racism is the only reason the University reacted the way it did. Politics.

Not only do I wholeheartedly agree with Ian Ayres's defense of this research, this incident should be raising enormous red flags about the ludicrous state of ethical clearance for economics research. In so many cases, it serves not to protect the subjects but to cover the asses of the university in the event of any controversial press, especially that which incites ill political will.

This on top of the fact that social science ethical clearance was designed in the tradition of medical research ethical clearance, and is often still handled by the same people, so that the obvious and significant risks inherent to biological testing are looked for in completely benign games that economists have their subjects play in order to study decision making. We've gone from one extreme in which the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments can be run to another extreme in which experimenters aren't allowed to sell things on ebay because people might regret their purchases. And if they eventually can, it's after months and months of back and forth and wasted time dealing with internal review bureaucracies.

Social science is suffering. Australian social science, even more than U.S. social science, far more than European social science*, is suffering. It's time to streamline the ethical review process and bring some common sense back.

Update: I should probably point out*** that despite being affiliated with UQ, I do not speak on their behalf, nor do I know anything about Paul's case other than that which was publicly reported, and all is not said and done. Regardless of what mess of details is involved, however, I 100% support the research program as important and ethical and 100% stand by my assessment of IRBs having gone completely off the rails. The latest anecdote I hear is of a project that was denied because the results might be used to make money. Welp, I guess all of science can call it quits; our job is apparently inherently unethical...

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*Internal review boards don't even exist in Switzerland. Doesn't matter - unethical research has no chance of getting published so self-regulation works well, in the same way that economists sustain much better experimental practices than psychologists. But you do see particularly cool studies** coming from Europe :)

**Before you start objecting that killing mice is actually unethical so clearly IRBs are needed in Switzerland, read further. The researchers took research mice that were slated for killing already and gave people the option to pay to save their lives. Armin Falk is now taking care of some of the most spoiled mice in Europe as a result. It was not possible for any mouse to be worse off as a result of the experiment.

***It has been gently pointed out to me, by a few people actually, that Australia does not guarantee freedom of speech. (Or privacy. Don't get me started.) I knew that but I think I'm going to continue taking the enormous risk of blogging for all two dozen of my readers :)