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Archive for the ‘Free Markets’ Category

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written several columns about the 100th anniversary of communism. I’ve looked at that evil ideology’s death toll, and I’ve written about the knaves and fools who defended and promoted communism in the west (included, sad to say, some economists). And I’ve even shared some anti-communist humor to offset the dour material in the other columns.

Let’s continue that series today by looking at the very practical question of what happens when a nation breaks free from communist enslavement?

Professor James Gwartney and Hugo Montesinos from Florida State University analyzed the economic performance of former Soviet Bloc nations (they refer to them as formerly centrally planned – or FCP – countries) over the past 20 years.

The good news is that these countries have been growing, especially if they get decent scores from Economic Freedom of the World.

The economic record of the FCP countries during 1995-2015 was impressive. This was particularly true for the seven FCP countries that moved the most toward economic liberalization. The average growth of real per capita GDP of these seven countries exceeded 5 percent during 1995-2015. Real per capita GDP more than doubled in six of the seven countries during the two decades. …While the real GDP growth of the middle group was slower, it was still impressive. The population weighted annual real growth of per capita GDP of the middle group was 3.78 percent.

And to elaborate on the good news, growth rates in FCP nations has been faster than growth rates in rich countries.

But that’s to be expected. Convergence theory tells us that poorer places should grow faster than richer places (at least in the absence of unusual circumstances).

But government policy can be a wild card. As you can see from Table 14 of the report, Gwartney and Montesinos parsed the data and found that the FCP nations that adopted the most pro-market reforms have enjoyed the fastest growth rates, while growth rates were less impressive in the FCP countries with lesser amounts of economic liberalization (relative growth rates highlighted in red below).

The goal, of course, is for FCP nations to catch up with rich nations.

And there has been a decent amount of convergence.

…the relative income increases are impressive. The ratio of the mean per capita GDP of the most economically free group compared to the high-income economies more than doubled, soaring from 19.9 percent in 1995 to 40.6 percent in 2015. The parallel ratio for the middle group increased by approximately 50 percent from 36.9 percent in 1995 to 53.0 percent in 2015. Finally, the ratio for the bottom group increased from 13.0 percent in 1995 to 24.6 percent in 2015, an increase of 90 percent. The largest increases in relative income were registered by Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Armenia, Albania, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The ratio for each of these countries more than doubled between 1995 and 2015. Note that five of these eight countries are in the group with the highest 2015 EFW ratings.

There’s country-specific data in Table 13 of the report.

And you can see, once again, that the nations with the most economic freedom and enjoying the fastest convergence rates. From the top group, I’ve highlighted both Georgia and the Baltic countries for their impressive results. And I also highlighted Poland and Slovakia from the second group because both countries have converged at a rapid pace thanks to some good policies.

Looking at the bottom group, it’s sad to see Ukraine doing so poorly, but that’s a predictable result given the near-total absence of economic freedom in that unfortunate country.

The obvious moral of the story is that nations will grow faster and generate more prosperity if they follow the recipe of free markets and limited government.

So let’s take a look at that recipe by examining how FCP nations have performed when looking at the various ingredients. More specifically, Economic Freedom of the World looks at five major policy areas: fiscal, trade, money, regulation, and legal.

And it’s that final category (which measures factors such as property rights, the rule of law, and government corruption) where these countries have not done a good job.

…the FCP countries…have a major shortcoming: their legal systems are weak and little progress has been made in this area. Given their historic background, this is not surprising. Under socialism, legal systems are designed to serve the interests of the government. Judges, lawyers, and other judicial officials are trained and rewarded for serving governmental interests. Protection of the rights of individuals and private businesses and organizations is unimportant under socialism.

Here’s some fascinating data from Table 17, which shows how scores for the five major categories have changed over time in both FCP nations and countries from Western Europe. You’ll see that FCP countries have liberalized policy and closed the gap in Area 3 (money), Area 4 (trade), and Area 5 (regulation). And you’ll also see how the FCP nations do a better job in Area 1 (fiscal), which I’ve highlighted in red. But the most startling – and depressing – result in the absence of progress in Area 2 (legal), which is also highlighted in red.

These results, for all intents and purposes, are a much more detailed version of an article I wrote for the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformers in Europe earlier this year.

Unfortunately, even though we have the same diagnosis, we don’t really have an easy solution. In this final excerpt, the authors explain that it’s not that easy to change the culture of a nation’s political class.

It is a major challenge to convert a socialist legal system into one that enforces contracts in an unbiased manner, protects property rights, permits markets to direct economic activity, and operates under rule of law principles. …Economists have provided policy-makers with step by step directions about how to achieve monetary and price stability, liberalized trade regimes, and adopt tax structures more consistent with growth and prosperity. …But, a recipe for developing a sound legal system is largely absent. We know what a sound legal system looks like, but we have failed to explain how it can be achieved.

I don’t even thank socialism deserves the full blame (though it deserves the blame for many bad things). There are many nations in many regions of the world that get very bad scores because of inadequate rule of law and weak property rights. But I fully agree that it’s not easy to fix.

But I’ll close with a very upbeat observation that all of the FCP nations are better off because the Soviet Union collapsed and communism is fading from the world. Liberal socialism may not be good for an economy, but it’s paradise compared to Marxist socialism.

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I fully agree with my leftist friends who say that corporations want to extract every penny they can from consumers. I also (mostly) agree with them when they say corporations are soulless entities that don’t care about people.

But after they’re done venting, I then try to educate them by pointing out that the only way corporations can separate consumers their money is by vigorously competing to provide desirable goods and services at attractive prices.

Moreover, their “soulless” pursuit of those profits (as explained by Walter Williams) will lead them to be efficient and innovative, which boosts overall economic output.

Moreover, in a competitive market, it’s not consumers vs. corporations, it’s corporations vs. corporations with consumers automatically winning.

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute makes a very valuable point about what happens in a free economy.

Comparing the 1955 Fortune 500 companies to the 2017 Fortune 500, there are only 59 companies that appear in both lists (see companies in the graphic above). In other words, fewer than 12% of the Fortune 500 companies included in 1955 were still on the list 62 years later in 2017, and more than 88% of the companies from 1955 have either gone bankrupt, merged with (or were acquired by) another firm, or they still exist but have fallen from the top Fortune 500 companies (ranked by total revenues).

It’s not just the Fortune 500.

…corporations in the S&P 500 Index in 1965 stayed in the index for an average of 33 years. By 1990, average tenure in the S&P 500 had narrowed to 20 years and is now forecast to shrink to 14 years by 2026. At the current churn rate, about half of today’s S&P 500 firms will be replaced over the next 10 years.

Here’s Mark’s list of companies that have stayed at the top of the Fortune 500 over the past 62 years.

Mark then offers an economic lesson from this data.

The fact that nearly 9 of every 10 Fortune 500 companies in 1955 are gone, merged, or contracted demonstrates that there’s been a lot of market disruption, churning, and Schumpeterian creative destruction over the last six decades. It’s reasonable to assume that when the Fortune 500 list is released 60 years from now in 2077, almost all of today’s Fortune 500 companies will no longer exist as currently configured, having been replaced by new companies in new, emerging industries, and for that we should be extremely thankful. The constant turnover in the Fortune 500 is a positive sign of the dynamism and innovation that characterizes a vibrant consumer-oriented market economy.

He also emphasizes that consumers are the real beneficiaries of this competitive process.

…the creative destruction that results in the constant churning of Fortune 500 (and S&P 500) companies over time is that the process of market disruption is being driven by the endless pursuit of sales and profits that can only come from serving customers with low prices, high-quality products and services, and great customer service. If we think of a company’s annual sales revenues as the number of “dollar votes” it gets every year from providing goods and services to consumers… As consumers, we should appreciate the fact that we are the ultimate beneficiaries of the Schumpeterian creative destruction that drives the dynamism of the market economy and results in a constant churning of the firms who are ultimately fighting to attract as many of our dollar votes as possible.

Incidentally, Mark did this same exercise in 2014 and 2015 and ascertained that there were 61 companies still remaining on the list.

So creative destruction apparently has claimed two more victims.

Or, to be more accurate, the needs and desires of consumers have produced more churning, leading to greater material abundance for America.

I’ll close with two points.

All of which explains why I want separation of business and state.

The bottom line is that an unfettered market produces the best results for the vast majority of people. Yes, people are greedy, but that leads to good outcomes in a capitalist environment.

But we get awful results if cronyism is the dominant system, and that seems to be the direction we’re heading in America.

P.S. Even when corporations try to exploit people in the third world, the pursuit of profits actually results in better lives for the less fortunate.

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Most politicians are feckless creatures driven by their insecurities to say anything and everything in hopes of getting elected. And, once in power, they will do or say anything and everything in hopes of getting reelected. Public choice” theory explains how these conventional politicians behave.

But not all politicians fit in that box. There are also evil politicians in the world. Maduro in Venezuela would be a prime example, and you can add the dictators of North Korea, Cuba, and other hellholes to that list.

There are even a few admirable politicians, though that’s a very limited list.

But there’s also another category, at least in my mind. These are the ones who behave conventionally but say things that are really blur the line between foolish and despicable. For lack of a better phrase, these are the morally blind officials.

The politicians who eulogized Cuban dictator Fidel Castro belong in this group.

Another example would be Michael Higgins, the President of Ireland, who urged a return to “collective values” and condemned the “Celtic Tiger” era for being too individualistic and selfish – even though that was the period when the people of Ireland enjoyed both rapid income growth and huge improvement in quality-of-life measures ranging from central heating to infant mortality.

Now I have another politician who belongs in this special category.

The new Prime Minster of New Zealand just demonstrated her profound ignorance of world history and New Zealand history by declaring that capitalism is “a blatant failure.”

New Zealand’s new prime minister called capitalism a “blatant failure”, before citing levels of homelessness and low wages as evidence that “the market has failed” her country’s poor. Jacinda Ardern, who is to become the nation’s youngest leader since 1856, said measures used to gauge economic success “have to change” to take into account “people’s ability to actually have a meaningful life”. …Ms Ardern has pledged her government will increase the minimum wage, write child poverty reduction targets into law, and build thousands of affordable homes. …The Labour leader said her government would judge economic success on more than measures such as GDP.

She sounds like a clueless college student, regurgitating some nonsense she heard in a sociology class. Is she not aware that capitalism is the only successful strategy for reducing poverty? Does she not understand that the entire world was mired in poverty before free markets took hold?

Is she unaware that horrible material deprivation in countries such as China and India only fell after those nations opened themselves to some economic liberalization?

I wish some journalist would ask her a version of my two-question challenge. Or, better yet, have Bono talk with her about how to genuinely help poor people. Heck, let’s sign her up for an economic history class with Deirdre McCloskey.

She reminds me of Pope Francis, who has a knee-jerk view that capitalism is bad. I’ve explained why those views are wrong, though I’d first recommend reading what Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell wrote on the matter.

By the way, I don’t know enough to comment on homelessness and child poverty in New Zealand, but if their welfare state is anything like the mess in the United States, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the government is actually subsidizing destitution and dependency.

But even if that’s not the case, Ms. Ardern is condemning capitalism because it doesn’t solve every problem in society. That might be a fair assertion, except the alternatives to capitalism have never solved any problem. Indeed, the various forms of statism are the cause of much misery around the world.

For what it’s worth, I would not be agitated if she simply had made a conventional left-of-center argument about being willing to accept less growth to get additional redistribution because the benefits of capitalism aren’t “equally shared,” or something like that. That’s the standard equity-vs-efficiency debate. But she apparently doesn’t have the depth or knowledge for that discussion.

The bottom line is that New Zealand is now governed by a politician who doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. That doesn’t mean she’ll be any worse than the standard elected official, but I’m not overflowing with optimism that New Zealand will continue to be ranked near the top by Economic Freedom of the World.

By the way, I appeared on New Zealand TV earlier this month while in the country for a speech. But we talked about America’s top politician (and his worrisome protectionist mindset) rather than what’s happening in Kiwi-land.

Though I did mention that New Zealand made great progress because of sweeping economic reforms in the 1980s and 1990s. Hopefully Ms Ardern won’t have much success in moving her country back in the wrong direction.

P.S. Obama came close to joining the morally blind club when he suggested we could learn from communism. And Bernie Sanders deserves to be in that club, but may belong in an even worse category.

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I’ve made very serious (and hopefully substantive) arguments about why small government and free markets are the recipe for prosperity.

Simply stated, profit and loss is a powerful feedback mechanism, and entrepreneurs and business owners who want to make money face constant pressure to attract consumers by offering better products at affordable prices.

These forces are so powerful that the private sector even does a good job in some areas that most people assume are reserved for government, such as criminal justice, roads, and airport security.

But let’s examine this issue today from a whimsical perspective. I found a couple of clever images on Reddit‘s libertarian page.

Here’s the first example, which will make instantaneous sense for anyone who’s ever walked into a McDonald’s and a DMV on the same day.

The second example is more elaborate, but makes a similar point. Those of us with gray hair have seen the amazing developments produced by the private sector in this collage.

But can anyone think of something that has improved in the public sector?

For what it’s worth, the two cars in the column for the private sector don’t look that different. But, once again, those with gray hair will probably remember how often they used to break down in the past. The computerized engines have greatly improved operations and maintenance. Not to mention map programs, built-in TVs for the kids in the back seat, and other positive changes.

Let’s close with a serious point. Yes, business owners are greedy. They’re looking out for their own self interest. They would love to charge us high prices.

But a system of free enterprise means that they can only earn money if they cater to our needs and wants. And so long as politicians aren’t showering them with bailouts, subsidies, protection, or handouts, that means they compete to provide us ever-better goods and services at ever-more-affordable prices.

In other words, Adam Smith was right.

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Right after Obamacare was enacted in 2010, I wrote a column suggesting four principles that should guide and motivate supporters of free markets and limited government.

As part of that article, I pointed out that Obamacare wasn’t a dramatic change. Instead, it was just another layer of government imposed on a health system that already was burdened by a huge amount of intervention.

The way to think of Obamacare is that we are shifting from a healthcare system 68 percent controlled/directed by government to one that…is 79 percent controlled/directed by government. Those numbers are just vague estimates, to be sure, but they underscore why Obamacare is just a continuation of a terrible trend, not a profound paradigm shift.

Later that year, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity released a video that elaborated, pointing out that Obamacare simply made a system dominated by government into a system even more controlled by government.

With predictable bad results.

That video included two charts based on my back-of-the envelope calculation, and I shared them in a 2013 column that further discussed the incremental damage of Obamacare.

Our healthcare system as a mess before Obamacare. Normal market forces were crippled by government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid and also undermined by government intervention in the tax code that resulted in pervasive over-insurance that exacerbated the third-party payer problem. These various forms of intervention led to all sorts of problems, such as rising prices and indecipherable complexity…Obamacare was enacted in 2010, and it was perceived to be a paradigm-shifting change in the healthcare system, even though it was just another layer of bad policy on top of lots of other bad policy. …Not surprisingly, all of the same problems still exist, but now they’re exacerbated by the mistakes in Obamacare.

In other words, we’re not going to fix the healthcare system by merely repealing Obamacare.

Yes, that’s a necessary step, but much more needs to happen.

Which is why I’m very happy that Prager University has a new video pointing out that health insurance doesn’t work nearly as well as car insurance and homeowners insurance. Why? Because it’s become an inefficient form of pre-paid health care rather than protection against large and unexpected expenses.

Amen. I’ve made a similar case on several occasions.

Though I wish the video went even further by explaining how the healthcare exclusion in the tax code encourages over-insurance.

And here’s a video from the Foundation for Economic Education that also explains how government intervention is distorting the health market.

Here’s the most important factoid from the video, which comes from the accompanying FEE article.

According to the Consumer Price Index and Medical-care price index from 1935 to 2009, the health care spending crisis didn’t start until the mid 1960s, around the same time when Medicare and Medicaid were signed into law, and at the same time that we began requiring doctors to go through all sorts of expensive licensing procedures beyond medical school. Since then, health care spending has doubled, even adjusted for inflation.

But let’s keep everything in perspective. Our system is needlessly expensive and inefficient because of government, but it still manages to deliver some decent outcomes.

Here is some very interesting analysis from the Adam Smith Institute in London.

US healthcare is famous for…poor outcomes. …their overall outcome on the most important variable—overall life expectancy—is fairly poor.

I get this factoid thrown in my face repeatedly when speaking overseas, so I was delighted to find out that it has nothing to do with the quality of our healthcare.

…consider the main two ingredients that go into health outcomes. One is health, and the other is treatment. If latent health is the same across the Western world, we can presume that any differences come from differences in treatment. But this is simply not the case. Obesity is far higher in the USA than in any other major developed country. Obviously it is a public health problem, but it’s unrealistic to blame it on the US system of paying for doctors, administrators, hospitals, equipment and drugs. In fact in the US case it’s not even obesity, or indeed their greater pre-existing disease burden, that is doing most of the work in dragging their life expectancy down; it’s accidental and violent deaths. It is tragic that the US is so dangerous, but it’s not the fault of the healthcare system; indeed, it’s an extra burden that US healthcare spending must bear.

Indeed, it turns out that the American system produces very good results on life expectancy once you adjust for these behavioral factors.

…simply normalising for violent and accidental death puts the USA right to the top of the life expectancy rankings.

And here’s the relevant chart from the article.

By the way, health spending in the United States would probably be high compared to other nations even if we removed all government intervention and changed our risky behaviors.

But only because richer nations can afford – even demand – new technology, cutting-edge research, and new treatments. In his Bloomberg column, Professor Tyler Cowen discusses some of these factors

…viewed through the lens of consumption behavior, American health-care spending is typical of this nation’s habits and mores. Relative to GDP, Americans consume a lot more than Europeans, and our health-care spending is another example of that tendency. …Consumption in the U.S., per capita, measures about 50 percent higher than in the European Union. American individuals command more resources than people in countries such as Norway or Luxembourg, which have higher per capita GDP. The same American consumption advantage is evident if you look at dwelling space per person or the number of appliances in a typical home. …To put it most simply, we Americans spend a lot on health care because we spend a lot period.

Tyler includes a graph mapping healthcare expenditures with overall consumption. The basic takeaway is that what makes America an outlier is our ability to consume, with healthcare being an example.

So what’s all this mean for policy?

Peter Suderman offers some very sage advice in a column for the New York Times.

…when it comes to health care, Republicans don’t know what they want, much less how to get it. …Democrats, on the other hand, share a distinct vision of robust universal coverage guaranteed by the government and paid for by a combination of delivery-system efficiencies and higher taxes. What Republicans need, then, is a set of guiding principles — a health care vision that should work from the ground up, that imagines a more affordable and more effective system.

Peter then suggests some principles.

…it would mean giving up on comprehensive universal coverage. Otherwise, Republicans will just end up bargaining on the terms set by Democrats, as they are now. …a second principle: unification, not fragmentation. …employer-provided coverage…is subsidized implicitly through the tax code, which does not tax health benefits provided by employers as income. This tax break is the original sin of the United States health care system. Worth more than $250 billion annually, it has enormously distorted the market, creating an incentive for employers to provide ever-more-generous insurance while insulating individuals from the true cost of care. …the third principle comes in: Health coverage is not the same as health care. Instead, it is a financial product, a backstop against financial ruin. Health care policy should treat it as one. …For noncatastrophic, nonemergency medical expenses, Republicans ought to promote affordability rather than subsidies. …encourage supply-side innovations in addition to demand-side reforms. The tangle of regulations governing health care can make it difficult for providers to respond to market signals and innovate. Doctor-owned hospitals are restricted by law, for example, and certificate-of-need requirements force medical providers to obtain licenses in a process that effectively requires them to ask permission from competitors to expand.

In other words, we wind up this column where we started.

Americans get good health care, but it’s needlessly expensive and inefficient as I explained in Part I and Part II of a recent series. If we can somehow unravel, or even bypass, all the bad government policy that currently exists, we could have a much better system.

How much better? Well, check out this Reason video on a free-market health center in Oklahoma, which recently was featured in a story in Time. Based on my personal experiences, that’s a big step in the right direction.

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In prior years, I’ve shared some videos with powerful messages with a common message. Grinding poverty used to be the normal human condition, but then rule of law and limited government enabled a dramatic increase in prosperity.

All these videos are worth watching. They show that misery used to be pervasive but then we became rich starting a couple of hundred years ago.

But there’s one shortcoming in these videos. They basically tell a story of how the western world became rich. In other words, they describe how North American and Western Europe went from agricultural poverty to middle class prosperity.

What about the rest of the world?

Well, there’s a good story to tell there as well, albeit it’s happened more recently. Back in 2014, I shared some data from Economic Freedom of the world showing how there was a substantial increase in global economic liberty starting about 1980.

Yes, there were improvements in western nations during that period (thanks to Reagan, Thatcher, etc), but there were also improvements in economic freedom elsewhere (collapse of the Soviet Empire, reforms in what used to be known as the Third World, etc).

In this video from Prager University, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute explains that this shift to free enterprise is what produced greater prosperity all across the world.

By the way, folks on the left (see this Salon article) don’t like the fact that the world shifted in the direction of economic liberty.

They grouse that the developing world was subjected to a “Washington consensus” that imposed a “neoliberal” agenda (with neoliberal meaning “classical liberal“).

But here’s a visual showing how a shift to capitalism was great news for the less fortunate. The number of people in extreme poverty has dropped dramatically since the early 1990s.

I wish the data went back to 1980, but even these partial numbers are a tremendous confirmation of the hypothesis that free markets are the best way of helping the poor.

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Since my job is to proselytize on behalf of economic liberty, I’m always trying to figure out what motivates people. To be blunt, I’ll hopefully be more effective if I understand how they decide what policies to support. That’s a challenge when dealing with my friends on the left since some of them seem to be motivated by envy.

Unsurprisingly, there are people on the other side who also contemplate how to convert their opponents.

Harvard Professor Maximilian Kasy wrote a column for the Washington Post that advises folks on the left how they can be more effective when arguing with folks on the right. He starts with an assertion that conservatives are basically impervious to facts.

Worries about…our “post-factual era” impeding political debate in our society have become commonplace. Liberals…are often astonished at the seeming indifference of their opponents toward facts and toward the likely consequences of political decisions. …A common, though apparently ineffective, response to this frustration is to double down by discussing more facts.

This is a remarkable assertion. I’m a libertarian rather than a conservative, so I don’t feel personally insulted. That being said, conservatives generally are my allies on economic issues and I’ve never found them to be oblivious or indifferent to facts (I’m speaking about policy wonks, not politicians, who often are untethered from reality regardless of their ideology).

So let’s see how Mr. Kasy justifies his claim about conservatives. Here’s more of what he wrote.

…maybe the issue is not conservatives’ ignorance of facts, but rather a fundamental difference of values. Taking this point of view seems essential for effective communication across the political divide.

I basically agree that differences in values play a big role, so I’m sort of okay with that part of his analysis (I’ll return to this issue in the conclusion).

But my alarm bells started ringing at this next passage.

Much normative (or value-based) reasoning by liberals (and mainstream economists) is about the consequences of political actions for the welfare of individuals. Statements about the desirability of policies are based on trading off the consequences for different individuals. If good outcomes result from a policy without many negative consequences, then the policy is a good one.

Huh? Since when are liberals (and he’s talking about today’s statists, not the classical liberals of yesteryear) and mainstream economists on the same side?

Though I admit it’s hard to argue about the rule he proposes for policy. He’s basically saying that a change is desirable if “good outcomes” are more prevalent than “negative consequences.”

That’s probably too utilitarian for me, but I suspect most people might agree with that approach.

But he makes a giant and unsubstantiated leap by then claiming it would be wrong to repeal a supposedly good policy like Obamacare.

When Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) remarked on the Affordable Care Act this spring, for example, she said, “…we’re talking about something that would deny those in need with the relief and the help that they need, that they want and deserve…” In other words, if a policy will harm the welfare of individuals in need, it’s a bad policy.

Huh? What happened to his utilitarian formula about “good outcomes” vs “negative consequences”? Sure, some additional people have health insurance coverage, but is he blind to rising premiums, job losses, higher taxes, loss of plans and loss of doctors, dumping people into Medicaid, and other downsides of Obamacare?

If facts are important, shouldn’t he be weighing the costs and benefits?

In other words, Kasy must be in some sort of cocoon if he thinks the Obamacare fight is between Republicans motivated only by values and Democrats motivated by helping individuals.

His analysis of the death tax is similarly off base.

…consider the example of bequest taxes, labeled “estate taxes” by liberals and “death taxes” by conservatives. A liberal might invoke various empirical facts…our empiricist liberal might conclude that bequest taxes are an effective policy instrument, providing public revenue and promoting equality of opportunity. The conservative addressee of these facts might now just shrug her shoulders and say “no thanks.” Our conservative likely believes that everyone has the right to keep the fruits of her labor, and free contracts of exchange between any two parties are nobody else’s business. …Taxing bequests thus means punishing moral behavior, the exact opposite of what the government should do.

Once again, Kasy is deluding himself. Conservatives do think the death tax is morally wrong, so he’s right about that, but they also have very compelling arguments about the levy’s negative economic impact. Simply stated, the death tax exacerbates the tax code’s bias against capital formation and results in all sorts of economically inefficient tax avoidance behavior (with Bill and Hillary Clinton being classic examples).

His column concludes with some suggestions of how folks on the left can be more persuasive. He basically says they should appeal to conservatives with values-based arguments such as these.

We should evaluate the policy based on its effect on individuals, and assign a higher weight to the majority of less wealthy people. …nobody can be said to consume only the products of their own labor. We rely on social institutions including markets and governments to provide us with all the goods we consume, and absent a theory of just prices (which present day conservatives don’t have) there is no sense in which we are entitled to specific terms of exchange.

I’m not the ideal person to speak for conservatives, but I don’t think those arguments will win many converts.

Regarding his first suggestion, Kasy’s problem is that he apparently assumes that people on the right don’t care about the poor. Maybe I’m reading between the lines, but he seems to  think conservatives will automatically favor lots of redistribution if he can convince that it’s good to help the poor.

I think it’s much more accurate to assume that plenty of conservatives have thought about how to help the poor, but they’ve concluded that the welfare state is injurious and that it is more effective to focus on policies such as school choice, economic growth, and occupational licensing.

Indeed, I hope most conservatives would agree with my Bleeding Heart Rule.

And his second idea is even stranger because economic conservatives have a theory of just prices. It’s whatever emerges from competitive markets.

Let’s close with a column by Alberto Mingardi of the Bruno Leoni Institute in Italy. Published by the Foundation for Economic Education, the piece is relevant to today’s topic since it looks at why an unfortunate number of intellectuals are opposed to economic liberty.

…some have replied that the main reason is resentment (intellectuals expect more recognition from the market society than they actually get); some have pointed out that self-interest drives the phenomenon (intellectuals preach government controls and regulation because they’ll be the controllers and regulators); some have taken the charitable view that intellectuals do not understand what the market really is about (as they cherish “projects” and the market is instead an unplanned order).

Alberto then shares Milton Friedman’s answer.

I think a major reason why intellectuals tend to move towards collectivism is that the collectivist answer is a simple one. If there’s something wrong pass a law and do something about it. If there’s something wrong it’s because of some no-good bum, some devil, evil and wicked – that’s a very simple story to tell. You don’t have to be very smart to write it and you don’t have to be very smart to accept it.

My two cents, based on plenty of conversations with well-meaning folks on the left, is that there’s actually a lot of agreement of some big-picture values. We all want less poverty and more prosperity. In other words, I think most people have similar good intentions (I’m obviously excluding communists, Nazis, and others who believe in totalitarianism).

But similar good intentions doesn’t translate into agreement on policy because of secondary values. Especially differences in whether we view “equality of outcomes” as an appropriate goal for government. Some on the left openly are willing to sacrifice growth to achieve more equality (Margaret Thatcher even claimed that they would be willing to hurt the poor if the rich suffered even more). Folks on the right, by contrast, are much more focused on helping the poor with growth rather than redistribution.

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