“Public Choice” -Liberty Vocabulary

 

If you listen to political or economic podcasts, read blogs and journals, or go to lectures, the phrased “public choice” will be bandied about.

Once we get a working knowledge of any topic (say….econ or politics) we often stop learning terminology, because we can gather the gist of what is being said by the context.

Pubic Choice is a microeconomic tool used to critique political structures, especially constitutions and the like.

It is a peer-reviewed science, and tries to understand, in economic terms, why people do what they do and vote the way they do.

How does consensus work? And how much unanimity do you need? Does the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) affect group decisions, and if so, how? Is utility for the majority, or a sense of justice which drives most people in public decision-making?

One of the problems with “majority rules” voting is that, scientifically speaking, decisions are more often than not favored which are less beneficial and cost more, rather than the other way around. Hello, $20 trillion deficit. 

Public Choice thought has exposed the idea of rent seeking (which I will explore soon in Life & Liberty). Rent seeking happens when incentives get mixed up when the government can offer certain advantages to certain individuals or groups. These protected entities tend to become monopolies. Thus the government, rather than protecting us from monopolies, is often tempted (by self interest) to go on multiplying and creating them, knowing that people would rather earn rent (cash flow from a stake in something) than work for money.

Public Choice thought tends to have an anti-statist bent, mostly because of its ongoing critique of the misplaced incentives in public bureaucracies as opposed to those in private corporations. Bureaucrats owe their allegiance to those above them who appoint them, and they lead a large, protected class of civil servants below them. Their tendency (behaviorally) is to please their appointers rather than the public which they “swear” to serve. Whereas no one on the private sector food chain, from CEO to laborer, can afford to take her/his eyes off of the well-being of the customer for very long.

It is especially controversial right now, because of Nancy McLean’s jeremiad against libertarianism, Democracy in Chains.

MacLean focuses on James Buchanan, her “bete noir,” who was prominent proponent of Public Choice thought. Buchanan and four other Public Choice scholars have won Nobel Prizes in Economics, including Vernon Smith whom I was privileged to meet in 2016 at Acton University.

MacLean sees a vast right-wing conspiracy, masquerading as science, which uses Public Choice data as a way to keep African Americans from voting. She presents no evidence for this; in fact, many Public Choice scholars were strident activists against Apartheid in South Africa.

This should be enough to get you started. But certainly not enough to explain it. Have a look around and let me know what you find.

For a great, simple slide show on Public Choice, click HERE.

For more info, check out the Wikipedia entry on Public Choice.

There is a Journal called Public Choice.

TrumpCare? ObamaCare? No thank you…

 

Both TrumpCare and ObamaCare are disasters.

Put together by politicians who have Cadillac health care plans and zero professional experience in medicine or insurance (with tiny exceptions like Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist). It’s ironic that John McCain could not make it to the vote because he was enjoying co-pay-free surgery at the time.

And what does Trump know about these things? He doesn’t even HAVE insurance because billionaires are simply self-insured by their net worth.

TrumpCare and ObamaCare are horrifically bad compromises between government control and free enterprise, somehow managing to avoid the benefits of either school of thought!

The benefits of socialized medicine:
  • It’s universal. Everyone has it and no one is left out. ObamaCare fails here, and TrumpCare leaves an even bigger “coverage gap.”
  • It’s streamlined. No layering of private/public bureaucracies which just over-feed each other and drive down efficiency and transparency, and drive up costs.
The benefits of a free enterprise health care system:
  • Competition. Which creates innovation and improvements. Look at the explosion of cell phone technology once government got out of the phone business.
  • Cost. What are the two fastest-improving segments of health care with dramatically falling prices? Lasik eye surgery and cosmetic surgery. Why? Because they aren’t under the control of government/insurance juntas.
  • The free market makes a huge effort to serve everyone (notice the dollar menu at the drive thru), and it is not incompatible with a basic social safety net for the poorest of the poor.
We end up with the worst of both systems with ObamaCare AND TrumpCare:
  • We have capitalism without competition (because of government control) which leads to price gouging and a total lack of pricing transparency. Heavy regulation favors the big boys of insurance and health care chains, because no startups can afford regulatory compliance. This is known as “regulatory capture” and monopolization.
  • We have “socialized” medicine without total coverage of the population; and so many layers of administration that the average person has no clue how to navigate the system.
  • The “Affordable Care Act (ACA)” has universally and dramatically driven up prices for both health care and insurance. It has been the polar opposite of “affordable.”
  • The truth is, it may not be feasible to administer any total-care system in a vast, continental empire of 335 million people. The necessary hierarchical layers would choke the whole thing. Poster-child examples tend to be little nations in Europe with the population of Orange County.
We have three options outside of the hideously dysfunctional non-option of ObamaCare or TrumpCare.
  1. Single-payer government health care. Even those who hate socialism can grant that it would be better than what we have now.
  2. A total free market. Don’t underestimate the power of the market to try to serve everyone, and to do it in better and better ways. The incentives are in the right place.
  3. Something way more creative which preserves competition and total coverage in a creative blend. That’s above my pay grade and certainly above the pay grade of your average senator.

Judaism and Natural Law (Daniel Mark, Villanova U)

 

What follows are my notes (with some editorializing on my part) of Daniel Mark’s lecture at the Acton University in 2017. Mark, who is Jewish, is professor of political science at Villanova University.

Why do Jews so seldom talk about natural law?

Let’s go back to Genesis. For one thing, Jews don’t extrapolate (as many Reformed and Roman Catholic theologians do) original sin out of the Adam and Eve story.

But natural law is “built in.” Adam was obligated to obey the command of God.

For instance, consider the many questions raised in the Jewish tradition about the justice of what happens in the Bible:

  • The binding of Isaac and the command to kill him
  • The conquest of Canaan
  • God harding the hearts of people so they don’t understand/hear.
  • The wiping out of the Amalekites.
  • And many more…

Where are these questions coming from? Not from revealed law, but from NATURAL LAW.

Leviticus 18:4–“Do my judgments and keep my statutes.”

Do my Judgments:  אֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַי תַּעֲשׂוּ  Mishphatim (pl). Having more to do with natural, rational, reasonable thought. What a judge does when she/he has to decide/discern. “Common law.”

And keep my Statutes:  וְאֶת־חֻקֹּתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ Khuqim (pl). Written statues, clearly defined. Not from human reason. Often used for revealed law as opposed to natural law. “Statutory law.”

Was natural law assumed and never made explicit? Is it true because it’s in the Bible, or in the Bible because it’s true (natural)? The Jewish tradition, unlike the Greco-Roman Catholic tradition, never wrote out extended proofs.

Judaism is less consistent with natural law than Roman Catholicism. RC thinking has “exceptionless norms.” There is daylight between Jewish ethics and natural law.

Whether or not the Torah is fully rational, the goal of Judaism is to spread ethical monotheism, not to make everyone Jewish. Truth cannot contradict truth.

Many fundamentalisms (of all kinds) teach some kind of anthropological ‘total depravity’ which robs us of our ability to reason. Human rationality is judged guilty and not redeemable.

++++++++

My comments: the entire oral Torah tradition (the original “Wikipedia” spanning centuries) is a skyscraper of natural reason interacting with the rugged fabric of the biblical narrative. As the Jewish tradition paralleled the Greek tradition, rather than flowing out of it, as the Roman Catholic tradition was birthed, it uses different vocabulary not dependent on Greco-Roman philosophical grammars.

Reading contemporary-friendly “plunges” into the oral Torah (see, for instance the work of Avivah Zornberg) is one of the most intellectually refreshing journeys one can make, and a feast of reason meeting narrative.

Daryl Charles: Natural Law in our Post-Consensus World?

 

What do you get when you listen to a spry little guy with a Duck Dynasty beard (who was a street mime) whose topic is Natural Law?

J. Daryl Charles PhD, of the John Jay Institute, may just be one of the most gifted lecturers on the Acton University circuit.

What follows are my notes on his presentation with some of my own thoughts thrown in…

Today’s prevailing thought patterns:
  1. Metaphysical Naturalism. A rigorous denial of the transcendent, placing the burden of proof on everyone else.
  2. Fixation with rights divorced from duties or common good.
  3. Denial of morally fixed reference points. (However, these same people complain that things are not “fair” or “just.” Where did they get such “absolute” ideas?)
How should we respond to these trends?
  1. Resign to the impossibility of countering this thinking. Why polish the deck on the Titanic. Enter permanent “grievance mentality.”
  2. Isolation. The “Benedict Option.” Amish. Monastic thinking. Circle the wagons.
  3. Get absorbed into the culture. If you can’t beat them, join them.
  4. Being committed to the task of engaged citizenship. Be stewards of this cultural moment. To whom much is given….
Of course, Charles is advocating for door #4….

We must cultivate the art of translating our moral convictions in the public square. This is hard work and will require almost infinite creativity. We can call this BRIDGE BUILDING.

What are our resources?
  1. Abraham Kuyper (see my previous post on him) was ambidextrous. He articulated and affirmed general revelation and common grace which are available to all people, regardless of worldview. He could operate deftly in the public arena, cooperating with all as needed, but not forgetting who he was and why he thought differently that the “world.”
  2. The IMAGO DEI. We are all (believers, ‘other’ believers, and non-believers) created equally in the image of God, according to the way we see the universe.
  3. Commonly held beliefs on human nature and “self-evident truths.”
  4. The acknowledgment that all thought systems, sacred and secular, have quite a few unprovable postulates/axioms (see Euclid) at their foundation. At least 5 and more like 20 even in the leanest of epistemological skyscrapers.
Why is general revelation so important?
  1. There is reasonable evidence to see order and beauty in the creation, a sense of solidarity with all people, and at least some moral common ground.
  2. Universal possession of minimal moral knowledge.
  3. General revelation gives knowledge of creation, the self, and moral truth
The challenges before us
  1. We are not the first to face this. Every generation must polish up Natural Law, and re-present it to the human race.
  2. We must keep an eye on the progress of religious freedom (un-coerced conscience and corresponding action upon it) throughout the world. The first freedom without which the others are meaningless.
  3. Resist the temptation to “opt out” of the current political climate. There is a growing tendency to become disenchanted with the tone out there. Netflix and chill becomes more and more tempting as escapism.
  4. Content of our social ethic is important. It must contain charity, in the broadest sense of the word. People (left and right) often use “justice” as an excuse to be an a**hole.
  5. Manner of persuading (tone) is important. Religious faith is no guarantee of good manners. Let the message, not the method, offend. Then we will be focusing on real issues.
  6. C.S. Lewis was a master at moral persuasion. Adapting to the host culture. Learning the lingo. Read his works The Abolition of Man and Mere Christianity (chapter 1) to see this kind of persuasion at its finest. Lewis: Why do we ALL (without exception) react when we are slighted by others? Because there is a natural moral law….
  7. Ask others: On what basis can you argue for justice? We may draw the line in different places, but we all draw the line. A law has to be the same for both you and me for it to be just.
  8. Abortion issue. At conception, the DNA of a human is set. All other “lines” that are drawn are arbitrary and thereby plagued by inaccuracy.
  9. Sexuality. A good question: On what basis is your homosexuality natural? Is human nature based on design or passion? If our sexuality is based on biological design, then what constitutes disordered sexuality? Can rejection of created order ever be normative?
  10. Thoroughgoing pacifism. Does extreme pacifism make the world unsafe for all? Is force not proportional and relative? Can pacifism lead to the innocent being punished?
  11. Euthanasia. Is life extrinsically (value to others) or intrinsically (“an sich”) valuable?
  12. John Paul II: Only with some fixed norms is freedom and justice possible. Jefferson also: “These truths we hold to be self-evident….”
You can catch Daryl Charles surfing on the East Coast if you want to discuss this with him…

 

 

Why hate the Koch brothers?

The Koch brothers are the devil incarnate to many progressives.

But do you actually know their positions on immigration, prison reform, drug legalization, police violence, war in the Mideast, and urban education?

These two podcasts are from the Freakonomics Radio Show. Live interviews with Charles Koch.

I guarantee they will surprise you….

The Most Influential Man About Whom You Have Never Heard. #AbrahamKuyper

The Social Vision of Abraham Kuyper

Insights from a lecture given by Vincent Bacote of Wheaton College at Acton University 2017.

Abraham Kuyper (b. 1837 in Holland) is one of the most influential practical theologians of all time.

A parish pastor who ran for congress (Tweede Kamer), transformed Dutch society, and ended up prime minister, Kuyper (pronounced, BTW, COW-puhr, not KY-phur) enlisted almost superhuman dynamic energy to create space for Christians and others to thrive alongside one another.

He’s really only well-known in the Netherlands and in circles worldwide made up of enthusiastic Reformed/Gereformeerde/Hervormde theologians.

He was a progressive, “modern” theologian and pastor as a young man, who underwent twin conversions:

  1. Ethical. Became more humble and teachable.
  2. Confessional. Kuyper started attending prayer meetings of church members who were staying away from his “revisionist” sermons and discovered something of true substance there. He ended up aligning himself with the “kleine luyden” (the marginalized, less-socially-important people, many of whom could not vote). He ended up seeing himself as their leader and champion.

He eventually stepped away from vocational church life to run for congress, finding himself in the “Anti-revolutionary Party.” They were fighting against the secularist/laicist aftermath of the French Revolution (100 years prior).

You might say: “Why fight against something that happened 100 years ago?” Well, a Chinese historian was asked recently what he thought of the French Revolution. His answer (in 2015): It’s too early to tell (!).

Kuyper landed a seat in the Tweede Kamer (lower house), and began re-making the country. His writing output was beyond prodigious. He wrote daily and weekly columns for De Standaard and De Heraut. Much like Martin Luther, he used waterfalls of the printed word to bathe his nation in new ways of thinking. It led to several nervous breakdowns.

A parishioner, early on in his career, asked Kuyper: “Why can’t I send my child to a school with the bible?” This “School met de Bijbel” idea never left him; subconsciously, he turned it into brick and mortar, opening the Free University of Amsterdam (Conservative Christian) in 1880, and fighting for radical school choice for all (not just the rich) throughout his life, culminating in the 1917 educational pluralism law in the Netherlands, which has produced thriving primary schools of all ideologies to this day, all on an equal playing field, and at a cost of about half per student of what American taxpayers pay.

SPHERE SOVEREIGNTY

This will be the topic of another post, but AK developed sophisticated thinking around what he called sphere sovereignty. At the risk of over-simplifying, family, government, and church should stay out of each other’s business. The rules vary from sphere to sphere and one sphere doesn’t tell the other sphere what to do–thus it is fundamentally anti-totalitarian. Kuyper’s concepts around this idea had a huge effect on the large “Christian Democrat” political parties in Europe, and in a way, led to the welfare state which developed after WW2.

There are two kinds of Kuyper fans, in the 21st Century, and yes, they sometimes wear Kuyper T-shirts:

  1. Common Grace fans.
  2. Antithesis fans.
COMMON GRACE

A major theme in AK’s thinking, common grace is available to everyone. Dutch: gratie (rhymes with “Yahtzee”). Because God rules over all creation and all humankind, he gives them grace to live in his world and carry out their calling. God shows all men favor by holding their sin in check so that they are able to live together in society and so that His church can live and grow in the world (a quote from Charles Terpstra).

AK had practical reasons for creating the common grace canvas on which to paint his public engagement in politics. It gave him backing for working with all kinds of groups, Christian and secular, since everyone has access to gratie. He needed allies in order to form a coalition government and get some of his ideas passed into law.

Kuyper’s famous quote, “There is not one square centimeter of creation where God does not say: That’s mine!” reflects his understanding of common grace.

ANTITHESIS

Regenerated Christians, on the other hand, are recipients of special saving grace. Kuyper: genade. This sets them apart from all the rest of the human race. All facts can only be seen from two perspectives: regenerated and secular. This antithesis means, that although we share common grace, the regenerated Christian acts differently in the world than a secular person.

As Bacote summed it up: Go ahead and get out in the world, but remember who you are (a child of God) when you get there. We Christians will come to different conclusions about everything.

CONCLUSION

Kuyper never wanted a theocracy, because regenerated Christians will always be in the minority. But we are not to separate out into monasteries. Like Jesus and Paul, we are to engage the culture.

Special grace (genade) creates regenerated Christians who engage the culture with a different worldview, and engage others with our common grace to move God’s will forward in the world.

Also, AK was down on slavery, pro-women, had a huge effect on Dutch education, and set Dutch verzuiling (sovereignty n one’s own circle) in motion. He said some very racist things, was a workaholic, never groomed a successor, and wasn’t fully aware of how overbearing he was.

But he also is among the most creative Christian leaders of all time in describing how best to be “in the world but not of the world,” and far from being an ivory tower theologian, he walked his talk and set out to transform his nation.

 

 

How Statism Keeps Poor Countries Poor

 

Acton University Talk by Stephen L.S. Smith of Hope College.

STATISM is an economic system (also called State Capitalism) which allows a private sector but in which many key industries are owned/controlled by the government.

It lies somewhere between communism and European-style social democracy on the economic spectrum.

Smith says we need a “field guide” since most statism is invisible to the casual observer.
So he took us to THAILAND via a slide show.
  • Banks: Easy to use, modern banking all over the place.
  • You need to buy a SIM card for your phone from “AIS.”
  • Transportation (air and rail) is top notch.
  • You have to leave Thailand (flying to the US) at 4am (because of the time change/dateline), and you stay in a Novotel by the airport for a few hours of sleep first.
But in fact….
  • The bank I used (TMB), upon some research is the Thai Military Bank. The army runs it. At a loss. The Siam Commercial bank is owned by the ministry of finance.
  • AIS (SIM card) is subcontracted from the Thai government to the Singapore (!) government, which sells the chip to you.
  • Both the state owned railways and airlines (each) lose over $1 million a day. Many new airliners are mothballed (over capacity). Unused capital (see the new ghost cities of China) is typical in a statist system.
  • The Novotel is owned by the government and just operated by Novotel.
So what?
  • Statism is the default system in the Global South. There are exceptions, but this seems to be the rule.
  • It is almost invisible at the street level, but has major consequences.
  • The government not only issues currency, but controls the flow of it–limiting investment which would compete with state businesses.
  • Very little revenue is left over (because government firms lose so much money) to lend to medium and small businesses. This leads to a growing black market with lots of informal street vendors. They don’t pay taxes which compounds the cycle; with a downward drag on the society.
  • Common in statist societies is weak rule of law and questionable property rights.
  • Insiders and elites benefit, which opens up patronage politics.
  • The highly educated urbanites benefit from statism because of the need for them running these bureaucratic businesses, which put a premium on education and connections.
  • Neglect of core state functions (governments are limited in capacity and spend their time running industries) such as rule of law, civil justice, non-corrupt police, property rights, basic education, and rural infrastructure.
  • State banking skews prices and and natural interest levels. Interest rates are set at a below-market level, discouraging saving. Most people want to save short term and pay off loans long term (People want fast access to their savings). Setting interest rates at an artificially low level creates tension in this natural supply/demand situation.
  • Lending is directed to favored insiders with big projects.
  • Capital is wasted (ghost cities of China where no one lives) because natural market forces are not the primary driving force of construction. State-owned firms serve political ends first.

  • Developing countries have more frequent bank failures, even with the “security” of state ownership.
  • Some countries have it way worse than Thailand. Pakistan and Egypt may be the worst. The Petrobas scandal in Brazil brought down the government.

 

Hamilton and Jefferson–Beyond the Musical

 

No one can get tickets to the Hamilton musical, but we can get the book and learn how their relationship affects us…

Each was a colossus whose footsteps color our daily lives…

Lecture by John Pinheiro from Aquinas College given at #Acton2017.

 

We can look at Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson through two lenses:
  • Lived Experience. How their lives and upbringing affected their philosophy.
  • Philosophy and Principle. Whom they were reading and by whom they were influenced.
LIVED EXPERIENCE

JEFFERSON: Born into a planter aristocracy. Mother’s family (the Randolphs) were stratospherically rich and remained his main patrons throughout his career. Father was an educated aristocrat.

Jefferson had a solid classical education and even spoke 8 or 9 Native American languages. In 1775 he was one of the wealthiest men in America and had 200 slaves.

HAMILTON: Very broken home in the Caribbean. Worked hard as a clerk and got a scholarship to King’s (Columbia) in NYC. John Adams called him the “bastard brat.” Saw the bad side of people and slavery. Felt that we needed order and control to curb this.

PHILOSOPHY and INFLUENCERS

JEFFERSON: The French Enlightenment. People naturally good unless corrupted by commerce. Yeoman farmers are the key to freedom because they don’t have employers. Thus, have a small and weak central government and an agrarian paradise. Disperse the population westward. Emmerich de Vattel’s The Law of Nations influenced Jefferson–how sovereign states can participate in a union. Jefferson always used plural verbs and pronouns with “United States.” The Physiocrats (France) also influenced Jefferson. They stressed agriculture and coined the term “laissez-faire.” Land is the source of all wealth.

HAMILTON: The Scots Enlightenment. Especially Adam Smith. Looked not to France, but rather the British Empire. Always accused of being a royalist. Capital and division of labor, not land, are the source of wealth. Bernard Mandeville wrote the Fable of the Bees, which influenced Hamilton. Where do you look for a financial model? London! Protective tariffs. Centralized bank. Financed national debt a good thing. Hard work and ambition, not inheritance, is the path to power and wealth.

Conclusion

Jefferson and Hamilton continue to be the twin pillars of American social, political and economic thought. Jefferson’s party won most of the elections for the next couple of generations. His expansionist/agrarian vision led to the purchase of Louisiana. Enhanced by Jackson and Polk who steamrolled the country to the Pacific with “Manifest Destiny.” Homesteading and the checker boarding the Midwest USA are monuments to this thinking.

Hamilton won the economic battle however, with New York being a second London in terms of global finance, and the industrial north beat the agrarian south in the Civil War. Lincoln was a Hamiltonian and used his principles to further unite and solidify central authority.

Both believed that a virtuous society is necessary to maintain a republic.

 

How Far Does Religious Freedom Go?

 

According to the First Amendment, do we Americans have the right to freedom of worship? Or something more: freedom of conscience and freedom to ACT upon that conscience…..

Sam Gregg, Director of Research at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, kicked off the 2017 Acton University with a plenary talk about religious freedom and truth.

Some of his main points:

  • The agenda of secularists is to soften freedom of religion into “freedom of worship.” In other words, you can praise God behind closed doors of the church, but don’t bring this into public life. Full freedom of religion is:
    • Liberty to search for and teach the full truth
    • Liberty to act according to this truth
  • “Power corrupts and power point corrupts absolutely.” Thus, no power point. But hey, he only had one day notice as the main speaker was not able to be here because of weather delays.
  • Religion/Truth/Freedom is being replaced with Caesar/Lies/Slavery
  • “Progressive theologians who read way too much Karl Rahner….”
  • In 2016, 96,000 Christians were killed (!) for their faith. One every six minutes. We must remind people of this persecution, which for whatever reason is not covered by the mainstream media.
  • Secularists are trying to marginalize and stigmatize our teaching.
  • Why should we accept that happiness = hedonism? Why should we accept a dictatorship of relativism?
  • Be careful when you take government funds. It comes with a leash. Tell Pharaoh to keep his money.
  • We must always remember that there is such a thing as truth and religious liberty without a search for truth is not helpful. Religious freedom means liberty to search for the truth free of coercion from the government in any direction.
  • Without freedom from government in searching for truth, we cannot have free assent. Without free assent we cannot have true faith.
  • Martyrdom (not always deadly–sometimes just social) must become a real option again.

My thoughts:

  • Gregg seems to be good at playing a “Home Game.” I would be interested in hearing his “Away Game” when he’s not among like-minded people.
  • “Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian.” I beg to differ. Jefferson was the biggest proponent of Natural Law on earth at the time, and a great admirer of Aquinas. Of course, he was not a conservative Evangelical. but he insisted on grounding our natural rights in the “Creator” as he penned the Declaration. If you aren’t conflicted about Jefferson, you aren’t paying attention. Was he a Christian? Yes and no.
  • “Muslims, Jews and Christians have a different concept of God.” Yes and no. Sure their view of God is different but there is only one God; only one God of Abraham, and many Christians waffle on this monotheism. Not sure if Gregg is waffling or not. There’s only one mailbox with “God” on it. One Creator, one creation. False gods? How does that square with one God? Do the false gods exist? Sure, our VIEW of God varies. But I don’t believe that God is all that impressed with our constructs, which theologians tend to glorify.