Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Prophet of Alaska

Garrett, the Sage of Fairbanks, has recently posed a few thought provoking questions about the role of government. Here and here. SoF's questions concern instances when one person's liberties infringe on another person's liberties. What should be the role of government in such situations? One example was a mother's freedom to choose to drink while pregnant which would harm the newborn. I already addressed this example in the comments of his first post so I won't go into it here. The gist was that laws against pregnant mothers drinking wouldn't be very effective because of the difficulty to implement. It would be easy to get around such a law. If a mother or anyone really wants to have a drink, it isn't difficult despite any form of prohibition.

Over break I went to Anchorage with my girlfriend Erin. We were having dinner with my mom and naturally I steered the conversation toward economics and politics. My mom brought up voting and asked me to vote on Proposition 5 in the upcoming local election. Neither my mom nor I had the full details on Prop 5 but my mom explained it as a law prohibiting discrimination in the workplace against an individual based on their sexual orientation. While I agree with the sentiment of this legislation I ultimately decided that I was against it. First off let me state that I would like to live in a society that is tolerant of all peaceful actions. The decision of who to love certainly falls under that criteria. I feel the problem with this legislation is similar to the one proposed in Garrett's thought question. Just because it might be against the law to drink at a certain age or while pregnant doesn't necessarily mean people won't find ways to get around the implementation of such legislation. Similarly, just because there is a law against prejudice doesn't make it go away. If an individual hates gay people, legislation won't change that. I asked my mom why a LBGT person would even want to work for someone who didn't like them. No one wants to work in a hostile environment if they can help it. Additionally, laws against discrimination seem a little silly to me. We discriminate all the time based on countless criteria.  Discrimination is the essence of decision making. Anti discrimination laws essentially discriminate between different forms of discrimination. Such legislation acts to draw lines in the sand, not erase them. Besides, there might be, albeit morally questionable, legitimate business reasons why an employer might not want to employ a LBGT person. Perhaps a business deals with very socially conservative clients. Naturally it would not be a smart business decision to hire a flamboyantly gay person as the receptionist. Employers make these types of decisions all the time and nobody flinches i.e. an employer is faced with multiple candidates who all look equally good on paper and so they choose the one who they get along with or who fits in with the other workers the best. Moreover, anti-discrimination legislation seems to me like it would hurt more than help. If passed, employers might  be cautious in hiring a person from the LBGT community because of the increased chance of a discrimination lawsuit. Instead they might find some other reason not to hire that individual rather than dealing with that risk.

But I am totally digressing. I have to agree with Garrett on this:

"First, because government policy is ineffective at doing some things does not make all government policy ineffective. Judging an effective policy is a subjective exercise but I would point to fisheries regulation and pollution mitigation efforts as examples of excellent policy."

I see a distinct difference between legislation like Prop 5 or a law against pregnant drinking and laws like fishing regulation. Fishing regulation essentially creates property rights in order to prevent over fishing. Using the utilitarian analysis I think it is pretty clear that overfishing which leads to not enough fish to go around is much worse than the red tape such legislation creates.

This makes me think a little bit about property rights. In our western culture we take property rights for granted. No one would challenge the assertion that an individual can own something, after all we own our own bodies don't we? But it is helpful to recognize that these are assumptions not facts. They are very helpful assumptions when talking about economics but they are not inherently true. From my perspective, property rights exist because we believe in them. It is pretty clear to everyone around you that you own the clothes you wear. No one would challenge that. And when you park your car and walk away from it you lock it to protect it from opportunists but you aren't really worried that someone will come along and dispute your ownership of the car. If they do you have a little piece of paper that we all have been taught to respect that states that you own your car. Same with land. But we weren't born with the car keys in our hand and there isn't some natural law that assigns and protects property rights for everybody. We assign our own property rights as a society.

These break down when we talk about a common resource. Really, when we talk about collective property we just mean some communal thing that is open to everybody to use. We aren't talking about a community where each individual feels a real sense of shared ownership and takes care of the property (this can happen and works beautifully, think of a family sharing a dinner. No one feels bashful about eating their share but individuals generally try not to waste the food, they take what they think they can eat). So when government comes in and assigns property rights to fishermen this really shouldn't be too foreign an idea to us. We keep the deed to our home. Thats a piece of government legislation. The difference is that in the absence of government or a society that respects your piece of paper, if you are occupying a piece of land and can defend it, you effectively own it. That is much harder to do with a percentage of the fish in the ocean. While it often seems I spew a good talk about the evils of government I have to agree with Garrett that government isn't inherently bad.

So if you can show me that a government policy helps better allocate a resource through assigning property rights or helps natural rights better than the current situation AND if you can show me that the implementation of the law is feasible. I might concede that the law can do some good. But I'm pretty hard to convince.

Government isn't inherently bad, it just scares me. At its best government gives well intentioned individuals the power to exact some change in the world. Sometimes it works out as planned and sometimes (I would argue more often) it doesn't work out exactly as planned. At its worst, government favors those who are best at lobbying government and creates an illusion of giving everyone a voice and then it puts people in cages, steals people's money and kills brown people. (okay a little bit of my  anti government sentiment slipped out). So I'm super skeptical of government and I wish more people were too. If we as a society watched it carefully and had a stronger sense of individual sovereignty we might be able to better keep our government in check. But there's no guarantee that would even work and it's just wishful thinking anyway in the same vein of "why can't we all just get along." The unfortunate truth of the matter is that the incentive structure created by the existence of a powerful government is such that it leads to rent seeking and other abuses.

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