Category Archives: Philosophy

Regulatory Discretion: Both Good and Bad

From p. 137 of Cornell political scientist Theodore Lowi’s 1969 book The End of Liberalism: Ideology, Policy, and the Crisis of Public Authority:

The move from concreteness to abstractness in the definition of public policy was probably the most important single change in the entire history of public control in the United States.

Lowi’s point concerns the separation of powers. In theory, Congress passes a law directing a regulatory agency to regulate something in a specific way, then the agency does so. The executive branch executes legislation; hence its name.

This is not how things work in practice. More and more, Congress delegates its legislative powers away to the executive branch. On issues ranging from health insurance subsidies to power plants to Internet infrastructure, executive branch agencies act unilaterally. And when they cite congressional statutes, they do so abstractly, not concretely, just as Lowi said nearly 50 years ago.

An example: the text of the Clean Air Act says nothing about CO2 emissions. But a few years ago, the EPA issued a cap-and-trade regulation for CO2 emissions, even though Congress explicitly rejected a bill to do so. The EPA justified its decision on the abstract principles on which the Clean Air Act is based. The fact that the text of bill, as amended over the years, does not mention CO2 emissions as a pollutant, did not matter to the EPA.

There is a role for discretion in regulatory matters. Discretion makes it possible to avoid regulatory abuses, clear needless bureaucratic hurdles, and avoid obvious stupidities such as suspending children from school for wielding Pop-Tart “guns” in cafeterias.

But Lowi makes a good point: discretion is a double-edged sword. Without a clear separation of powers, its outer edge can spill blood by executive order just as easily as the inner edge can cut innocents loose from government-mandated ropes.

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Forecasters in Proper Context

Whether it’s the local weatherman getting it wrong, or especially some economic shaman predicting the stock market’s next swing, forecasters have a record that doesn’t always outperform chance. This poor record has been known since at least Roman times, as Deirdre McCloskey notes on p. 265 of her 2000 book How to Be Human, Though an Economist:

The early Latin poet Ennius sneered at forecasters “who don’t know the path for themselves yet show the way for others.”

Or, as the philosopher Yogi Berra put it, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Interesting Take on Rousseau

From p. 262 of Matt Ridley’s excellent 1996 book The Origins of Virtue:

[Margaret] Thatcher and her allies were articulating what is, in some ways, the most Rousseauian argument–that government does not impose virtue on inherently evil people, but corrupts the original virtue of the market place.

Rousseau would likely disagree, but Ridley has potentially hoist Rousseau by his own petard.

Human Achievement of the Day: Guitars

When Human Achievement Hour rolls around each year, I make sure to do two things. One is to play an electric guitar. The other is to play an acoustic guitar.

Guitars are simple things. Stretch some thin metal wires over a plank of wood, and you’re most of the way there. Electric guitars add a few magnets wrapped in copper wire mounted underneath the strings, called pickups. This deceptively simple invention is one of the pinnacles of human achievement. Music made on guitars has brought unfettered joy to billions of people, most of whom have idea how to play one. Whether you like jazz, punk rock, flamenco, blues, death metal, or classic rock, guitars have enhanced your life. In a way, the guitar is one of the defining objects of modern Western culture.

Regular readers will likely be familiar with CEI’s “I, Pencil” video from a few years ago, inspired by Leonard Read’s famous pamphlet. Nobody can make a pencil on their own. It takes a network of literally millions of people cooperating to make something you can buy in a store for less than a dollar. The network of human cooperation surrounding guitars is arguably even greater.

For example, guitars made by Gibson, such as the Les Paul and the SG, are often made of mahogany wood, which grows mostly in Central and South America. Tennessee-based Gibson has to arrange with people more than a thousand miles away to harvest the lumber and ship it to Nashville, most of whom speak different languages and use different currencies. The fingerboards placed on top of the guitar’s neck are usually made of rosewood, native to Africa and Asia, presenting another coordination problem.

Fret wire, usually made of either nickel or stainless steel, relies on mining and smelting technologies, and requires precise math, skill, and specialized tools to install. Other hardware, such as a guitar’s bridge and nut, pickguard, and tuning pegs, present their own challenges.

Acoustic guitars use a soundboard, chambers, and soundholes in such a way that makes the instruments both loud and tuneful. Electric guitars instead use pickups, potentiometers, wires, soldering, and standardized connections leading to an amplifier powered by electricity. If a pencil is a miracle of cooperation, guitars are even moreso.

Part of the point of Human Achievement Hour is to celebrate modernity. So on March 28, sometime between 8:30 and 9:30, instead of merely leaving on the lights, I will pick up my electric guitar, plug it into my amplifier, and take in the pure, simple joy that comes with banging out distorted power chords. After that, I will pick up my acoustic and admire all the skill, elegance, and mastery of geometry and sound that went into making it. Nobody within earshot may much enjoy my point, but they will likely be thankful for two other human achievements: walls and doors.

The Trouble with the Median Voter, as Expressed by a Scientist

A memory from Carl Sagan’s childhood, which he shares on pages 133-34 in the book version of Cosmos:

Even with an early bedtime, in winter you could sometimes see the stars. I would look at them, twinkling and remote, and wonder what they were. I would ask older children and adults, who would only reply, “They’re lights in the sky, kid.” I could see they were lights in the sky. But what were they? Just small hovering lamps? Whatever for? I felt a kind of sorrow for them: a commonplace whose strangeness remained somehow hidden from my incurious fellows. There had to be some deeper answer.

And from the following paragraph, which, while still depressing, at least ends on a positive note:

I asked the librarian for something on stars. She returned with a picture book displaying portraits of men and women with names like Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. I complained, and for some reason then obscure to me, she smiled and found another book–the right kind of book.

Sagan’s career went just fine from there. But how many young would-be Sagans of all disciplines have had their growth stunted by social pressure put on them by other people’s lack of wonder?

In my own native discipline, the layman’s instinctive dismissal of the economic way of thinking is a public tragedy. I feel a twinge of sadness every time someone turns down Bastiat’s enticing invitation to see the unseen, or waves off Adam Smith’s invisible hand, without giving it a second thought (or, often, a first).

The opportunity cost of incuriosity may be even larger than Dawson and Seater suggest in their recent paper, which is a per capita income roughly triple what it actually is today. Frankly, it’s a minor miracle public policies aren’t even worse than they already are.

A little bit of simple curiosity would go a long way towards making the world not just a more interesting place to live, but a wealthier, safer, and friendlier one.

Debunking Cognitive Biases

My former professor Bryan Caplan stars in a series of short videos about four cognitive biases that explain why voters systematically vote for bad policies. You can read about them in detail in his 2007 book Myth of the Rational Voter, or you can watch these videos:

Make-Work Bias

Pessimistic Bias

Anti-Market Bias

Anti-Foreign Bias

Ten Hard Questions for Libertarians

Over at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog, Jason Brennan has a brilliant bit of satire that reminds me of one of my favorite Voltaire quotations: “I have only ever addressed one prayer to God, and it is very short: ‘My God, please make all our enemies ridiculous.’ God has granted my wish.”

Of the ten questions Jason poses, I was saddened to realize that I have been asked at least four of them, without irony, in various contexts, including on air.