Category Archives: Political Animals

Unintended Consequences of Voting

From p. 92 of Randall Holcombe’s 2018 book Political Capitalism: How Political Influence Is Made and Maintained:

Voting is the best way, from the elite’s standpoint, for the masses to participate, because each individual vote has essentially no impact on the outcome of an election, so voters are provided with the illusion that their participation determines the election outcome, which reinforces the perceived legitimacy of government.

Voting has practically no impact on policy outcomes. Even small local elections rarely have one-vote margins where a given person’s vote would be decisive. It’s so rare that it makes the news when it does happen. Voting’s instrumental value requires many decimal places to accurately express. But voting does have significant expressive value.

People genuinely feel good about participating in democracy, and get value from signaling their participation to others. Some people also get value from shaming people who do not vote. There is nothing wrong with most of that. But most people would benefit from a more accurate understanding of how much a person’s vote impacts election and policy outcomes. As Holcombe points out, this would make people less easily mollified by reform agendas that end at lip service.


Robert A. Caro – The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

Robert A. Caro – The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

Robert Moses played a large role in developing New York’s parks, highways, and major buildings for more than 40 years. He also displaced more than a quarter of a million people to make room for his development projects.

Caro’s primary research interest is power, and Moses is an excellent case study in that regard. He knew how to acquire it, and he knew how to use it. Caro tries his best to be evenhanded, but as with Lyndon Johnson, Caro’s other great subject, some people are just plain unlikable. Moses was a serial liar about finances dating back to his college days at Yale, when he proposed deceiving a donor to his swim team. In his professional life his obfuscations would cost taxpayers billions of dollars. He also enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, including a taxpayer-provided Cadillac limousine with three full-time chauffeurs.

The depths of his racism surprised people even back in the pre-Civil Rights days, to the point of requiring African-Americans to get permits to visit beaches, then often denying the permits on specious grounds. His development projects deliberately either ignored or paved over minority-heavy neighborhoods. Even his personal life showed a lack of character, with him writing his brother out of their mother’s will and estranging him from the rest of the family, and having several affairs and marrying a woman 28 years his junior roughly a month after his wife died.

Moses was a public hero for most of his career, but when the press and public turned on him in the 1960s, they turned hard.

Bob Woodward – Fear: Trump in the White House

Bob Woodward – Fear: Trump in the White House

I usually avoid books about politicians, or at least ones current enough where partisan emotions still run hot. I made an exception for this one because two of Trump’s most active issues—trade and regulation—are my research specialties.

Containing the damage he is doing on trade, immigration, deficit spending, and foreign policy is an important priority for both parties. At the same time, leveraging his various personality tics on issues where he has been a net force for good, such as regulation, is also important.

Aides describe “Groundhog Day” meetings where they have to explain over and over again, often with colorful, simple visual aids, and non-controversial basic facts  the president either ignores or does not understand. When an aide once asked Trump why he holds his eccentric trade views, for example, the President simply explained that he had held them for a long time.

He did not cite any sort of principle or argument, just that he had felt that way for a long time. In this way, Trump is a modern-day Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Trump’s hiring choices compound the problem. Trade advisor Peter Navarro, for example, self-describes his job not as offering sound economic advice, but as supporting and confirming whatever intuitions the President already holds. President Trump’s intellectual and managerial qualities will no doubt make the next two to six years highly entertaining.

Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America

Tocqueville, a Frenchman, visited America for a period of nine months around 1830 and published this two-volume work after returning home. Tocqueville is incredibly insightful, which is why his book is often cited and occasionally read today, nearly two centuries later. He has a mostly sunny disposition and a generally liberal outlook (in the correct, classical sense of the word), but this book is not quite the love letter to America many make it out to be.

James C. Scott – Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

James C. Scott – Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

How did governments emerge? The usual answer is economist Mancur Olson’s stationary bandit theory. Scott describes this theory in the final chapter, but seems not to have heard of Olson. Scott instead emphasizes an anthropological, biological, and environmental history of government’s origin.

Lots of good material here on domestication, disease, war and slavery, and how sedentarism affected environmental quality. Many ruins became that way due to epidemics, lack of sanitation, and deteriorating soil quality.

As importantly, Scott doesn’t view states as a black-and-white concept. There are shades of gray on a spectrum, with difference facets of government such as organized militaries, monarchs, and written records emerging at different times in different places, and to varying degrees. This shows itself in how written versions of the Gilgamesh epic evolved over time.

The emergence of centralized states was, ironically, a spontaneous order, same as the non-state market processes that economists study—though again, Scott doesn’t stroll very far down that avenue. Scott’s story is incomplete, but well worth studying.

Peter Schweizer – Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends

Peter Schweizer – Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends

Everyone knows that many politicians are corrupt. Schweizer and his Government Accountability Institute colleagues go one step further by doing the digging and naming names.

His latest book spares neither party and proposes reforming a relatively new form of corruption: rather than direct bribes like in the old days, many favors and payments now go to politicians’ family and friends. This is both a domestic and an international problem; the Chinese and Russian governments come off especially poorly, though Schweizer is more than a little hyperbolic about security risks.

Richard Overton – An Arrow against All Tyrants

Richard Overton – An Arrow against All Tyrants

In this short 1646 pamphlet, Overton favors civil disobedience, the higher rule of law and principle over faulty man-made legislation, the separation of powers, and religious freedom. All this at a time when an absolute monarch, Charles I, held the throne. And he wrote it from prison. Overton had guts, give him that. The parallels with today’s political debates and the competing principles behind them is startling.