2018-09-18

The left has no theory of the behavior of the government?

DSC_7616 The left has no theory of the behavior of the government is a claim made by DBx, quoting Deirdre McCloskey. It is a striking claim, but is it true? I don't know. A quick Google search provided no illumination, and asking on Twatter unsurprisingly yielded no results.

If you're unfamiliar with the general idea, DBx's "theory" in this context is Public Choice Theory, which essentially says that governments are composed of people and people have their own interests as well as those of the organisation in which they are embedded, which helps explain the many stupid decisions such as protectionism that all governments make. Acceptance of this theory, of course, leads you to conclude that government should be minimised.

So if any of my dwindling band of left-wing (or of any political persuasion, but knowledgeable of politics) readers claim to know of any left-wing theory of government behaviour, do let me know in the comments.

Updates


Updates, since some of this was apparently unclear. The idea we're talking about is a theory of behaviour of the government, in the sense of, errm, how govt behaves. Not a theory of govt, in a sense like "where does legitimate govt come from?", or even directly "what should it's objectives be?", but in the sense of "how would you expect the people that compose a govt to actually behave, in real life?"

Also, I've realised the question itself is slightly "unfair", if viewed as a challenge (of course it you just view it as a genuinely meant question, which is what it was, then it isn't unfair). The public choice people do have a theory of govt behaviour, but as far as can be told they're pretty well the only people with a non-naive theory (other theories propounded in the comments are the std "working selflessly for the common good", which is obviously naive; and "Marx had some kind of theory", but that lacks detail). One might suggest that if you happen to have a theory of Thing X, then maybe you can score points by asking everyone else if they also have a theory of Thing X. But I don't think that's true in this case: how a govt will behave in actual practice is, when you think about it, too important not to have a theory for.

Is the theory itself actually partisan? Well, no. It's just a theory. Anyone could espouse it. But oddly enough the left, on the whole, doesn't, for the obvious reasons: the theory or it's consequence is skeptical of govt, and the left isn't.

Refs


Today we have naming of parts. I recall this from school. Though I think that omitted the motto.
* Hayek vs Hobbes and the theory of law.

85 comments:

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Since "the left" is even less monolithic than the right, I'm quite sure that it has 100 or 1000 theories of how government should behave, ranging from the dictatorship of the proletariat to the more conservative but nonetheless grandiose aims outlined in the preamble of the US Constitution: "in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,"

I don't know if I'm a suitable rep for "the left," but I like that, and also the notion of that radical whig, Abraham Lincoln - that the government should do for the people those things that they can't do better for themselves.

I have argued elsewhere that the conservative program, critically viewed, can be to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. I think most lefties would agree that there is a role for a government that afflicts, or at least taxes, the comfortable, and comforts the afflicted.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Re your quotation: like your strawmen much?

Everett F Sargent said...

DBx is really Skeletor ...
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/31/Donald_Boudreaux.jpg
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/8/8a/Skeletor-spoo.jpg

William Connolley said...

> strawman

A strawman is a weak or invalid argument or assertion put up to be easily defeated; or (possibly in this case) an argument of uncertain quality there to expose counter arguments. DBx and DMcC clearly don't regard it as a strawman. Now over to your side:

> how government should behave, ranging from the dictatorship of the proletariat

You've confused what govt should *do*, and the forms it might take, with models of behaviour. The quote I've given is the Right's (well, a small section of the Right's) theory of how any govt, left right or otherwise, would actually behave. It applies as much to the dictatorship of the proles as to any other govt.

Your stirring quote from the constitution is an aspiration for the *purpose* of govt, not a model of the *behaviour* of same.

Ditto your AL quote: you might well wish your govt to do that. But what is your model for how a govt will actually behave, when in office? Will it indeed strive mightily for the downtrodden, or might other thoughts intrude?

So, have another go: can you point at any Leftish theory of how govt will in practice behave?

David B Benson said...

William, I would look to history to see how governments *have* behaved. I don't, probably naively, view that as leftish or rightish. Those stances have to do with how governments *should * behave.

--- A Progressive, I guess.

William Connolley said...

Looking at history of observation. You'd hope anyone would do this in order to formulate their theory, or to validate their theory, but it isn't itself a theory of behaviour.

Perhaps this is a trick question. Perhaps the *only* people with an explicit theory of govt behaviour are the public choice people. Perhaps everyone else just assumes that govts will muddle along.

David B Benson said...

Public choice people? Some sort of link, if you will?

William Connolley said...

There's a link to the wiki page in the post. "The people" I associate with DBx (example) like James Buchanan.

Andrew said...

'public choice theory' looks a lot like something cooked up with the conclusion already in mind. It also obviously applies to all large organisations, but I'd bet that the proponents of the theory are not interested in breaking up large corporations.

I think that the problem here is that you don't need a theory of government, it looks like something of a category error. You may as well say 'you can't cook, you don't have a theory of beans on toast'.

David B Benson said...

In www.econlib.org I found
Public Choice
William F. Shughart II

The article strikes me as a standard part of PolySci 201 although I disagree about the importance of the individuals elected; I claim it makes a difference.

But I don't see this as either leftish or rightish, just mostly how it is.

William Connolley said...

> also obviously applies to all large organisations

Sort of - the idea that people often act for themselves is obviously relevant; but in terms of corps it is more natural to see it as the Principal-Agent problem. But the clue is in the words "public choice", in particular the voting aspect and the spending-other-people's money aspect. That isn't obviously relevant to corps.

> breaking up large corporations

That appears to be a non-sequitor.

> you don't need a theory of government

Srsly? You're wrong. You need a theory of all the things you're interested in. The idea that you can interact just with a sequence of observations and memories is unreal. You need - you have - a model in your head of the world. If you don't have an explicit model of the govt, then all you're doing is running with the implicit unexamined model.

David B Benson said...

A good place to start is Arrow's Theorem which is his 1951 PhD thesis which he worked out while at RAND. Never seriously disputed and the consequences are quite interesting and dismaying to the naive optimist.

William Connolley said...

> econlib

Public Choice By William F. Shughart II. They also have Public Choice Theory by Jane S. Shaw. The former looks better.

> as either leftish or rightish

The analysis itself is indeed neither (as I said earlier at 7:43 to CIP). The left could adopt the theory too. But does it? I don't think it does.

David B Benson said...

I don't know who "the left" is but in this university community nobody disputes the firm conclusions of political science, which includes most of what Shughart writes about. As I stated before, the individuals elected do make a difference. Indeed here the public policy institute is named after Tom Foley, a former representative of this district who became Speaker of the House.

William Connolley said...

> in this university community nobody disputes the firm conclusions of political science

Well, who would want to admit to disputing the firm conclusions of any science? But while that's easy enough to say, what of its practical consequences? For example, you support I-1631. But from a public-choice type viewpoint, that's a disaster area; indeed it's a classic example of what the theory predicts: a dog's breakfast of special interests, and that's before it's even passed, let alone put into effect.

David B Benson said...

Our current 5th congressional district representative, Cathy McMorris-Rogers, disputes firm scientific conclusions of, at least, biology and economics. Hopefully she will be retired this coming election.

Let's wait to see if I-1631 actually passes before discussing just how the legislature will dismember it.

David B Benson said...

Public choice theory from the Shughart article leaves out the cooperative spirit of human communities. Well, also chimpanzee and also bonobo clans. Some of that is necessary to explain the formation of government at all and should not be neglected to the extent that Shughart does.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

I know what a strawman is, do you? Here is an example: "It[the left] assumes that the government is a perfect expression of the will of The People."

Public Choice Theory has some useful ideas, but it sure doesn't look to me like a rightist or leftist theory of how governments behave. It also strikes me as a naive and limited view of how individuals and groups behave.

The core problem is that "rational economic man" is a poor approximation of the human actually produced by evolution and culture. You really should replace some of that theorising you read about on Cafe Hayek with some empirically grounded studies like Sapolsky's Behave and Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind.

William Connolley said...

> rational economic man

Ah, we are back to strawmen. But meanwhile, are you still unable to point to any "left" theory of the behaviour of govt?

> it sure doesn't look to me like a rightist or leftist theory

Argh! Please, think. And read what is already written. Public choice is indeed not intrinsically left or right; it's just a theory. But in practice it is only espoused by the right (and indeed by only rather limited groups therein). That is the point you've kept missing.

David B Benson said...

Arrow's Theorem is certainly not naive. It is limited to the ways we actually vote.

As for Sapolsky and Haidt, I question whether either is included in the typical political science curriculum, although I should hope that at least the points about rhetoric rather than "pure reason" are there.

David B Benson said...

Well possibly "the left", whoever that is, rather emphasizes the communitarian aspects of our nature.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Perhaps I misread, but I'm pretty sure that many people, including the author you cite, claim that Public Choice Theory is grounded in economic principles based on individuals acting to maximize their individual advantage. So how is that a strawman? My example of a strawman was one because few people on the left actually believe what the author claimed they believe. Justify your claim please!

I'm actually quite aware of the point you claim I keep missing. I'm also aware of the fact that many Public Choice types, including the author you cite, point out that their are public choice advocates across the ideological spectrum.

I'm not interested in any ideologically constrained theories of the behavior or government, though I'm very interested in the actual behavior of governments. That's one good reason to study history. History's lessons are too varied for me to extract much in the way of theories but I'm pretty sure that the durable ones are based on shared mythologies, among other things. In any case, I can't help you with search for a leftist theory of government, but I will note that the quoted author who claimed there wasn't one actually proposed one - the notion that leftist thought that the government was the perfect expression of the will of the people.

And as for your abjuration that I "think," I will just say that I'm doing my best to do just that and also trying to ignore the implicit insult.

William Connolley said...

> many people... claim that Public Choice Theory is grounded in economic principles based on individuals acting to maximize their individual advantage

I don't think that's an exact quote or a good paraphrase, but it's roughly right. If you were hoping to elide from that to your "rational economic man" then no, I don't see how you do that.

> the fact that many Public Choice types, including the author you cite, point out that their are public choice advocates across the ideological spectrum

I don't see where you get that from. Can you provide a quote / reference?

> I'm not interested in any ideologically constrained theories of the behavior [of] government, though I'm very interested in the actual behavior of governments

I don't understand this, either. If you're asserting-without-evidence that PC is "ideologically constrained" I think you need to provide some reason why I should believe you. As to actual-behaviour-vs-theory, see my earlier comment at 9:46.

> the notion that leftist thought that the government was the perfect expression of the will of the people

Indeed; that's the entirely unrealistic attitude that DMcC puts forward as the "typical" left view. I should perhaps have said "other than that" in my original posting. But I was and still am hoping for some other more realistic behavioural model.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CapitalistImperialistPig said...

@WC - Shaw has three paragraphs on public choice beyond ideological borders beginning with: "But not all public choice economists are conservatives or libertarians."

I'm not asserting anything about PC being ideologically constrained - I said that I'm not very interested in ideologically constrained theories from left or right. We have almost 8000 years of experience and records of what governments actually do. Theories need to be contrainsted by this.

"elide" - I don't understand your use of the word "elide" or the sentence that it is in.

Tom said...

Umm, what part of 'feed the hungry, house the homeless, tend to the sick and strengthen the weak among us' is really that hard to understand?

If we on the Left are accused of not having a grand strategy or theory of government, that's just fine with me. I've see and read about the results of grand strategies and theories.

I'm happy to stick with tactics and small steps.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

@DBB - I suppose Arrow's Theorem is sort of a definitive answer to "Why can't we all just agree?" but it's hardly a comprehensive theory of government.

I don't know anything about typical Poly Sci curricula or understand what you said about Haidt and Sapolsky re rhetoric and pure reason. What's the connection here?

David B Benson said...

First, Arrow's Theorem makes clear that "majority rule" fails the 5 criteria for fairness except for binary choices. So it is foundational for the public choice individualist construction. Not that PC is a complete theory of government.

Haidt makes clear enough, others may do better, that persuasion doesn't follow from reason. Hence the art of rhetoric, already understood by Aristotle as somehow central, although maybe Plato stated it first. In government, i.e., politics, reason is secondary to rhetoric. Arrow's Theorem helps to hammer the point home.

Sapolsky is, unfortunately, unlikely to be read by political science undergrads and even less likely to be read by prelaw students, who at least learn some philosophy and political science.

The legislators I know implicitly understand Arrow's Theorem and the importance of rhetoric, even if they have no formal study of the ideas.

David B Benson said...

There is strong and stronger reason to believe that there is only tactics and small steps.

But I do encourage everyone to study the statement and consequences of Arrow's Theorem.

William Connolley said...

> Shaw has three paragraphs on public choice beyond ideological borders

Yeeeeessss... but that's not quite the same as "across the ideological spectrum". In fact not at all the same. BIB in that context is non-ideological (I think; not sure about Olson; but her third para is non). Whereas ATIS I took to mean extending to the left.

> I'm not very interested in ideologically constrained theories from left or right

Yeeesss again, but why is that relevant?

> elide

Connect, or some similar word. I'm calling your "rational economic man" a strawman. I thought you were attempting to defend it.

> not having a grand strategy or theory of government

You're making the same mistake of interpretation as others have. See above. This isn't a question of theory of govt, its theory of govt behaviour.

Marco said...

William, I think the problem here is what you define (or rather, fail to define) as "the Left". I know anarchists, who most people would definitely call "left wing", who want government to be as minimalistic as the average (economic) libertarian. Their views on (expected) government behavior do not markedly differ.

Marxist will gladly point out Marx' theories about government behavior. Are they "the Left"?

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

elide - I don't think that word means what you think it means.

elide - : to suppress or alter (something, such as a vowel or syllable) by elision
b : to strike out (something, such as a written word)
2a : to leave out of consideration : OMIT
b : CURTAIL, ABRIDGE

What you Brits do when you pronounce Magdalen or Leicester.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CapitalistImperialistPig said...

@DBB - I have my doubts that Arrow is about reason vs. rhetoric. Pareto optimality is a tough criterion - and one completely at odds with evolutionary biology - and most people are happy to "satisfice" as Simon put it.

Plato's Socrates was utterly contemptuous of the kind of rhetoric you are talking about, see, e.g. Gorgias. Aristotle is far more descriptive and prescriptive, but he too was hostile to the kind of rhetoric designed to deceive.

William Connolley said...

> or rather, fail to define

Well, yes. I don't care to be precise, and it shouldn't be important.

> anarchists

I'm doubtful they count as meaningfully left-wing. But maybe we're not using the same words with the same meanings. To me, anarchy means no govt, not minimal govt. And while they would doubtless regard govt as harmful, are you sure they would do so for the same reasons?

> Marxist will gladly point out Marx' theories about government behavior. Are they "the Left"?

Ah, excellent. Where are they?

Marco said...

William, I am of course referring to the collective anarchists, not the libertarian-style anarchists. They may not want a "government" as we would generally understand the term, but there'd be a government nonetheless, as there would be certain organizations which would take democratic decisions. I don't know many who would not call them "left-wing", but obviously that depends on what you define as "left". And thus it becomes important to define "left", since you seem to agree we are not using the same words with the same meanings.

In Marx' books and pamphlets you can read his ideas on government behavior. Of course they have to be read with the period they were written in mind. There've also been some publications on this - look for Marxism and "government behavior", and you'll find a few.

William Connolley said...

> the collective anarchists... there'd be a government... take democratic decisions

It sounds like their "theory" is the naive unrealistic one: that their govt-that-is-not-a-govt expresses the will of the people, per 15:54. They probably excuse this by asserting that everything occurs at such a small scale that this makes sense, but I rather suspect it's all hand-waving.

> look... and you'll find

Would you care to point to anything specific? My googling didn't find me anything useful.

David B Benson said...

Arrow's Theorem has nothing to do with rhetoric vs reason. It is simply about methods of voting.

Rhetoric designed to deceive is beneath contempt; not what I am discussing which is what all lawyers study some of and used to have an important role in all university education.

...and Then There's Physics said...

FWIW, I tend to regard arguments that start with "the xxxx has no..." (insert generic descriptor for some group) as generally rather lazy. Of course, there are exceptions, but I don't think this is one of them (I haven't really given it much attention, so may - of course - be wrong).

William Connolley said...

Well, you could try reading the post. Yes it is "lazy" in that as I explicitly said, I'm looking for someone to point me at counterexamples.

I had no idea how difficult a question it was. So far, no-one has provided any good examples (Marco has asserted the existence of a Marxist theory, but hasn't provided any explicit refs) so it does seem to be a difficult question. Or, I'm asking the wrong people.

Marco said...

William, of course all collective anarchists and libertarians are naïve in their view of government. I already mentioned Max Weber, who has taken a much more pragmatic view and hence reached the conclusion that some bureaucracy was actually a necessity.

Regarding your "didn't find me anything useful" - this is perhaps because we are once again have different ideas of what something means.

Anyway, maybe a place to start is here:
https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9780429961236 - chapter 4
Also perhaps of relevance
https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781134802036

Layzej said...

governments are composed of people and people have their own interests as well as those of the organisation in which they are embedded, ... Acceptance of this theory, of course, leads you to conclude that government should be minimised

Can you explain how that follows? How would it benefit us to concentrate power among a minimal number of self interests rather than a representative cross section?

Or if by "minimised" you mean "do away with universal health care", I still don't see how that follows...

William Connolley said...

> naïve in their view of government

Yeees, but that doesn't necessarily imply that they share the one particular naive view.

> 9780429961236 - chapter 4

Ah, well, I am answered. Though (as you probably realise) I'm unlikely to go off and buy the thing, so this particular part of the conversation ends.

> 9781134802036

From the portion online, reads like a sociologist rather unhappy that economics have dared intrude into his domain: "the failure of economics in its own domain... To retrieve themselves from this embarrassing situation... The economist’s way of doing this was by theoretical imperialism". It also seems to contain strawmen: "Chapter 2 is a critique of the assumption that political man, no less than economic man, is motivated solely by self-interest". I wouldn't assert that he is, and I doubt that PC does either.

> minimised

In the sense of reducing the functions as far as possible; not in the sense of the number of people. Though fewer people would be easier to track and keep honest.

> do away with universal health care

There are many models of this; not all require the govt to actually run the hospitals.

Layzej said...

There are many models of this; not all require the govt to actually run the hospitals.

Sure. Hospitals in Canada are owned largely by non-profit organizations, not the government, but we have universal healthcare. The system was implemented by the far left NDP party. People love it, so no one on the right is advocating a against it, but I don't think it could be considered a right of center policy.

All that is to say, I still don't see that acknowledging the government is made up of self interested people leads one to adopt the policies of the right.

What would a right of center universal healthcare policy look like? In the USA it would look like "no universal healthcare". I'd rather stick with the Canadian system, even knowing that government is made up of imperfect, self interested individuals.

likewise, in Canada we have a carbon tax. Most left leaning provincial governments have implemented this as revenue neutral. Most right leaning provincial governments are taking the feds to court to prevent any solution at all from being implemented. Even knowing that the government is made up of self interested people doesn't lead me to conclude that a carbon tax is a worse policy than no policy at all.

William Connolley said...

> I still don't see that acknowledging the government is made up of self interested people leads one to adopt the policies of the right

That would rather depend on what you think those policies are. Also, if you're thinking that all or most "right wing" politics and parties are informed by PC, then you'd be wrong.

On carbon, PC would suggest what to me seems the bleedin' obvious: that a simple carbon tax with no exceptions is better than a hodge-podge of different regulations and subsidies.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

I thank Layzej] for pointing me at WC's truly astounding leap of illogic: "Acceptance of this theory[governments composed of people with their own interests], of course, leads you to conclude that government should be minimised." Since the same can be said of corporations, football teams, churches, universities, cities, villages and families, Dr. Connolley's reasoning leads inevitably to the conclusion that we must become solitary creatures like orangutans or at least anchorites. The reason most of us don't is that evolution and culture have provided us with a variety of means for aligning the collective interest with the individual.

Among those means are laws, constitutions, political parties, and elections. Accept that elected representatives and bureaucrats will do their jobs imperfectly, prosecute the egregious, turn out the incompetent, and reward the conscientious. An occasional annoying trip to Abilene is a small price to pay.

Most of this was well understood by Aristotle, and Arrow's Theorem doesn't change it.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

That, by the way, is a theory of government. I doubt that it is either leftist or rightist.

William Connolley said...

Tee hee, did you miss the leap? You must read more carefully. But you should also read my follow-up, see 09:46.

The logic does of course apply to corporations: we should be aware that the people running them are likely to have their own agenda, and therefore they should, as far as possible, be minimised. It also applies to the *management* of pretty well anything (with the caveats I noted before, of course).

But take your example of families. The same logic does indeed suggest that anyone thinking about the dynamic of a family should not assume that all are altruistic and working towards the greater good. This is kinda obvious nowadays: they idea of a patriarchal model where one (male) gets to make decisions for "the good of all" is no longer believed. But that doesn't imply minimising the number of people in a family. You need to read your own words about leaps of (il)logic.

Marco said...

William, I do think both the left and right wing anarchist have the same reason not to want a government: they don't want a small elite group to be in power, because this elite group would be pushing their own self-interest. That the collective anarchist will refer to the dangers of such an elite to the collectivistic views, the libertarian will of course refer to the dangers of such an elite to the economy. In that sense they have both the same and different reasons. It also appears to me that while their goals may be different to some extent, their views on how the society should be governed (governance, as opposed to government) are quite similar.

Udehn's book is indeed a criticism - a criticism of the supremacy of economic thinking in describing how governments work. I can understand that if you come from the same starting point (economics is the basis of government behavior), you'd indeed be dismissive of this book. I'd say that Brexit is a good example that economic arguments often don't cut it in terms of explaining government behavior. They may be used by politicians, but there's a bit more to it than that.

Layzej said...

On carbon, PC would suggest what to me seems the bleedin' obvious: that a simple carbon tax with no exceptions is better than a hodge-podge of different regulations and subsidies.

Then I wish the right would listen to these PC folks, but I doubt they will. They seem to be proposing solutions that would only be entertained by the left.

...and Then There's Physics said...

Well, you could try reading the post.
I read the post.

Or, I'm asking the wrong people.
In my case, certainly. I don't fully understand what "a theory of the behaviour of government" means. Does it mean a theory that describes how a government behaves, or is it a theory that describes how a government should behave given - in this case - left-wing ideals (that might, more correctly, be called something like the "principles of governance").

William Connolley said...

> Brexit is a good example that economic arguments often don't cut it in terms of explaining government behavior

I think you've misunderstood the meaning of applying-economics-to-govt. It doesn't mean that considerations of the economy are paramount or should be. It means nothing like that at all. It means using the same methods that work in economics: incentives matter, people have their own (and that of people close to them) interest in mind more strongly than that of strangers.

> it mean a theory that describes how a government behaves

That. How the dynamics of power actually work. How you expect people to react. And so on.

...and Then There's Physics said...

That. How the dynamics of power actually work. How you expect people to react. And so on.

Okay, but why would one expect the left to have a theory? Shouldn't it be independent of ideaology? Is the argument more that the left (supposedly) deny the theory of the behaviour of government, rather than them not having one?

rconnor said...

Rawls' Theory of Justice may also be what your looking for. (ex. the veil of ignorance is an exercise that uses people's self-interest to turn it into an equitable society.)

William Connolley said...

> why would one expect the left to have a theory?

No-one ever reads other people's comments :-( See in particular mine at 19/09/2018, 10:03.

But to repeat and expand: the theory expounded - PC - could be adopted by anyone. But we observe it adopted mostly or entirely by people on the "right" (but not by all people on the right; not even a majority). This is not too hard to understand: the theory is skeptical of the benevolence of govt, and leads naturally to the idea of minimising the powers of govt. Leftist type folks tend to be fond of collective action, and of having govts "do stuff". That shouldn't stop them adopting PC, were they being entirely logical, but weirdly enough people tend not to be entirely logical (it is somewhat like David Bellamy, whose chain of logic appears to go: don't like wind farms; wind farms are to solve GW; therefore GW is false).

So the question then becomes: do folk on the left just quietly ignore the issue (this would not be too strange; many on the right do so too) or can they come up with some other theory of how govts actually behave in practice?

> Rawls

VoI is about how you might construct in abstract the rules for society. Rawls use of it is badly wrong. But wrongly or rightly used, it has nothing to do with the *behaviour* of govts.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

The point is, your conclusion (government [corporations, football teams, families]should be minimized) does not follow from your premise. It's not even obviously related to your premise. The only question, as in any principal-agent situation, is whether the agent can and will effectively work for the principal. Your assumption that a small weak governmental agent is better is merely an assumption, ungrounded in logic or experience.

People rely on agents because they can do some things better that they can do for themselves, and for that the agent needs to be as powerful as necessary to do its job.

You may now return to your regular job flacking for Exxon.

Nathan said...

I think the issue centres around this piece of logic:
"Acceptance of this theory, of course, leads you to conclude that government should be minimised."

So there are many things/services/outcomes that society wants. And they can get these things from different providers. The central question should be, "which provider is best".

The issue around how Govts make decisions are also repeated in other organisations, so rather than concluding that Govt should be minimised, this theory leads to demands that every organisation that has power over us be minimised. The focus just on Govt here is misleading (and probably deliberate if the authors are spruiking for private industry).

We should be back looking at which method of servicing these needs are best.

We've just had two Royal Commissions here in Australia (and a third is about to start in to aged care). One into Child abuse in institutions, and one into banking and insurance. The key finding of both is that the institutions work to protect themselves ahead of the public. They do not serve better than the Govt - in these cases they were far worse.


"or can they come up with some other theory of how govts actually behave in practice" - Exactly like any other marketing company?

I think most people think/understand that Govts act in self interest and often make strange/stupid decisions. SOMETIMES, however they do work for the public 'good' or provide services that are 'good' - What I think happens is that people on the Left (whatever that is, and if you're going to use it it would be better to use the proper term 'Teh Left') believe that Leftist Govt is more likely to do public good than a Right-wing Govt.


Marco said...

"But we observe it adopted mostly or entirely by people on the "right" "

I think there is a difference between accepting a theory, and drawing ideologically convenient conclusions from that theory.

William Connolley said...

> which provider is best... this theory leads to demands that every organisation that has power over us be minimised.

Yes, agreed, to both. But of course the particular difference between govts and all others is that the govt has a monopoly on violence. Inceidentally, this post - and these comments - isn't intended to be an expostiion of PC. I don't know it well enough for that. We are, I think, focussing on only parts of ti.

Nathan said...

"But of course the particular difference between govts and all others is that the govt has a monopoly on violence."

!
I would dispute that...

Violence does happen through other organisations, and there's more kinds of violence than physical. The Royal commissions we just had in Australia show that private enterprise has been particularly violent on Australian people. Physically and emotionally. And carried on without fear until the Govt were forced to investigate.

I think the benefit of Govt is you can sack them - private industry will continue to exert their violence until found out... By the Govt...



William Connolley said...

> dispute that

Sorry, I could have been more precise. Perhaps "monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force"; or throw in a "claims". Reading the linked article would have made this clear (people seem to be curiously reluctant to follow links).

> Violence does happen

Violence does happen between private individuals too. But the point is that it is contrary to law. I did kinda expect that to be obvious. You didn't really think that I was asserting that only govts ever do anything violent, did you? That would be totally weird.

> the benefit of Govt is you can sack them

We're drifting ever further from the point, but since you've gone there: actually, the reverse of this is part of the "administrative state" problem: you can't sack it, no matter what you do to the fluff on top. And unlike private enterprise that goes bankrupt if sufficiently incompetent, there is no such constraint on govt.

Nathan said...

"You didn't really think that I was asserting that only govts ever do anything violent, did you? "

Well, I thought the point you were making was irrelevant. As the counter example I provided. Regulation is quite poor in some areas and that leads to violence by business on people (look at the Australian examples I provided).

I guess part of the issue is that we're lumping all Govts together. For example the way the Australian and English Govts operate would be different to Govt in China or Venezuela or North Korea...

I think this discussion is just a bit vague because it isn't defined; can there be a theory of Govt that encompasses the North Korean, New Zealand, and Swiss models? I don't know... I guess we can start we the idea that generally they act in their own self-interest. But is that really interesting? All organisations will act generally in their own self-interest.

What is this "administrative state"? And why can't we sack it? The bureaucracy?

Govts have gone bankrupt.... USSR. I suppose Venezuela and Zimbabwe.. Maybe Greece. Weimar Republic? I think there'd be quite few examples. I guess the issue is that some continue despite going bankrupt... Generally that's more related to being an autocracy I would think.

Perhaps the differences between all Govts around the world relates more to the degree of self interest, so NK, Ven, Zim, and US all rate very high in the self-interest stakes. Hard to quantify, though




William Connolley said...

> Venezuela and Zimbabwe

Yes, but they didn't go away. Venezuela is still there, the corrupt dictatorship still oppressing the people; were it a corp, it would be gone by now. Similarly, Zimbabwe needed a coup to get rid of Mugabe; and how much of the actual govt is still there?

> What is this "administrative state"?

Really? A genuine question I guess. But perhaps you aren't interested in Brexit, or Trump, or the general unhappiness with govt nowadays. There's a wiki page about it, but that's just about the book. You want the para beginning "Dr. Michael Greve...". Similar to Deep State.

Nathan said...


The only thing that protects people from the violence of other organisations is Govt. So we have a pact with the devil with Govt. No one has said they cant go bad. but at least we have some semblance of control... In Democracies... I think everyone would agree that Autocracies have too much power. We need to seek a happy medium, too powerful and they can be violent at a whim, and not powerful enough and they allow violence to be applied by other organisations. So it's a balancing act.

And when you restrict Govt power, it doesn't necessarily mean the people get that power - most of the time that power goes to the wealthy. Which is why the wealthy promote the idea that the Govt is the issue, so they can get that power back and become wealthier.


"But perhaps you aren't interested in Brexit, or Trump, or the general unhappiness with govt nowadays. "
I have always been unhappy with Govt - I don't see these days as especially disappointing... I think there are a lot of stupid people in power that I wish weren't. But there's not much I can do from Australia about that... But I also don't think that living under a corporate power would be better. I work in private industry - I would hate my Country to be run like that.





Nathan said...

"Yes, but they didn't go away. Venezuela is still there, the corrupt dictatorship still oppressing the people; were it a corp, it would be gone by now. Similarly, Zimbabwe needed a coup to get rid of Mugabe; and how much of the actual govt is still there?
"

Oh yeah, I did say in that post, that I saw that it was an issue that they were still there...

David B Benson said...

An application of Arrow's Theorem:

Dr. Arrow, in his 1951 thesis, listed 5 criteria required for a fair election. I'll call an election system meeting all 5 Arrow fair. He proved that only a single binary choice is Arrow fair.

In Washington state the election system consists of a primary followed by a general election. Anybody can file to run in the primary. The two contenders receiving the most votes then stand for the general election; this is independent of political party.

Since the general election is a binary choice, it is Arrow fair. But the primary is multiple choice, so not Arrow fair. Therefore the entire two part election system is not Arrow fair.

So be it. It has nothing to do with leftish or rightish tendencies or so-called theories of government.

David B Benson said...

I have recently read descriptions of articles on the behavior of various social mammals, including humans. The experiments or just observations indicate a willingness to give up some private or individual gain in order to maintain group cohesion. One paper dared to mention that repeated trials appeared to move towards Nash equilibrium.

So surely multiple party game theory with repeated games and variable coalitions is a theory of the behavior of government. Far more inclusive than PC, the problem is that it is too complex to be very predictive; far better to just study political history.

Everett F Sargent said...

Which came first, the behaviour or the government?
Google behaviour of the government (no quotes)

https://www.behaviouralinsights.co.uk/publications/behavioural-government/
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/08/11/governments-are-trying-to-nudge-us-into-better-behavior-is-it-working/?utm_term=.c6f9e08a6bc0
https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/why-government-nudges-motivate-good-behavior-by-citizens
https://gcs.civilservice.gov.uk/guidance/campaigns/behavioural-change/
https://www.theguardian.com/society/joepublic/2011/apr/20/government-can-change-peoples-behaviour
Government control of individual behavior--its right and its proper role: the first annual Rosenhaus Lecture. (1974)
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1775590/pdf/amjph00804-0094.pdf
(really nice list there, the Google search list, that is, above from the 1st seven hits, I beleve, but I've got better things to do at this rather late stage in my life)

I have no opinion or knowledge on the left's or the right's or the middle's "so called" theory of government behaviour.

Are governments flawed and/or are individuals flawed?

The title of this post should be ...

"The right has a flawed theory of the behaviour of the government?"
(i. e. a statement and not a question but with a question mark at the end, as that is the Stoat's style?)

William Connolley said...

> multiple party game theory

It might be a theory of govt, but at the moment it isn't any group's, as far as I can see.

> The title of this post should be

You're welcome to make such suggestions, but it would be reasonable to offer at least a tentative suggestion as to what such a flaw might be. Also, as I've said before, you should not assume that a majority of the "right" have even heard of PC.

> https://www.behaviouralinsights.co.uk/publications/behavioural-government/

Appears to be using the string of words in a different sense; for example: "Applying these insights to create ‘behavioural public policy’ means governments adopt a more realistic view of human behaviour than they have done in the past. Previously, many policies have been developed and executed with an expectation that people would respond to them after carefully weighing up the relevant pros and cons...". They are thinking there of tuning their policies to interact better with the behaviour of the oiks; that's rather different. I'm guessing the WAPO one is the same, but I'm out of free articles there. Ditto the next few; alas, one of the problems of Google searches; Google doesn't have the required subtlety of understanding.

The first cite does go further though: "Take the optimism bias mentioned above. The UK National Audit Office has often criticised the ‘endemic overoptimism which characterizes decisions to commit to [government] projects and the subsequent management of them’". The idea that govts (or any other institutions) could make better decisions by being aware of these problems is without a doubt true. But the advice there is all rather in the technocratic mold and ignores the (IMO more important) PC insights. So it's all very well to talk about unconscious biases and so on, but somewhat vapid if you ignore the far more important conscious but not owned up to biases. Unless you understand why the current morass exists, you can't change it.

Anonymous said...

@-WC
"monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force"

That is a feature, not a flaw.
Consider the governments that try to enforce a monopoly on the legitimate ownership of the best present means of exercising physical force, guns.
They tend to have a good deal less physical force or fatal violence than those that don't.

izen (blogger is blocking posting with my izen login??)

William Connolley said...

> feature, not a flaw

I didn't say anything to suggest it was a flaw. Indeed, it is almost definitional. In Olde Englande for example the Barons were allowed to use force, but arguably that was equivalent to the state being fractured. But it is always a good thing to remember, and another argument for minimalism: you want as few people with as few reasons to have the right to be violent towards you as possible.

I don't know anything about why Blogger blocks logins. Wordpress is often weird.

Everett F Sargent said...

How does PCT apply itself to the notion of those on the (mostly) right (over here they are usually called Republicans) who are now stacking the SCOTUS and the lower courts with windnuts of their own ilk? Moreso, it would currently appear than in the past.

"so long as the identification of the individual with the group does not extend to the point of making all individual utility functions identical"

How Trump (the Rump Chump) is shifting the most important courts in the country
https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/politics/trump-federal-judges/?utm_term=.1fce7c8f7160

Sorry for the WaPo link.

BTW, is PCT truly a right sided ideology or some such? Teh wiki appears to be mostly from a NPOV AFAIK.

"The middle has a deeply flawed theory of government behaviours?"

Better title.

William Connolley said...

The Right seems to have done a better job of realising the importance of interpreting the law. That isn't particularly PC, that goes back to Hobbes. Why now? It isn't "now"; it's a trend that's been going on for decades. the conventional explanation I read is that actually making law is increasingly gridlocked, so to "get things done" people turn to the courts.

Anonymous said...

PCT as you described it seems commonsensical. I have no objections to the bare bones you laid out.
Like many leftists, I'm in favor of minimising government. The main difference between my politics and your probably has to do with what exactly we call government as well as how one might go about minimising it. Hint: I don't subscribe to classical liberal notions such as natural law.
Since I don't even know if this comment is going to be accepted by your software or for that matter whether you have any interest in my opinion, please forgive me for not elaborating further at this point.

William Connolley said...

> Like many leftists, I'm in favor of minimising government

I'm afraid you'll have to elaborate on that if you want to be convincing. With stuff like https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-09-23/labour-would-force-u-k-companies-to-hand-10-of-equity-to-staff (or the USANian version https://www.vox.com/2018/8/15/17683022/elizabeth-warren-accountable-capitalism-corporations) floating around, it's hard to see leftists as keen on small govt.

Anonymous said...

I didn't say most leftists are keen on small govt, only that many are. I realize I don't speak for all leftists. Obviously many moderate left-wingers are in favor of various boondoggles while many in the far left are in favor of authoritarian regimes. But these people do not represent the left as a whole anymore than I do.
I don't want to be convincing. I realize I can't argue you out of your beliefs. All I can do is to volunteer information and perhaps answer your questions. What you do with that is your buisness. If you don't change your mind, that's fine my me.

You've linked to articles about a couple of reform proposals I'm not familiar with. For the sake of the argument, I'll assume the reporting is accurate. These proposals show that influential leftists within both Labour and the Democratic party (parties I'm glad to say I have nothing whatsoever to do with) do not shy away from proposals that would enlarge the governments of the USA and the UK. I don't think anybody disputes that.
At the same time, these proposals reflect a concern about the size of the government. In particular, they incorportate old leftist ideas which might actually shrink governments if they weren't mixed in with new taxes, new government departments and such. So I would rather try to reason people who back these proposals into amending them into leaner and more sensible versions than to attack their underlying principles.
Instead of going into the specifics of proposals I assume neither of us cares much about, perhaps we could use the matter of carbon taxes as an example. I'm in favor of a simple tax the proceeds of which would either be handed back to taxpayers or replace taxes such as the VAT which pointlessly repress formal economic activity. I've occasionally argued with leftists about this so I realize many of us would prefer to fund renewable subsides and suchlike. Some of us even like tax hikes in principle because they do not trust the average taxpayers with their money. I on the other hand do not trust either governments or the renewable industry to police themselves and prevent grossly inefficient outcomes. So I disagree with many leftists about government and its role in society. Yet we all agree with the principle of a carbon tax. And what makes us leftists instead of right-wingers who happen to recognize the need for a carbon tax is that we also agree on most of the other core leftist issues... none of which has much to do with the size of the government. People have on occasion taken me for a right-winger but a more substantial discussion disabused them. Likewise, academic political questionnaires put me very far to the left of the political spectrum.

Tom said...

What is small and what is big? What is right-sized?

At what percentage of GDP does 'normal' government go from small to right-sized to big?

Or is percentage of GDP an incorrect metric? If so, what should be used?

I would recommend looking at other benchmarks and noticing what government costs are as a percentage of GDP.

For example, look at the high rankers in the Global Happiness Index and note what the percentage of GDP they are paying to government. Or countries scoring best on longevity.

It's something that could be done in half an hour. Wish I had half an hour...

William Connolley said...

> only that many are

I'm still not convinced. You might know some individuals, but can you point to any major (or failing that, minor) "left" political party arguing for it?

> these proposals reflect a concern about the size of the government

That isn't obvious to me. I think that "size of the govt" isn't even considered. They have other objectives, and that they would increase govt size and reach is not considered a problem.

> they incorportate old leftist ideas which might actually shrink governments if

I missed that. Which "old leftist ideas" are you thinking of?

> amending them into leaner and more sensible versions

Again, I don't understand. Warren's proposal for "corporate charters" or whatever can't be amended into anything that doesn't increase govt.

> carbon taxes

Yes; see other comments here.

> At what percentage

I'm not terribly interested in that, because it isn't an important question, IMO. We're so far away from what I'd think sensible that there's no need to try to set a line, just a direction of travel.

Anonymous said...

> can you point to any major (or failing that, minor) "left" political party arguing for it?

Nope. Parties genuinely in favor of small government are few and far between and they are typically centrist. Usually, the small govt people work across parties or outside of parties.
The small govt perspective is even more marginalized among leftist parties because many small government leftists are hostile to elections to begin with.

> That isn't obvious to me. I think that "size of the govt" isn't even considered.
> I missed that. Which "old leftist ideas" are you thinking of?
> Again, I don't understand. Warren's proposal for "corporate charters" or whatever can't be amended into anything that doesn't increase govt.

Since you seem interested, let's talk Warren instead of carbon.

The article states that "At a time of low levels of public trust in institutions, Warren’s proposals don’t ask anyone to have faith that government officials are going to make good use of resources."
It also makes much of how Warren's proposals are an alternative to social programs, wouldn't cost anything and so forth. All this evidences if not a genuine concern about the size of the govt, at least a concern about how small govt people will perceive the proposals... which would of course only be common sense for a national-level US politician.

You've apparently missed the main point of Warren's proposals which is to make US corporate governance more like Germany's through codetermination which is an old reformist approach to redistribute power from both capitalists and government officials to workers. A successful implementation would naturally shrink social as well as law enforcement spending and would open the way to abolishing or shrinking business regulations and regulatory offices.
The pitfall is of course that it might actually end up redistributing power to trade union officials and suchlike. Warren apparently intends to leverage codetermination to reduce collusion between capitalists and politicans (something else which would shrink government) but according to my quick read the article has nothing to say about collusion between politicians and union officials or indeed about union politics in general would be quite the blindspot if one was seriously entertaining codetermination.
The burdensome charters could be dumped in favor of straight codetermination (which Warren's proposals seem to shy away from) or possibly a board composition more in line with the stated objectives of the charters (that is, inclusive of customer and community reps).

Chrishod said...

Asking what the 'left' theory of government is, is like asking for any other theory blind to generality and blind to reality.

The real theory, of which 'public choice' theory is an unsavoury strait-jacketed mess, is the theory of - the problem of - agency. In all situations where people have to serve others as well as themselves, there will be a conflict between looking after their own immediate interests and looking after the wider interest. The problem of agency has a really big literature and a lot of real analysis of what actually happens in particular situations, and of how to minimise the problem and maximise the service of wider purposes.

There's nothing in 'public choice' theory that goes beyond the problem of agency. There's a lot left out: most obviously, that the problem of agency applies to office bearers (in corporations, in trusts, in agencies, in government) and to employees (even in unincorporated employment). But the purpose of 'public choice' theory is to elide the difference between the real, and obviously true, observation that all agents may pursue personal interests contrary to their wider obligations, and the (anti-governmental and empirically false) contention that in governmental work no-one actually serves any wider obligations and all purported service of wider purposes is merely a mask for self-service.

Even in its limited anti-government function, 'public choice' theory is incoherent rubbish. The very argument that government action is wholly captured by sectional interests treats people as perfectly able to look after those sectional interests rather than their personal interests. At that point the whole edifice turns out to be an illusion.

In the real world, most people have to cope with the problem of capture and diversion of effort across all sorts of activity. Most people have to work out strategies for minimising problems and getting better outcomes, alike for employment, incorporation, and administrative agency.

So the question whether 'leftists' or others unpersuaded by the views of the Mont Pelerinistas have 'a theory of the behaviour of government' is simply question-begging. Most people don't need a theory confined to government alone and pretending to have no application to other areas of representation, agency or service. Indeed, no people need such a theory; only propagandists put one forward.

William Connolley said...

OK, so you don't like (your caricature of) PC; many on the left don't. But the question wasn't "do you like PC" the question was "do the left have a theory of govt behaviour". Your answer appears to be that the left doesn't need a theory of govt, which I think is obviously wrong.

Chrishod said...

My answer was that a demand for a theory specific to government is twisted, like a demand for a theory of military action by the USA (or, for me, Australia) only. There is no demand for, or need for, a 'government specific' theory. The 'public choice' idea is just a label for pretending that somehow a familiar, general problem only applies, or applies in a unique way, to government. You think the left needs a theory of government, and not having one is obviously wrong. I think well established theories of agency, applied to government as to other representative situations, apply - and they are the theories applicable to government. You only need a government-specific theory because you want to treat government as radically separate from every other human activity. I don't.

Nor do I caricature 'public choice'. I don't need to: it is a caricature of argument, and devoid of serious analysis or study.

William Connolley said...

I don't agree with your view on PC, but doubt I can convince you otherwise, so won't try.

Your theory of govt behaviour, then, is the agency problem. That is acceptable; there was no requirement that the theory had to be govt-specific.

But what you've failed to do is show that this theory is held by any of "the left". You appear to believ it yourself, though I'm not sure you've accepted the obvious consequences. But do you think that any major leftist type parties or organisations espouse it, in relation to govt behaviour?

Chrishod said...

Turn that around. What major leftist type party or organisation doesn't, clearly, support and take the view that the problem of agency needs to be dealt with? It's the leftist type parties and organisations that forced the Australian commission of enquiry into banking, insurance and superannuation, after all: a commission which has demonstrated that the major regulators have been captured by the big banks, insurers and for-profit superannuation funds; a commission which has demonstrated that conservative governments have been particularly active in giving public cover for that misconduct.

Agency problems are really important to all the great free market thinkers. That's why, for many of them, limited liability was strongly rejected. Agency problems are really important to all the great progressive thinkers too. And views range pretty widely.

The problem of agency is implicit in policy recommendations by left, right, and ambidextrous parties and organisations. There's no reason why a particular version of or view on this should be labelled 'left'. And there are good reasons why people with a range of views of this kind would not see any particular value in a government-specific, and government-denying, fudge like 'public choice'.

Your post - interesting, as always! - claimed that 'public choice' was a government-specific theory with strong implications; that it is essentially adopted only on the right; and that not having a government-specific theory was therefore a problem of blindness on the left. That is a non-sequitur and led several comments above to challenge the 'small government' conclusion you think follows from 'public choice' theory. Those comments seemed to me to dispute the attempt of 'public choice' arguments to confine their effect to government and governmental bodies.

You did require that the leftist theory you demanded had to be government-specific, implicitly and expressly, until you considered my argument to the contrary. That's what you were doing above, in comments like your 'Marxist, but no one says what it is' point. You did want to see rejection of the government-specific as if it were a contention that 'the left doesn't need a theory of government' and that this would be self evidently a failure to meet a necessary step in thinking about government and government action.

I don't think your post survives acknowledgment that 'public choice' can be answered from wider perspectives, not only by a correspondingly narrow government-specific theory.

William Connolley said...

> What major leftist type party or organisation doesn't, clearly, support and take the view that the problem of agency needs to be dealt with?

I can't think of a single one that does. Perhaps you could provide a link to the manifesto or other such doc of one that does?

> Agency problems are really important to all the great free market thinkers

Yes, indeed. But the left isn't notable for it's support of free markets, quite the reverse, and AFAIK there are no leftist "great" FMTs.

> that 'public choice' was a government-specific theory with strong implications

Yes.

> that it is essentially adopted only on the right

Sort of. "only on the right" I think is correct, but not (as repeatedly said) universally on the right.

> and that not having a government-specific theory was therefore a problem of blindness on the left

No, I didn't say that. I said that the left didn't have a theory of govt behaviour (in fact I didn't even say that. I said that others had said that, and asked if anyone could provide counter examples. So far, everyone has failed to do so). I did not say that the left's theory had to be specific to govt.

> You did require that the leftist theory you demanded had to be government-specifi

No.