Why Do We Need Human Rights? (36): The Economic Case Against Democracy

Democracy is a human right. But how do we justify this right? One common argument is that democracies tend to be wealthier than non-democracies. However, there’s some disagreement about this argument: not about the goodness of wealth and wealth-enhancing institutions, but about whether democracies are in fact such institutions. Impressive economic growth rates in non-democratic countries such as China have planted doubts in many people’s minds.

Some time ago, I offered a rather “philosophical” argument against the view that democracies perform worse economically than some types of authoritarian government (i.e. China-style). But in fact we’re dealing with empirically verifiable hypotheses here. So I looked for some numbers and found this article by Dani Rodrik:

The relationship between a nation’s politics and its economic prospects is one of the most fundamental – and most studied – subjects in all of social science. Which is better for economic growth – a strong guiding hand that is free from the pressure of political competition, or a plurality of competing interests that fosters openness to new ideas and new political players? …

Democracies not only out-perform dictatorships when it comes to long-term economic growth, but also outdo them in several other important respects. They provide much greater economic stability, measured by the ups and downs of the business cycle. They are better at adjusting to external economic shocks (such as terms-of-trade declines or sudden stops in capital inflows). They generate more investment in human capital – health and education. And they produce more equitable societies.

Authoritarian regimes, by contrast, ultimately produce economies that are as fragile as their political systems. Their economic potency, when it exists, rests on the strength of individual leaders, or on favorable but temporary circumstances. They cannot aspire to continued economic innovation or to global economic leadership. (source)

The darling of the “authoritarian=efficient” crowd is, of course, China. China has indeed performed extremely well economically under a rather authoritarian government. However, that government is much less authoritarian than it was during the post-WWII decades of stagnation and extreme poverty. So maybe it’s the relative move towards greater freedom that is the true cause of China’s economic performance, rather than its authoritarian government per se.

Moreover, China has done very well in terms of growth and poverty reduction, but in terms of levels of prosperity it’s still way behind most countries that are much more free. Its astounding progress is partly due to the very low starting point that was engineered by its authoritarian rulers.

And finally, the supposed economic success of authoritarianism in China – if it exists – isn’t necessarily proof of the economic ability of authoritarianism in general (authoritarian disaster stories are unfortunately far more common than authoritarian success stories). It may not even be proof of the economic ability of authoritarianism in China, since correlation doesn’t imply causation, especially not if there are only very few observations: China’s economic success may be due to other factors – and maybe this success would have been even greater without authoritarian government.

The economic case for authoritarianism is a bit like this: usually, people don’t return from the dead. But there’s this one guy, Lazarus, who did. Some claim that there was this other fellow, Jesus, who done the deed and made Lazarus walk again. There are no other Jesuses around, and this one Jesus only did his trick once. Nobody quite knows how he did it. Some say he just happened to be around when it occurred and people put one and one together. Lazarus would have walked anyway, perhaps even sooner had this other fellow not stolen all the attention.

Migration and Human Rights (40): The Economic Efficiency Argument for Open Borders

Immigration restrictions are often defended on the basis of economic arguments. I’ve repeated often enough why these arguments won’t work (see here and here for example). What I want to do now is spell out one of the strongest economic arguments against immigration restrictions and in favor of open borders, and I mean completely open borders (which doesn’t mean that completely open borders are necessarily the right thing to do; there may be other arguments against completely open borders that override the economic ones in favor).

Restraining the movement of people between national territories creates the same inefficiencies as restraining the movement of goods and services. Free international trade in goods and services increases overall wealth and prosperity, as I’ve argued here and here. Trade enhances specialization and the use of comparative advantage. It’s easier to grow bananas in the tropics and then trade them, than to make every country grow its own bananas. Similarly, free movement of people makes it possible to make better use of people’s talents. Just as it was an inefficient waste to relegate women to the household – not to mention a gross violation of their rights – we are now depriving the world of good workers in all fields of life because of immigration restrictions. Potential immigrants have a hard time going to other countries in order to develop their talents, and can’t move freely around the world to use their talents. Those of you who worry about the effects of a so-called brain drain should read this.

More on open borders is here.

Income Inequality (25): And Economic (In)Efficiency

As I stated before, economic theory suggests that income inequality is a necessary price to pay for economic efficiency: unequal rewards incite those with talents, skill and perseverance to innovate and to be productive, so they can reap higher benefits. Ultimately, this serves the welfare of the whole of society (a process which is then caricatured in trickle down economics). The mirror image of this is reductions of inequality that take away incentives for doing well, and that therefore result in economic inefficiency and less prosperity for all.

Tyler Cowen has framed it like this:

Redistribution of wealth has some role in maintaining a stable democracy and preventing starvation. But the power of wealth redistribution to produce net value is quite limited. The power of wealth creation to produce net value is extraordinary … We should be putting our resources, including our advocacy and our intellectual resources, into wealth creation as much as we can. (source)

But is that really true? There is some evidence that reducing inequality through redistribution actually promotes wealth creation. What’s the mechanism? Sam Bowles claims to have identified one element of it:

Inequality breeds conflict, and conflict breeds wasted resources … [I]n a very unequal society, the people at the top have to spend a lot of time and energy keeping the lower classes obedient and productive. Inequality leads to an excess of what Bowles calls “guard labor”. (source)

More about that effect here and here. Other parts of the mechanism through which inequality impedes and equality promotes growth may be the following:

Poverty causes credit constraints. This stops the poor investing in businesses or education; the low aspirations caused by poverty can have the same effect. … Inequality can create the threat of redistribution which can blunt incentives to invest. Or it can lead to state interventions – such as the minimum wage – that harm wealth creation. … The backlash against wealth-creating processes such as globalization, offshoring and private equity in the UK and US are founded in the view that they create inequality. If we had better redistribution mechanisms (say, a basic income) such backlashes would be reduced, and the wealth creation process enhanced. (source)

That sounds persuasive and I want to see some evidence. In the meantime, it’s perhaps a bit glib to announce that “the power of wealth redistribution to produce net value is quite limited”.

What is Democracy? (52): Predictability or Uncertainty?

Why would this question be even remotely interesting? Well, I can see several reasons. Maybe not in the West but elsewhere in the world democracy is often rejected because it supposedly undermines predictability and hence economic performance. A strong central government that doesn’t have to worry about the next election is said to be more efficient, economically speaking, because it can apply long term planning. Talkative democracies with their frequent elections, rotation in office and often federal structures are simply unable to plan and are forced to pander to the short term interests of a lot of small groups because elections are at stake. Also, people seem to prefer predictability over uncertainty in general, not just because of the economy.

Let’s just bracket the question whether or not uncertainty is in general a bad thing, and whether or not we want to limit it (uncertainty is and always will be a fact of life so limiting it is all we could do if we decide that that is what we want). Those are not questions I’m particularly interested in since the answers can reasonably go both ways (planning can be good or bad, certainty can be comforting or stifling etc.). I’ll focus on the relationship between democracy and uncertainty. Is it true, as some authoritarians claim, that democracy promotes uncertainty? Yes, for some reasons, and no, for others.

There are indeed some forces that compel democratic politicians to favor the short term. Elections need to be won, and voters naturally value short term benefits more than long term benefits, even if these long term benefits are much larger (this is called time preference). They have some good reasons for this: maybe they think that they won’t be around in the long term (or that the probability of being around decreases when the time horizon is further in the future), or maybe they don’t believe in the long term: since life is unpredictable, especially in the long term, it’s better to count on short term benefits, even if they are small in comparison, than on large but unlikely long term benefits. If that is how voters think, then they will favor politicians who focus on the short term. Democracy therefore exacerbates life’s inherent unpredictability.

Also, voters are correct in thinking that politicians have more power over the short term than over the long term, which is another reason to favor politicians who promise short term benefits. This “short-termism” may be misguided for other reasons – especially when the short term benefits are detrimental to long term benefits (e.g. driving SUVs) – but it’s indeed to some extent a fact of life in a democracy, and one which, by definition, produces uncertainty because it makes long term planning very difficult if not impossible.

It’s also true that some non-democracies have proven themselves to be better long term planners, although most non-democracies have been short term kleptocracies that ruined their national economies. Dictatorships have also shown that long term planning doesn’t need to be benevolent: the long term planning they engaged in mostly focused on the long term survival of the ruling class, not the long term benefits of the people or of business. Predictability then means eliminating opposition and dissent. And even if prosperity is the motivation, the result is often the destruction of freedom.

Another reason why democracies are particularly unpredictable is the game of action and reaction. In a democracy, the majority has to take into account reactions of the minority and reactions of a future majority. (Democratic minorities have some power, e.g. their rights cannot be violated by the will of the majority). When people react to what you’re doing, you can never be certain that the actual consequences of your actions correspond to the imagined ones. A carpenter working in isolation can be quite sure that the table he’s making will look a lot like the one he imagined. A democratic politician will most often see things happening quite differently from the way he or she expected them to happen. The plurality of a democracy means that many different kinds of reactions can interfere with actions. As a result, there’s unpredictability. Goals will not be achieved exactly the way they were intended, or will not even be achieved at all.

A democracy does not try to suppress or eliminate reactions and contradictions. It tries to ritualize them, soften them and take the violence out of them, but it needs them. It needs conflicts, opposition, criticism, plurality, rotation etc. Democracy is a game of action and reaction that is institutionalized and accepted as an inevitable fact of life in a community with different people and different goals. It cannot exist without events initiated by some and reacted upon by others. Hence democrats embrace uncertainty and unpredictability, however unpopular this may be. They don’t accept that there is necessarily a purpose, a clear plan unfolding in history, an evolution toward a certain goal, a plan or a process that can be known in advance and implemented in a predictable way. They are weary of planning because they don’t believe that planners can have the necessary knowledge to plan and because of the tyrannical nature of planning: planning has to result in the exclusion of reaction.

However, let’s not exaggerate. Non-democracies can also be quite unpredictable, and beside the fact that short-termism isn’t an exclusively democratic vice there are other things that disprove the claim that democracy is especially bad for certainty and predictability. Democracies are rule based, and much more so than dictatorships. They favor the rule of law, which means that public policy is much less impacted by changing individuals. Governments can only do what the laws allow them to do, and their actions are therefore much more predictable. You could say: so what, they can always change the laws. True, but only within the confines of a constitution which is incredibly hard to alter. Judges in a democracy have the power of judicial review and can undo acts of legislation that violate the fundamental rules of a democracy.

This “hard-coding” of the constitution shows that a democracy, like any form of government, wants to be certain of its survival. In that sense, it needs predictability, but not predictability of policy. A democracy tries to eliminate only anti-democratic reaction and opposition, not opposition to policy. An entrenched constitution is one way it does this; asking people to promise respect for it is another way. Promises produce some certainty, a certainty and predictability based on freedom. Promises imply freedom, because a promise is only valid if it is voluntary. This kind of certainty is therefore radically different from certainty produced by the elimination of reaction. In a tyranny, everybody is certain – to some extent – that the regime will survive because nobody can or dares to react, or because indoctrination and propaganda have conditioned people in such a way that they do not even contemplate reaction. In a democracy, there is relative certainty because enough people keep their promise to respect the regime, and because there are institutions enforcing respect for the basic rules. Those promises are the rationale behind the so-called “pledge of allegiance“.

Of course, this does not mean that everything in a democracy is free and voluntary. There has to be some coercion because some people will not make or keep the necessary promises. There will be coercion, not of promises, but of reactions. Promises cannot be coerced. Anti-democratic reaction is the only type of reaction that is eliminated in a democracy. Every other kind of reaction is cultivated.

An anti-democratic reaction is somewhat of a contradiction in terms. It is because of democracy that reaction is possible: democracy softens and hence promotes reaction. If reaction becomes an activity without risk, as is the case in a democracy, then reaction blossoms. Reacting against democracy is not only ungrateful, it is self-destructive.

But apart from this predictability of the institutions necessary for unpredictable political life, it is clear that the focus of democracy is on conflict, contradictions, opposition, reactions, unpredictability and uncertainty. Freedom does not always go hand in hand with control, although on an individual level this may be the rule. An individual is free if he controls his life. But a society is not free if people try to control consequences and the future. Unpredictability does not mean that people are not free to choose their future. They are just not certain that the future will be the one they have chosen.

The freedom to react disappears when politicians want to be certain of their goals. They want to be like a lone craftsman who makes a product without much interference from other people and other goals. Society is in need of a blueprint and a makeover. Reality has to be made in order to conform to the plan or the model. It is no longer the uncertain and unpredictable result of human action and reaction but the product of a plan and of the concerted efforts to realize it. Freedom is replaced by the execution of a plan and of the orders of those who best know the plan and the means to realize it. (Arendt was one of the first to make this argument).

Politics becomes a goal producer, and is no longer the platform on which different goals can be shown, can interact and can fight peacefully for supremacy. People become a means for the realization of the plan, instruments or material for the creation of society. And if they are resistant material they are forced into line, or perhaps they are even “waste”. In any case, the application of force to the materials is necessary in order to shape them. If you want to create society, you have no other means but people. People will have to be transformed. Their thinking has to be conditioned by way of education, propaganda, indoctrination, punishment, forced labor or genetic manipulation. Perhaps even selective abortion, euthanasia or simply extermination. Some materials do not allow transformation or improvement.

However, it is far from certain that the elimination of reaction is possible. It may be counterproductive and create more reaction than initially anticipated. Plurality is probably unavoidable, and therefore uncertainty as well.

More on the future here and here. More on democracy here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (29): Should Taxation Be a Tool For Economic Efficiency or For Social Justice?

Taxation is a recurring theme in political discussions between people of the left and right. People of the left see taxation as a tool for social justice. They tend to prefer rather high taxation rates and a progressive taxation system:

  • High taxation rates bring in revenues that are large enough to enable the government to spend on programs and transfers that are designed to promote social justice: unemployment benefits, poverty reduction policies, education, healthcare etc.
  • Progressive taxation rates are just because they impose relatively (and not just absolutely) higher taxes on people who are more able to pay, and, in addition, reduce income inequality and hence realize another goal of social justice.

People on the right usually favor low tax rates and a non-progressive taxation system (either a proportional system in which everyone pays the same share of their income, or a regressive system in which everyone pays more or less the same amount in taxes). Rather than on social justice, they focus on the economic effects of taxation.

  • They reject high taxation rates because they claim that these high rates discourage people and are a disincentive to hard work, effort and investment. Because high rates limit effort and investment, they also limit productivity, innovation, international competitiveness and job creation.
  • They also reject progressive tax rates because high tax rates for high incomes discourage those people who work relatively hard (they work hard supposedly because they earn a lot) and who are most likely to innovate, to be productive and competitive and to create jobs.
  • However, they don’t necessarily favor regressive taxes because they are equally hostile to high tax rates for low income people, albeit for other reasons. High taxes for low income people discourage them from entering the labor market and hence inflate unemployment. Still, they claim that the worst damage is done by high taxes on the higher incomes, which is the reason they reserve particular scorn for progressive taxation systems. Because high tax rates for the wealthy punish the most productive elements in a society, the whole of society suffers. More productive people will limit their productivity because they don’t want to fall into a higher tax bracket, and the money they pay in taxes can’t be invested in the economy. High tax rates, especially for the rich, have an unacceptable cost in terms of economic efficiency. Keeping taxes low, on the contrary, and allowing wealthy people to use their money in the economy, will ultimately benefit everyone (this is the so-called Trickle-Down theory).

Of course, this distinction between left and right is a caricature. Most people on the left are also concerned about economic efficiency, and most on the right are not insensitive to questions of social justice. The extremes are hardly ever encountered in real life: no one wants to limit taxes to such an extent that economic efficiency is promoted but no money is left for justice, and no one wants to put tax rates at such a high level that there is ultimately no more economy to tax. (The latter concern is expressed in the famous Laffer Curve arguing that beyond a certain level of tax rates government revenues in fact decrease instead of increase. At very high rates there is no longer any incentive for a rational taxpayer to earn any income and hence tax revenues will decline while tax rates increase. However, it isn’t clear what “very” in the previous sentence actually means and where exactly the tipping point is situated).

Personally, I believe that the concerns of both right and left are justified and need to be balanced, and that too much focus on either the element of efficiency or justice is detrimental to the other element. On the one hand, there’s only so much money a government can raise without wrecking the economy, and justice isn’t only about spending money (there can even be perverse effects such as unemployment traps, welfare dependency etc.). On the other hand, there’s only so much an efficient economy can do to realize social justice all by itself and quasi-automatically (remember the invisible hand…). To quote Matthew Yglesias’ sarcastic comment on the skyrocketing incomes of the U.S. top 400 earners in the decades leading up to the 2009 recession:

As is well-known, the Top 400 are considerably more talented than the rest of us. And [the] decline in their tax rates has created exciting new incentives for them to apply their talents. And that, in turn, is why the 2000s were a so much more economically successful decade than the 1990s, not just for the Top 400 but for the rest of us as well. Thanks to their skyrocketing incomes and falling tax rates, we’re currently [during the 2008-2009 recession, FS] all enjoying the fruits of prosperity, rapid growth, and low unemployment. Thanks rich guys! (source)

A similar sentiment is expressed in this clip from the Daily Show (skip to the 4th minute or so).

I believe taxes in the U.S. are relatively low and can be raised without too much harm to economic efficiency. The resulting government revenues could then be spent on improving the social safety net and promoting social justice. It’s difficult to imagine for a European that a country such as the U.S. doesn’t offer health insurance to millions of its citizens. Also, unemployment benefits are quite stingy in the U.S., both in terms of eligibility and duration: only one third of the unemployed qualify for benefits and only for 26 weeks (extendable during recessions if the Republicans don’t object, as they infamously did beginning of 2010).

The system of unemployment benefits could easily be improved without perverse effects or harm to economic efficiency. And there are other areas of possible improvement as well.

However, as a European in Europe, I think there’s a strong argument that the social safety net in Europe (at least in some countries) has harmed European competitiveness, labor market participation and innovation.

Still, is there evidence of this? What do the data say about high tax rates harming economic efficiency, in Europe and in general? Is the conservative case against taxes as strong as it seems? I’m afraid not. There’s some evidence that the effect of reasonably rather than extremely high rates on economic efficiency is minimal at best. Here’s more evidence from Lane Kenworthy about the U.S. and other affluent countries (always keeping in mind that correlation doesn’t imply causation and that the absence of a large negative effect of high taxes doesn’t preclude the possibility that lower taxes would have had a large positive effect). One measure of economic efficiency is economic growth. If we plot economic growth rates for the U.S. against tax rates for the wealthy we see that higher tax rates lead to more growth. But of course there can be catch-up effect: higher rates producing their effects only years later. That’s taken into account in these graphs, which also show that an international comparison doesn’t prove that countries with higher tax rates have lower growth.

If we have a look at the data about the effect of high tax rates on unemployment (another conservative concern), we also see that we shouldn’t panic about taxes.

Now, if there is no good reason not to tax at a moderately high level, based on concerns about economic efficiency, the question remains whether there is a good reason to tax based on social justice reasons. Given the caveat that social justice isn’t all about government spending (I argued <a href="http://here that it is primarily about something else) and that such spending can in some cases have perverse effects (see above), I do believe that some spending is necessary in some cases, and that relatively high tax rates are necessary to produce the revenues required for this spending.

Again following Kenworthy, I believe that relatively high tax rates are acceptable and even necessary to create the revenues required for social justice policies, but that progressive tax rates in themselves don’t do the job of reducing income inequality, contrary to what is often claimed as a justification for progressive rates. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t reduce income inequality (it’s quite high in the U.S.) – there are good reasons to try. It just means that progressive taxation in itself won’t do the job. The important thing is to have high tax revenues which can then be spent in transfers and services that reduce income inequality and achieve other goals of social justice. Yet, I still think a progressive system is required, not because of its supposed effects but simply because it is just in itself, compared to proportional or regressive systems. A person with more income can afford to pay, not merely more in an absolute sense but more in the sense of a larger share of his or her income.