Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Colonialism, Libertarianism, and Interest-Group Democracy

I am a big fan of democracy, not just in the lofty sense of legitimacy and consent of the governed and whatnot, but in the sordid sense of interest group politics.  For instance, I was struck by Steven Wilkinson's argument that communal violence is a function of the electoral role of minorities (PDF).  If Wilkinson is right, nominally decentralized violence is actually largely within the control of the government, and so communal riots are much less likely where minorities are in the government's electoral coalition or are "swing voters."  This isn't a straightforward reason that democracy is superior (minorities without electoral power remain unprotected), but it shows that democracy can be crucial to people's well-being completely aside from its abstract legitimacy.

Democracy can protect people mechanically, structurally. As LBJ said, "But we can't legislate human dignity—we can legislate to give a man a vote and a voice in his own government.  Then with his vote and his voice he is equipped with a very potent weapon to guarantee his own dignity."  (This is from p. 80 of The Years of Lyndon Johnson:  The Passage of Power, by Robert Caro.)

So, the Irish potato famine.  Throughout the famine (or at least for most of its duration), Ireland was a net exporter of food.  In other words, considered as a nation, Ireland was more than self-sufficient in food.  But of course, the food that could still be produced (presumably wheat, beef, that sort of thing) was in the hands of wealthy landowners, whereas poor people had no food and no money to buy it.

Had Ireland been self-governing, I have little doubt that it would have banned the export of food, just as Argentina banned the export of beef a few years ago in an effort to lower its price.  And had Ireland banned the export of food, the price of food would have likewise dropped substantially and it would have been more affordable for the Irish population.  It seems that this is what happened in 1782-83, with the predicted results.  But throughout the 1840s, no export restrictions were imposed and so Irish food continued to flow to English mouths while Irish people died of starvation by the hundreds of thousands.

A libertarian might respond along these lines:  Banning food exports would have been a violation of liberty.  The price system is the best way to allocate resources, and the price system was putting food beyond the reach of hundreds of thousands of Irish people.  Therefore the right outcome was for hundreds of thousands of Irish to die.  Any interference with this outcome would, by definition, have made the world worse off.  So, thank God Ireland was not self-governing over this time period.  (Note that in 1846 import restrictions were lifted, allowing the import of cheap grain from outside Ireland.  Libertarians would presumably endorse this reform, but even with cheap imports, prices were too high for many Irish and the famine continued.)

And so this is basically why I am not a libertarian.  It's not that liberty is unimportant, but rather that the free-market outcome is often intolerable.  The political allocation of resources means that it will reflect our values, or at least it will reflect the values of whatever constituencies control the government.  That is not always a good thing, but it makes it very unlikely that millions of people will starve to death while their country has an abundance of food. Again, this is a mechanical consequence that has nothing to do with abstract notions of legitimate government. If anything it is an interest-group result that involves trampling the property rights of the wealthy minority (the landowners seeking to export food). It is a matter of putting power in the hands of people so that their interests are very likely to be served. As Gladstone said in his Home Rule speech to Parliament (note, this was in 1886, long after the famine had ended):
You were prepared to make good laws for the Colonies [he means England's American colonies, I think]. You did make good laws for the Colonies according to the best of your light. The Colonists were totally dissatisfied with them. You accepted their claim to make their own laws. Ireland, in our opinion, has a claim not less urgent.
In other words, it is not enough to make good laws "according to the best of your light."  That is all well and good, but it doesn't prevent famines.  Self-government prevents famines.  Nothing in English civilization (despite its acknowledged greatness) was as powerful a force for human dignity as self-government. It was English blindness to this reality that prolonged its colonial occupation of India and its other colonies.

Now it is true that there are known pathologies of majoritarian government, including interest-group rent-seeking that makes society as a whole worse off. But the right way to control this is with a lower-case-c constitution that restrains rent-seeking and preserves a large role for the market in the allocation of resources. If you instead enshrine property rights and strip the government of any role in allocating resources, then you get obscene results like a famine in a country with a richly productive agricultural sector.


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