Sep 07 2016

Folkraed: A New Approach to Government – The Second Problem With the Way Things Are: Bad Voters

Category: books,economics,government,history,law,policy,politics,rightsJames @ 8:20 am

Last post we talked about problems with our politicians, but most voters aren’t any better. In fact, they’re often worse. Most politicians at least know something about the major issues of the day; most voters don’t.

Economists say that voters’ ignorance is rational: because each persons’ vote has such a small marginal impact on an election result, it doesn’t make sense to spend much time learning about the candidates or issues. What makes sense for each voter to do on an individual level, though, has disastrous consequences in the aggregate. The result is collective stupidity.

And rational ignorance isn’t the only problem—natural ignorance is too. Some people are dumber than others, yet everyone’s vote counts the same. Many good, sensible policies can’t be enacted because ignorant voters misunderstand them and oppose them on spurious grounds, often because the media and the entertainment industry have warped popular perceptions about what is right and true. Elected representatives thus sometimes can’t do what makes the most sense because ignorant constituents will vote them out of office if they do.

Surveys since the 1950s have consistently shown that most Anericans are poorly informed about basic, important civic facts about our country, government, and political situation. A majority of Americans were unable to answer sixty percent of such basic questions. Astoundingly, a majority of Americans didn’t know the answers to questions about

definitions of key terms such as liberal, conservative, primary elections, or the bill of rights; knowledge of many individual and collective rights guaranteed by the Constitution; the names or issue stands of most public officials below the level of president or governor; candidate and party stands on many important issues of the day; key social conditions such as the unemployment rate or the percentage of the public living in poverty or without health insurance; how much of the federal budget is spent on defense, foreign aid, or social welfare; and so on.*

Defenders of our current system may ask, isn’t having a republican form of government designed to solve this problem? We elect representatives who can inform themselves about the issues and vote for what would be best for us, so what difference does it make if voters are ill-informed? A lot, actually. How can an ill-informed citizen know how to pick the best representative in the first place? Indeed, research shows that people’s

political knowledge seems to increase citizens’ ability to consistently connect their policy views to their evaluations of public officials and political parties, as well as to their political behavior. For example, more-informed citizens are more likely to identify with the political party, approve of the performance of office holders, and vote for candidates whose policy stands are most consistent with their own views.**

Moreover, the better-informed demonsttate good citizenship beyond just choosing the optimal candidate or political party. Professor Michael X. Delli Carpini explained that

the larger literature strongly suggeststhat informed citizens are “better” citizens in a number of ways. Specifically, research has found that more-informed citizens are more accepting of democratic norms such as political tolerance; are more efficacious about politics; are more likely to be interested in, follow, and discuss politics; and are more likely to participate in politics in a variety of ways, including voting, working for a political party,and attending local community meetings. Research also suggests that more-informed citizens are more likely to have opinions about the pressing issues of the day, are more likely to hold stable
opinions over time, are more likely to hold opinions that are ideologically consistent with each other, and are less likely to change their opinions in the face of new but tangential or misleading information but more likely to change in the face of new relevant or compelling information.***

Beyond rational ignorance and basic stupidity, other voters vote against the public welfare act not out of ignorance, but out of naked self-interest, voting for benefits for themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens and future generations. The Baby Boomers have turned this into an art form.

To fix our system, we need voters who are informed, engaged, and public-spirited, rather than ignorant, apathetic, and selfish.

*Michael X. Delli Carpini, “An overview of the state of citizens’ knowledge about politics,” in M. S. McKinney, L. L. Kaid, D. G. Bystrom,  and D. B. Carlin (Eds.), Communicating politics: Engaging the public in democratic life, pp. 29-30,

**Same, p. 35 (citations omitted).

*** Same (citations omitted).

Jul 14 2016

Folkraed: A New Approach to Government – Introduction

Category: books,economics,government,history,law,policy,politicsJames @ 10:45 pm

Many of us feel like something is going wrong. We feel a deep and growing unease we are moving in the wrong direction, that we’re becoming strangers in our own country. This series of blog posts is an extended essay that explains what is going wrong in the United States and what we can do about it.

But first you must realize that the solution won’t come from going back to the way things were. The past is behind us. Things will never be the way they used to be. But we can learn from the past. We can adapt and take from what worked before to make new solutions that fit our present circumstances.

As this series progresses, I may tweak my planned structure a bit, but roughly speaking it will start with a series of 12 posts each dealing with one of our current problems, followed by 12 more posts giving solutions. Finally, there will be some concluding posts discussing a few overlapping ways of implementing the solutions. When the series is all done, I’ll revise and compile it into a short book of about 100 pages.

It may be surprising that a written work about how to solve the most pressing political problems of our day wouldn’t be longer. But, more often than not, correct explanations and solutions are concise. Occam was on to something. And brevity has the added benefit of making this work more accessible and widely read. I provide footnotes for readers who want to explore these ideas in greater depth. If needed, and time permitting, I may follow up with a longer, more academic book that explores these ideas in more detail.

In this essay series, I am frequently critical of various institutions and actors in our political system. My intent is not to single out specific individuals who work within that system for criticism. In fact, I have worked in, or worked closely with people in, all three branches of government. The vast majority are decent, honorable people trying to do the right thing, as they see it. They are no different from the rest of us, and most of us would act the same way if we were in their position. The problem with our current system is not that it is run by bad people, but that the system has serious flaws that bring out the worst in us and encourage counterproductive behavior. The problem is not some nefarious cabal or conspiracy undermining our country, but rather that the incentives in our system lead to pathological results, in spite of all the good people working within it.

This essay might give the impression that I believe our government is terrible and irredeemably broken. On the contrary, our system is quite good. I feel lucky to have been born an American. I think we have one of, if not the best, systems of government in the world. If you look at the full scope of human history, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better time or place to live than the United States in the 21st century.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to make it better. It is not wrong to strive for improvement. Sometimes improvement for everyone only comes when the best strive for better. We have a long traditon of this in the United States. In colonial times, our ancestors enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the entire world, better than those in England and most other countries.* Even taxes were lower in the 13 Colonies than they were in England. In 1765, per capita tax burdens in the American colonies were 25 to 50 times lower than they were in Great Britain and 6.5 to 13 times lower than they were in Ireland.** Taxes were seven times higher for Americans after independence than they had been under the British.***

From a purely economic perspective, taxation without representation was actually working pretty well for the colonists. But, we are not rational economic robots, seeking to maximize our prosperity at the expense of all our principles, and neither were the Colonists.  Things were good in the colonies, economically speaking, but the political system was unfair and rigged against them—it was taking away more and more of their power to govern their own affairs and transferring it to unaccountable elites in far-off London.

The system was unfair and could have been—should have been—better, so our ancestors fought to make it so. As one of the Minutemen who fought at the first battle at Lexington said, the colonists didn’t fight because of taxes or repression but because “we always had governed ourselves and always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”*** The colonists fought to keep their right to govern themselves, because the British had been trying to take it away. And what they did set in motion a revolution in governance across the world. Ever since, the government they fought to establish has been an example to the world showing the way to freedom and prosperity. Let us seek to set that example for the world once again.

The next post will discuss the first problem with our system, a bad way of selecting our politicians.

* Jeremy Atack and Peter Passell, A New Economic View of American History: from Colonial Times to 1940, 2d ed., 1994, p. 50 (“[C]olonists in 1775 enjoyed a . . . standard of living . . . [that] made them among the richest in the world at the time . . . . This is borne out in the estimates of the height of Americans fighting in the French and Indian War [often used by econonic historians as a proxy for economic well being, given the relationship of diet to height]. At five feet eight inches, colonists were much taller than those in lower classes who had stayed behind in England rather than risk all in a transatlantic adventure, suggesting few, if any, serious dietary and nutritional deficiencies.” Americans have always been willing to take risks to improve their lot in life, even since the beginning.)

**Atack and Passell, p. 68

***Stanley Lebergott, The Americans, 1984, p. 40

**** As quoted in Lebergott, p. 39.

Oct 30 2014

The Cities’ Bridges

Three cities, each some distance from the other, were spread out along one side of a great river. The river was wide and deep, with a powerful and fast current. Lumber was in short supply, and boats were scarce. Crossing the river was dangerous and rarely accomplished. There were legends that across the river lay an undiscovered country, where could be found great wealth and knowledge. Occasionally, someone with an adventurous and seeking spirit would would search out that wealth and knowledge. They would diligently save their resources to be able to build a boat, and then carefully practice their boating skills to be able to make the crossing. When they finally made the crossing and then returned, they spoke of marvelous wonders that could only be understood by going there and experiencing them. Each city had skilled engineers and builders capable of building a bridge, and materials necessary to do so. Intrigued and excited by the stories of the undiscovered country, the people of each city decided to build a bridge from each of their cities to connect itself to the other side.

In the first city, the citizens were concerned with the trivialities of life, such as sporting contests, entertainment, and personal gossip. They could not be bothered with the details of such things as bridge-building. They left these sorts of problems to their leaders to solve, blindly giving them power over such matters. No one monitored the leaders or held them accountable for their actions. Because of this, the evil and corrupt were most attracted to leadership positions. Those few leaders who did not start out corrupt were quickly corrupted by the system—by the lack of accountability and by the influence of already-corrupt leaders who preceded them. The corrupt leaders used their power to benefit themselves and not the people. The leaders discouraged questioning and independent thinking, and when anyone tried to challenge their leadership, the leaders would demonize and ostracize that person to neutralize that person’s potential ability to threaten their power. The leaders cared about money, not about wisdom or knowledge. When the city decided to build a bridge, the leaders craftily drew out the process so they could run up the expenses and divert as much money from the project to themselves and their cronies. Eventually, new corrupt would-be leaders were able to seize power and, seeing that much of the ongoing project expenses would still go to the old leaders’ cronies who had secured the building contracts, they canceled the old bridge project, making excuses about the bridge’s quality and safety, and started a new one they could control. This process repeated yet again. The first city never completed a bridge, having only the eyesore of three incomplete bridges jutting out partially into the river, only half finished. The townspeople found utility in the unfinished bridges—they used them for social gatherings, for picnics, and for fishing, but they never served the purpose for which they were built, and the meager uses to which they were put could not justify the expense of building them.

In the second city, the wealthy and powerful cared about little beyond their own social standing and wealth. There was less personal corruption among the city’s leaders, but they were controlled by the elite citizens, and the leaders managed the city’s affairs to further the interests of the wealthy and powerful. The wealthy and powerful did not like to think of themselves as being only concerned about their own interests, so they pretended to make shows of their concern for the interests of the poor. But really such shows were just status competitions amongst themselves to prove which of them could appear more concerned and charitable. When it came down to a conflict between charity and their own interests, they always supported the city policies that would promote their interests. They discouraged questioning and independent thinking, and when anyone outside of the elite tried to challenge the leadership of the elite, they would demonize and ostracize that person to neutralize that person’s potential ability to threaten their power and position. None of the elite wanted to have a new road to the river and a bridge built near their homes. They were worried about all the extra traffic on the road, the unsavory characters whom it might bring close to their neighborhoods, and that it might ruin their views of the river. They wanted all of the benefits of the bridge without bearing any of its costs. They were concerned with unimportant minutiae of the bridge’s construction and spent years debating unnecessary and irrelevant details of its construction. Eventually the bridge was built, but on the poor side of town. The bridge had taken so long to build that its design had been changed several times over its construction, and it had become saddled with so many unnecessary elements that it was ugly, and not entirely safe. To make sure that the new road and bridge did not facilitate travel for those they deemed undesirable, the elite imposed a toll on anyone crossing the bridge or using the road. Worse still, the wealthy citizens set up a company owned by themselves that would control and operate the road and bridge. They planned to use the profits from the tolls to pay lavish salaries to themselves and toward the upkeep of their own neighborhoods, rather than for the benefit of all townspeople. But the country on the other side used a different kind of currency than the town, and citizens from the other country were unable to pay the tolls to cross the bridge. Being offended at the wealthy townspeople’s unjust attempts to control access to their country and at being spurned by the wealthy townspeople, the citizens of the country on the other side of the river refused to allow contact between their country and the town, and they closed the bridge at their end. As in the first city, the rich townspeople were still able to find utility in the unfinished bridge, using it as a space for social gatherings, for picnics, and for fishing, but the bridge never served its real purpose and the meager uses to which it was put never justified the expense of building it.

In the third city, the poor did not let their leaders or the wealthy take advantage of them and the wealthy and powerful did not seek to abuse their power for their own gain. The residents of each neighborhood met together often, to foster a sense of community. They banded together to assist one another, to fight injustices, and ensure that wrongdoers were held accountable. They sought for unity not just within neighborhoods, but also between them. The townspeople from all walks of life strove to create friendships one with another and to be a unified people. They kept their leaders accountable and they limited how long anyone could remain in power. Because of all this, there was much less difference between income and wealth of the richest and the poorest citizens. When the townspeople decided to build a bridge, they did not delegate its construction to someone else, but each person volunteered his skills and cooperated in his field of expertise to build it. They built the road and bridge through the middle of town, to give everyone equal access, and to unify the town around the bridge. They cared more about the long-term welfare of their community than about petty concerns. All townspeople contributed their time and money to the bridge’s construction, and it was built quickly and efficiently. When it was done, it was beautiful and became the pride of the town. Access to cross the river was given to all townspeople equally, because they had all contributed what they could to its construction. There was free intercourse between the town and the country on the other side. The wealth to be found on the other side was not money, but a great library full of books teaching knowledge and wisdom. Through the greater knowledge and wisdom that they learned, along with their trade with the other country, the town grew prosperous and its people’s lives became more full of joy and meaning.

The townspeople of the first two towns continued in their ignorance and misery, unaware of the wisdom and joy that was possible. Occasionally, a few residents from the first two towns would learn of the third town’s prosperity and try to move there. The third town welcomed with open arms all those who proved they were willing to become one with the townspeople. All those who adopted its language and customs and worked to build, support, and contribute to the community, were welcomed. These things were required of the newcomers because these things had given the community the strength and unity to build its bridge. The newcomers who proved themselves became great pillars and defenders of the community, and they experience and delighted fully in the wisdom and joy to be found there. All others who came to the town and did not adopt the town’s language and customs, and all those who did not work to build, support, and contribute to the community, were cast out, and permanently forbidden from returning to the town. They were cast out because they were seeking to gain all of the benefits of living in the town, but without paying the necessary costs and undertaking the required responsibilities of becoming a townsperson, and allowing such people to remain would destroy what had made the town great.

Oct 06 2011

The problem with elections

Category: government,law,politicsJames @ 9:40 pm

Even though the 2012 presidential elections are still over a year away, the news is already saturated with stories about the Republican candidates campaigning. We all take for granted that democracy is the ideal system of government, and that our system of elections is an ideal way to select our country’s leaders. But is it?

Being a politician requires two completely different skill sets: campaigning skills and governing skills. The two skills sets are very different from one another. A candidate’s skill at campaigning tells you very little about their skill at governing, and vice versa.

Someone who is good at governing is a good leader and manager. They are intelligent and able to quickly get up to speed on almost any issue; they have the insight to hire intelligent and competent advisors and subordinates; they listen and consider the opinions and views of the people around them, outside experts, and the opposition; they are able to analyze and synthesize these divergent views and decide on the optimal course of action; they are not afraid to admit they’re wrong, and are willing to change their opinion in the face of convincing evidence; they are good at bringing people together and getting them to agree and reconcile their differences.

The “skills” most politicians have developed to win elections are quite different. Politicians focus on rhetorical ability and convincing people to like them. They are more concerned with appearance than substance. They are good at winning arguments and convincing people that their opinion is right (especially in campaign debates); they are good at criticizing their opponents; they are good at making promises to win votes, even though many of those promises will be impossible to keep if they win; they are good at playacting and projecting their “image”; they are good at marketing and selling themselves; they are good at using all the dirty campaign tactics, but are equally good at distancing themselves from all of that negativity.

It is easy for candidates to talk in broad terms about their policy goals and the like, but that rarely tells you very much about how good they will be at implementing their goals, or even whether they really will try to implement them.

It seems to me that many of the skills required for successful campaigning are antithetical to the skills required for good governing. And unfortunately, most people don’t pay very close attention to how a politician is actually governing. The skills that will propel a person to power, therefore, are usually their campaigning skills.

What is the end result? We get “leaders” who are good at holding fast to their pre-determined positions and who are good at selling themselves, but who lack meaningful leadership skills. I’ll write more later about how we can fix this problem with new ideas about government.

May 06 2011

Judging by appearances: sometimes it works

Category: Evolution,Evolutionary Psychology,law,policy,PsychologyJames @ 7:37 am

We’ve all heard that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But a recent psychology study indicates that we may be able to make accurate judgments about certain aspects of people’s character “after minimal exposure to [their] physical appearance.” The study is titled “The Accuracy of Inferences About Criminality Based on Facial Appearance”1 and was performed by Jeffrey M. Valla, Stephen J. Ceci, and Wendy M. Williams of Cornell University and published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology.

I learned about it from a blog post by Satoshi Kanazawa titled Criminals Look Different From Noncriminals.2 Kanazawa says the following about the study:

[C]ontrary to popular belief, you can assess people’s character and personality by simply looking at them. Nice people look nice, and nasty people look nasty, and it appears that humans have innate psychological mechanisms to tell them apart. Now, . . . a truly groundbreaking study, recently published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology . . . show[s] that people can tell criminals and noncriminals apart simply by looking at their still photos. Criminals, it appears, look different from noncriminals.

In their experiments, [they] show pictures of the faces of 32 young Caucasian men in their 20s, without scars, tattoos or excessive facial hair, all in neutral expressions. Sixteen of them are convicted criminals, and the other sixteen are not. . . . [They] ask their experimental participants to indicate how likely they think it is that each man is a certain type of criminal . . . on a 7-point scale . . . .Their results from two experiments consistently show that individuals can tell who is a criminal and who is not, by indicating that they believe the actual criminals have higher probability of being a criminal than actual noncriminals.

However, their results also show that individuals cannot tell what type of criminals they are. . . . [C]riminals do not specialize. Men who commit one type of crimes are more likely to commit other types of crimes. . . . In empirical reality, there are men who commit (all types of) crimes, and there are men who do not. And Valla et al.’s experiments show that individuals can tell them apart because the two types of men look different.

There is one seemingly anomalous finding in their paper. In both experiments, women are unable to spot rapists. Women consistently rate convicted rapists to be less likely to be criminal than not only other types of criminals but noncriminals as well! While this may be initially puzzling, upon further reflection, it makes perfect sense. . . . In order to be a successful rapist, the man has to be able to fool the woman and earn her trust initially. Men who ‘fit the bill’ by looking like a rapist or otherwise criminal and dangerous would not be able to do that. They would not be able to get close enough to the women to rape them. This may be why women, but not men, are unable to spot rapists, even though women are equally good as men at spotting other types of criminals.

The photos and answer key are at the bottom of this post. Test yourself and see how well you do. My average rating for a non-criminal was 3.625, whereas my average rating for the criminals was 5.125. As the averages indicate, I was able to correctly categorize the faces most of the time.

Of course, there are other possible explanations why study subjects were able to differentiate between criminals and non-criminals. The sample size of people rating the photos was small (44 people), and as with many psychology studies, the study subjects who were rating the photos were college students, and were thus not a representative sample of the American public, let alone of humanity. Also, there may be subtle differences between the photos. Since the non-criminal photos were all taken as part of the same photo database; the offender photos appear to be mugshots from criminal offender databases. It could be that people were picking up on subtle cues stemming from the photos’ different origins, such as the quality of the photo, different lighting, different cameras, etc. The authors tried to measure and eliminate these extraneous factors. They asked the study participants if they thought it was obvious that certain photos were mugshots; none of the participants thought so. The authors of the study also tried to equalize the photos by removing the background and editing the photos to “maintain a consistent photo quality, and remove differences in lighting, graininess, photo quality, etc.” They also controlled for the level of attractiveness for each person.

It seems that the study authors tried to do all they could to account for all of the extraneous factors to remove, or control for, possible reasons for bias. I’d like to see the results of more studies like this to find out if they yield consistent results (the authors do cite a few old studies which had similar results). This study, though, at least offers some compelling results which we should consider.

I disagree with Kanazawa’s summary of the study when he makes the absolutist statement that “[n]ice people look nice, and nasty people look nasty, and it appears that humans have innate psychological mechanisms to tell them apart.” I had false positives and false negatives. I rated 6 of the 16 non-criminals as looking like they were criminals (meaning I gave them a rating of 5 or higher, on the 7-point scale); I also rated two of the non-criminals as neutral (a 4 on the 7 point scale), meaning that I thought it was equally likely they could be criminal or non-criminal. I rated two of the criminals as looking like they were non-criminal (rating them  a 3 or lower on the scale), and one criminal as being neutral. I identified all of the rapists as looking criminal. Taking the null hypothesis3 to be that a person is a non-criminal, I had therefore had 6 false positives and 2 false negatives.

Presumably, the evolutionary psychological explanation for our ability to categorize people by appearance is that our capacity to make visual distinctions between the criminals and non-criminals evolved so that we can protect ourselves. People with criminal tendencies pose a greater threat to our safety. We will thus naturally be more wary of someone who we suspect of having criminal tendencies, and take extra steps to protect ourselves. It makes sense, then, that that sort of capacity to differentiate would be biased in favor of false positives — protecting oneself from being harmed by a criminal would confer a greater evolutionary benefit than falsely believing someone to be a criminal since the harm from being victimized by a criminal would be more likely to cause death or serious injury than wrongly believing a non-criminal  to be a criminal. Since death or serious injury at the hands of a criminal would make it difficult or impossible to pass on one’s genes to the next generation, a capacity to tell the difference between criminals and non-criminals would likely evolve in favor of making false positives rather than false negatives.

What are the implications for this research? In day-to-day life, it probably means that you should put greater trust in your visual evaluation of someone’s danger to you. It also means that women shouldn’t trust their ability to tell whether a man poses a risk of sexually assaulting them, and take precautions accordingly.

More importantly, it means that juries in criminal trials are probably subconsciously biased against men who look “criminal.” It is difficult to remove such cognitive biases that are rooted in our biology and evolutionary history. Remember that in my case I incorrectly judged over one-third of the non-criminals to be criminal. Innocent people shouldn’t go to jail just because they look like a criminal. I think that one of the big implications for this research is that we need to study how we can make changes to the criminal justice system to make sure that juries aren’t unfairly prejudiced against defendants just because they look criminal.

And now, here are the pictures for you to rate yourself. Rate each person on a 1 to 7 scale, with  1 being people who look the least criminal and 7 being people who look the most criminal. The answer key is at the end. If you try it yourself, please post in the comments 1) your average rating for non-criminals vs. criminals; 2) how many false positives and false negatives you had; 3) whether you classified the rapists as looking criminal or not.


Answer key:
Non-Criminal: 1, 2, 6, 7, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 22, 25, 26, 30;
Criminal: Arson – 5, 10, 16, 20; Assault – 4, 24, 27, 28; Drug Dealing – 8, 11, 21, 29; Rape – 3, 23, 31, 32


The images and answer key come from Jeffrey M. Valla, Stephen J. Ceci, and Wendy M. Williams, “The Accuracy of Inferences About Criminality Based on Facial Appearance,” Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology. They are reproduced in conformity with  the fair use exception in U.S. copyright law, 17 U.S.C. § 107.



1 Jeffrey M. Valla, Stephen J. Ceci, and Wendy M. Williams, “The Accuracy of Inferences About Criminality Based on Facial Appearance,” Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology

Apr 17 2011

What If Everyone Paid the Same Taxes as You?

Category: economics,government,law,taxesJames @ 5:54 pm

The U.S. government has provided an interesting tool1 that tries to show you where your tax dollars are spent. You just put in the amount of Social Security, Medicare, and income taxes you paid, and it shows how much of that money will go to different government programs and expenditures.

Over at Econlog Arnold Kling points out2 that for most of us, the calculator makes it look like most we get a bargain in government programs and benefits for a relatively small amount of taxes paid. Kling suggests a more interesting calculator would be one that calculates how much money the government would have if everyone paid the same amount of taxes that you pay.

Progressive taxation means that people with higher incomes also pay higher tax rates3 About 150 million individuals file tax returns every year.4 The budget for 2010 estimated that total government revenue would be $2.381 trillion. This averages out to about $15,900 in revenue for each tax return filed. If you paid less than that in federal taxes (including Social Security, Medicare, and income taxes) this year, then that means you’re getting a good deal because someone else is paying more.5 Now, there are good justifications for having a progressive taxation system. The marginal utility of each additional dollar decreases as a person’s income increases. Moreover, the wealthy owe their good fortune to being able to live and work in the United States, so it makes sense that they give something back.

I’m not trying to argue for or against a progressive tax system. I just think it is interesting for each of us to realize how our tax system is structured and how our taxes compare to what other Americans pay.

To that end, I’ve accepted Arnold Kling’s invitation and I’ve created a very basic calculator to let each of you get an idea of what the government’s revenue and deficit would be like if every taxpayer paid the same amount of taxes that you do. All you need to do is enter into the first box the total amount that you paid in taxes for 2010 and then hit enter (make sure to include in that total income taxes and also Social Security and Medicare taxes). The calculator will then show how much total government revenue would decrease, what the total deficit would be, and the percentage the deficit would increase if everyone paid the same amount of taxes that you did in 2010. The government’s tax calculator says that a family of four with a total income of $80,000 would pay $9,983 in taxes this year, so $9,983 is set as the default starting number for the calculator.

Tax Comparison Calculator:

[price-calc variation=tax]


For comparison, here are the actual 2010 budget numbers:

Total Revenue: $2,381 billion
Total Expenditures: $3,552 billion
Total Deficit: $1,171 billion6

Some caveats: this calculator is pretty basic, so it’s only going to give you a ballpark figure. The calculator assumes that the government’s only source of revenue is individual taxpayers paying Social Security, Medicare and income taxes. In reality, the government has other sources of revenue including payroll taxes from employers and corporate income tax, so the calculator’s numbers are overestimates (in other words, if everyone really did pay the same taxes as you did, the deficit wouldn’t go up as much as the calculator shows). Since the vast majority of government revenue comes from individuals, however, these numbers work for each of us to get a ballpark idea of the progressive nature of our tax system, how our taxes compare to the average amounts paid, and the general trends of what would happen if everyone paid the sames taxes that you do.




3 The top one percent of wage earners pay a little less than 40 percent of all income taxes, and a little under 30 percent of all federal taxes.

5 To compare your taxes to the averages I’m quoting, you would need to include Social Security, Meidcare and income taxes. I know that the government has other sources of revenue, including payroll taxes from employers and corporate income tax, so the $15,900 figure overestimates the actual average amounts paid by individual taxpayers, but since the vast majority of government revenue comes from individuals, these numbers work for each of us to get a ballpark idea of how our taxes compare to the average.

Apr 14 2011

Do you really have a right to that?

Category: government,law,rightsJames @ 6:07 pm

Do we have a right to receive an education in the same way that we have a right to free speech? Do we have a right to healthcare in the same way that we have a right to own property? We often use the word “right” without thinking much about what the word actually means and without considering what the government is obligated to do about our rights. There are actually two very different conceptions of rights, and these two different conceptions are at the root of many political disagreements in the United States. Unfortunately, because most conservatives or liberals don’t even know that the other side has a different conception of rights, both sides often end up talking past each other in political discussions.

Positive and Negative Rights

Philosophers have created many ways to categorize rights: natural rights vs. legal rights1; claim rights vs. liberty rights2; individual vs. group rights.3 These are all great ways to classify rights, but when it comes to our relationship with government, the most useful category is positive versus negative rights.4

From the point of view of an individual citizen, a positive right is a right to get something from the government. A positive right thus obligates the government to take action. When we talk about having a right to eduction or a right to health care, we are talking about positive rights.

A negative right is a right to be left alone – the right for individuals to act without government interference. A negative right thus obligates the government to not take action. This includes things like the right to free speech, the right to keep and use property, freedom of religion, etc. Most (if not all) of the rights listed in the U.S. Bill of Rights are negative rights.

Like almost any human attempt at classifying and categorizing something, the categories of positive and negative rights are not perfectly black and white. Some people have argued that almost any right can be understood to be either positive or negative, depending on how you approach and define the right. In spite of this criticism, I still think that it is useful and meaningful to distinguish between positive and negative rights. The most recent national debate in the United States where differences between positive and negative rights came up was with healthcare reform.

Is There a Right to Healthcare?

When the U.S. Congress was considering various reforms of the U.S. health care law in 2009 and 2010, many Democrats zealously defended such reforms by arguing that health care was a right, and that the U.S. government was therefore obligated to ensure that everyone had access to health care.5 Puzzled Republicans scratched their heads and wondered why Democrats would use such an obviously flawed argument to defend their proposals, since healthcare was obviously not a right.6 So who was correct? They both were. The two sides didn’t understand each other because Democrats tend to believe in positive rights while Republicans generally do not.

In the debates about the health care bill, people on opposite sides were often talking past each other because they didn’t understand the opposing side’s view about rights. If everyone understood the difference between positive and negative rights would it eliminate political discord in our country? No, but it would at least lead to better-informed debate about the issues. So let’s learn about each side’s justifications for their ideas about rights.

Why do Democrats believe in positive rights?

One of the principal reasons to support the idea of positive rights is a concern about equality. Starting with the Progressive Era,7 during the Great Depression and World War II, and culminating in the Civil Rights movement, many Americans became more aware of inequities in our society such as segregation and wealth disparities. Many people became devoted to achieving greater equality and to the idea that government was the best tool to bring it about.

In 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a Democrat) proposed that the United States adopt a second bill of rights8 to the U.S. Constitution to guarantee individuals’ rights to employment (with a living wage), freedom from unfair competition and monopolies, housing, health care, education, and social security. Roosevelt died a little over a year later, and his second bill of rights was never seriously considered in Congress. But his ideas have held powerful sway over many people ever since.

People who believe in positive rights see recognition of positive rights as a natural progression and outgrowth from the negative rights recognized in the Eighteenth Century in the U.S. Bill of Rights. Starting in the 1970s legal theorists have talked about three generations of human rights corresponding to the ideals of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity.9 The negative rights of the type listed in the Bill of Rights are the first generation (liberty); the second generation are positive rights to things like housing, employment, and healthcare (equality); and the third generation being things like group rights, rights to self determination, and rights to a healthy environment (fraternity). They see the recognition of positive rights as part of the natural progression from feudal medieval societies to modern democracies, the recognition of negative rights in the Bill of Rights was merely one step in that progression, not the end of it.

Why do Republicans reject the idea of positive rights?

Republicans and Libertarians generally reject the idea that people are entitled to positive rights. There are three reasons for this:

First, we live in a world of limited resources. This means that governments may often simply lack the resources to fulfill positive rights. They criticize the notion of positive rights as just being a way for people on the left to dress up their political goals using “rights” language in order to make their political goals seem more legitimate.

Second, the notion of a positive right creates a corresponding obligation for others to fulfill it. In other words, if I have right to housing, then that means that everyone else in society has an obligation to build me a house. Critics of positive rights argue that the only way for governments to guarantee people’s positive rights is to illegitimately force other people to act against their will to fulfill those purported rights. What if you don’t want to build a house for someone else? For the government to fulfill a person’s right to housing, it will need to take some of your property from you to pay for that other person’s house.10 Critics thus argue that positive rights lead to the erosion of negative rights and lead to an ever-larger government which must infringe individuals’ negative rights with greater and greater regularity. French philosopher Frederic Bastiat summarized this argument:

People not only want the law to be just; they also want it to be philanthropic. They are not satisfied that justice should guarantee to each citizen the free and inoffensive exercise of his faculties for his physical, intellectual, and moral development; they require of it that it should directly spread welfare, education, and morality throughout the country. This is the seductive aspect of socialism.

But, I repeat, these two functions of the law contradict each other. We must choose between them. A citizen cannot at the same time be free and not free. M. de Lamartine wrote me one day: “Your doctrine is only the half of my program; you have stopped at liberty; I go on to fraternity.” I answered him: “The second half of your program will destroy the first half.” And, in fact, it is quite impossible for me to separate the word “fraternity” from the word “voluntary.” It is quite impossible for me to conceive of fraternity as legally enforced, without liberty being legally destroyed, and justice being legally trampled underfoot.1112

Third, American conservatives also tend to be originalist13 in their views toward constitutional interpretation (IE they believe that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted according to its meaning as originally understood at the time of its ratification). Originalists point to the text of the Bill of Rights and most other constitutional amendments dealing with rights which seem to only recognize negative rights. Many conservatives thus also reject the notion of positive rights as being antithetical to the American constitutional system.


You might be wondering where I stand on the positive rights debate. I’m not sure I agree with either side. I have real trouble accepting the idea that someone can have positive rights which entitle them to infringe other people’s individual rights. My tentative conclusion is that there are not positive rights, but that there are “positive obligations,” meaning that even though the poor shouldn’t have a legal right to take my property from me, I am morally obligated to freely use my property to help the poor.

Now that you’ve finished reading this, there are two things you should do: First, think about what conception of rights makes most sense to you and about how you should apply that conception to your political beliefs. Second, whenever you hear people disagreeing about politics (or, heaven forbid, you get in a political disagreement yourself), think about how these conceptions about rights influence each side’s argument, and try to have some more empathy for both side’s views.

Also, like I said at the beginning of this, there are other ways to approach the question of what is a right. I invite you to read and think about these other ways too (I included footnotes to the Wikipedia articles about each of those different approaches, and the Wikipedia articles have footnotes to other good sources to get you started).





5Like this Washington Post op-ed praising the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as “enshrine[ing] the principle that all Americans have the right to health care — an extraordinary achievement that will make this a better nation.”

6For example, in his 2010 speech at CPAC, Glen Beck said “[w]e don’t have a right to health care, housing or handouts.”

10See, for example, this editorial criticizing the notion that healthcare is a right:

That people think they have a “right” to health care just goes to show how little people think at all. “Rights” only make sense when they can be applied universally, without causing a “wrong” to someone else. You can have a right to own property, for example, because everyone can enjoy the right under the same terms and conditions. You can have a right to say what you like too…as long as everyone can say what he likes. But if you have the right to a cat scan, someone must have an obligation to make the machine…to put it in service…to run it…to maintain it…to offer it to you…and to interpret the results, etc. Who is this poor slave who has been shackled to your service?

12Economist F. A. Hayek also argued along these same lines:

Question: Well, then, why isn’t there any such thing as social justice?

Hayek: Because justice refers to rules of individual conduct. And no rules of the conduct of individuals can have the effect that the good things of life are distributed in a particular manner. No state of affairs as such is just or unjust: it is only when we assume that somebody is responsible for having brought it about. . . .

In the same sense, a spontaneously working market, where prices act as guides to action, cannot take account of what people in any sense need or deserve, because it creates a distribution which nobody has designed, and something which has not been designed, a mere state of affairs as such, cannot be just or unjust. And the idea that things ought to be designed in a ‘just’ manner means, in effect, that we must abandon the market and turn to a planned economy in which somebody decides how much each ought to have, and that means, of course, that we can only have it at the price of the complete abolition of personal liberty.