Month: June 2015

Gordon Tullock: The Vote Motive

I recently read The Vote Motive, Tullock’s basic introduction to public choice, the field he and James Buchanan helped pioneer as the economic analysis of government.  The volume is very slim, yet very insightful.  Many of Tullock’s observations challenge deeply held assumptions about the way politics works.  Why do people ascribe a different morality to public, as opposed to private actors?  Do individual votes “matter” from a results perspective?  Why is majority rule so coveted among modern democracies?

I have personally found the questioning of widely believed truths, regardless of the subject matter, to be particularly stimulating and often rewarding as well.  Four or five years ago I dropped the view that it was important for a citizen to exercise their right to vote in a society with institutions shaped, at least somewhat, by democracy.  I didn’t need a ton of persuading and it was Tullock who did most of the legwork to get me there.  The truth was I had never sat down and really thought about why voting was so crucial or attempted to reason my way to a conclusion.  It was simply ingrained in societal norms and taught in school starting very early.  Woe be unto those who don’t believe voting is all it’s cracked up to be.  There is very little room for heretics among the voting fanatics.

Well I can tell you it felt really good to throw off that political dogma and to embrace the fact that your individual vote means almost precisely nothing when it comes to changing political outcomes.  The only way your vote “means” anything, the vast vast majority of the time, is to the extent it makes you feel good.  That’s it.  And so I can’t help but smirk when I see the confused faces of people churning through that startlingly new and scary mental calculus – the same one I churned through a handful of years ago – the first time someone questions what they presumed was a given.

The median reader of this site is perhaps more likely to already doubt or disown the assumptions Tullock attacks in the following quotes, yet I still think they are worth reproducing here.

Excerpts from The Vote Motive.

On politicians’ motives (p. 59):

The analysis of the politician’s tactics indicates simply that he is attempting to be re-elected to office, not that he is attempting to maximise the public interest.  We think this situation is realistic, and, in particular, that politicians trying to be re-elected are more likely to be re-elected than those who are not.

There is no reason why we should be disturbed by this phenomenon.  The market operates by providing a structure in which individuals who simply want to make money end up producing motor-cars that people want.  Similarly, democracy operates so that politicians who simply want to hold public office end up by doing things the people want.

On bureaucracy (p. 61):

Bureaucrats are like other men.  This proposition sounds very simple and straightforward, but the consequences are a radical departure from simple orthodox economic theory.  If bureaucrats are ordinary men, they will make most of (not all) their decisions in terms of what benefits them, not society as a whole.  Like other men, they may occasionally sacrifice their own well-being for the wider good, but we should expect this to be exceptional behaviour.

Most of the existing literature on the machinery of government assumes that, when an activity is delegated to a bureaucrat, he will either carry out the rules and regulations or will make decisions in the public interest regardless of whether it benefits him or not.  We do not make this assumption about businessmen.  We do not make it about consumers in the market.  I see no reason why we should make it about bureaucrats.

On logrolling, or the “the practice of exchanging favors, especially in politics by reciprocal voting for each other’s proposed legislation” (p. 79):

All of this is perfectly normal, not only for British politics but for democratic politics in general.  Indeed it is also normal for non-democratic politics, although we know less about them, and hence it is not so clear there.  In all democracies that I know of there is both public criticism of logrolling as immoral, as well as the widespread use of it in making government decisions.

and p. 86:

We should not be unhappy about these very common democratic practices, although normal discussion of them is condemnatory.  There is no reason why minorities should not be served by democracies.

On majority voting (p. 92):

The total cost inflicted upon society by various rules is calculated by simply summing these two cost lines, as in the total cost line.  The low point on this line is the optimal voting rule for the society.  Only by coincidence would it be the simple majority.   For important matters, I think in general it would be well above the majority and, indeed, most formal constitutions require more than a majority for at least some matters.

Majority voting is thus generally not optimal.  For important matters we would require something more.  This conclusion is in general accord with constitutional processes throughout the world.  But my opinion is that ‘reinforced majorities’, say two-thirds majority, should be used much more widely than they now are.  Indeed, I have on occasion recommended that the President of the United States always veto all bills in order to compel a two-thirds vote for everything in both houses of Congress.  Startling though this proposal is, the analysis which leads to it is fairly orthodox political economy.

(Image source)


Dom Aidan Kavanagh on sacramental discourse

From On Liturgical Theology:

It would be foolish not to recognize that placing sacramental discourse prior to, above, and in a role which subordinates theology in the modern academic sense is a difficult if not incomprehensible move for many people. We generally think of the two sorts of discourse the other way around, theology coming first and sacramental discourse very much later as a possibly implied excursus off the former. Sacramental discourse in fact is often thought of as theological adiaphora best practiced by those with a taste for banners, ceremonial, and arts and crafts. It is regarded as an academically less than disciplined swamp in which Anglican high churchmen, Orthodox bishops, and many if not all Roman Catholics and others are hopelessly mired. …

The relationship of embroidery to the driving of a diesel locomotive seems easier to demonstrate than the connection between stoles and proclaiming the Gospel. Something here seems to have been enthusiastically trivialized. Incongruities are joined, reality warped, meaning maimed. Artifact becomes plaything, sacramentum a rubber duck.

Human language about worldly matters such as reality, life and death, City and Church, always goes “sacramental” when it gets beneath mere surface appearances. Scientists start talking about charmed quarks; Christians start talking about tombs and wombs. While the City may often seem little more than a cluster of stores and alleys, it is more than this because people live and work there, and their corporate aspirations image the City as exalted, timeless, with streets of gold and walls of precious stones, a heavenly Jerusalem. While the Church may often seem little more than an institution like all others, it has from the beginning been deemed more than that because its members are graced people. St. Paul called it a Body, a mysterious entity to which only the intimate metaphor of marriage between man and woman, that primordial human society, gives access.


‘I beg you, brethren, not to yield one inch to those who would for any reason … deprive you of your Tabernacles.’

Apropos this post and the Episcopal Church’s $42 million in property litigation costs, a word from Frank Weston, Anglican Bishop of Zanzibar, 1923:

I beg you, brethren, not to yield one inch to those who would for any reason or specious excuse deprive you of your Tabernacles. I beg you, do not yield, but remember when you struggle, or, as Father Frere told us to-day, when you fight for the Church—do remember that the Church is the body of Christ, and you fight in the presence of Christ. Do not forget that. I want you to make your stand for the Tabernacle, not for your own sakes but for the sake of truth first, and in the second place for the sake of reunion hereafter. But for the truth, because the one great thing that England needs to learn is that Christ is found in and amid matter—Spirit through matter—God in flesh, God in the Sacrament. But I say to you, and I say it to you with all the earnestness that I have, that if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.

Now mark that—this is the Gospel truth. If you are prepared to say that the Anglo-Catholic is at perfect liberty to rake in all the money he can get no matter what the wages are that are paid, no matter what the conditions are under which people work; if you say that the Anglo-Catholic has a right to hold his peace while his fellow citizens are living in hovels below the levels of the streets, this I say to you, that you do not yet know the Lord Jesus in his Sacrament. You have begun with the Christ of Bethlehem, you have gone on to know something of the Christ of Calvary—but the Christ of the Sacrament, not yet. Oh brethren! if only you listen to-night your movement is going to sweep England. If you listen. I am not talking economics, I do not understand them. I am not talking politics, I do not understand them. I am talking the Gospel, and I say to you this: If you are Christians then your Jesus is one and the same: Jesus on the Throne of his glory, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus received into your hearts in Communion, Jesus with you mystically as you pray, and Jesus enthroned in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down this country. And it is folly—it is madness—to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.

In a bit of good news, the Fort Worth Anglican Diocese wins big in court!

Update: more good news — in South Carolina TEC is trying to settle.

What’s so hard to understand about social construction? A lot, actually

My take on the Rachel Dolezal scandal might differ from that of many of my fellow contributors to The Mitrailleuse, but I’d like (for some foolish reason) to wade in anyway.

The shocking revelation — salaciously captured in a video interview — that a self-identified African-American NAACP leader and Africana Studies professor from Spokane, Washington, has been “passing” as black when she was in fact born white has caused widespread confusion about the politics of social construction and identity.

This confusion is understandable, and should be engaged with rather than mocked.

After the former Bruce Jenner recently made her prominent debut as Caitlyn Jenner, many embraced her decision on the grounds that, yes, gender is socially constructed and something fluid and not essential. So if, as Jenner had repeatedly claimed, she felt she was in fact living a lie as a man and was instead really a woman, then we should accept her self-identification as a woman. “Call me Caitlyn,” she told us, and we have done so.

Now we have a case of a woman born white and claiming to be black, but who, rather than praised, is reviled as a phony and a fraud.

Social conservatives see a contradiction here. Two people self-identify with groups into which they were not born — one born a man, self-identifying as a woman; the other born white, self-identifying as black — but we are expected to praise one and condemn the other.

As Sean Davis at The Federalist asks, “If Rachel Dolezal isn’t black, how is Caitlyn Jenner a woman?

Some on the left have treated this question as cut and dried. “Race isn’t gender,” scoffed @BlackGirlDanger. “Just like apples aren’t tomatoes. Just like the moon isn’t lollipops. Just like you aren’t informed.”

Most social conservatives reject the social construction thesis, and thus are gleefully observing the knots progressives seem to be tying themselves into rather than genuinely asking questions about this issue.  So I agree The Federalist and many social conservatives are concern trolling when they ask about the difference between the social construction of race versus that of gender. But that doesn’t make it a bad question. It is in fact an exceedingly good question.

If I don’t immediately understand why I’m expected to praise Caitlyn Jenner and condemn Rachel Dolezal, that does not make me merely misinformed. It makes me someone engaged with a deep philosophical problem that has occupied major recent theoretical heavyweights, including Sally Haslanger, John Searle, Ian Hacking, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler, to name just a few.

In other words, social construction is an irreducibly complex topic. It is hard to digest and requires a lot of background to understand. I’m not suggesting you need to have read any particular thinker, including the ones I listed above, or possess any level of formal education to engage this question. But the fact remains that you do need to have a certain degree of knowledge — of theory, anthropology, sociology, and/or recent trends in activism — to understand the subtle differences in these two cases.

What makes the construction of gender different from that of race is not a question to be lightly dismissed. But according to @BlackGirlDanger, if you don’t understand that difference, you should just “Get your head out of your ass.”

Sorry, but I’m not buying that. What I’d rather see than such dismissiveness is a deep conversation about how social construction works. If you want to advance a politics that embraces the contingency of identity, you need to accept how novel this concept is to almost everyone who hasn’t taken seminars in gender theory or sociology or who doesn’t regularly read The Awl.

You build a community of like-minded citizens not by bullying them or deriding them for failing to immediately grasp these subtle differences, but by engaging in dialogue, in exchanging ideas, and in mutual education. The fact is these ideas take most people a lot of time and effort to comprehend.

If the social construction of gender is different from that of race — and to be clear, I for one do believe the two cases are different — then show how. Explain it. Convince people.

I imagine there are many people reading about Dolezal today who agree she should be condemned as a fraud, and who agree Jenner was brave to come out as trans, but who are nonetheless not clear about why their intuitions differ in these two cases. Many likely don’t see why everyone is acting like the distinction between the two is obvious. And if they go out and seek edification on this topic, and instead see what many are saying about people like them — that they are simply ignorant, and should get their heads out of their asses — I imagine their reaction will likely be to walk away and move on with their lives.

They will think, This is not a movement where I belong. And as things stand, unfortunately they are correct.

White privilege is real, but mewling about it isn’t helping

During the hot racial strife of 1968, author James Baldwin was interviewed by Esquire magazine on the status of race relations in the country. Baldwin, whose works offered keen insight into the worldview of black America, didn’t pull any punches. He was up front with describing the ineptitude of white Americans in alleviating racial animosity. When asked why the state of New York planned to erect a government building in place of a black nationalist bookstore in Harlem, Baldwin plainly told the interviewer, “the American white man has proved, if nothing else, he is absolutely, endlessly, foolish when it comes to this problem.”

“Foolish” is a good way to describe Lehigh University visiting professor Christopher Driscoll. Stupidly garrulous may be another. Dr. Driscoll takes political correctness to a whole new level with his blog Shades of White. After co-hosting a rap music symposium (totally appropriate for a university) with two hip-hop educators (such pedagogy), Driscoll decided to issue “The Ten Cracka Commandments” to teach his fellow whites how to view and interact with black culture. Like Moses descending from Mount Sinai, the totally conscious professor wants, I think, to make sure his people aren’t creating a golden calf out of racial misunderstanding.

First, I’ll give credit where credit is due: Dr. Driscoll is as “white” as can be. His website’s profile picture shows him wearing bright yellow pants and loafers. For being a college professor and dressing like a Capitol Hill staffer, I grant Driscoll the title of “expert on white people.” He better be welcome.