Thursday, February 15, 2018

What kind of government is most likely to promote human flourishing?



One way to approach this question is to rule out those kinds of government that are least likely to enable people to live lives that they value.

We can begin by ruling out those kinds of government that exercise absolute power in a cruel and oppressive way. There is no need to explain why that kind of despotism is inimical to human flourishing.

If you ask yourself how we can avoid being ruled by a cruel and oppressive despot you will probably begin to sketch out some constitutional rules requiring fair elections and preventing concentrations of power in a few hands. There is a fair chance that the constitutional rules you specify would describe liberal democracy. So far so good.

However, some written constitutions that appear to embody ideals of liberal democracy end up as a fa├žade for oppressive government. So, I have to ask myself why some experiments in liberal democracy been more successful than others.

Before I can attempt to answer that I need to explain what I have previously described as democracy’s basic problem – which could also be described as the tragedy of democracy because of its similarity to the tragedy of the commons (see my preceding post). Democracy’s basic problem arises because of inherent tendencies for the responsibilities of elected governments to expand beyond their capacity to cope. That results from a combination of two factors. First, the perceived benefits to individual voters of proposals for an expansion of government responsibilities in areas of particular interest to them exceed the additional costs they incur as a result of those proposals. Second, when an individual elector sees others declaring their support for political parties which promise additional spending or regulation in their particular fields of interest, it is natural for her to feel that her interests will likewise be better served by behaving similarly. (Democracy’s basic problem is further explained in Chapter 8 of Free to Flourish.)

Democracy’s basic problem could be expected to result in an ongoing expansion of government spending, an increasing regulatory burden constraining growth in productivity, higher tax rates on those least able to protect themselves politically (e.g. foreign investors) with adverse effects on investment incentives, and expanding fiscal deficits with public debt growing beyond the capacity of the government to service it.

Those trends obviously can’t continue indefinitely. At some stage, the government’s bankers will refuse to advance additional credit. That means that funds will no longer be available to fund social services or to pay government employees. Civil disorder is likely to ensue. It is open to speculation who the main characters will be in the next act, as the political theatre turns into a democratic tragedy. Voters may resort to electing demagogues whose policies will cause further deterioration in the economy. In the final act it is quite common for the generals to take over the reins of government to restore order.

Thus, on the basis of that reasoning it might appear that democracy is unlikely to be a sustainable form of government over the longer term.

So, how come some democracies have survived for well over a century?

One possible explanation, which could be described as the Schumpeterian explanation, after the economist Joseph Schumpeter, is that this has been achieved by constraining democracy to ensure that “the effective range of political decision should not be extended too far”. (Again, there is more discussion of this in Chapter 8 of Free to Flourish.)

Another possible explanation (not adequately discussed in Free to Flourish) is that the culture of some countries has fostered normative conditions that have prevented democracy’s basic problem from emerging with irresistible force. In his book, Why I, too, am not a conservative, James Buchanan identified two norms that underpin liberal democracy:

·         that a sufficient proportion of the population can make their own choices and prefer to be autonomous rather than dependent on others; and

·         that a sufficient proportion of the population enter relationships with others on the basis of reciprocity, fair dealing and mutual respect.

The first norm needs to be met for people to be able to cast their votes to achieve outcomes that they prefer, whilst exercising restraint in the demands that they make on others through the political process. The second norm needs to be met to ensure that those who depend on transfers from the public purse do not consider those transfers to reflect successful exploitation of others through the political process, and that those whose tax payments fund those transfers do not consider themselves to be exploited.

Buchanan concluded:

Generalized or widespread failure of persons to adhere to these norms, along with widespread recognition that others also disregard the standards, will insure that the liberal order itself must fail, quite independently from any institutional safeguards.” (p 28)

As early as the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville expressed similar concerns in Democracy in America about the implications for democracy of the emergence of a culture of dependence on government.  In his discussion of the “sort of despotism that democratic nations have to fear” he suggested that democratic governments might take upon themselves full responsibility for the happiness of citizens, reducing each nation “to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd”.  Tocqueville remarked:

It is indeed, difficult to conceive how men who have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed; and no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring from the suffrages of a subservient people. … The vices of rulers and the ineptitude of the people would speedily bring about its ruin … ” See: Democracy in America, Book 4, Chapter 6.

Tocqueville doesn’t seem to have mentioned norms of reciprocity (or even adherence to the golden rule) explicitly as one of the factors that had led to maintenance of democracy in America, but he emphasised the importance of “the manners and customs of the people” and “the whole moral and intellectual condition of a people”.

Vincent Ostrom commented as follows:

In light of the meaning to be assigned to the manner and customs of the people, we can understand why Tocqueville identified religion as the first of their political institutions even though religion took no direct part in the government of society. The place of religion was important to the whole moral and intellectual tradition of a people when complemented by the place of families, friends, neighbors, and schooling in the shaping of what might be called "habits of the heart and mind." The place of habits of the heart and mind is critical to the possibility that societies of men might establish systems of governance appropriate to the exercise of reflection and choice as ways of coping with problems of conflict and conflict reso­lution.” Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies, p 14.

Most readers will probably have gathered by now that I think that adherence to the norms that underpin liberal democracy has now diminished to such an extent that this form of government is in deep trouble, even in the western countries where it has been sustained most successfully in the past. So, we are faced with an ongoing struggle to avoid a democratic tragedy, with adverse implications for human flourishing.

However, such prognostications don’t help us much in answering the question I began with. The best way to move toward an answer, it now seems to me, is to follow the lead of Vincent Ostrom and to ask what forms of governance are likely to emerge when it recognized that each person “is first his or her own governor and is then responsible for fashioning mutually productive relationships with others” (p 84).

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

How can people who approach issues from different ideological perspectives have useful policy discussions?


Like the ideological opponents of free markets, the birds of Edinburgh show little respect for the founder of Economics 

In my view there is a lot to be said for attempting to develop a coherent ideological position – a system of ideas and ideals - that can be applied to public policy issues. Those who insist on approaching every issue with an empty mind, refusing to draw upon a priori reasoning and lessons learned from previous experience, are severely handicapping themselves.

It is important to note that having a coherent ideological position does not necessarily imply being ideologically blinkered. An ideological commitment can be consistent with being sufficiently openminded to consider the possibility that it could be appropriate to depart from a general principle in a particular instance. For example, people who have an ideological commitment to free markets are often open to persuasion that government regulation might be warranted in some instances.

Ideologies are not necessarily heavily laden with values.  In my view that applies particularly to the free market ideology favoured by many economists. As a result of their training and work experience economists tend to acquire objective knowledge about the operation of markets that leads them toward a system of ideas and ideals that is relatively favourable to free markets.

Many non-economists have an anti-market bias. As Bryan Caplan implied a few years ago in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter (discussed previously on this blog) some people have a strong ideological attachment to false beliefs.  More generally, however, it seems to me that the anti-market bias among non-economists is attributable to lack of understanding of the functioning of markets. Few people are so wedded to conspiracy theories about market behaviour that they are unwilling to consider economists’ explanations.

During my work career as an economist, I had many difficult policy discussions with engineers, who seemed to have acquired an ideological commitment to planning that led them to favour government regulation. From their perspective free markets appeared to be chaotic and planned solutions appeared to promise order. However, they were able to appreciate that actual outcomes that were likely to emerge from chaotic political and administrative processes might not be superior to market outcomes.

The most difficult policy discussions I have been involved in have been with Greenies whose ideological opposition to free markets is based on the view that capitalism leads to bad environmental and social outcomes. The main problem in these discussions is not a difference in values; we all want to avoid environmental and economic catastrophes. It seems to me that the main barrier to communication is that the Greenies have an ideological commitment to the belief that better outcomes will follow automatically if the regulation they favour displaces markets and voluntary cooperation. 

In thinking about how economists could have more useful policy discussions with Greenies it occurs to me that there is not much to be gained by talking to them about externalities. They might support proposals for limited intervention to correct specific externalities, but they actually see no virtue in limited intervention. They see market failure as pervasive and believe that superior outcomes can be produced by burdening governments with massive responsibilities.

I wonder whether it might be useful to begin a policy discussion with Greenies by considering the tragedy of the commons. When I re-read Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article with that title I was reminded of its shortcomings with regard to population projections, but his warnings about the potential for common pool resources to be over-exploited have a fairly solid foundation in economic reasoning.

Hardin wrote:

“The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy. …
Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit - in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

However, as Elinor Ostrom demonstrated, it is by no means inevitable that use of common pool resources will end in tragedy in the absence of government intervention. She found that some communities of individuals have been able to manage common pool resources with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time “relying on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market”.

The methodology adopted by Elinor Ostrom in her research strikes me as highly relevant to the question of how people who approach issues from different ideological positions can have useful policy discussions. In the preface to Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Elinor Ostrom wrote:

"Instead of presuming that the individuals sharing a commons are inevitably caught in a trap from which they cannot escape, I argue that the capacity of individuals to extricate themselves from various types of dilemma situations varies from situation to situation. The cases to be discussed in this book illustrate both successful and unsuccessful efforts to escape tragic outcomes. Instead of basing policy on the presumption that the individuals involved are helpless, I wish to learn more from the experience of individuals in field settings. Why have some efforts to solve commons problems failed, while others have succeeded? What can we learn from experience that will help stimulate the development and use of a better theory of collective action – one that will identify the key variables that can enhance or detract from the capabilities of individuals to solve problems?"

Some advocates of smaller government (including myself) are fond of pointing out that the logic of the tragedy of the commons applies to interest group politics as well as to physical resources. When goods such as education and health services are converted into common pool resources there is an incentive for interest groups to attempt to increase their share at the expense of other groups and the general public. More generally, when interest groups view the coercive power of the state as a common pool resource to be used for the benefits of their members, the adverse impact of tax and regulation on incentives for productive activity is likely to result in outcomes that will be detrimental for everyone. The incentives facing individual interest groups in that situation are similar to those facing individual fishermen – when their collective actions results in over-fishing, that is detrimental to all.

However, it is reasonable for the advocates of big government to ask why the tragedy of the political commons has not resulted in the failure of all experiments in representative government. If we apply Elinor Ostrom’s research methodology we have to acknowledge that some countries have been more successful than others in coping with the common pool resource problems associated with interest group activity. The reasons for this seem to me to be an important topic for research and discussion.
It strikes me that people who approach issues from different ideological perspectives would be able to have more useful policy discussions if they could turn their attention to what they can learn from the actual experiences of people in different institutional and policy settings.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Are nature and biodiversity essential to health and happiness?


There is no prize for guessing the answer given by Susan Prescott and Alan Logan in The Secret Life of your Microbiome: Why nature and biodiversity are essential to health and happiness.
This recently published book is written for a popular audience, but the authors have expert knowledge of the microbiome – the microbes and their genetic material found in the human gut and skin. Susan Prescott is an immunologist and paediatrician. Alan Logan’s background is in research relating to naturopathic medicine. It is obvious that the authors have spent a lot of time sifting through scientific evidence in writing the book.


Some of the evidence suggesting that nature and biodiversity are essential to health and happiness is derived from inspection of the stools of our Paleolithic ancestors. Evidence from archaeological sites suggests that our hunter and gatherer ancestors ate a wide variety of plant food and had a greater diversity of micro-biota than most people living modern lifestyles. The same is true today of people who are still living traditional lifestyles close to nature.

The authors accept that modern medicine and hygiene have brought great benefits, but they point to evidence that a diet with a great deal of sugar, ultra-processed food and drinks – as well as excessive use of antibiotics, stress and physical exhaustion – can lead to gut permeability, an increase in blood endotoxins, and an increase in central nervous system inflammatory chemicals. Intestinal permeability is apparently associated with a range of chronic conditions including autism, asthma, allergies, chronic fatigue, depression, fibromyalgia, heart disease, irritable bowel, obesity, type 2 diabetes, psoriasis and schizophrenia.

Prescott and Logan argue that we have a symbiotic relationship with the human microbiome, which co-evolved with our ancestors. The microbiome provides functional benefits such as nutrient extraction, protection against harmful microbes, regulation of metabolism and production of important biochemicals. Researchers don’t yet understand what microbes would comprise an ideal microbiome, but the key seems to be diversity, which is encouraged by dietary diversity. The authors suggest that the human immune system has evolved to expect a kaleidoscope of biodiversity.

The authors view commercially available probiotics and prebiotics as a useful supplement that can help defend against dysbiotic forces in the modern environment, rather than as a substitute for the adoption of a healthy lifestyle. They emphasize the importance of dietary choices, physical activity, sleep and experience of natural environments.

There is substantial evidence, some previously discussed on this blog, that experience of natural environments has a positive impact on health and happiness. Prescott and Logan provide an interesting account of Japanese research relating to shinrin-yoku – the absorption of the forest into the body and mind:

“Remarkable studies have demonstrated that, individually, the sounds of nature, the sights of nature, the invisible chemicals secreted from trees (phytoncides, or phytochemicals), and the touch of natural products like wood (compared to synthetic resin), can positively influence stress physiology and our parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” branch of the nervous system that cools the jets of over-stimulation. The sum of research shows that our sensory system understands nature like an old friend.”

One of the authors’ aims seems to be to promote nature relatedness – fascination with nature and a desire for contact with it. They note evidence that nature relatedness is associated with high levels of psychological wellbeing, lower anxiety and greater meaning and purpose in life. Experience in nature tends to lift nature relatedness scores. Practicing mindfulness while walking in nature has additional emotional benefits. Moreover, the combination of nature relatedness, mindfulness and meaningfulness of life promotes pro-environmental behaviours.

Prescott and Logan leave readers in no doubt that they view pro-environmental behaviours to be desirable. I agree with them.

However, I strongly disagree with authors about economics and politics. They argue:

“It’s up to governments, insulated against lobbyists, to help curb the wild west that is fueling the dysbiosphere. Time and time again industry has shown it just can’t stop itself from pushing dysbiotic choices on our children.

They oppose the view that “an individual can assume responsibility for personal health problems by simply adopting what biomedicine has to offer”. They suggest that view is deficient because it “doesn’t consider that a broken socio-ecological system might be the driving force for the need of biomedicine in the first place”.

When I read such views I have to remind myself that in writing about supporters of socialism Friedrich Hayek insisted “that it is neither selfish interests nor evil intentions but mostly honest convictions and good intentions which determine the intellectual's views”. (Quote from ‘The Intellectuals and Socialism’). It is not necessarily a waste of time to try to correct the errors of well-intentioned people.

Some of the errors made by Prescott and Logan are as follows:

1.       The view that government can be insulated against lobbyists is contrary to everything that is known about government and human nature.

2.       The phrase “pushing dysbiotic choices on our children” refers to advertising and selling products that are only harmful to human health when consumed inappropriately. There is nothing in our legal or economic system that requires parents to buy such products for their children or to allow them to over-indulge. Firms already offer foods for sale that are beneficial to health and will have a greater incentive to do so as consumers become more aware of the health implications of the choices they make on behalf of their children.

3.       The widespread human misery (and environmental catastrophes) caused by socialist economic experiments during the 20th century should make us wary of claims that the socio-ecological system is broken. In what respects is it broken? What precise interventions are proposed to fix it? And, are we sure, beyond reasonable doubt, that those interventions will produce better overall outcomes?

Susan Prescott and Alan Logan were unwise to include ill-informed rants on economics and politics in this book. It seems to me that those rants detract from their efforts to promote a revolution in attitudes toward the micro-biome and the environment.

In my view this book is nevertheless worth reading because of the substantial body of scientific evidence it provides that many aspects of human health and happiness depend on the microbiome.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Where is the best place to live?


The pathway above Orion beach, Vincentia, NSW, Australia

Over the last few months I have had personal reasons to ponder this question. My wife and I decided that the time had come for us to move closer to family and downsize.

I can’t claim that I reviewed research relating to the question in a systematic way before we decided where we should live. However, I have been reading and writing about happiness research for over a decade, so that probably had some influence.
Since we made our decision I have read some of the more recent literature on the impact of happiness of location. Perhaps my recent reading could be explained in terms of seeking additional evidence to support the decision we have made, but I do find the topic intrinsically interesting.

My intention here is to discuss research findings on the impact of location on happiness rather than to attempt to justify our decision.  Relocation decisions made by different individuals and families obviously need to reflect their differing values and changing priorities at different stages of life.

If you do an internet search on “happiness best place to live” one of the first items to come up is likely to be an article telling you that according to a major Gallup poll, Hawaii is the U.S. state with the highest well-being ranking, with the top score in the physical, financial and community categories. If you search for the cities that are the best places to live, you are likely to find articles based on Gallup polls which suggest that the cities that score highest are near the ocean. When you read on you find that there is more involved than just beachside living. Research by Andrew Oswald has shown that average life satisfaction levels in different places closely correlate with objective measures of the quality of life – as measured sunshine hours, congestion, air quality etc.

Survey data on the happiness of people in different federal electorates in Australia suggests that many of the happiest electorates in Australia are not close to the coast (although the New South Wales south coast electorate of Gilmore, where we have lived for the last 12 years, is among the top five). Some of the unhappiest electorates in the country are in suburban Sydney. Some headlines claiming that major cities create unhappy Australians prompted me to write sceptically on this topic a couple of years ago. I suggested that current life satisfaction is not the only important consideration in making location decisions. Many families face trade-offs between current and future life satisfaction.

I recommend that people considering a move should also read an article by Brad Waters in Psychology Today which draws upon the insights of Daniel Kahneman to make the point that life satisfaction is influenced by many factors other than location. He suggests that people considering relocation should ask themselves: “Does a move satisfy those factors or does it temporarily distract us from satisfying them?”

There is evidence of substantial benefits from living in a location where it is possible to see family and friends frequently. For example, research by Nick Powdthavee, undertaken about a decade ago, suggested that the benefits of seeing relatives and friends “most days” rather than “less than once a month” was greater than the benefit of getting married and was sufficient to compensate for about two-thirds of the happiness loss from such events as unemployment or going through a separation.

A couple of years ago when I wrote about the link between happiness and nature connectedness I speculated that some part of the correlation between nature connectedness and happiness is associated with “feeling connected”. Feeling connected to nature might be similar in that respect to feeling connected with family, friends or community.

Evidence continues to accumulate that actual contact with the natural environment has positive benefits for health and happiness. For example, a study conducted by Simone Kuhn (and others) for the Max Planck Institute for Human Development (discussed in this Forbes article) found that city dwellers who live near forests were more likely to have healthy amygdalas and thus better able to manage stress, anxiety and depression. A study by Chris Neale (and others) using mobile EEG has found that when walking in urban green space old people had a higher level of engagement and lower levels of excitement than when walking in both busy urban commercial streets and quiet urban space. The authors concluded that the urban green space seemed to have a restorative effect on brain activity.

An article by Ming Kuo has identified 21 plausible pathways linking nature to human health and has postulated that one pathway, enhanced immune functioning, may be of central importance.

Thoughts along those line prompted me to begin reading The Secret Life of Your Microbiome, why nature and biodiversity are essential to health and happiness, by Susan Prescott and Alan Logan. Perhaps I will write more about that later.

Meanwhile, my bottom line is that, other things equal, it might be a good idea to find a place to live where you can spend a fair amount of time in the natural environment with family and friends. Unfortunately, many people in this world do not currently have the luxury of making that choice.