How can we stop rewarding psychopathy?

Oct 1, JDN 24578028

A couple of weeks ago The New York Times ran an interesting article about how entrepreneurs were often juvenile delinquents, who then often turn into white-collar criminals. They didn’t quite connect the dots, though; they talked about the relevant trait driving this behavior as “rule-breaking”, when it is probably better defined as psychopathy. People like Martin Shkreli aren’t just “rule-breakers”; they are psychopaths. While only about 1% of humans in general are psychopaths, somewhere between 3% and 4% of business executives are psychopaths. I was unable to find any specific data assessing the prevalence of psychopathy among politicians, but if you just read the Hare checklist, it’s not hard to see that psychopathic traits are overrepresented among politicians as well.

This is obviously the result of selection bias; as a society, we are systematically appointing psychopaths to positions of wealth and power. Why are we doing this? How can we stop?

One very important factor here that may be especially difficult to deal with is desire. We generally think that in a free society, people should be allowed to seek out the sort of life they want to live. But one of the reasons that psychopaths are more likely to become rich and powerful is precisely that they want it more.

To most of us, being rich is probably something we want, but not the most important thing to us. We’d accept being poor if it meant we could be happy, surrounded by friends and family who love us, and made a great contribution to society. We would like to be rich, but it’s more important that we be good people. But to many psychopaths, being rich is the one single thing they care about. All those other considerations are irrelevant.

With power, matters are even more extreme: Most people actually seem convinced that they don’t want power at all. They associate power with corruption and cruelty (because, you know, so many of the people in power are psychopaths!), and they want no part of it.

So the saying goes: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Does it, now? Did power corrupt George Washington and Abraham Lincoln? Did it corrupt Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela? I’m not saying that any of these men were without flaws, even serious ones—but was it power that made them so? Who would they have been, and more importantly, what would they have done, if they hadn’t had power? Would the world really have been better off if Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela had stayed out of politics? I don’t think so.

Part of what we need, therefore, is to convince good people that wanting power is not inherently bad. Power just means the ability to do things; it’s what you do that matters. You should want power—the power to right wrongs, mend injustices, uplift humanity’s future. Thinking that the world would be better if you were in charge not only isn’t a bad thing—it is quite likely to be true. If you are not a psychopath, then the world would probably be better off if you were in charge of it.

Of course, that depends partly on what “in charge of the world” even means; it’s not like we have a global government, after all. But even suppose you were granted the power of an absolute dictatorship over all of humanity; what would you do with that power? My guess is that you’d probably do what I would do: Start by using that power to correct the greatest injustices, then gradually cede power to a permanent global democracy. That wouldn’t just be a good thing; it would be quite literally and without a doubt the best thing that ever happened. Of course, it would be all the better if we never built such a dictatorship in the first place; but mainly that’s because of the sort of people who tend to become dictators. A benevolent dictatorship really would be a wonderful thing; the problem is that dictators almost never remain benevolent. Dictatorship is simply too enticing to psychopaths.

And what if you don’t think you’re competent enough in policy to make such decisions? Simple: You don’t make them yourself, you delegate them to responsible and trustworthy people to make them for you. Recognizing your own limitations is one of the most important differences between a typical leader and a good leader.

Desire isn’t the only factor here, however. Even though psychopaths tend to seek wealth and power with more zeal than others, there are still a lot of good people trying to seek wealth and power. We need to look very carefully at the process of how we select our leaders.

Let’s start with the private sector. How are managers chosen? Mainly, by managers above them. What criteria do they use? Mostly, they use similarity. Managers choose other managers who are “like them”—middle-aged straight White men with psychopathic tendencies.

This is something that could be rectified with regulation; we could require businesses to choose a more diverse array of managers that is more representative of the population at large. While this would no doubt trigger many complaints of “government interference” and “inefficiency”, in fact it almost certainly would increase the long-term profitability of most corporations. Study after study after study shows that increased diversity, particularly including more equal representation of women, results in better business performance. A recent MIT study found that switching from an all-male or all-female management population to a 50-50 male/female split could increase profits by as much as forty percent. The reason boards of directors aren’t including more diversity is that they ultimately care more about protecting their old boys’ club (and increasing their own compensation, of course) than they do about maximizing profits for their shareholders.

I think it would actually be entirely reasonable to include regulations about psychopathy in particular; designate certain industries (such as lobbying and finance; I would not include medicine, as psychopaths actually seem to make pretty good neurosurgeons!) as “systematically vital” and require psychopathy screening tests as part of their licensing process. This is no small matter, and definitely does represent an incursion into civil liberties; but given the enormous potential benefits, I don’t think it can be dismissed out of hand. We do license professions; why shouldn’t at least a minimal capacity for empathy and ethical behavior be part of that licensing process?

Where the civil liberty argument becomes overwhelming is in politics. I don’t think we can justify any restrictions on who should be allowed to run for office. Frankly, I think even the age limits should be struck from the Constitution; you should be allowed to run for President at 18 if you want. Requiring psychological tests for political office borders on dystopian.

That means we need to somehow reform either the campaign system, the voting system, or the behavior of voters themselves.

Of course, we should reform all three. Let’s start with the voting system itself, as that is the simplest: We should be using range voting, and we should abolish the Electoral College. Districts should be replaced by proportional representation through reweighted range voting, eliminating gerrymandering once and for all without question.

The campaign system is trickier. We could start by eliminating or tightly capping private and corporate campaign donations, and replace them with a system similar to the “Democracy Vouchers” being tested in Seattle. The basic idea is simple and beautiful: Everyone gets an equal amount of vouchers to give to whatever candidates they like, and then all the vouchers can be redeemed for campaign financing from public funds. It’s like everyone giving a donation (or monetary voting), but everyone has the same amount of “money”.

This would not solve all the problems, however. There is still an oligopoly of news media distorting our political discourse. There is still astonishingly bad journalism even in our most respected outlets, like the way the New York Times was obsessed with Comey’s letter and CNN’s wall-to-wall coverage of totally unfounded speculation about a missing airliner.

Then again, CNN’s ratings skyrocketed during that period. This shows that the problems run much deeper than a handful of bad journalists or corrupt media companies. These companies are, to a surprisingly large degree, just trying to cater to what their audience has said it wants, just “giving the people what they want”.

Our fundamental challenge, therefore, is to change what the people want. We have to somehow convince the public at large—or at least a big enough segment of the public at large—that they don’t really want TV news that spends hours telling them nothing and they don’t really want to elect the candidate who is the tallest or has the nicest hair. And we have to get them to actually change the way they behave accordingly.

When it comes to that part, I have no idea what to do. A voting population that is capable of electing Donald Trump—Electoral College nonsense notwithstanding, he won sixty million votes—is one that I honestly have no idea how to interface with at all. But we must try.

If we had range voting, who would win this election?

July 16, JDN 2457586

The nomination of Donald Trump is truly a terrible outcome, and may be unprecedented in American history. One theory of its causation, taken by many policy elites (reviewed here by the Brookings Institution), is that this is a sign of “too much democracy”, a sentiment such elites often turn to, as The Economist did in the wake of the Great Recession. Even Salon has published such a theory. Yet as Michael Lind of the New York Times recognized, the problem is clearly not too much democracy but too little. “Too much democracy” is not an outright incoherent notion—it is something that I think in principle could exist—but I have never encountered it. Every time someone claims a system is too democratic, I have found that deeper digging shows that what they really mean is that it doesn’t privilege their interests enough.

Part of the problem, I think, is that even democracy as we know it in the real world is really not all that democratic, especially not in the United States, where it is totally dominated by a plurality vote system that forces us to choose between two parties. Most of the real decision-making happens in Senate committees, and when votes are important they are really most important in primaries. To be clear, I’m not saying that votes don’t count in the US or you shouldn’t vote; they do count, and you should vote. But anyone saying this system is “too democratic” clearly has no idea just how much more democratic it could be.

Indeed, there is one simple change that would both greatly expand democracy, weaken the two-party system, and undermine Trump in one fell swoop, and it is called range voting. I’ve sung the praises of range voting many times before, but some anvils need to be dropped; I guess it’s just this thing I have when a system is mathematically proven superior.

Today I’d like to run a little thought experiment: What would happen if we had used range voting this election? I’m going to use actual poll data, rather than making up hypotheticals like The New York Times did when they tried to make this same argument using Condorcet voting. (Condorcet voting is basically range voting lite, for people who don’t believe in cardinal utility.)

Of course, no actual range voting has been conducted, so I have to extrapolate. So here’s my simple, but I think reasonably reliable, methodology: I’m going to use aggregated favorability ratings from Real Clear Politics (except for Donald Trump, whom Real Clear Politics didn’t include for some reason; for him I’m using Washington Post poll numbers, which are comparable for Clinton). Sadly I couldn’t find good figures on favorability ratings for Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, though I’d very much like to; so sadly I had to exclude them. Had I included them, it’s quite possible one of them could have won, which would make my point even more strongly.

I score the ratings as follows: Every “unfavorable” rating counts as a 0. Every “favorable” rating counts as a 1. Other ratings will be ignored, and I’ll add 10% “unfavorable” ratings to every candidate as a “soft quorum” (here’s an explanation of why we want to do this). Technically this is really approval voting, which is a special case of range voting where you can only vote 0 or 1.

All right, here goes.

Candidate Favorable Unfavorable Overall score
Bernie Sanders 48.4% 37.9% 50.5%
Joe Biden 47.4% 36.6% 50.4%
Elizabeth Warren 36.0% 32.0% 46.2%
Ben Carson 37.8% 42.0% 42.1%
Marco Rubio 36.3% 40.3% 41.9%
Hillary Clinton 39.6% 55.3% 37.7%
Scott Walker 23.5% 29.3% 37.4%
Chris Christie 29.8% 44.5% 35.3%
Mike Huckabee 27.0% 40.7% 34.7%
Rand Paul 25.7% 41.0% 33.5%
Jeb Bush 30.8% 52.4% 33.0%
Mike O’Malley 17.5% 27.0% 32.1%
Bobby Jindal 18.7% 30.3% 31.7%
Rick Santorum 24.0% 42.0% 31.6%
Rick Perry 21.0% 39.3% 29.9%
Jim Webb 10.3% 15.0% 29.2%
Donald Trump 29.0% 70.0% 26.6%

Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren aren’t actually running, but it would be great if they did (and of course people like them, what’s not to like?). Ben Carson does surprisingly well, which I confess is baffling; he’s a nice enough guy, I guess, but he’s also crazypants. Hopefully if he’d campaigned longer, his approval ratings would have fallen as people heard him talk, much like Sarah Palin and for the same reasons—but note that even if this didn’t happen, he still wouldn’t have won. Marco Rubio was always the least-scary Republican option, so it’s nice to see him come up next. And then of course we have Hillary Clinton, who will actually be our next President. (6th place ain’t so bad?)

But look, there, who is that up at the top? Why, it’s Bernie Sanders.

Let me be clear about this: Using our current poll numbers—I’m not assuming that people become more aware of him, or more favorable to him, I’m just using the actual figures we have from polls of the general American population right now—if we had approval voting, and probably if we had more expressive range voting, Bernie Sanders would win the election.

Moreover, where is Donald Trump? The very bottom. He is literally the most hated candidate, and couldn’t even beat Jim Webb or Rick Perry under approval voting.

Trump didn’t win the hearts and minds of the American people, he knew how to work the system. He knew how to rally the far-right base of the Republican Party in order to secure the nomination, and he knew that the Republican leadership would fall in line and continue their 25-year-long assault on Hillary Clinton’s character once he had.

This disaster was created by our plurality voting system. If we’d had a more democratic voting system, Bernie Sanders would be narrowly beating Joe Biden. But instead Hillary Clinton is narrowly beating Donald Trump.

Trump is not the product of too much democracy, but too little.

This is why we must vote our consciences.

JDN 2457465

As I write, Bernie Sanders has just officially won the Michigan Democratic Primary. It was a close race—he was ahead by about 2% the entire time—so the delegates will be split; but he won.

This is notable because so many forecasters said it was impossible. Before the election, Nate Silver, one of the best political forecasters in the world (and he still deserves that title) had predicted a less than 1% chance Bernie Sanders could win. In fact, had he taken his models literally, he would have predicted a less than 1 in 10 million chance Bernie Sanders could win—I think it speaks highly of him that he was not willing to trust his models quite that far. I got into one of the wonkiest flamewars of all time earlier today debating whether this kind of egregious statistical error should call into question many of our standard statistical methods (I think it should; another good example is the total failure of the Black-Scholes model during the 2008 financial crisis).

Had we trusted the forecasters, held our noses and voted for the “electable” candidate, this would not have happened. But instead we voted our consciences, and the candidate we really wanted won.

It is an unfortunate truth that our system of plurality “first-past-the-post” voting does actually strongly incentivize strategic voting. Indeed, did it not, we wouldn’t need primaries in the first place. With a good range voting or even Condorcet voting system, you could basically just vote honestly among all candidates and expect a good outcome. Technically it’s still possible to vote strategically in range and Condorcet systems, but it’s not necessary the way it is in plurality vote systems.

The reason we need primaries is that plurality voting is not cloneproof; if two very similar candidates (“clones”) run that everyone likes, votes will be split between them and the two highly-favored candidates can lose to a less-favored candidate. Condorcet voting is cloneproof in most circumstances, and range voting is provably cloneproof everywhere and always. (Have I mentioned that we should really have range voting?)

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are not clones by any means, but they are considerably more similar to one another than either is to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. If all the Republicans were to immediately drop out besides Trump while Clinton and Sanders stayed in the race, Trump could end up winning because votes were split between Clinton and Sanders. Primaries exist to prevent this outcome; either Sanders or Clinton will be in the final election, but not both (the #BernieOrBust people notwithstanding), so it will be a simple matter of whether they are preferred to Trump, which of course both Clinton and Sanders are. Don’t put too much stock in these polls, as polls this early are wildly unreliable. But I think they at least give us some sense of which direction the outcome is likely to be.

Ideally, we wouldn’t need to worry about that, and we could just vote our consciences all the time. But in the general election, you really do need to vote a little strategically and choose the better (or less-bad) option among the two major parties. No third-party Presidential candidate has ever gotten close to actually winning an election, and the best they ever seem to do is acting as weak clones undermining other similar candidates, as Ross Perot and Ralph Nader did. (Still, if you were thinking of not voting at all, it is obviously preferable for you to vote for a third-party candidate. If everyone who didn’t vote had instead voted for Ralph Nader, Nader would have won by a landslide—and US climate policy would be at least a decade ahead of where it is now, and we might not be already halfway to the 2 C global warming threshold.)

But in the primary? Vote your conscience. Primaries exist to make this possible, and we just showed that it can work. When people actually turn out to vote and support candidates they believe in, they win elections. If the same thing happens in several other states that just happened in Michigan, Bernie Sanders could win this election. And even if he doesn’t, he’s already gone a lot further than most of the pundits ever thought he could. (Sadly, so has Trump.)

We all know lobbying is corrupt. What can we do about it?

JDN 2457439

It’s so well-known as to almost seem cliche: Our political lobbying system is clearly corrupt.

Juan Cole, a historian and public intellectual from the University of Michigan, even went so far as to say that the United States is the most corrupt country in the world. He clearly went too far, or else left out a word; the US may well be the most corrupt county in the First World, though most rankings say Italy. In any case, the US is definitely not the most corrupt country in the whole world; no, that title goes to Somalia and/or North Korea.

Still, lobbying in the US is clearly a major source of corruption. Indeed, economists who study corruption often have trouble coming up with a sound definition of “corruption” that doesn’t end up including lobbying, despite the fact that lobbying is quite legal. Bribery means giving politicians money to get them to do things for you. Lobbying means giving politicians money and asking them to do things. In the letter of the law, that makes all the difference.

One thing that does make a difference is that lobbyists are required to register who they are and record their campaign contributions (unless of course they launder—I mean reallocate—them through a Super PAC of course). Many corporate lobbyists claim that it’s not that they go around trying to find politicians to influence, but rather politicians who call them up demanding money.

One of the biggest problems with lobbying is what’s called the revolving doorpoliticians are often re-hired as lobbyists, or lobbyists as politicians, based on the personal connections formed in the lobbying process—or possibly actual deals between lobbying companies over legislation, though if done explicitly that would be illegal. Almost 400 lobbyists working right now used to be legislators; almost 3,000 more worked as Congressional staff. Many lobbyists will do a tour as a Congressional staffer as a resume-builder, like an internship.

Studies have shown that lobbying does have an impact on policy—in terms of carving out tax loopholes it offers a huge return on investment.

Our current systems to disinventize the revolving door are not working. While there is reason to think that establishing a “cooling-off period” of a few years could make a difference, under current policy we already have some cooling-off periods and it’s clearly not enough.

So, now that we know the problem, let’s start talking about solutions.

Option 1: Ban campaign contributions

One possibility would be to eliminate campaign contributions entirely, which we could do by establishing a law that nobody can ever give money or in-kind favors to politicians ever under any circumstances. It would still be legal to meet with politicians and talk to them about issues, but if you take a Senator out for dinner we’d have to require that the Senator pay for their own food and transportation, lest wining-and-dining still be an effective means of manipulation. Then all elections would have to be completely publicly financed. This is a radical solution, but it would almost certainly work. MoveOn has a petition you can sign if you like this solution, and there’s a site called public-campaign-financing.org that will tell you how it could realistically be implemented (beware, their webmaster appears to be a time traveler from the 1990s who thinks that automatic music and tiled backgrounds constitute good web design).

There are a couple of problems with this solution, however:

First, it would be declared Unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Under the (literally Orwellian) dicta that “corporations are people” and “money is speech” established in Citizens United vs. FEC, any restrictions on donating money to politicians constitute restrictions on free speech, and are therefore subject to strict scrutiny.

Second, there is actually a real restriction on freedom here, not because money is speech, but because money facilitates speech. Since eliminating all campaign donations would require total public financing of elections, we would need some way of deciding which candidates to finance publicly, because obviously you can’t give the same amount of money to everyone in the country or even everyone who decides to run. It simply doesn’t make sense to provide the same campaign financing for Hillary Clinton that you would for Vermin Supreme. But then, however this mechanism works, it could readily be manipulated to give even more advantages to the two major parties (not that they appear to need any more). If you’re fine with having exactly two parties to choose from, then providing funding for their, say, top 5 candidates in each primary, and then for their nominee in the general election, would work. But I for one would like to have more options than that, and that means devising some mechanism for funding third parties that have a realistic shot (like Ralph Nader or Ross Perot) but not those who don’t (like the aforementioned Vermin Supreme)—but at the same time we need to make sure that it’s not biased or self-fulfilling.

So let’s suppose we don’t eliminate campaign contributions completely. What else could we do that would curb corruption?

Option 2: Donation caps and “Democracy Credits”

I particularly like this proposal, self-titled the American Anti-Corruption Act (beware self-titled laws: USA PATRIOT ACT, anyone?), which would require full transparency—yes, even you, Super PACs—and place reasonable caps on donations so that large amounts of funds must be raised from large numbers of people rather than from a handful of people with a huge amount of money. It also includes an interesting proposal called “Democracy Credits” (again, the titles are a bit heavy-handed), which are basically an independent monetary system, used only to finance elections, and doled out exactly equally to all US citizens to spend on the candidates they like. The credits would then be exchangeable for real money, but only by the candidates themselves. This is a great idea, but sadly I doubt anyone in our political system is likely to go for it.

Actually, I would like to see these “Democracy Credits” used as votes—whoever gets the most credits wins the election, automatically. This is not quite as good as range voting, because it is not cloneproof or independent of irrelevant alternatives (briefly put, if you run two candidates that are exactly alike, their votes get split and they both lose, even if everyone likes them; and similarly, if you add a new candidate that doesn’t win you can still affect who does end up winning. Range voting is basically the only system that doesn’t have these problems, aside from a few really weird “voting” systems like “random ballot”). But still, it would be much better than our current plurality “first past the post” system, and would give third-party candidates a much fairer shot at winning elections. Indeed, it is very similar to CTT monetary voting, which is provably optimal in certain (idealized) circumstances. Of course, that’s even more of a pipe dream.

The donation caps are realistic, however; we used to have them, in fact, before Citizens United vs. FEC. Perhaps future Supreme Court decisions can overturn it and restore some semblance of balance in our campaign finance system.

Option 3: Treat campaign contributions as a conflict of interest

Jack Abramoff, a former lobbyist who was actually so corrupt he got convicted for it, has somewhat ironically made another proposal for how to reduce corrupting in the lobbying system. I suppose he would know, though I must wonder what incentives he has to actually do this properly (and corrupt people are precisely the sort of people with whom you should definitely be looking at the monetary incentives).

Abramoff would essentially use Option 1, but applied only to individuals and corporations with direct interests in the laws being made. As Gawker put it, “If you get money or perks from elected officials, […] you shouldn’t be permitted to give them so much as one dollar.” The way it avoids requiring total public financing is by saying that if you don’t get perks, you can still donate.

His plan would also extend the “cooling off” idea to its logical limit—once you work for Congress, you can never work for a lobbying organization for the rest of your life, and vice versa. That seems like a lot of commitment to ask of twentysomething Congressional interns (“If you take this job, unemployed graduate, you can never ever take that other job!”), but I suppose if it works it might be worth it.

He also wants to establish term limits for Congress, which seems pretty reasonable to me. If we’re going to have term limits for the Executive branch, why not the other branches as well? They could be longer, but if term limits are necessary at all we should use them consistently.

Abramoff also says we should repeal the 17th Amendment, because apparently making our Senators less representative of the population will somehow advance democracy. Best I can figure, he’s coming from an aristocratic attitude here, this notion that we should let “better people” make the important decisions if we want better decisions. And this sounds seductive, given how many really bad decisions people make in this world. But of course which people were the better people was precisely the question representative democracy was intended to answer. At least if Senators are chosen by state legislatures there’s a sort of meta-representation going on, which is obviously better than no representation at all; but still, adding layers of non-democracy by definition cannot make a system more democratic.

But Abramoff really goes off the rails when he proposes making it a conflict of interest to legislate about your own state.Pork-barrel spending”, as it is known, or earmarks as they are formally called, are actually a tiny portion of our budget (about 0.1% of our GDP) and really not worth worrying about. Sure, sometimes a Senator gets a bridge built that only three people will ever use, but it’s not that much money in the scheme of things, and there’s no harm in keeping our construction workers at work. The much bigger problem would be if legislators could no longer represent their own constituents in any way, thus defeating the basic purpose of having a representative legislature. (There is a thorny question about how much a Senator is responsible for their own state versus the country as a whole; but clearly their responsibility to their own state is not zero.)

Even aside from that ridiculous last part, there’s a serious problem with this idea of “no contributions from anyone who gets perks”: What constitutes a “perk”? Is a subsidy for solar power a perk for solar companies, or a smart environmental policy (can it be both?)? Does paying for road construction “affect” auto manufacturers in the relevant sense? What about policies that harm particular corporations? Since a carbon tax would hurt oil company profits, are oil companies allowed to lobby against it on the ground that it is the opposite of a “perk”?

Voting for representatives who will do things you want is kind of the point of representative democracy. (No, New York Post, it is not “pandering” to support women’s rights and interestswomen are the majority of our population. If there is one group of people that our government should represent, it is women.) Taken to its logical extreme, this policy would mean that once the government ever truly acts in the public interest, all campaign contributions are henceforth forever banned. I presume that’s not actually what Abramoff intends, but he offers no clear guidelines on how we would distinguish a special interest to be excluded from donations as opposed to a legitimate public interest that creates no such exclusion. Could we flesh this out in the actual legislative process? Is this something courts would decide?

In all, I think the best reform right now is to put the cap back on campaign contributions. It’s simple to do, and we had it before and it seemed to work (mostly). We could also combine that with longer cooling-off periods, perhaps three or five years instead of only one, and potentially even term limits for Congress. These reforms would certainly not eliminate corruption in the lobbying system, but they would most likely reduce it substantially, without stepping on fundamental freedoms.

Of course I’d really like to see those “Democracy Credits”; but that’s clearly not going to happen.

Why did we ever privatize prisons?

JDN 2457103 EDT 10:24.

Since the Reagan administration (it’s always Reagan), the United States has undergone a spree of privatization of public services, in which services that are ordinarily performed by government agencies are instead contracted out to private companies. Enormous damage to our society has been done by this sort of privatization, from healthcare to parking meters.

This process can vary in magnitude.

The weakest form, which is relatively benign, is for the government to buy specific services like food service or equipment manufacturing from companies that already provide them to consumers. There’s no particular reason for the government to make their own toothpaste or wrenches rather than buy them from corporations like Proctor & Gamble and Sears. Toothpaste is toothpaste and wrenches are wrenches.

The moderate form is for the government to contract services to specific companies that may involve government-specific features like security clearances or powerful military weapons. This is already raising a lot of problems: When Northrop-Grumman makes our stealth bombers, and Boeing builds our nuclear ICBMs, these are publicly-traded, for-profit corporations manufacturing some of the deadliest weapons ever created—weapons that could literally destroy human civilization in a matter of minutes. Markets don’t work well in the presence of externalities, and weapons by definition are almost nothing but externalities; their entire function is to cause harm—typically, death—to people without their consent. While this violence may sometimes be justified, it must never be taken lightly; and we are right to be uncomfortable with the military-industrial complex whose shareholders profit from death and destruction. (Eisenhower tried to warn us!) Still, there are some good arguments to be made for this sort of privatization, since many of these corporations already have high-tech factories and skilled engineers that they can easily repurpose, and competitive bids between different corporations can keep the price down. (Of course, with no-bid contracts that no longer applies; and it certainly hasn’t stopped us from spending nearly as much on the military as the rest of the world combined.)

What I’d really like to focus on today is the strongest form of privatization, in which basic government services are contracted out to private companies. This is what happens when you attempt to privatize soldiers, SWAT teams, and prisons—all of which the United States has done since Reagan.

I say “attempt” to privatize because in a very real sense the privatization of these services is incoherent—they are functions so basic to government that simply to do them makes you, de facto, part of the government. (Or, if done without government orders, it would be organized crime.) All you’ve really done by “privatizing” these services is reduced their transparency and accountability, as well as siphoning off a portion of the taxpayer money in the form of profits for shareholders.

The benefits of privatization, when they exist, are due to competition and consumer freedom. The foundation of a capitalist economy is the ability to say “I’ll take my business elsewhere.” (This is why the notion that a bank can sell your loan to someone else is the opposite of a free market; forcing you to write a check to someone you never made a contract with is antithetical to everything the free market stands for.) Actually the closest thing to a successful example of privatized government services is the United States Postal Service, which collects absolutely no tax income. They do borrow from the government and receive subsidies for some of their services—but so does General Motors. Frankly I think the Postal Service has a better claim to privatization than GM, which you may recall only exists today because of a massive government bailout with a net cost to the US government of $11 billion. All the Postal Service does differently is act as a tightly-regulated monopoly that provides high-quality service to everyone at low prices and pays good wages and pensions, all without siphoning profits to shareholders. (They really screwed up my mail forwarding lately, but they are still one of the best postal systems in the world.) It is in many ways the best of both worlds, the efficiency of capitalism with the humanity of socialism.

The Corrections Corporation of America, on the other hand, is the exact opposite, the worst of both worlds, the inefficiency of socialism with the inhumanity of capitalism. It is not simply corrupt but frankly inherently corrupt—there is simply no way you can have a for-profit prison system that isn’t corrupt. Maybe it can be made less corrupt or more corrupt, but the mere fact that shareholders are earning profits from incarcerating prisoners is fundamentally antithetical to a free and just society.

I really can’t stress this enough: Privatizing soldiers and prisons makes no sense at all. It doesn’t even make sense in a world of infinite identical psychopaths; nothing in neoclassical economic theory in any way supports these privatizations. Neoclassical theory is based upon the presumption of a stable government that enforces property rights, a government that provides as much service as necessary exactly at cost and is not attempting to maximize any notion of its own “profit”.

That’s ridiculous, of course—much like the neoclassical rational agent—and more recent work has been done in public choice theory about the various interest groups that act against each other in government, including lobbyists for private corporations—but public choice theory is above all a theory of government failure. It is a theory of why governments don’t work as well as we would like them to—the main question is how we can suppress the influence of special interest groups to advance the public good. Privatization of prisons means creating special interest groups where none existed, making the government less directed at the public good.

Privatizing government services is often described as “reducing the size of government”, usually interpreted in the most narrow sense to mean the tax burden. But Big Government doesn’t mean you pay 22% of GDP instead of 18% of GDP; Big Government means you can be arrested and imprisoned without trial. Even using the Heritage Foundation’s metrics, the correlation between tax burden and overall freedom is positive. Tyrannical societies don’t bother with taxes; they own the oil refineries directly (Venezuela), or print money whenever they want (Zimbabwe), or build the whole society around doing what they want (North Korea).

The incarceration rate is a much better measure of a society’s freedom than the tax rate will ever be—and the US isn’t doing so well in that regard; indeed we have by some measures the highest incarceration rate in the world. Fortunately we do considerably better when it comes to things like free speech and freedom of religion—indeed we are still above average in overall freedom. Though we do imprison more of our people than China, I’m not suggesting that China has a freer society. But why do we imprison so many people?

Well, it seems to have something to do with privatization of prisons. Indeed, there is a strong correlation between the privatization of US prisons and the enormous explosion of incarceration in the United States. In fact privatized prisons don’t even reduce the tax burden, because privatization does not decrease demand and “privatized” prisons must still be funded by taxes. Prisons do not have customers who choose between different competing companies and shop for the highest quality and lowest price—prisoners go to the prison they are assigned to and they can’t leave (which is really the whole point). Even competition at the purchase end doesn’t make much sense, since the government can’t easily transfer all the prisoners to a new company. Maybe they could transfer ownership of the prison to a different company, but even then the transition costs would be substantial, and besides, there are only a handful of prison corporations that corner most of the (so-called) market.

There is simply no economic basis for privatization of prisons. Nothing in either neoclassical theory or more modern cognitive science in any way supports the idea. So the real question is: Why did we ever privatize prisons?

Basically there is only one reason: Ideology. The post-Reagan privatization spree was not actually based on economics—it was based on economic ideology. Either because they actually believed it, or by the Upton Sinclair Principle, a large number of economists adopted a radical far-right ideology that government basically should not exist—that the more we give more power to corporations and less power to elected officials the better off we will be.

They defended this ideology on vaguely neoclassical grounds, mumbling something about markets being more efficient; but this isn’t even like cutting off the wings of the airplane because we’re assuming frictionless vacuum—it’s like cutting off the engines of the airplane because we simply hate engines and are looking for any excuse to get rid of them. There is absolutely nothing in neoclassical economic theory that says it would be efficient or really beneficial in any way to privatize prisons. It was all about taking power away from the elected government and handing it over to for-profit corporations.

This is a bit of consciousness-raising I’m trying to do: Any time you hear someone say that something should be apolitical, I want you to substitute the word undemocratic. When they say that judges shouldn’t be elected so that they can be apolitical—they mean undemocratic. When they say that the Federal Reserve should be independent of politics—they mean independent of voting. They want to take decision power away from the public at large and concentrate it more in the hands of an elite. People who say this sort of thing literally do not believe in democracy.

To be fair, there may actually be good reasons to not believe in democracy, or at least to believe that democracy should be constrained by a constitution and a system of representation. Certain rights are inalienable, regardless of what the voting public may say, which is why we need a constitution that protects those rights above all else. (In theory… there’s always the PATRIOT ACT, speaking of imprisoning people without trial.) Moreover, most people are simply not interested enough—or informed enough—to vote on every single important decision the government makes. It makes sense for us to place this daily decision-making power in the hands of an elite—but it must be an elite we choose.

And yes, people often vote irrationally. One of the central problems in the United States today is that almost half the population consistently votes against rational government and their own self-interest on the basis of a misguided obsession with banning abortion, combined with a totally nonsensical folk theory of economics in which poor people are poor because they are lazy, the government inherently destroys whatever wealth it touches, and private-sector “job creators” simply hand out jobs to other people because they have extra money lying around. Then of course there’s—let’s face it—deep-seated bigotry toward women, racial minorities, and LGBT people. (The extreme hatred toward Obama and suspicion that he isn’t really born in the US really can’t be explained any other way.) In such circumstances it may be tempting to say that we should give up on democracy and let expert technocrats take charge; but in the absence of democratic safeguards, technocracy is little more than another name for oligarchy. Maybe it’s enough that the President appoints the Federal Reserve chair and the Supreme Court? I’m not so sure. Ben Bernanke definitely handled the Second Depression better than Congress did, I’ll admit; but I’m not sure Alan Greenspan would have in his place, and given his babbling lately about returning to Bretton Woods I’m pretty sure Paul Volcker wouldn’t have. (If you don’t see what’s wrong with going back to Bretton Woods, which was basically a variant of the gold standard, you should read what Krugman has to say about the gold standard.) So basically we got lucky and our monetary quasi-tyrant was relatively benevolent and wise. (Or maybe Bernanke was better because Obama appointed him, while Reagan appointed Greenspan. Carter appointed Volcker, oddly enough; but Reagan reappointed him. It’s always Reagan.) And if you could indeed ensure that tyrants would always be benevolent and wise, tyranny would be a great system—but you can’t.

Democracy doesn’t always lead to the best outcomes, but that’s really not what it’s for. Rather, democracy is for preventing the worst outcomes—no large-scale famine has ever occurred under a mature democracy, nor has any full-scale genocide. Democracies do sometimes forcibly “relocate” populations (particularly indigenous populations, as the US did under Andrew Jackson), and we should not sugar-coat that; people are forced out of their homes and many die. It could even be considered something close to genocide. But no direct and explicit mass murder of millions has ever occurred under a democratic government—no, the Nazis were not democratically elected—and that by itself is a fully sufficient argument for democracy. It could be true that democracies are economically inefficient (they are economically efficient), unbearably corrupt (they are less corrupt), and full of ignorant idiotic hicks (they have higher average educational attainment), and democracy would still be better simply because it prevents famine and genocide. As Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst system, except for all the others.”

Indeed, I think the central reason why American democracy isn’t working well right now is that it’s not very democratic; a two-party system with a plurality “first-past-the-post” vote is literally the worst possible voting system that can still technically be considered democracy. Any worse than that and you only have one party. If we had a range voting system (which is mathematically optimal) and say a dozen parties (they have about a dozen parties in France), people would be able to express their opinions more clearly and in more detail, with less incentive for strategic voting. We probably wouldn’t have such awful turnout at that point, and after realizing that they actually had such a strong voice, maybe people would even start educating themselves about politics in order to make better decisions.

Privatizing prisons and soldiers takes us in exactly the opposite direction: It makes our government deeply less democratic, fundamentally less accountable to voters. It hands off the power of life and death to institutions whose sole purpose for existence is their own monetary gain. We should never have done it—and we must undo it as soon as we possibly can.