February 2007


Frederick Turner argued in his Frontier Thesis that the American frontier was the source of American exceptionalism*.  Turner claimed that the frontier experience created freedom in America.

That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom-these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.

Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier In American History, ch. I (1921).

Indeed, we often see libertarianism associated with frontier cultures.  The American West is the primary example, but the Australian Outback also comes readily to mind.  I have often heard an argument against libertarianism that springs from this frontier association.  The argument contends that libertarianism worked fine in the wide open spaces of the West where land and other resources were plentiful, but now that we are more tightly packed, and more cosmopolitan, we need a top down solution to make everything work.  I think this argument suffers from a fundamental post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

Charles C. Mann offers an interesting insight in his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, which I mentioned before.  Mann discusses the Marajó culture, which thrived along the Amazon from about 800 to 1400 A.D., with archaeologist Anna C. Roosevelt (p. 294-95):

In highland Mexico, “it wasn’t easy to get away from other people.  With all those rocky hillsides and deserts, you couldn’t readily start over.  But in the Amazon, you could run away–strike off in your canoe and be gone.”

As in Huckleberry Finn? I asked.

“If you like,” she said.  “You could go [along the river] where you wanted and homestead–the forest gives you all kinds of fruit and animals, the river gives you fish and plants.  That was very important to societies like Marajó.  They had to be much less coercive, much more hang-loose, much more socially fluid, or people wouldn’t stay there.”  Compared with much of the rest of the world at the time, people in the Amazon “were freer, they were healthier, they were living in a really wonderful civilization.”

Marajó never had the grand public monuments of a Tenochtitlán or a Qosqo, Roosevelt noted, because its leaders “couldn’t compel the labor.”  Nonetheless, she said, Marajó society was “just as orderly and beautiful and complex.  The eye-opener was that you didn’t need a huge apparatus of state control to have all that.”

The argument against libertarianism says that we don’t have liberty any longer because libertarianism only works in a frontier environment.  Once we progress beyond the frontier, we progress beyond libertarian solutions.  However, Roosevelt’s observations about Marajó society illustrate, instead, that we have libertarianism in frontier cultures because frontiers are one of the few places in which normal people can curb their political leaders’ unrelenting desire to use “force in order to substitute their own inclinations for those of the human race.”

Are there any frontiers left?  I’m ready to move.

* I would argue in favor of Anglosphere exceptionalism more generally, but that’s for another time.

It feels stupid not being able to go into all the rooms of your apartment any more.”  (via Outside Story).

I’m about as cynical as you can get when it comes to government, but I couldn’t make this stuff up.

BERLIN, Feb 2 – More than 100 German housing association tenants are obediently following tough new rules by agreeing not to use all the space in their apartments to avoid being forced to move out.

The local housing authority in the eastern town of Loebau said on Friday the new regulations stipulate the tenants — who all live on welfare — now only qualify for smaller homes.

Because there is a shortage of smaller dwellings, the tenants are being allowed to stay, so long as the space they use does not exceed the new limit.

“The recipients are only allowed apartments of a certain size, but there aren’t enough smaller apartments available,” said Matthias Urbansky, head of the local housing authority.

“The people involved seem to be quite happy with the new set up,” he said, noting that inspectors nevertheless make regular patrols to ensure the rooms standing empty are not being used.

Not everyone sees the sense of living in an apartment with off-limits areas.

“It feels stupid not being able to go into all the rooms of your apartment any more,” one 49-year-old woman was quoted as saying in the Dresdner Morgenpost newspaper.

On Friday, the Utah state house of representatives passed a bill creating a statewide school voucher program.  The bill is expected to pass the state senate and be signed by the governor.  The program makes a voucher available to every public school student in Utah, which the student can use toward tuition at a private school if they so choose.  The value of the voucher is between $500 and $3,000 annually based on family income, and there are relatively few requirements that the private schools must meet.  (Utah government schools spend about $3,500 annually per student.)  More specifics are here.

I think this voucher program is a good thing.  It goes at least some way toward addressing what I see as a significant distortion in the education market created by government  schools.

Imagine for a moment that the government decided to make a car available to every citizen old enough to drive.  The government provides only Ford Focuses, which retail for about $15,000 in the United States.  I think one would see a couple of things happen to the automobile market.  First, and most obvious, there would no longer be any cars on the market for less than $15,000, why buy a car worth less than the one you could get for “free”?  Perhaps less obvious, I think that you would see almost no cars in the $15,000 to $40,000 range as well.  Why would you pay the full $20,000 for a car that was only $5,000 better than the car you could get free?  Put another way, the incremental value of the car would be only $5,000 while the incremental cost would be $20,000.  I expect you would start to see a market for private cars only at a much higher price point, where the $15,000 lost opportunity cost was not as important.  I also expect that you would see some specialized cars for those who really needed something other than a Focus.  Though, you would almost certainly see a lot of people making do with the Focus even if it wasn’t entirely appropriate.

The same thing happens with education.  My eldest daughter is five-years-old and currently attends a government school in Arlington County, Virginia.  Our county spends in the neighborhood of $5,000 annually per student and has very good schools compared to the national average.  However, this system creates the same dilemma for me as the government car would create.  If not for the government school, I might decide that I would prefer my daughter get $7,000 worth of education, but I’m faced with paying the full $7,000 for an incremental gain of only $2,000 in education.  And, even if I was willing to pay the full $7,000, it is unlikely I would be able to find a $7,000 education.  The government schools have pushed these options out of the market.

Even worse, government schools force all children into a single solution.  Much like the carpenter with a Ford Focus covered with ladders and stuffed with tools, children who would be much better off with a different “vehicle” face a stiff incentive to fit into the solution provided.

I think vouchers are a good start to addressing this and other issues with “public” education.  I hope Utah’s experiment proves successful, actually and politically.

[NOTE:  A brief, unscientific survey of private schools in Arlington Co. shows that almost all schools are either significantly more expensive than public school, overtly connected to a religious denomination, or both.  Interestingly, the number of schools available decreases significantly for higher grade levels, with only one private high school in the county.  A number of these schools are also notoriously difficult to get into–stop and put your name on the waiting list on your way home from the hospital if you expect to get in.]

[Disclaimer:  My dad has been a public school teacher and administrator in Utah for thirty-plus years.]

I’m a Mac user, and I love Apple’s new “I’m a Mac . . .” advertising campaign.  I especially like the home movie ad.  Bill Gates made me smile when he said about the ads, “I don’t even get it. What are they trying to say?”

That, after all, is the whole point, is it not?

Professor Don Boudreaux of George Mason University has an excellent post about exchange rates and politics over at Cafe Hayek.  He makes an eloquent argument about the implausibilities and inefficiencies of currency manipulation that I couldn’t improve upon.

However, I am reminded of the discussions I had with my International Law professor.  He was convinced that China is actively and successfully strengthening the Yuan against the dollar by buying U.S. bonds and that the resulting trade deficit is disastrous for the U.S.  After he raised the issue for the forty-third time, I pointed out that if the Chinese government was in fact propping-up the Yuan, the end result would be a transfer of wealth from poor Chinese to wealthy Americans.  And why, I asked, would Americans think this was a bad thing?  His response was essentially, “Well the Chinese aren’t stupid, are they?”

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a witty response to complete this anecdote, but I have given some thought to the issue.  I think the correct response may well be, “No, Chinese politicians are not stupid, but they are beholden to special interests just like American politicians.

It is striking to me that we ascribe such a superior level of knowledge, wisdom and focus to foreign leaders.  The near hero worship of Soviet leaders during the Cold War by some, especially among the academy, is one example.  Then, during the ’70s and ’80s others imagined a concerted effort by the Japanese to conquer America economically.  People never saw individual Japanese companies competently competing in a global market place.  Rather, we were afraid of “the Japanese” invasion.

We see U.S. politicians enacting measures that benefit politically connected minorities at the expense of the majority of Americans, but we don’t assume a visionary effort to dominate the world sugar market.  Why then do we assume that Chinese politicians are so much more strategic?  Every government must appease a certain constituency in order to stay in power, even nondemocratic governments.  If we assume that the Chinese are successfully manipulating the currency market, isn’t it more logical to assume that the goal is to appease a powerful domestic manufacturing lobby?  The alternative is to assume that China plans to dominate the West by giving away its wealth.

Note:  Brad Delong sees the deficit as the result of U.S. exports of international liquidity and wealth preservation services, and Tyler Cowen notes that revaluation of the Yuan would likely have negligible effect.

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.”

Ernest Benn (Sir Ernest John Pickstone Benn, 2nd Baronet), 1875-1954