A snapshot of my politics in 2020

Paul Butler – January 1, 2020

With a new decade beginning, I decided it would be worth taking the time to write down the political principles that form the basis of my beliefs, so that I could see how they evolve over the next decade and beyond. Although this is primarily a personal exercise, I thought it would be fun to publish it here, because nothing bad has ever happened to people who share their personal political beliefs on the internet.

In no particular order, the following are the core ideas that form the basis of my politics.

#1 The government shouldn’t bully people. This sounds obvious when stated, but I find there is a moral laundering that goes on between how people would personally be willing to treat other people and how they vote to have other people treated. If I wouldn’t treat someone badly, I shouldn’t be okay with a government treating them badly on my behalf.

A few applications of this pillar to current policy issues: I’m against civil forfeiture; I’m against laws that attempt to outlaw homelessness; and I’m against the e-bike seizures in NYC (which disproportionately target low-wage delivery workers).1

#2 Maximize freedom (with an asterisk). In a handful of countries, including Sweden, the right to camp on private property is codified into law. Are Swedes more free than Americans, who don’t have this right? A camper and a land-owner could reasonably have different answers to this, and that’s the point: what we talk about as “freedom” can be a matter of how we balance the interests of various groups, rather than an absolute, platonic concept.

In other cases, freedom is absolute. Nobody can reasonably argue that a country where women can’t drive or gay people can’t marry is more free than a country where they can. We should maximize this kind of freedom.

At the same time, we should beware of ideologies that assume every policy decision can neatly be projected onto a spectrum of freedom. My freedom to swim in a lake is at odds with your freedom to dump sewage into it; a government which does not regulate dumping is not maximizing our freedom, it’s implicitly prioritizing your freedom over mine.

#3 Trust people’s choices. When an individual makes an economic decision, the default option of policy makers should be to assume that the individual has considered her options and personal circumstances better than a policy maker could.

One common violation of this principle is governments setting floor/ceiling prices, rather than attempting to fix the underlying economic conditions that cause prices to spiral. For example, a person who takes a high-interest payday loan may be making a decision on bad facts, or he may be making a decision that is less costly than the alternative. We should give him the benefit of the doubt, rather than assuming we know better what’s good for him. Analogously, requiring restaurants to post calorie counts is better policy than putting a ceiling on the number of calories in a meal. As a general rule, it is arrogant to think that we can help vulnerable people by further restricting their choices, rather than by improving their choices.

Occasionally, it does make sense to limit the choices of a group to improve outcomes for that same group. In these cases, the government acts less as a paternal force and more as an agent of coordination between individuals. For example, in setting a minimum wage, the government restricts people’s right to consensually contract for work below a certain rate. In doing so, a government provides coordination between individuals and forms a legally-binding cartel among workers. Despite the negative connotations of “cartel”, in this case it is a good thing – it puts individual workers on a more equal footing with employers, who ares structurally advantaged in setting wages.

As with any price-fixing cartel, though, there is an optimal price point at which the aggregate revenue to the group is maximized. Beyond this point, a floor price hurts the group rather than helping it. Two reasonable people can disagree on what the optimal price point is, even if they agree on the principle of maximizing revenue for low-wage workers as a group. As such, I’m disheartened that a $15 national minimum wage has become a purity test on the left in the US. This line of thinking treats the minimum wage as a knob you can turn to help low-wage earners. I have come to believe that this is true for small turns of the knob (in more precise terms, that wages are locally inelastic). I also believe that larger increases would be absorbed easily in many cities (like NYC, where a $15 municipal minimum wage took effect today). I worry, though, that a blanket increase that does not account for regional cost of living would be good for low-wage earners in rich cities, at the expense of low-wage earners everywhere else.

#4 Everyone deserves health care. I’m naturally inclined towards free markets, but I would have to have my head in the sand not to recognize that health care is unique for a variety of reasons. Even when pricing information is transparent (in the US, it certainly isn’t), the freedom of choice necessary for a competitive market doesn’t exist when you’re being rushed to the nearest emergency room. People don’t get to choose not to get cancer in the same sense that I get to choose not to drive a Ferrari. Insurers are disincentivized from investing in long-term preventative care, because by the time that investment pays off, you might be on a different insurance plan.

Even if it wasn’t simply the right thing to do, the positive externalities of a healthy society are compelling on their own. As someone who split my 20s between the two countries, I’ve watched friends in Canada start companies and create jobs, while their peers in the US played career-ladder musical chairs to ensure they had insurance by the time they aged out of their parents’ plans.

#5 Voting should be a right. In a recent town hall, Bernie Sanders was asked whether the Boston Marathon bomber (serving a life sentence) should be able to vote. He answered yes, and he’s right. When we think about rights, we don’t get to carve out exceptions for the worst people. We don’t ask, “do domestic abusers have a right to clean drinking water” or “do serial rapists deserve the right to a fair trial”. For a democracy to be legitimate, voting should be a right, not a privilege. By denying the right to any voting-age citizen, regardless of how unworthy we deem them, we turn it into a privilege that can be denied to others. The permission that politicians have taken to disenfranchise other subsets of the population for partisan reasons stems from the view of voting as a privilege to be earned rather than a right endowed.

There are so few people as reprehensible as the Boston Marathon bomber that even combined their votes will not sway elections; stripping their right to vote is merely a symbolic gesture. But deciding that we are not going to draw any lines through who can and cannot vote would put an end to a real problem of voter disenfranchisement.

  1. As a Canadian citizen I can’t vote in NYC, but I still have some moral responsibility for these seizures because I pay taxes there. [return]

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