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In fairness, Sweden is an example of a quasi-socialist country that is a democracy.

Sweden, though, is a good example of part of what Professor Becker is getting at. Entitlement programs, whether they are good, bad, or perverse, are extraordinarily difficult to adjust or dislodge in any significant way once in place. If a country concentrates on political freedoms without working on economic freedoms, then the democratic process can further entrench social programs, especially when those programs build up constituencies that will obstruct change that may be beneficial in the long-term. That is a big problem in Sweden. Capital and skilled labor is fleeing that country, even more rapidly with the ascendancy of the EU, because of the high taxes and regulations. In the long run, the young, especially those that are motivated and develop skills, are hurt at the expense of the elderly who benefit from the entitlements. I recently talked with a soon-to-graduate Ph.D. in chemical engineering, and he said there are literally no jobs in that field in his country, because any engineering firm worth it salt would move across the border, anywhere but Sweden!, to escape the drag on growth and business development.

Paul Gowder

Peter -- excellent points, all (although I still think economic freedom is an indeterminate and useless concept).

I suspect that the people who look at economically free countries and determine that they are politically free do so because they fail to account for their own biases toward examination of the political ability of those most similar to them. So someone studying the U.S. will see that the educated middle to upper-middle class is relatively politically free because they themselves are part of the educated middle to upper-middle class. They won't see that the poor have little interest or involvement in politics because they're too busy trying to put food on the table and they haven't had the benefit of a decent education to permit them to participate.

The Roman Republic is often cited as a society that was politically free -- despite the slaves and the aristocratic senate.

Palooka (hello again!) -- (a) correlation does not imply causation, and (b) there are only a handful of non-capitalist economies on the planet -- cuba, china and north korea are an insufficient sample size, even with the former soviet union thrown in. I do note, however, that many countries in Europe have been run by socialist party governments without immediately collapsing into tryanny.

I also note that Lech Walsea came out of communist Poland.


The Roman Republic is not often cited as a free society. I have never seen it cited as anything but an imperfect democracy largely run in oligarchical fashion and approving of slavery.

The US is not perfectly free, but we can only find perfect human liberation, freedom and opportunity in the great Heaven Above. Education is already subsidized in this country incredibly by (1) excellent public libraries, (2) public schools, (3) public universities, (4) an enormous system of private endowments that the government allows to incorporate and exist tax-free, (5) religious educational institutions, (6) the internet, and (7) private schools and colleges exempt from taxation.

If anything, there is a luxurious excess of educational possibilities about society and politics. Those that do not partake of it do so chiefly for reasons of personal preference.

Paul Gowder


To blithely shove illiteracy, lack of critical thinking skills, and otherwise complete lack of educational attainment sufficient to be a participant in a representative democracy into the "personal preference" box is to ignore two very crucial points:

#1. If it really is "personal preference," then it's personal preference at the expense of the public in general. Society has a clear interest in those citizens who have the voting franchise being able to exercise it intelligently.

#2. It's not a matter of "personal preference." Have you ever been into an inner-city school? There is a significant stratification of educational opportunity along class lines, largely because public education is funded on a local property tax basis in most of the country. The rich get dramatically smaller classes sizes, better facilities, better paid (and thus better attracted) teachers, more books, etc. etc. PLUS poverty has many other attendant factors to it which make it highly difficult to pursue an education, such as community violence and an early entrance into the workforce.

How can you call lousy public schools with lousy teachers, crumbling buildings, insufficient books, and students who are scared and exhausted from violence and their evening job a "luxurious excess of educational possibilities???"

Paul Gowder

One more thing. If the failure to take advantage of this purported ""luxurious excess of educational possibilities" is a matter of "personal preference," at least at the pre-adult level, it's not one we should respect, and it doesn't relieve us of our responsibility to jam education down the throats of kids.

We recognize that children don't have the right or capacity to make significant personal choices every day. They can't enter into contracts. They can't work full-time. They can't marry. They can't consent to sex.

Children don't have the right or the capacity to make the decision to ignore their education. We need to do it for them.


Paul, I understand your point fully. I don't entirely disagree with it at all. It's not fair that some people have more opportunity than others, and education is linked to opportunity. Fair enough.

But I think you are missing two points. First, you misapprehend my definition of personal preference. If a human exhibits a behavior or psychological aversion to excelling in school, that is a personal preference, even if we consider humans to be completely animals and have no autonomy or metaphysical self at all. That is sort of the definition of personal preference.

Second, let's step back from that assume that people have some measure of autonomy apart from biological necessity. The next question we must ask is how much people aside from their parents and immediate family/friend/religious institution network can do about it. Some, but not a whole lot. No matter how much money we throw at a school, a lot of kids just are predisposed not to care. I actually went to a school that was probably 90% or more low income for my elementary school years, so I think I know what I am talking about. I took advantage of all sorts of wonderful programs at that school, because I was raised to do so. Few others did.

I think there is a plausible case that the more we spend on entitlements, the lower incentive we place on citizens to value and strengthen family and marriage: encouraging people to wait until marriage to have children instead of out-of-wedlock problems that are so endemic in inner cities. Without strengthening families, all the social welfare money in the world is often ineffective or even a little counterproductive.

Paul Gowder

RWS: I don't disagree with anything you say up until the very last paragraph. As for the social welfare money question: I've never yet seen any proof from anyone that the pittances that we spend on "entitlements" actually affect the childbearing decisions of the recipients of those entitlements. The very idea is absurd, because it costs a lot more to raise a kid even badly than the expected value of that kid in the most generous government programs. Really.

Honestly, I think the predisposition not to care is largely attributable to parenting. The problem is, we're in a nasty vicious cycle. Illiterate parents who work at McDonalds aren't nearly as likely to be raising kids who care about education. We may or may not be able to intervene at the patental level. If that's what you mean by "strengthening families," then I agree completely.

So I think we're agreed that strengthening childbearing is a precondition to broader public education, which is a precondition to meaningful political participation. So... How do we strengthen families? More "economic freedoms" won't do it (I don't think anyone suggested they would). Attempts to legislate morals won't do it. Raw cash won't do it. Propaganda won't do it. What will?

Maybe just incremental change? bend the resources of the state toward making the life of the child a little bit better than the parent's, and on and on??


Difficult question, Paul. I used to assess the economic incentives structure as you do, in terms of whether people depend on programs like welfare, public health care, or public ed. I absolutely think there are good points to the viewpoint, and to me it is largely a question of evidence and fact, not say the inherent good or evil of government. The more I view humanity, though (Im 28 now), the more I think that people unconsciously respond to incentives a lot more than they think they do or is immediately apparent. For example, I work as a law clerk, and we routinely sentence men who have many children by different mothers, none of whom they ever bothered to marry. Now, the man made a morally indefensible choice somewhere along the way; either he should offer marriage to one or more of the women or at least live with them and support the family economically, so the kid does not end up in the same problem. The woman made an indefensible choice in deciding to risk pregnancy without birth control... or even worse, that she consciously wanted a child out of wedlock. Regardless, the woman as well as the man can depend on the incredibly generous public education entitlement and the ability to work at a low skill level without paying taxes and squeeze by. Dont you think there would be a lot fewer kids born as such if there were no public education? Wouldnt that fact affect culture and childrearing and our cultural approach to sexuality? I think it would. People would say to avoid at all costs a kid out of wedlock, because then you'd be stuck with her/him 24/7 without a means to depend on what is often daycare (public schools) to them.

Im not saying to yank public education. What I am saying is that feel-good programs can often make things worse in ways that people never really foresee; especially, they can change cultural attitudes. Until people start making responsible choices, your ideal of a democracy where everyone has an economics degree before entering the voting booth is a chimera.

As a last point on this question, one of the geniuses of democracy is that a lot of ignorant and semi-ignorant people acting in concert tend to come to a correct decision in a political process, often moreso than a small group of highly educated people. It is a weird phenomenon which is why democracy works, as well as why highly talented mutual fund managers rarely beat the market index. Same thing. So, just because there are a lot of chronically ignorant folks out there does not mean we have a faulty or dysfunctional democratic process.

David Thomson

If anything, there is a luxurious excess of educational possibilities about society and politics. Those that do not partake of it do so chiefly for reasons of personal preference.

I completely agree with you. An individual may face insurmountable obstacles in seeking a formal education. The informal opportunities, however, are numerous. This very blog is a great example. Used books cost next to nothing. Basic Internet access is available to virtually everyone. Most people, sadly, are not particularly interested in these matters. They have opted to do other things.

As a last point on this question, one of the geniuses of democracy is that a lot of ignorant and semi-ignorant people acting in concert tend to come to a correct decision in a political process, often moreso than a small group of highly educated people.

You are only half right. Ignorant people should not be allowed to vote. A literacy test is necessary to determine if the citizen can at least read and write at a minimal level. A functional illiterate should not be allowed access to the voting booth. Racists in the Old South misused the literacy test to exclude people based on their pigmentation. Their immoral behavior does not in any way invalidate the principle itself.


David's last analysis would support the idea that economic freedoms are much more important than political freedoms at the outset; start with economic growth and let that bleed into greater political freedoms, as the economy expands enough to support greater literacy and more human capital.

Not to turn to this Iraq thing again, but it almost looks like the Arab world seems to turn on its head the generally accepted premise among development economists/theorists that an illiterate and non-Western population is fully capable of participating in democracy. A persistent minority of Arab persons in Iraq have shown a complete inability to act like decent and mature human beings in the midst of the downfall of a dictator.

Kind of incredible, because just about everywhere else in the world, from South America to India to Africa to east Asia, people have shown a remarkable willingness and ability to support basic democratic processes and solving problems through deliberation and not suicide bombings.

Whether a flipped-out and tiny minority of people can torpedo a sane majority's attempt to get on with people-oriented government remains to be seen.

David Thomson

I should add that a nation should determine voting eligibility according to the educational norm. What is the level of literacy rate of the majority of its adult citizens? After all, Afghanistan may have a current 90% illiteracy rate.

Whether a flipped-out and tiny minority of people can torpedo a sane majority's attempt to get on with people-oriented government remains to be seen.

Do the math. The terrorists are simply not murdering that many people in Iraq. Have I lost my sanity? Nope, they are not even killing 200 people per week. Iraq has roughly 24 million citizens. The terrorists are slowing down the inevitable evolution of Iraqi society---but they are not even coming close to shutting it down. And most of these murders take place in the Sunni Triangle. Much of the rest of Iraq is relatively peaceful.


I think Paul's analysis would tend to support that, as well: if a country does not have enough wealth to support welfare programs to educate the poor sufficient to have a "sufficient" democracy, it should concentrate on economic growth, which leads to greater resources to devote to education, greater employment opportunities that make education more valuable and therefore more advantageous to pursue, and so on. Then, political freedom once you get to that point? Something to think about there, too.

Experience shows that the poor often vote themselves an economically destructive amount of welfare, especially in latin America. The countervailing force is often creditors such as private banks and the IMF reminding people of fiscal reality. When the leftists get too strong, the military sometimes steps in. The same is apparently going on in Bolivia right now with their impending election and the military's frustration with the leftists.


(The above analysis discussing the idea that economic freedoms precede political freedoms because of the costs of running an effective democracy.)

I think Iraq is more likely than not going to do just fine, and I generally supported the war, though it would have been nice had the administration handled the pre-war and post-war issues a lot better. But, it's not a foregone conclusion yet. The insurgents are assassinating journalists and judges and police and politicians, so their killings are of important people to the process. If they succeeded in destabilizing the region to the point of civil war, that would be a problem.

I think that will not happen, but it will be a slow, untidy, expensive process to beat them. Once a religious culture of persecution sets in (see the KKK and the Nazi Party), throw out rationality and other such norms of adult behavior. Winning the war against irrational, juvenile terrorist mindsets is worth it, though, because it allows a free speech society, which is the main building block of education's goals.

David Thomson

The insurgents are assassinating journalists and judges...

Speaking of judges being murdered. The following occurred in Atlanta just a few hours ago:

Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor confirmed that Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes and his court reporter were killed. He gave no other details in announcing the deaths in the state Senate. A deputy died later at a hospital, while a second deputy had minor wounds, police said.


Iraq admittedly has a much higher murder rate of its top legal professions. Nonetheless, they still probably do not total even a 1/2 of 1% of the total. Baghdads population is estimated to be around 4 million people. Once again, please do the math. Even if 50 people are murdered in a single day---that is a mere fraction of the overall population. In the rest of the country, we can take for granted that far more people are killed by ordinary automobile accidents


David, I support the president. I don't think there's need to be impertinent.

Assassinations of key figures are a major problem in Iraq, because (1) they are often successful at targeting decision-makers, (2) they intimidate others in key offices, and (3) they constitute a significant deterrent to signing up to be a police officer or a judge or public official. Plus, infiltration of police is a major problem. They would be set up like Afghanistan right now and we'd have rapidly declining troop levels if there were not an effective insurgency. That's just how it is.

David Thomson

"they constitute a significant deterrent to signing up to be a police officer.."

This is not even slightly accurate. The police have little problem finding recruits. The terrorists are "effective" enough to slow down things---but it's obvious that they are losing. Everything is not wonderful to be sure. Nevertheless, I say this without any hesitation: Iraq is already a success story!


Interesting discussion and generally well informed until touching on Iraq as the working example. It's far too early for anyone on any side to be claiming anything about Iraq, unless the goal is simply to make a point or establish one's political allegiance. That being said, what counts in Iraq is not so much reported "reality" but perceptions: in Iraq, in the region, in the West, and in the United States.

One important dimension missing from much of the American popular perception of Iraq is just how dangerous a place it has become for ordinary Iraqis not because of terrorism but because of corruption and lawlessness. The crime wave is feeding general distrust and skepticism of state authority. One effect is that people are turning to reliable institutions for support. That means tribe/clan and religion. That also means a more difficult nation-building challenge, regardless of who is doing the building.

But this thread discussion is not about Iraq.


I have a hard time swallowing some of Beckner's rather blase statments such as "The Chinese are so happy with the economic freedoms granted them during the past 25 years." Does that refer to the freedom to NOT be able to move between rural and urban areas, the inability to establish property rights for a vast majority of people? While the Chinese government may choose to mimic what it sees as economic freedom, do not be fooled! Most of China's current economic issues (inefficient banking and stock market) are the result of the LACK of economi freedom.

What should also be mentioned is that perhaps the most critical pillar for true economic freedom is the rule of law. Without political freedom, one cannot truly establish rule of law - where the poorest peasant has the same rights to speak, buy land, etc. as the leader of the country , without rule of law, the only economic freedom that can exist is tenuous as subject to those that are above the law. Therefore, I think it is very naive to say that economic freedom can exist without political freedom.

What China has is simply a pseudo-market that might push the country to some sort of political reform, but not because the Chinese are "so happy", but because they are so upset that a small minority has been able to use their political powers for economic gain.

Peter Konefal

This blog phenomena is so cool. I wonder if Jurgen Habermas would consider this a virtual re-birth of the public sphere.

This site seems to bring some of the best debaters and arguers from many different political persuasions - and best of all - the argument is mostly positive, cumulative and repectful!

Good job all...


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