Today, I started my second day at Cato University by attending a morning lecture by Jeffrey Miron, director of undergraduate economic studies at Harvard, on the power of incentives. Miron taught the audience about consequential libertarianism, an approach that advocates “small government across the board” and is healthily skeptical of policies from the political left and right. Consequential libertarianism asks questions about the relative impact of policies and serves as a useful system for ranking them. Miron distinguished this approach from philosophical libertarianism, which equally rejects most government policies because they violate individuals’ unalienable rights. Miron concluded by noting policies often have unintended consequences that must be taken into account by analysts and legislators.
Next, Tom Palmer, the director of Cato University and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, delivered his first of a two-part lecture series on the origins of state and government. He started by contradicting an interesting argument espoused by University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein: the state is the source of all created value. Palmer argued government exists because of the surpluses of individual and group production. Businesses and individuals create wealth through exchange, as seen in many modern economic institutions today. Palmer drew from Cicero and other thinkers to show that without an established rule of law, crime would run rampant and fruitful production would cease because of a breach of societal trust. Palmer also elaborated on the role of the rule of law in promoting trust, justice, and freedom in society.
After lunch, Palmer lectured on freedom from a historical perspective. He defined rights as “an instrument for human liberty” and voiced skepticism about Karl Marx characterization of history as a predictable and inevitable pattern of events, noting that history contains more accidents than most want to acknowledge. According to Palmer, a theory of higher law was born in the influence of philosophical Athens and religiously inspired Jerusalem. All humans derive their rights from their capacity to reason and are equally under the scrutiny of the law, so “law is not just what a guy with a big club says it is.” He highlighted John Locke’s robust definition of property as life, liberty, and estate and harkened to the belief that we also “own” our actions. Palmer also discussed how states successfully claim a monopoly on force and distinguished between external and internal sovereignty.
Miron gave another lecture on the economics of cooperation and coercion, arguing that many interventionist policies have a negative impact on society due to unintended consequences. Some unintended consequences include tax distortions, an elimination of Pareto voluntary exchanges that benefit one party at no expense to the other, and altered individual incentives. Government programs can be notoriously difficult to enforce, especially when evaders’ livelihoods depend on their illicit activities. Too many interventionist policies and complicated laws can incentivize the citizenry to select which laws to follow and which to break. Palmer argued that small governments are superior to their counterparts in promoting equity, efficiency, and economic liberty and said federal agencies performing the same actions as civic organizations and religious institutions should be eliminated.
After a scrumptious dinner, New York Times science columnist John Tierney discussed the role of self-control in successful people’s lives and how it is intrinsically linked to human freedom. During the American Revolution, the rebels realized “to be free from a tyrant’s rule, man had to be able to rule themselves.” The Victorian Era touted hard work and discipline as the path to success and happiness, as opposed to the feel good pop psychology of today’s self-help books. Will power is the ability to master your temptations and complete tasks. This ability can be sapped with too many decisions, indecisiveness, a poor diet, and exhaustion. Tierney said will power is a muscle that can be developed through setting realistic goals, monitoring progress, not juggling too many tasks at once, and above all not making decisions on an empty stomach.