My Book, The Rule of Law in the Real World, is coming out!

In case anyone is still reading this very-dead blog: You can pre-order my book, The Rule of Law in the Real World now. It should hit the shelves in about 5 days. Click the link to order, or just to see flashy data visualization and other cool stuff.

Extended abstract:

The Rule of Law in the Real World gives a comprehensive new theory of the political and legal ideal known as “the rule of law”: what it means (the coordinated collective control of power), why it matters (it constitutes a morally important kind of social equality), and how these properties should be taken into account in social scientific attempts to measure it as well as policy efforts to promote it.

This highly interdisciplinary work begins with analytic political philosophy, developing a distinctively egalitarian account of the rule of law and its moral value. It then moves to history and political science, showing both that states with more egalitarian legal systems are likely to do better at sustaining the rule of law than states with inegalitarian systems, and that the self-understanding of participants in political conflict in real-world historical rule of law states—including democratic Athens and seventeenth-century England—understood the rule of law in egalitarian terms.

It then turns to the development enterprise. The book offers a critique of existing empirical measurement strategies for the rule of law as well as an alternative rule of law measure. The new measure is rooted in the philosophical basis of the concept, behaves much as existing theoretical claims about the rule of law would predict (e.g., is highly correlated with economic development: see plots below), and is more readily interpretable than existing measures.

In addition, the book explains how the egalitarian account of the rule of law can support interventions in the debate among rule of law development professionals and scholars between advocates of “bottom-up” and “top-down” development strategies. Finally, The Rule of Law in the Real World calls for the developed states to pay closer attention to promoting and maintaing the rule of law in their own political communities; in particular, it argues that policing in the U.S.—especially with respect to systematic discrimination against African-Americans—is a dire failure of the rule of law.


Random “keep the blog active” chess post: he with the most open files wins.

1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 d6 4. Bc4 h6 5. d4 g5 6. Qd3 Bg7 7. Bd2 Nf6 8. Bc3 O-O 9. Nbd2 Ng4 10. Qe2 Ne3 11. Nf1 Nxc4 12. Qxc4 c6 13. O-O-O Bd7 14. N1d2 b5 15. Qd3 a5 16. e5 b4 17. Nc4 bxc3 18. Qxc3 d5 19. Nd6 Bg4 20. h3 Bxf3 21. gxf3 Qb6 22. Rdg1 Na6 23. h4 f6 24. hxg5 fxg5 25. a3 Rab8 26. b3 c5 27. Qd3 cxd4 28. Rxg5 Nc5 29. Qg6 Nxb3+ 30. Kd1 Rb7 31. Rxh6 d3 32. Qh7#
{Black checkmated} 1-0


What Liberty? Whose? Three arguments in defense of Chemerinsky’s proposal to shutter the private schools.

Erwin Chemerinsky has been catching a lot of flack in the blogosphere lately for proposing that private schools be abolished as a path to educational equality. Most of the criticisms have been focused on the idea that there’s something offensive to individual liberty about the proposal. Thus, Eugene Volokh says that ” a clearer example of how an excessive focus on equality undermines liberty is hard to find. ” Rick Garnett says it’s a serious infringement on religious liberty (and really gets riled in comments on Mirror of Justice). Josh Blackman and I have had one exchange on this, on his blog, and later Josh suggests that there may be a deep-down conflict, that roughly tracks the difference between progressives and libertarians(?), between commitment to ideals of liberty and ideals of equality.

I actually think that the Chemerinsky proposal is consistent with a strong commitment to individual liberty. And this blog post very (very) lightly sketches out the case. I’ll lay out some numbered and thinly argued propositions, divided into broadly related arguments, that together gesture toward a libertarian-ish case for abolishing private education.

Argument A: Wealth as Coercion

This argument assumes that the kind of liberty we care about is Berlinian negative liberty. It is mainly addressed to an imaginary audience composed of traditional libertarian/classical liberals (who need converting to my commie views).

A1. The distinction, popularized by Berlin, between “negative liberty” and “positive liberty,” while interesting in the abstract, is not terribly useful in a world in which people’s access to the means to achieve their ends is deep-down structured by a pervasively coercive political/legal/economic system.

That is, it might be defensible to say, in the abstract, that there’s a difference between the “negative liberty” of not being subjected to others’ coercive interference with one’s choices, and the “positive liberty” of being affirmatively guaranteed some set of choices, the two blur together in a world structured by things like property rights in essentially every good that one needs to live and make choices except (for now) air itself. As Gerry Cohen persuasively argued, things like property rights themselves are interferences with choices. Whenever someone else has a property right over some good, that person has a license to interfere with my choices to use that good; it is vapid, in such a context, to say that supporters of negative liberty want people to be able to use their property rights without interferences, while supporters of positive liberty want to give people enough property to be autonomous. We might as well say that the supporters of negative liberty want to get rid of the interferences with choices represented by concentrations of (coercive) property interests.

A2. The coercion represented by individual property rights in A1 might not be objectionable, if all in a community had a reasonable opportunity to acquire significant personal property. Were this the case, people would still be subject to widespread interference with their choices, but only over a fairly narrow scope — that is, everyone would be subject to interference with their choices to live in a particular house (owned by someone else), but would not be subject to interference with their choice to live in a house at all. Everyone would be subject to interference with their choice to attend a particular school, but not to interference with their choice to have a decent education at all. et. cetera.

Unfortunately, we do not live in such a world. In this world, there are many who do not have a reasonable opportunity to acquire significant personal property. Because of a variety of systematic injustices and inequalities, including segregation and resource hoarding, there are many against whom the game is rigged from the start, and who are very unlikely to be able to acquire a significant amount of property. (For a brilliant account of how this works for the case of race in particular, see Elizabeth Anderson’s recent book The Imperative of Integration. I will suggest without further argument that similar phenomena, on a smaller scale, apply for the case of social class, primarily because of things like disparate access to social and cultural capital as well as childhood investments, etc.)

A3. Given A1 and A2, we have some reason to object, on liberty grounds, to the use of concentrations of wealth (that is, inherently-coercive property) by some to outcompete others for important social goods. Outbidding others for a limited supply of a good education is exactly the same as using systematic coercion to prevent them from having that education.

and given that,

A4. It’s permissible, on negative liberty grounds, to use coercion to overcome or prevent coercion;


A5. It’s permissible to use coercion to keep those with wealth from outbidding those without wealth for a good education, by shutting down the private schools.

The most plausible objections to argument A involve an appeal to the non-economic interests represented by private schooling, and, particularly, to a liberal interest in religious toleration and to the notion that refusing to permit religious schooling amounts to an illiberal regulation of religious practice. On this family of objections, even if it’s ok to put a stop to the property-facilitated hoarding of educational quality, the way to do so is by, e.g., a tax and transfer system of wealth redistribution, not shutting down the public schools. To answer it, I offer:

Argument B: Children and Religious Liberty

This argument is very simple.

B1. Children have claims of religious liberty not only against the state, but also against their parents.

This claim seems trivially true. There’s nothing special about the parent-child relationship that grounds a normative argument for unconstrained religious indoctrination. Traditionally, in the west, parents have controlled their children’s education. However, to say some practice is traditional is not to say that this practice is morally required or even permissible.

As a corollary to this, children also have claims to knowledge that might be contradicted by some religious teaching: children have claims to access to information about evolution, for example.

B2. The state has a legitimate interest in protecting children’s religious liberty, even against their parents.

Again, trivially true. The state has a legitimate interest in protecting the vulnerable in general against those who may exploit them; indoctrination is one form of exploitation.

B3. Religious schooling has the potential to impair impair children’s religious liberty.

This is more controversial. Rick Garnett, for example, disagrees. Just to sketch out a very brief argument for this proposition: 1) Children are psychologically malleable. They’re easy to indoctrinate. 2) Doing so makes them less free to choose a religion for themselves.

Garnett’s argument to the contrary rests on the notion that “someone is going to make decisions about children’s lives, their education, and their religious training,” and the state isn’t any more neutral than parents. I deny this. The state can provide an ecumenical education, one that discusses all faiths as well as faithlessness without advocating between them (or simply not discuss it at all, and leave it for the home). Indeed, religiously neutral public education might not lead to children choosing atheism; it might lead to their choosing religion—just a different religion from that of their parents.

B4. Closing religious schools and replacing them with neutral public schools (not secular: the proposal is not for the public schools to teach against religion, just to be neutral between religions and between religion and non religion) will not prevent parents from giving their children some religious education.

Again, trivially true Schools only get children for 7 or 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 9 months a year. That leaves a lot of time to talk about the deity of one’s choice.


B5. Closing religious schools is a reasonable compromise between the religious education interests of parents and the state’s interest in preserving children’s religious freedom and intellectual autonomy. Doing so would not prevent children from being raised in the family faith (from B4), but would provide some scope for permitting children access to different ideas and knowledge.


B6. Closing all private schools, including religious schools (in a nondiscriminatory fashion) is consistent with liberal religious toleration.

Finally, a wholly different argument.

Argument C: Democracy and Education

C1. A sufficient education is necessary to participate fully and effectively as a democratic citizen.

This is analytic, if we define sufficient education as just that education that enables full political participation. But there’s also a non-analytic indirect causal relationship between education and political effectiveness.

That is, it’s not just that better educated citizens have the tools to organize politically. But also, better educated citizens have more economic opportunities, and more economic opportunities (and the social capital etc. that goes with) also leads to political power.

C1-ii (corollary). Integrated (racially, economically, socially, perhaps even religiously, though I’m less sure about this one) education is necessary for all to participate fully and effectively as democratic citizens, because integration supplies weak ties and social capital necessary to be politically effective.

C2. Full and effective democratic participation is necessary for two kinds of liberty.

First, it’s necessary for political liberty: the liberty to be collectively self-governing, to live under laws and yet be free, as Rousseau would said.

Second, it’s necessary for individual negative liberty in the classic Berlinian sense. This is so because it’s necessary to acquire and hold onto a share of political power, and those without political power tend to have their freedoms taken away by those with it. The surest guarantee of individual freedom is a state in which those whose freedoms might be taken away have access to power. And we can see that this is true by watching the way that, for example, police relate to poor black people without much political power (arresting, beating, shooting) compared to the way police relate to rich politically connected white people (regretfully making appointments for them to check themselves in to camp fed when they get caught in particularly egregious crimes).

C3. Therefore, if closing the private schools is necessary to deliver a sufficient and/or integrated education to all citizens, it is necessary to supply political liberty as well as secure individual negative liberty to all citizens.

That argument assumes a slightly stronger premise than Chemerinsky has. I take him to be claiming that closing down the private schools is necessary to provide an *equal* education to all. Here, I make the stronger assumption that closing down the private schools is necessary to provide a sufficient and/or integrated education to all. This is a strong but not indefensible assumption. For sufficiency, it might be defended by pointing to tipping point/cascade phenomena, in which bad public schools get worse and worse as more parents flee them and by doing so deprive them of resources. (Plus, public officials have less incentive to support schools populated by the poor and powerless.) For integration, it might be defended by pointing to the way that certain socioeconomic and racial classes have the best opportunities to flee public schools. But if you reject these claims, you have reason to reject argument C. Doing so, however, doesn’t impinge on arguments A/B.

(n.b., comments may take a while to appear: I have anti-spam moderation on, and don’t check as often as I should for new comments.)


The next big step in the rule of law project

Is now up on SSRN. “Equal Law in an Unequal World.”


The benefits of a bad reputation.

Paranoid behavioral economics thought of the day: it’s actually beneficial for oil change places to have a reputation for crookedly upselling people for massive hundreds-of-dollars work. Because then when they only try to upsell you for 20 bucks or so, the anchoring effect makes it seem like a bargain.


Groping toward a 21st century right of revolution/2nd amendment, OR: Machiavelli was right, as usual.

A lightly edited transcript of a text message conversation between my friend Amanda and I. Wisdom from IR-types who actually know the extent to which soldiers refusing to fire on unarmed civilians has been decisive in recent revolutions eagerly solicited.

With no further ado:

A: Here’s a puzzle for you. Guns are no longer sufficient to defend citizens against the state. Should we be stripped of our guns? Or granted rocket launchers et. al.?

Serious question. My first thought is that the latter is more in keeping with the meaning of the second amendment. Whether that’s a good idea or not…

P: What we should do is conceive of the critical importance of a citizen military in preventing tyranny. Unless I’m wrong (and I may be, I didn’t follow it closely enough), the success of the Egyptian stuff was critically driven by the military refusing to fire on (unarmed [?]) protestors [and Poland too, back in the collapse of the Warsaw Pact days, right?]. This is the 21st century model of the right of rebellion.

And that’s also very consistent with the 2nd amendment language about militias.

A: What is a citizen military?

P: A military made up primarily of non-career soldiers, from the ordinary citizen body (as opposed to, e.g., foreigners, a different class of citizen, etc.), who are socialized from childhood onward the same way other citizens are, etc. With lots of social and familial ties to civilians. [See also Avner Greif's work on administrative power as a constraint on rulers...]

A: In that case I agree with you though I doubt that would be consistently sufficient. Though who knows?

P: Nothing is consistently sufficient, rebellions are chancy things. But if troops are more loyal to fellow citizens and the public values of the society than to leaders it’s the best shot.

A: Less chancy with arms.


Unpaid internships have officially jumped the shark.

Some publisher called “Dalkey Archive Press” has posted the following ad for unpaid internships. I’m going to reproduce this horrible thing in its entirety, because it will doubtless be taken offline when the scandal hits, but these people need to be shamed for this kind of abusive behavior, and ought not to be able to hide behind the delete button.


December 11, 2012

Dalkey Archive Press has begun the process of succession from the founder and current publisher, John O’Brien, to a publishing house that will be directed by two-three people along with support staff. With the recent decision to expand our London office and make London the base of European operations, the Press seeks to develop its staff there. Who will take on leadership positions at the Press over the next few years will be the result of this transitional process. The pool of candidates for positions will be primarily derived from unpaid interns in the first phase of this process, although one or two people may be appointed with short-term paid contracts.
The Press is looking for promising candidates with an appropriate background who: have already demonstrated a strong interest in literary publishing; are very well read in literature in general and Dalkey Archive books in particular; are highly motivated and ambitious; are determined to have a career in publishing and will sacrifice to make that career happen; are willing to start off at a low-level salary and work their way upwards; possess multi-dimensional skills that will be applied to work at the Press; look forward to undergoing a rigorous and challenging probationary period either as an intern or employee; want to work at Dalkey Archive Press doing whatever is required of them to make the Press succeed; do not have any other commitments (personal or professional) that will interfere with their work at the Press (family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio, etc.); know how to act and behave in a professional office environment with high standards of performance; and who have a commitment to excellence that can be demonstrated on a day-to-day basis. DO NOT APPLY IF ALL OF THE ABOVE DOES NOT DESCRIBE YOU.
We certainly seek people with relevant experience, but just as important or more so, we seek people who know what a job is, are able to learn quickly, are dedicated to doing excellent work, can meet all deadlines, and happily take on whatever needs to be done. Attitude and work habits, along with various skills, are just as important as experience and knowledge.
Any of the following will be grounds for immediate dismissal during the probationary period: coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way; not showing an interest in other aspects of publishing beyond editorial; making repeated mistakes; violating company policies. DO NOT APPLY if you have a work history containing any of the above.
The areas of work for which the Press seeks candidates are the following, perhaps in the order of importance, but with all initially being equal to one another, and in the order that have the most promise for long-term employment:

1. Personal Assistant to the Publisher, part of which will be to learn how to raise funds for the Press, travel with the Publisher to other countries when necessary, meet all key authors the Press publishes, learn the history of the Press and its culture, work closely with all of those the Publisher must work with, be a liaison between the Publisher and other staff, know what the Publisher needs or wants before he does; in brief, do whatever the publisher needs done so that he can concentrate on major projects that this person will also be involved in; this is best suited for a younger person who wants to learn publishing directly from a founder;

2. Development/fundraising: maintain a fundraising/grant-writing schedule/calendar; write all grants and make solicitations from individuals; develop an annual fundraising plan; travel to meet funders;

3. Office Manager: keeping of financial records and ensuring all bills are paid in a timely manner; coordination of intern staff; generating weekly cash flow statements; ensuring timely responses to all website requests; day-to-day assignments from Director as assigned; doing all and everything that will make work for others easier;

4. Production/layout/design: manage all aspects of the production schedule, ensuring pub dates are held firm; layout of all Dalkey Archive books; work with printers; create promotional materials; work closely with designers and may also do design work;

5. Editor: assist publisher with contracts and acquisitions; generate reader reports; copy-edit; proofread;

6. Publicist: arrange for reviews/publicity and plan events for Dalkey Archive books and authors;

7. Marketing Manager: liaise with the Press’s distributor, WW Norton & Co.; work with the Press’s publicist to ensure publicity increases sales; develop marketing plans;

8. Web Manager: maintain the Press’s website and update content as needed.

By the end of–or even sooner–of the internship/trial period, both the candidate and the Publisher should know that the Press needs the person and would be making a major mistake not to maintain the person for the future.
Applications will be ongoing, and internships/positions will be filled when and if the right people are found. Candidates should assume a start date of mid-to-late January, depending upon which position is being applied for. Early applications are encouraged so that you will not be disappointed a position has already been filled.

To apply, send the following to John O’Brien, : a letter explaining the basis of interest in the position, why you want to work at Dalkey Archive Press, why you’re qualified, and why we would be foolish–in light of your knowledge, skills, and experience–not to want you to be an important part of the Press. Also attach a current CV including three references and their contact details. Assume that you will begin to be evaluated as soon as your application arrives. And also assume that you will be one of the unpaid interns until you are ready to take on all the responsibilities of a position. Incomplete applications will not be considered.

We will not be able to acknowledge receipt of applications or provide feedback about your application. We will contact only those people whom we wish to ask further questions of or that we intend to interview. Do not contact us about your application.
Candidates from EU countries are encouraged, but if English is not your first language, you must have a very high level of both verbal and written skills.


Observation on the labor economics of legal academia

Without considering the validity or lack thereof of the arguments of those, like Brian Tamanaha, who think law school should be radically restructured, a footnote to the debate.

I’ve noticed that many critics of law schools, especially on the right, want law professors to teach and write more commercial law subjects.

Many of the same people also want faculty salaries to go down.

And many of the same people want more teaching by those with substantial experience in law practice.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that those goals are inconsistent. Law faculty salaries are higher than those in cognate disciplines in (large?) part because law schools must compete with law firms for personnel. Because of the high paper qualifications required to enter the law professorate, all or almost all of those eligible for the job could make rather a lot more money in some corporate law practice. And while the much nicer working conditions and tasks of academia compensate those who are into it for the huge decrease in salary between something like partnership/the partnership track at a New York law firm and law professoring, a decrease in salary to, say, what english professors make would almost certainly radically reduce the number of people willing to take that job over practice.

Which might be fine… I’m consciously staying out of that argument.

But it’s particularly private law people and people with lots of practice experience who can command truly staggering salaries on the practice market, and hence whom reformers won’t be able to hire at lower salaries. A corporate tax attorney with ten years of experience will demand rather more money to teach than will a former public defender or phd in anthropology. (Such people will also, of course, demand more fringe benefits like lowered teaching loads.)

So critics of legal academia must choose: lower salaries or more people with commercial law practice experience. Can’t have both. (At least, not without doing things like offering different salaries for different disciplines. Memo to my dean: if you think about doing that, please let me know in advance so I can churn out a few more tax articles!)

Addendum: since writing this post, I’ve seen some objections to this line of argument in various places, all hinging on the notion that it’s unrealistic for many faculty to believe they could just go off and become a partner at Cravath or something. I don’t deny that (highly doubt Cravath would ever hire me, for example). But many law faculty are initially recruited from those settings, or from the paths (highly desirable clerkships, top schools w/ law review, etc.) that lead to them. And to find more people with commercial law practice experience this would happen more. It’s at this initial stage that law schools compete with biglaw salaries.


Obamacare paper: preliminary draft.

Comments welcome (eagerly solicited); paper on SSRN.


This paper attempts, using philosophical methods, to make sense of the Chief Justice’s distinction between the individual health insurance mandate understood as a command under the commerce power and understood as a tax.

Roberts argued that the commerce clause does not authorize Congress to compel citizens to participate in interstate commerce, but that the tax clause does allow Congress to tax citizens’ decisions not to so participate. This position suggests (as does Roberts) the proposition that taxes do not compel in some relevant sense; accordingly, Roberts drew a drew a distinction between a commerce power regulation, which “restricts” a citizen’s “lawful choice” to do or not do some act, and a tax, which allegedly does not work such a restriction.

In this paper, I interpret that part of Roberts’s argument in the spirit of the principle of charity, with the aim of understanding the opinion in its most convincing form. The analysis focuses on the notion of a “lawful choice.”

Section 1 supposes that the word “choice” does the work; I show that Roberts’s argument is not sustainable when interpreted as the claim that the mandate does not interfere with citizens’ choices to not purchase health insurance.

Section 2 supposes that the work is done by Roberts’s claim that Congress does not have the power to “compel” citizens under the taxing clause. I consider whether the argument can be charitably interpreted as the claim that, while the individual mandate is an interference with citizens’ choices not to purchase health insurance, it is not a coercive interference within the meaning of a plausible conception of coercion. This interpretation fails too.

Finally, section 3 supposes that the word “lawful” does the work. This version of the argument succeeds: the Chief Justice’s claim can be charitably understood as an interpretation of what it means for an act to be unlawful. For the state to say that an act is unlawful and impose a penalty on it is to express disapproval of that act; no such disapproval is expressed merely by taxing an act. NFIB v. Sebelius raises this expressive aspect of outlawing to constitutional significance.


Violence, the Fundamental Attribution Error, and Contempt for the Poor

(Addendum 7/26/12: This post is actually getting read, so I’ve made a quick editing pass to fix some of the late-night stylistic infelicities. The prose is now slightly better, the content is unchanged.)

GMU economist Bryan Caplan has a series of blog posts about the putative irrationality of the poor. Most of them are linked in this post, which gives what I take to be his basic argument. That basic argument goes as follows:

1. Other people often say that poverty causes all sorts of social ills, because many of those social ills are traceable to or constituted by self-harming behavior that correlates with poverty, leading those other people to think that poverty (rationally) drives that behavior.
2. But rather than poverty providing an rational incentive to engage in that behavior, poverty actually provides a rational disincentive to do so, because that behavior has worse consequences for the poor than for the non-poor.
3. Therefore, it can’t be that poverty rationally leads to those behaviors.
4. Instead, we should look for common causal factors for both poverty and self-harming behavior. Obvious hypotheses include irrationality, stupidity, irresponsibility, etc., and those hypotheses are worth considering. (Caplan: “Low IQ, low conscientiousness, low patience, and plain irrationality.”)

This form of argument gets applied to a variety of different behaviors. For example, Caplan points out that being single is financially costly, s.t. (thanks to the diminishing marginal utility of wealth) poor people should be single less often rather than more often. He concludes that poor people are single more often because they’re irrational. Similarly, Caplan points out that the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse and non-renumerative crime are worse for the poor (who, e.g., can’t just shrug off a DUI, pay for the lawyers or go into fancy rehab). So if the poor abuse drugs and alcohol more or commit more crimes it can’t be a rational response to poverty, but must reflect irrationality, stupidity, laziness, etc.

What Caplan ignores in all these cases is that the poor face a different and markedly worse set of choices than the non-poor. In terms of the version of the argument I gave above, Caplan misses that 2 does not lead to 3.

In the most abstract terms, suppose that a non-poor person has three choices: A, B, and C. And let’s assume that A is the best choice, B is the second-best choice, and C is the worst choice. Suppose that she in fact rationally takes choice A. Now suppose that she becomes poor, and it so happens that being poor makes choice B even worse than it was before (but still not as bad as choice C). Yet, all of a sudden, when she becomes poor, she starts choosing B. “IRRATIONALITY!”, Caplan cries. But what if becoming poor eliminated choice A, or made it even worse? Then choice B becomes rational, because she’s become poor, even though her being poor made choice B worse than it would have been if she were rich.

This is a general problem with Caplan’s style of argument, and there are many concrete ways in which it shows up. As a whole, Caplan very badly suffers from the fundamental attribution error: he attributes the choices of the poor to their personal failings rather than attending to how poverty radically constrains their choice sets. But for the purposes of brevity, I want to focus on just one feature of poverty and how it screws up Caplan’s argument all over the place. That feature is this:

The poor are radically more vulnerable to violence than the non-poor.

Many of the poor grow up in less safe neighborhoods and continue to live in them as adults. Many of the poor are homeless, and thus lack the basic physical protections of walls and locks. Many of the poor have associates who are primarily also poor (thanks to a lack of social capital), and in a vicious feedback loop from the above-noted correlations with drugs/alcohol/crime/etc., thus have associates who abuse substances and commit crimes, and are more likely to be violent. etc.

Now let’s look at how some of these facts constrain poor people’s choices and shatter Caplan’s argument. I’ll consider several of his examples.

First, singleness. Poor people are already less likely to be desirable marriage partners, so the choice to marry is already more costly for the poor than for the rich. But let’s think particularly about the situation of poor women. Poor women are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence. Not only are many of their marriage prospects potentially violent (for reasons given above), but they are also more likely to become economically dependent on their spouses and hence have much more trouble escaping violent relationships. (The empirical association between economic dependence and domestic violence has been well-known for decades.)

No surprise, then, that poor women report dramatically more domestic violence than non-poor women. In light of these facts, Caplan seems extremely, irresponsibly hasty to attribute poor women’s singleness to their irrationality. It may be that because poor women are so vulnerable to violence, marriage is such a bad choice for them that it’s even worse than taking the big financial hit from singleness. And since poor people often lack social connections to non-poor people, if poor women aren’t marrying, poor men have less chance to marry too.

Ok, that takes care of singleness. What about crime? This is a really easy one, considering the well-known phenomenon of joining gangs for protection. In the words of my least-favorite police department: “many members join because they live in the gang area and are, therefore, subject to violence by rival gangs. Joining guarantees support in case of attack and retaliation for transgressions.” And, of course, being poor makes you more likely to living in a gang area. And, of course, joining a gang often obliges one to commit crimes (initiations, pressure from other gang members, etc.).

More generally, consider that in a community where everyone else is carrying a gun, it becomes more rational to do so oneself. Carrying a gun allows you to credibly threaten retaliation if someone else tries to victimize you. (This is a point I believe I first heard from, or attributed to, Glenn Loury, though I can’t track it down anywhere in his papers online.) In a community where others are committing crimes, it becomes more rational to do so oneself in order to signal qualities like toughness and, again, avoid becoming victimized. In a violent community in which people challenge you for dominance, you’d better not back down from the bar fight or, again, your likely outcome is routine victimization. All of these are particularly true when the police can’t be relied upon to protect you, as is the case in many poor communities.

“But,” someone might object, “your argument depends on the assumption that lots of poor people are violent in the first place, in order to give all the rest of the poor people an incentive to be violent.” To which I answer: “it only requires a few.” Intuitively: introducing a few violent people into a community, where police protection is inadequate, can give many others an incentive to resort to violence or to the tools of violence (e.g. carrying guns) in order to protect themselves. And, of course, this leads to a tipping point phenomenon in which those newly violent people give still others an incentive to resort to violence, etc. The game theory is left as an exercise to the reader. (Or just fucking read Leviathan.) Moreover, the poor are often crammed into closer proximity with one another than the non-poor are (the poor don’t get to hide out in the suburbs or in big houses, etc.), and are thus more vulnerable to this kind of spillover effect.

Again, we see the same problem with Caplan’s argument: he ignores how poverty can eliminate or greatly worsen the supposedly “better” life choices, like refraining from crime.

Finally, consider substance abuse. In his most recent post, Caplan argues that the poor don’t rationally abuse drugs and alcohol to dull the pain of poverty, because substance abuse trades off a little short-term pain dulling for much greater long-term pain.

But again, let’s introduce vulnerability to violence into the equation and things suddenly look different. Someone who is unusually vulnerable to violence has good reason to discount the future much more heavily than someone who isn’t, because the future is much more likely to contain a quick death or life-ruining disability or imprisonment. If you’re a teenager who has seen multiple of your acquaintances killed by gang violence or locked up before you even get out of high school, it’s perfectly reasonable (for a Bayesian updater) to think that you’re not likely to make it past 30, and hence to focus on short-term pleasures with long-term negative consequences. (This also can contribute to an explanation of things like irresponsible sex, failure to invest in human capital, etc.)

In all these cases, we see that a single negative consequence of poverty — a higher vulnerability to violence — radically constrains the choices of the poor, and makes supposedly irrational choices look much more rational. And this is so even though those choices are more harmful to the poor than to the non-poor.

Now think about all the other negative consequences of poverty that might constrain choices in a similar way. Lack of education (poor neighborhoods = shitty schools). Lack of social capital. Lack of access to affordable, nutritious food. Lack of access to affordable credit. And so on, and so on, and so on.

Instead, Caplan leaps to a single explanation for all of the self-harming behavior of poor people: it’s because they’re irrational and stupid. This reflects less on the supposed inability of the poor to run their lives than it does on Caplan’s inability to imagine the circumstances of anyone other than himself.

(n.b. comments are open but set to 100% moderation because I’m sick of spam; I’ll approve all non-spam comments as quickly as possible.)