TCS Daily

Tyler Cowen's Law

By Arnold Kling - November 25, 2005 12:00 AM

"I just don't believe that any political party can be mass-captured by the intelligent and brought around to sanity."
-- Tyler Cowen

There are passionate Republicans and passionate Democrats. But I agree with Tyler Cowen that neither party is likely to seem attractive. I can give a number of examples that for me illustrate Tyler Cowen's law. These are policies that neither party is likely to endorse, even though to me they make sense.

  • a trade policy of unilateral disarmament
  • surrender in the drug war
  • separation of family and state
  • creating an agency to audit the Department of Homeland Security

No Trade Negotiations

If other countries lower their trade barriers, then the best policy would be for us to lower our trade barriers. But I would go beyond that. If other countries do not lower their trade barriers, then the best policy would be for us to lower our trade barriers.

The idea that we need to "negotiate" reductions in trade barriers is absurd. Trade barriers primarily damage the country that erects the barriers. As Stephen Parente and Nobel Laureate Edward Prescott pointed out in Barriers to Riches, the way that poor nations remain poor is by keeping out modern production techniques. This requires restraining trade as well as imposing regulations that make it difficult to start businesses or compete against entrenched interests.

As a corollary to Cowen's law, I do not believe that the leaders of backward nations of the world can be mass-captured by the intelligent and brought around to sanity. They will retain their barriers to riches. However, the best trade policy we could have for ourselves would be to abolish all of our anti-dumping laws, farm subsidies, quotas, and other trade distortions.

We do not need a U.S. trade representative. Our trade policy should be unilateral disarmament, because the weapons in the trade war are all suicide bombs.

No Drug War

Another wrong-headed war is the war on recreational drugs. Just as alcohol prohibition created crime in the 1920's, drug prohibition creates crime today.

I am not denying that drug use is dangerous. I am not denying that legalizing drugs might make it easier for some people to obtain dangerous drugs. What I am saying is that the overall social cost-benefit analysis is that we would be better off if recreational drugs were sold legally, rather than creating an opportunity for the violent and the sociopathic to get rich from the drug trade.

Separation of Family and State

I believe that education, health care, and saving for retirement ought to be paid for individually, not collectively. When it comes to providing these essentials, government is the The High-Cost Producer.

It is possible that some people could not or would not provide their families with education, health care, or retirement saving if left to their own devices. I would certainly like to see charitable organizations emerge with solutions for this. I would be willing to move toward a Bleeding-heart Libertarian version of a redistributionist tax system. But government paternalism is a blunder, which perhaps can be explained by cognitive biases that lead people to hate economics.

Audit DHS

To perform the function of homeland security effectively, I believe that we will need to strive for surveillance supremacy. This poses important challenges for maintaining personal privacy and freedom.

The Department of Homeland Security must never be in a position of unchecked power. A strong, separate audit function is needed. I am worried about DHS abusing the surveillance power that I think it will necessarily acquire. I first raised the audit idea in The Constitution of Surveillance.

In addition to guarding against abuse of power, an independent auditor could challenge DHS when its strategy or implementation is inadequate. When the head of DHS is accountable only to the President who appoints him or her, everyone has an incentive to overstate success and cover up failure.


I suspect that TCS readers are more sympathetic than the average voter to my thinking on these topics. Even so, I am sure to receive considerable pushback. Obviously, people are free to disagree with me on one or more of these issues.

However you feel about these issues, Cowen's Law says that you will not find a political party that aligns really well with your views. Chances are, you belong to the Long Tail of politics, and you find it difficult to vote with any enthusiasm.

My one recommendation for people who find themselves in the Long Tail is to vote against incumbents. When neither candidate clearly aligns with your views, vote against the incumbent. I have a general sense, certainly not backed by any research, that entrenched politicians tend to overreach. If no political party can be brought around to sanity, then the best we can hope for is to teach our politicians some humility.


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