Contra-Populism- Part II

The best explanation for the recent tide of populist sentiment is the self-propelling dynamics of the social desirability bias and irrational rationality. The social desirability bias in psychology is when survey participants shape their responses to make themselves look better. Elected leaders portraying themselves as champions of the people can conform their campaign promises to what makes them more appealing to voters. As candidates that consistently miss the mark on the opinions of their voters don’t stay in office long(p.21)! Even middle-of-the-road elected officials drift away from the median to keep their heads above water in political waves of populism (p.4). The unmoored and amorphous qualities of populism; make it flexible to the changing tastes of the public. The malleable nature of populism makes a “thin ideology” (p.171) that political opportunists can easily manipulate. By definition, a populist candidate must pander to the interests of regular people, regardless of how detrimental the consequences are. Hence, populist candidates typically support raising the minimum wage and import tariffs; superficially, these policies sound beneficial. There is ample evidence that both suggestions do more harm than good. Most of the “majoritarian” solutions to economic issues are predicated on emotional appeals rather than solid facts.

Professor Bryan Caplan’s Rational Irrationality not only dovetails today the social desirability bias in populist politics but forms a symbiotic mechanism for perpetuating these policies. Rational Irrationality is when voters have intense biases and disregard evidence contrary to their strong beliefs. The reason for illogical rationalization is that as long as the individual costs are low (per Alex Tabarrok political decision-making lowers the individual costs of policy). Caplan surmises that there is a demand for irrationality in the political process (p.7), as the voter will barely notice the costs of the policies they favor, providing clarity on why we people support bad policies. However, this can cause voters to adopt disastrous policies (p.152). Through tailoring attractive policies that lean into the concerns and biases of the typical voter, populist candidates can win the approval of their prospective constituents, generating a synergistic feedback loop of detrimental interventionism in the economy and other spheres of life. 

Tribal By Combat- A Story of Transaction Costs

Photo by Daisa TJ on

Trial by combat, in the eyes of modern observers, is nothing more than a barbarous anachronism of the dark ages. In his paper, Trial By Battle (2011), Peter Leeson details the economic advantages of the judicial practice in medieval England. The two concluding paragraphs of Leeson make some profound observations regarding the societal pivot away from a violent form of legal auctions. One counteractive realization Leeson comes to suggests that we do not abandon trial by combat for moral reasons, but rather this was due to a reduction in the transaction costs of land disputes. No, we did not suddenly become enlightened.

“…Finally, trial by battle didn’t die because England became less barbaric. It died because England became a lower transaction cost economy. Just as trial by battle substituted for the Coase theorem in a world of sticky property rights, the Coase theorem substituted for trial by battle in a world with significantly more fluid property rights. In that world lower transaction costs of trade permitted markets to allocate land to higher-valuing users. It became less critical for the legal system to ensure that disputed rights’ initial allocation was efficient. Because of late twelfth-century legal reforms that unstuck land rights, the late twelfth century the judicial system could afford to move away from trial by battle and toward more ‘‘enlightened’’ trial methods, namely trial by jury. When judicial combat became an unnecessary cost, England abandoned it. 

This has important implications for how we understand the process of legal systems’ evolution. It suggests that legal systems’ evolution is less about a process whose course follows the trajectory of enlightened thinking and more about a process whose course follows the trajectory of the transaction cost of trade. When this cost rises, the relative price of relying on ‘‘sophisticated’’ judicial institutions rises too. Legal institutions become more ‘‘primitive’’ in the sense that we tolerate more costly (and less seemly) judicial procedures for identifying and allocating property to higher-valuing users. When the transaction cost of trade falls, so does the relative price of relying on ‘‘sophisticated’’ judicial institutions. The reverse happens: legal institutions become less primitive. Society acts enlightened because it has become cheaper to do so….”

As Leeson demonstrates, how the system of feudalism complicated the allocation of land rights; therefore, the institution of public combat trials helped distribute the land to the higher-valuing users. Those who spend more on champions to represent them in the contest must value the parcel of land more. How many traditions and institutions do we now consider archaic and outmoded by more efficient alternatives? Historians claim that such practices stopped due to an enlightened shift in social norms. Prima facie does seem more likely that social progress has been generated more by economic efficiency than lofty and abstract moral ideals. Who is to say that trial by combat was even uncivilized? Under certain conditions, it could be a feasible form of private dispute resolution analogous to dueling.

Bootleggers and Baptists: XVII- Prediction Markets and Regulation (Gambling?)

Photo by Naim Benjelloun on

Arguably there are few methods of aggregating data that are as effective as using Prediction Markets. Prediction Markets are exchanged markets where speculators purchase “… that yield payment based on the outcome of uncertain events..” (p.877). One of the biggest misconceptions regarding this method of forming consensus on the accuracy of future events is that experts will be supplanted by amateurs. However, this concern is unfounded because of the knowledge necessary to succeed in such a speculative market. The experts would tend to dominate these markets (p.85). Separating Prediction Markets from gambling in a legal context. Dumb luck is not rewarded, but the diligent and concentrated study is. The legal lecture identifies gambling as having an element of chance (p.102). The intention of opening the trading pool to laypeople is not to give them to trade based on arbitrary “hunches”. Rather, to supplement the data pool by contributing the “on-the-ground” information absent in academic analysis (p.82).

Even though the work of legal scholar Tom W. Bell (p.102-104) demonstrates that Prediction Markets are distinct from games of chance. If a Prediction market is poorly designed, it has the potential to be subjected to anti-gambling laws (p.419). Although Prediction markets reflect the features of a decentralized form of “consulting “services than a sports betting pool (p.419). Many privately hosted sports beating pools escape prosecution due to their discrete manner. Even an in-house prediction market hosted by a corporation may raise the attention of prosecutors (p.102). It should be noted that prediction markets also face potentially regulated by the SEC and CTFC. Unfortunately, placing great barriers to entry for institutions looking to host such data aggregation markets. Prediction markets are being stifled by massive layers of red tape.

Although, it is possible under certain circumstances to be granted exemptions by regulatory agencies. 

For example, one of the best-known legal prediction markets in the United States is the Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM). In the early 1990s, the CTFC issued two no action letters granting the IEM immunity from the commission’s regulatory authority (p.25). Essentially, all federal agencies are immune from anti-gambling laws (p.419). A fact confirmed by Robin Hanson by describing the immunity enjoyed by the DARPA’s PAM project (p.77). Why not grant regulatory exemptions to all purposed prediction markets? Certainly, a novel solution. There are those voicing moral concerns and those who can prosper from prediction markets remaining heavily regulated. Presenting the classic features of any Bootlegger and Baptists coalition (1983).


One of the most evident examples of a Baptist would have to be the regulators. Despite the numerous examples of employees of regulator agencies engaging in rent-seeking and other pursuits of aggrandizement, there is still a concern for the rules being enforced. This does not mean that the rules are necessarily rational or even moral, but there is an ethical commitment to duty. Unfettered access to trading or gambling markets can result in adverse consequences for participants and the economy. If prediction markets were erroneously designed, they could operate similarly to securities and futures markets. Making prediction markets susceptible to dishonest practices such as insider trading leading to disparate effects for less privileged participants. Also, keeping prediction markets within the bounds of gaming regulations could help reduce the externalities of problematic gambling. In most jurisdictions domestically, as a condition of being granted a gaming license establishments are required to have their staff trained on awareness programs. Even requiring signage offering resources for those suffering from gambling addiction to seek treatment. If prediction markets are in theory like other forms of gambling, it could be a welcomed substitute for individuals with gambling problems. Casinos are often encouraged by state governments to implement exclusion programs for problematic patrons. The trading of cryptocurrencies, precious metals, stocks, etc. is free from the reach of gaming regulations. Potentially providing problem gamblers with a slightly different type of impulsive thrill. Prediction markets could fall into this category even if they are regulated as securities or futures commodities. If prediction markets lack age restrictions barring minors from participating. It may operate as a backdoor form of underage gambling.


  • Casinos, lotteries, bingo-halls, dog/horse tracks, and other gaming venues either online or brick-and-mortar. None of these establishments are going to take the time to research whether prediction markets are the same as gambling. Perceiving prediction markets as an alternative to gambling with potentially fewer regulations. Incentivizing vendors providing gambling services to favor any restrictions that can be placed on this potential competing form of “entertainment”. Prediction markets are a hyper-competitive form of consulting service.
  • Foreign-based prediction markets. Overseas prediction markets in countries such as Ireland provide real monetary compensation to users with leading regulatory interference (p.414). If America’s regulatory system became more friendly towards prediction markets, these existing prediction markets would lose participants.
  • Experts and professional consulting firms. Prediction markets place professional consulting firms and other subcategories of experts in direct competition with other participants. Consequently, disrupting the current status-quo of the consulting services market. Traditionally, a firm will hire a firm, freelancer, or agent of a firm to provide consulting services. Irrespective of whether the consultant is providing flawed advice, they still receive their whole salary. This is analogous to paying full price for a defective product. Even in the service industry patrons receive refunds for a lousy meal. Prediction markets resolve this issue by rewarding the consultants providing correct information. The hosting institution benefits from receiving a large pool of data for a low cost. This practice is more cost-effective than purchasing traditional consulting services. However, concurrently threatening the bottom line of consultants operating within the framework of the original model.

Bootleggers & Baptists: XVI: Terrorism and Prediction Markets

Photo by on

The program was derided by Democrats and Republicans in Congress, some of whom called it “bizarre,” “unbelievably stupid” and “offensive.” Rumsfeld himself said he canceled the program “an hour after I read about it.” ( Wired ,July 2003)

Commonly, government programs engender partisanship and opportunism. Political actors are more successful to capitalize on such initiatives are controversial. This effect is only magnified when the program is headed by a polarizing figure. One prevalent example of this was DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) used Prediction Markets to gather intelligence on future geopolitical events. Once more contentious questions such as terrorist attacks and assassination attempts ended up being addressed, the program began to be publicly criticized.

 PAM (Policy Analysis Market) implemented by the Information Awareness Office, a counter-terrorism project ran by DARPA. PAM operated like a future exchanges market for predicting the likelihood of geopolitical events. Including but not limited to terrorist attacks. At various phases of the program, participants (consultation firms, colleges, think tanks) were provided a sum of money to “wager” on the likelihood of certain political events happening (p.77). Those with accurate answers were awarded a larger sum of money.

Figure 1

E.g.) Phase I: Participants were provided $100,000 by the IAO to wager and awarded $750,000 for accurate predictions (p.77).

Mirroring the model used in both past and future prediction markets. Dating back to Robin Hanson first pioneering prediction markets while consulting on project Xanadu in the late-1980s, these markets have always been an incentive-driven phenomenon. It is one thing to claim certainty, but it is another to be willing to die on that hill. Especially when money is on the line. Effectively aligning incentives towards accuracy and rigorous research versus armchair speculation. The objective being the firm, organization, or government department hosting the market with aggregate a large cache of quality information (p.76).In the field of counter-terrorism having averaging consensus from a variety of sources is crucial to avoid engaging the wrong target. Such mistakes will incur costs much greater than monetary losses.

As groundbreaking and innovative as PAM was invariably the program garnered some criticism that eventually devolved into outright censure. Academics and bureaucrats “betting” on the aptitude of terrorist activities and political revolts transpiring may be unsettling from a prima facie standpoint. Particularly if taken at face value with no further analysis. Arguably the criticism of PAM intensified due to the IAO’s controversial director, John Poindexter. Poindexter rose to infamy from his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal of the Regan administration. Even though all of the insiders of the project acknowledged that Poindexter had little involvement in PAM (P. 6, footnote 7), most of the backlash was directed at him. The fury of pundits, media outlets, and the general public caused Poindexter to resign in the summer of 2003. Leaving the PAM project permanently defunct.

The advocacy and opposition to the implementation of PAM as a means of aggregating intelligence on sensitive matters is no doubt a complex maze of ethical and pragmatic arguments. The use of prediction markets for gathering information for defense planning is just like another government policy, the impact is not neutral. Meaning that keeping or eliminating the program will create disparate consequences. Typically favoring one subset of economic agents over another. Individuals will bear the “expected costs (p.38) imposed by the impact of the policy. For example, a government program may create jobs for individuals that are politically connected. However, this is generally at the expense of the taxpayer. Vice versa, abolishing a program will eliminate jobs for the clerks and managers operating the department. The impact of policy always affects some individuals positively and others negatively. All political policies involve the transfer of benefits from one party to another.

Considering the non-neutral nature of policy, it would be justifiable to apply Bruce Yandle’s concept of Bootleggers and Baptists to the political pressure to abandon the PAM program. Yes, there were some ethical concerns regarding the prospect of having people “wager” on terrorist attacks. It would be naïve to believe that all the opprobrium was motivated by morality. Much how skilled consultants can profit from participating in a Prediction Market, many actors can also do so by dismantling such a program. Beneficiaries ranging from media outlets to opportunistic politicians. The political opportunism was multilayered including enemies of the Bush administration, the Republican Party, and even direct adversaries of John Poindexter. Proving an opportunity for democrats to temporarily shed their anti-patriotic veneer, to admonish these “conservatives” for making light of national security threats. Yet, the credulous public seldomly questions this moral browbeating. On the surface, these criticisms sound valid. Since when have politicians previously disinterested in national security matters are suddenly deeply invested in the integrity of defense intelligence? As Machiavelli pointed out in The Prince appearances are more important than actual principles in politics (p.42).

The Baptists

It is exceedingly difficult to designate one side of the coalition as a pure Baptist in the public outrage campaign surrounding PAM. The self-interest of the media, politicians, resident experts within the government is glaringly obvious. The potential for Dual-Role Actors (economic agents that benefit materially, but simultaneously sincerely believe the moral argument) in this coalition dynamic exists. However, is muddied by the perverse incentives to use strawman, ad hominem, and other logical fallacies to denigrate the program. The adversaries of PAM had a lot to gain through defaming the program. Not a whole lot of utility to extract from testing the validity of the results. Since the average constituent is not going to care too much about the granular details of the program. Rather be fixated on their visceral reaction to the ethical considerations of “betting” terrorist attacks.

Regardless, of whether moral advocacy is misguided or ill-informed, nevertheless, it is still a normative position. The average citizen happens to be the proverbial Baptist in this coalition dynamic. Any expression of disgust or moral indignation was sincere with little to no observable benefit from ending the program (dispersed costs, concentrated benefits). Even if the public’s concern was stoked by the slanted framing of the program, it still does not lessen make their concerns any less earnest. In the absence of further context, a group of contractors and academics participating in a gambling pool predicting terrorist attacks does sound grotesque. Since gambling is considered a form of entertainment appears to trivialize the severity of contentious situations that could result in the loss of lives. For the honest concern for these moral considerations, the average voter is our Baptist.

One great irony was that one of the academics deeply involved in the project narrowed down the reasonable ethical concerns in a peer-reviewed paper years after PAM had been dismantled. It was none other than prediction markets pioneer Robin Hanson. Hanson citing the following as prevalent concerns of the program:

  • “…The first concern expressed—that of replacing professionals with amateurs..” (p.82)
  • “…The second fear expressed was that bad guys would be willing to make losing

trades to mislead us..” (p.82).

  • “..The third main fear expressed was that bad guys might be rewarded for doing bad things..” (p.83). E.g.) Al-Qaeda’s meddling with airline stocks in the 9/11 attacks.

Hanson tactfully addresses all these concerns explaining how much of these concerns are the result of misconception. Like how the media coverage of the program generated several misconceptions regarding the function and purpose of PAM.

The Bootleggers

Several various individuals and groups stand to benefit from a sensationalized portrayal of the PAM program. One of the more salient examples would be the media. Media outlets are a business much like another, the incentive is to maximize profits. Logically this premise is cogent to anyone with even a small amount of exposure to economics. This controversy emerged in the primordial era of social media (Myspace being founded in 2003). The internet did exist but did not present any true competition to televised and print news media. For media outlets to have a story as jarring as the government funding a macabre gambling bracket trivializing serious events, instant goldmine. That is the type of story that sells publications. It has all the elements of a good conspiratorial techno-thriller. One only needs to consider the success of Tom Clancy to know how stories of geopolitical/government intrigue are lucrative. It could be argued that the media is merely the messenger, if they happen to profit from the event, it is a natural consequence of the event. How the information is presented and sways public opinion. If news reports are worded in a manner that is hostile towards the program, this will influence public opinion. Creating a feedback loop, inciting the ire of the Baptists while concurrently profiting. This would be an excellent example of the Bootleggers tacitly inciting the indignation of the Baptists.

Another subset of Bootleggers would be the politicians who spoke out against PAM. A book could be written about the political motives guiding the strategy condemnation of the program by various politicians. As previously mentioned, the layers of political opposition operate on a continuum of scale. Varying from individual grudges, contention between political factions, and even opposition to the sitting president at the time (George W. Bush). Despite the complexities of various political considerations, speaking out publicly about a controversial government program fosters a positive public image. Especially for politicians who were affiliated with the Democratic party. During the Bush administration, Democrats were perceived as being soft on terrorism. At a time where terrorism was a hot-button issue, speaking out against counter-terrorism measures was tantamount to political suicide. The whole PAM debacle presented an opportunity for a clean slate. An opportunity to capitalize on a misstep made by the Bush administration and to feed into the fears of the public. Paralleling the Bootlegger –Baptist feedback mechanism generated by the media. See below for a shining example of such sanctimonious posturing:

For instance,” Mr. Wyden said, ”you may think early on that Prime Minister X is going to be assassinated. So you buy the futures contracts for 5 cents each. As more people begin to think the person’s going to be assassinated, the cost of the contract could go up, to 50 cents.

‘The payoff, if he’s assassinated, is $1 per future. So if it comes to pass, and those who bought at 5 cents make 95 cents. Those who bought at 50 cents make 50 cents.’ (Senator Ron Wyden (D), NYT July 2003).

Bryan Caplan on Time Preference

Photo by on

In a 2005 blog entry from economist and George Mason professor, Bryan Caplan disputes the veracity of time preference proving why interest rates tend to be positive. Time preference asserts that people prefer present consumption over future consumption. Providing some insight into why people would be willing to receive money now and later pay it back with interest. From the standpoint of an individual’s assessment of value, $1000.00 today is worth more than $1000.00 three months from now. Dr. Caplan launches a two-pronged attack against the assumption that time preference explains why interest rates are positive. Caplan suggests that dimmishing marginal utlity, not time preference demonstrates the proclivity of interest rates being positive.

Professor Caplan’s first point regarding the failure of time preference to adequately explain positive interest rates relates to the allocation of nonmonetary resources. He details a scenario where an individual is marooned on a desert island with only two bananas. Per a loose application of time preference, in theory, the person stuck on the island would eat both bananas today. Since we prefer present consumption to future consumption. A “perfectly patient” person would be willing to eat only one banana a day to more effectively curb their hunger. This is because we disvalue hunger today equally as much as we do tomorrow. Making dividing consumption between the two days a more effective use of resources.

Caplan goes further elucidates this point by demonstrating the fact that often in barter interest rates are negative. Per the blog entry:

“Suppose we knew the price of food would double next year. Then a pound of food now trades for half a pound of food one year from now. Translation: a negative 50% interest rate!

If this seems crazy to you, suppose the food was the only commodity, and you expect a famine next year. Wouldn’t you happily trade 2 pounds of current food in exchange for a promissory note good for 1 pound of food next year?”

This example explicates depending on the context we may forgo present consumption for future consumption. Even when we are expected to take a loss on the value of that commodity. This foils the main tenants of time preference. If we were to delay current consumption for future consumption we tend to do so for future gain. To quote the Austrian economist Roger Garrison “ We save up for something”. We hang on to stocks, gold, annuities, bonds, or cash holdings with the anticipation they will increase in value. It is important to note that inflation does take its toll on cash holdings. In the mind of the average person, it is more about amassing large quantities of money than an expected increase in value. Per time preference, if we did anticipate no gain from delaying consumption, we would be more apt to consume now than take the loss. However, in the situation presented by Dr. Caplan, it may be reasonable that a logical person may do the opposite. The rationale why loans for money tend to be positive is the fact that money does not spoil and is of little cost to store.

The second prong of Professor Caplan’s argument is the most compelling. In modern society, people have the ex-ante perception that they will be richer in the future. Anticipating being wealthier at a later date will drive a person’s demand for consumption up for the present. As the individual exhausts their desire to consume, the hope is that they have more money to pay back the sum that was loaned with interest.  That is certainly a point that the Austrian perspective on interest rates ignores. Is it possible that if we excepted to get a raise in our compensation next year, we are more apt to spend more now and around the time we start to experience the disutility of consumption we experience a bump in pay?   This is a very likely scenario.  Presents arguably the biggest blind spot in the theory of time preference.

However, there is one looming question that Dr. Caplan does sidestep in his arguments. Few sane economists would ever argue that the law of diminishing marginal utility doesn’t apply to consumer behavior. But are we truly measuring the utility of the same commodities if we delay present consumption?  Our Christmas decorations three weeks before December 25th the same commodity as these same decorations on the clearance rack the first week of January?  It could be reasonable to argue no. While diminishing marginal utility could explain this decrease in demand, but it fails to consider the full scope of the customer’s subjective evaluation of the goods. The marginal utility can only explain the assessment of the value of a commodity. It cannot explain if the customer perceives the good as being categorically different. The variable of time could very well influence whether Christmas decorations now or a month ago are truly the same product. Applying this reasoning to interest rates, this point becomes quite clear. Is $1000.00 today plus avoiding a late payment on a credit card the same as $1,000.00 next week? Especially when we consider late fees, damage to our credit score, etc. On top of it, you still owe the credit card company $1,000.00.  It is difficult to quantify the intrinsic value of having a clear credit score. $1,000.00 plus interest may be worth more to the individual than taking a hit on their credit score.

Privatization of Defense- Central Government. The Transaction Costs Reducer.

Photo by Pixabay on

Hat Tip to the Marginal Revolution Blog and the Prior Probability blog for referring me to the referenced article.

The privatization of defense services could hypothetically reduce the occurrence of military conflicts. This is achieved by realigning the incentives to engage in warfare by making the costs more evident to the taxpayer. The direct costs of war are generally obscured due to a lack of clarity of how tax dollars are allocated. Operating as a form of indirect fiscal illusion. Either by design or by the context of the broad and imprecise nature of public expenditures. If a would-be taxpayer could not transfer or distribute the costs of war to the collective contributions of the tax base, frivolous objectives such as “spreading” democracy would be off the table. Military action would shift from being offensive or even preemptive to being purely defensive. Whether defense services should be provided by the local neighborhood watch or a private corporation is another matter.

There is some historical evidence suggesting that eliminating a mechanism for distributing the costs of violent conflicts makes them less apt to transpire. Per a recent paper written by Rosolino  Candela, and Vincent Geloso the French settlers of the  Bay of Fundy had virtually no violent conflicts with the Mi’kmaq tribe. Why?  The European settlers of the 18th century known as, Acaridans, had to directly bare the costs of violent conflicts. Since they received little institutional or financial support from the mother country. Having adopted informal decision-making procedures, living along aside the Mi’kmaq, they lived in a state of near-anarchy (Candelaa & Geloso, 2020, p.3-4). Providing some credence to the inference that a strong central government operates as a mechanism for reducing the transaction costs of armed conflicts. Skewing the incentives of constituents to be more lackadaisical towards the costs of unnecessary military campaigns. Often reducing transaction costs is viewed as being a positive economic development in this case it is not. The evolution of the robust warfare state in the U.S. has amounted to profligate spending, a treacherously hazardous foreign policy, the growth of government, and ample opportunities for rent-seeking.

The Acadians received virtually no support from the homeland. Outside of a “symbolic” tax that was only sporadically collected by officials, they were primarily left to their own devices (Candelaa & Geloso, 2020, p.3). Leaving the settlers able to only rely on local militias to provide the defense of the colony. Leaving the “…costs of using violence would be concentrated on the beneficiaries themselves and could not be passed on to wider groups..” (Candelaa & Geloso, 2020, p.10). Through the colonists and the natives having to fully bare the costs of violent conflict, this was one of several factors that prevented the development of interest groups (Candelaa & Geloso, 2020, p.16). Stifling the potential for wartime profiteering by removing the incentives to fabricate needless conflicts for the sake of drumming up business.

While there may be contextual characteristics that do not apply to modern times. It should be noted that a highly centralized government does have an impact on the frequency of war. Through disbursing the costs across a large number of taxpayers, the true costs of military intervention are obscured. Hence why for the Acadians, the lack of financial and military support from the motherland shifted incentives away from violent forms of conflict resolution. Making it plausible to surmise that having a centralized government is what makes war so easy to initiate. It acts as the middle-man connecting constituents with service providers (the military). Alone, a centralized government reduces the costs of coordinating complex military campaigns.  Never mind the fact that it collectively distributes the costs of the capital required for military conflicts. To truly demonstrate this point, consider the highly extravagant cost of a private citizen purchasing a tank or a submarine. Individually most people could not afford to purchase the instruments of sophisticated warfare. Combing the fact that a central government obscures the direct costs of war and provides the institutions that make the coordination efforts of armed conflict more efficient, it shouldn’t be a mystery why the size and scope of military conflicts have now become global. Providing some firm insights as to why the Acadians preferred the bargaining table to the sword in resolving conflicts with the Mi’kmaq.

Privatizing Defense- Reconnecting the Link Between War and War Time Spending

Photo by Pixabay on

The costs and externalities of engaging in military intervention are high. These costs are not limited to merely monetary expenditures. The price is also borne in the loss of life, productivity, civil liberties, economic freedoms, and so on. Historically, countries have long justified war efforts through comprehensive political campaigns. Demonizing the opposing regime and stressing the moral imperative of defeating the adversary. Propaganda campaigns can work wonders, persuading the masses that the armed conflict is a “just” war, but it is not the only variable at play. If the costs of going to war were more direct and salient to the public, constituents would be less apt to approve of military intervention abroad. In the decades since World War II, most of these campaigns have been more about nation-building than actually defending the United States and its allies. If the connection between the cost of war was more linear it would be reasonable to surmise American citizens would be screaming with indignation about the prospect of their tax dollars being used to “spread” democracy.

The question is how do we make the connection between the cost of war and military efforts more conspicuous to the taxpayer? A radical suggestion would be to privatize defense. To some extent, there is a lot of merit to this argument. There are also a lot of well-formulated objections. Any conventional application of Coase’s Theorem would like to view defense as a public service that cannot be provided by private firms. Due to ambiguity regarding property rights and the high transaction costs of providing defense services. The issue of unclear property rights is by far one of the strongest arguments against privatizing the production of defense services. Even as economist Chris Coyne points out in a recent paper, those free-rider problems are inevitable. In Coyne’s example, if missile defense services are provided to a city, one house that has opted out cannot be excluded from protection (Coyne & Goodman, 2019, p. 6). It was maybe inordinate to organize defense efforts on a national scale versus a regional threat. Example being when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. This threat was confined to a specific region of Ukraine versus Russia posing threat to the whole country (Coyne & Goodman, 2019, p.2).

Another flaw in the free-rider argument is even when defense is provided by the government there are still people who receive service without contributing. American citizens who evade taxes still receive the benefits of state-provided defense. The homeless and unemployed who also do not contribute to the tax pool also enjoy the benefits of defense provided by the United States. The problem becomes that free-riders exist regardless if defense is provided by the government or private firm.

All the counterarguments aside, if people could see on a monthly or quarterly basis how much they were spending on foreign wars, they would be less apt to be ambivalent about these military campaigns. This is a fact that is displayed in the ubiquitous Public Choice maxim of dispersed costs and concentrated benefits. No service provided by the government is “free”. This merely an illusion created by the distribution of the cost of government programs and services across many taxpayers. Typically, there is quite a bit of mystery surrounding how tax dollars are allocated. Unlike a private-sector invoice that is itemized, how much, and how it will be specifically used.  Epitomizing the phenomenon of fiscal illusion. Severing the link between government spending and taxation creates confusion. By keeping the taxpayers’ ignorant, various government departments have more fungibility with how tax dollars can be used. Side-stepping any potential for accountability. This applies to all government spending, even defense and military expenditures. By reestablishing this link between war and taxation, every-day citizens would be more apt to question the efficacy of sending the military to a third-world dictatorship to reinvent them as a liberal democracy.

Government officials cannot be trusted to help facilitate the process of reconnecting direct costs of war with the corresponding military campaign. Few congressmen would go along with this policy. On the off-chance, taxpayers did start receiving itemized expenditure reports, who is to say that they will not be falsified. The only viable option would be allowing private firms to provide military-grade defense services to civilians. Effectively allowing for private competition in the provision of defense services. That could include private defense clubs, neighborhood militias, HOA funded auxiliary defense agents, or even larger corporate firms providing similar services. Whether you are picking up a rifle to participate in the neighborhood militia or you are paying a monthly bill for a corporate defense firm, you have skin in the game. Either you are paying with your safety and time or you are paying monetarily. Both contingencies align incentives towards avoiding frivolous conflicts. No one wants to pay exorbitant rates to receive defense services that do not even directly benefit their safety. Nor does anyone want to risk their life over minor conflicts. Objectives such as nation-building or ideological indoctrination would be off the table. Due to the high costs of such endeavors, most people would be much more cautious about engaging in such conflict. Confining most uses of military force for self-defense rather than offensive objectives.