Duke Students Struggle to Understand Freedom of Choice

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More students objected to the sale of McDonald’s drinks than to marijuana.

But one student objected to the entire existence of private property. Ironically, this same student had no issue with purchasing an ocean. 

Duke University’s Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) organized an liberty-themed event planned to coincide with April 20th, a date of significance for “cannabis culture.” The representatives from YAL encouraged students passing-by to participate in a series of thought experiments. Participating students were given a list of items and then asked which ones the government should restrict sale of or outright ban. The items on the list were: assault rifles, chimpanzees, hummers, prostitutes, slaves, oceans, large McDonald’s drinks, cocaine, marijuana, nuclear weapons, land, and organs. Any student who picked fewer than 9 of the 12 items to ban was recognized as a supporter of individual liberty and offered a small prize.  

The choices of many students were unexpected. More students objected to the sale of McDonald’s drinks than to marijuana. Almost every student objected to the purchase of cocaine, yet few had reservations regarding the legality of marijuana. No one thought that slaves or nuclear weapons ought be sold. But one student objected to the entire existence of private property. Ironically, this same student had no issue with purchasing an ocean.  Read more

John Stossel Turns 70

In 2007, he published Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity, a book which called into question many widely-held misconceptions and unchallenged assumptions. For example, he challenged incorrect knee-jerk beliefs about everything from DDT to road rage.

Midway through his career, he became a staunch critic of consumer protectionism, once remarking: “Patrick Henry did not say, ‘Give me absolute safety or give me death.’”

This past April, Mr. Stossel, made history by hosting the first ever nationally-televised Libertarian presidential debate.

Today, media personality and journalist John Stossel celebrates his 70th birthday.

Mr. Stossel made his name first as the co-anchor of ABC’s 20/20 and then subsequently at Fox News and Fox Business Network. In 2007, he published Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity, a book which called into question many widely-held misconceptions and unchallenged assumptions. For example, he challenged incorrect knee-jerk beliefs about everything from DDT to road rage. Read more

Remembering Kenneth Arrow

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Perhaps in this new era of politics, where the arbitrary and the confused abound, Arrow and his wisdom are needed more than ever. Too bad he won’t be here to share it in person.

On Tuesday, February 21, renowned economist and Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow died at his home in Palo Alto. He was 95.

Kenneth Arrow won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics along with fellow economist John Hicks in 1972 for his foundational work in the theory of public choice, the economics of the collective.

Arrow was a pioneer in transforming problems in economics and politics into mathematical projects. One kind of broad problem that interested Arrow was how groups of individuals make collective decisions, a problem found throughout public life—from going out to dinner with a group of friends to political elections. Arrow transformed this commonplace process into a problem about aggregating individual preferences into a single preference for a group. He called this aggregation the “social welfare function.”

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Getting to the Bottom of #DeleteUber

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“In January of 2017, Uber broke up a Muslim taxi strike by dropping its surcharges. In the midst of controversy surrounding the immigrant ban, this action pushed many users to delete their Uber accounts and switch to Lyft.”—The Daily Tar Heel

“Surge pricing has been turned off at #JFK Airport. This may result in longer wait times. Please be patient.—Uber NYC”

“BREAKING: NYTWA drivers call for one hour work stoppage @ JFK airport today 6 PM to 7 PM to protest #muslimban! #nobannowall.”

“Lyft donates $1mil to ACLU while Uber doubles down on its support for Trump. #DeleteUber”

“Don’t like @Uber’s exploitative anti-labor policies & Trump collaboration, now profiting off xenophobia? #deleteUber”

After Uber New York City tweeted at 4:36 PM on January 28th that they would be turning off surge pricing for pickups at JFK Airport, a Twitter media campaign #deleteuber caused over 200,000 subscribers to delete their accounts.

Although it is impossible to say why each of the 200,000 subscribers deleted his account, those initially tweeting #deleteuber claimed that Uber, by turning off surge pricing for pickups from JFK, was trying to interfere with a spontaneous NYC taxicab strike at JFK from 6 to 7pm. The strike had been planned to protest President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration. The subsequent frenzy caused #deleteuber to trend on Twitter throughout the day on the 29th, which ultimately resulted in the mass boycott. Read more

John Adams and the Riots at Berkeley

In the time since the Alien and Sedition Acts, the United States has generally displayed great respect for the First Amendment.

While humans are not very good at coping with cognitive dissonance, they are remarkable experts at finding roundabout ways of avoiding it

With John Stuart Mill’s wisdom and a degree of intellectual discipline and self-control, we can overcome the mental block—the cognitive trap—that can make our minds dark caverns rather than places of great knowledge and inquiry.

During last night’s episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Mr. Carlson interviewed a graduate student from New York University, Kouross Esmaeli, who put forth the strikingly contradictory claim that he both valued unconditional  freedom of speech but that NYU ought to shut down the College Republican group because they invited Gavin McInnes, a controversial conservative commentator, to speak on campus. Read more

Big Decisions. Only a Few Are Doing the Deciding.

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Only 9% of United States citizens voted for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the presidential primary, and only approximately 30% of residents of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. The remarkable thing about these numbers is that both of these decisions are incredibly impactful to virtually every single citizen of the nation, yet a shockingly small fraction of the nation participated in making these decisions. This troubles me deeply. And it should trouble you too.

With decisions like Brexit or the 2016 US presidential primary, Democratic theory tells us that for such a decision to pass, it must be held to the strictest standard of consent possible. This means that the level of consent to make a decision should correspond to the number of people impacted by the decision. Put another way, any decision that by and large only affects one person should be made by that one person, while a decision that affects everyone should be made by as many people as possible.

Why should there not be a“quorum” for elections and referenda, while the quorum is ubiquitous for voting in smaller groups, such as Congress?

The takeaway from both the primary and Brexit is that proxy voting, that is to say, representative democracy, does not meet a sufficiently high standard of consent. Imagine for a minute that, say, Congress, were responsible for nominating a presidential candidate, or that Parliament decided Brexit, rather than leaving the decision to referendum. I do not think it would be unreasonable to predict that there would be complete and utter outrage. I might even go so far as to say that many people would begin to question whether they live in a democracy even at all.

The reason for the outrage in a potential case in which decisions were made by legislative bodies alone is that the people could reasonably claim that they were left out of the decision-making process of a decision so fundamental to the existence and function of the nation itself. After all, if they do not have a stake in such fundamental decisions as choosing candidates for the highest office, or membership in the EU, then do they have any stake in their nation at all?

Even with a primary election or referendum, such as the primary or Brexit, with such a low level of consensus and participation, can we truly say that we have set the standard high enough even though both decisions are in a sense “majority rule”? I do not think so.

To be sure, in both, every citizen of age had every opportunity to participate in the decision. It would be natural to blame the lack of consensus on those who didn’t vote. “Those lazy folks couldn’t even get themselves to the polls!” you might even say.
But when you get to thinking about it, was it really enough that a much greater number of people had at least the opportunity to consent to the decision?

For one, it is perfectly rational, economically speaking, to not vote. The probability that my vote is the one that tips the election and decides the candidate who wins is extremely small, but I still have to spend money on gas and give up time working in order to vote.

I still don’t think so. Here’s why.

For one, it is perfectly rational, economically speaking, to not vote. There are deep reasons for this, but in short it is that our expected utility of voting grows infinitesimally small when the number of voters is large, while the cost of voting is basically constant. In other words, the probability that my vote is the one that tips the election and decides the candidate who wins is extremely small, but I still have to spend money on gas and give up time working in order to vote.

More to the point, sometimes when you consider yourself caught between the Scylla and the Charybdis (i.e. “between a rock and a hard place”) you can choose neither of the two or select another alternative unlikely to win. It is of no difference whether it is another alternative that you choose that loses by plurality rule or whether you choose to abstain in a decision by majority rule. In this way, by choosing not to vote, one is actually voting—one is voting for another possible alternative: abstention.

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Thus, when we are considering the standard of consent necessary to make certain decisions in a democracy, we must consider both the consenters, the dissenters, as well as the abstainers. Democratic consent, even when given by referendum, is not justified without some sense of “quorum,” that is, how many participated in making the decision. Imagine, for example, if in an entire state, only ten people showed up to the polls in November!

Why should there not be a“quorum” for elections and referenda, while the quorum is ubiquitous for voting in smaller groups, such as Congress?

My guess is for the sake of expediency. Politicians have chosen to ignore that not voting is a vote in itself for their own benefit. It is not that, by not voting or voting for unpopular alternatives, you are, at least morally, “wasting your vote.” Rather, you have been disenfranchised for the convenience of majorities.

If there is one thing Democrats and Republicans can agree upon, it is how much they love majorities. Politicians want us to believe that any decision—even if it is morally reprehensible to some, and actually made by a rather small number of individuals—is morally justified merely because more people agreed to make the decision than disagreed.

If there is one thing Democrats and Republicans can agree upon, it is how much they love majorities. Politicians want us to believe that any decision—even if it is morally reprehensible to some, and actually made by a rather small number of individuals—is morally justified merely because more people agreed to make the decision than disagreed.

Furthermore, politicians, left unchecked, would likely want to make many more decisions in our lives than they do now. They justify the decisions that should be made individually by the sanctity of their majorities, either by proxy, appointment, or—don’t be fooled by their tricks —even referenda.

So, maybe majority rule is not the standard bearer of democracy. We should be weary when politicians coerce us to choose between the Scylla and the Charybdis. We should demand that decisions that affect every one of us, such the Primary or Brexit, should be held to a much stricter standard of consent. Finally, we should demand that decisions that affect only ourselves should be left to ourselves, and ourselves alone.

Hans Riess recently graduated from Duke University with a degree in mathematics. He is interested in the relationship between mathematical models of choice and strategies for effective governance.