Tag Archives: Africa

Should SEC Be in Charge of Foreign Policy

Last week, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in SEC’s favor on the Conflict Minerals rule. The rule requires public companies to track their sources of coltan, cassiterite, wolframite, gold and derivative minerals. These so-called “conflict minerals” are often used to finance violent armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). SEC ‘s rule aims to reduce funding that flows towards these armed groups. Yet despite its laudable goals, the rules will likely fail due to poor analysis:

  • The rule fails to examine the extent of the problem. The rule seeks to reduce funding for armed groups in DRC but fails to examine whether the identified minerals actually constitute a major source of funding for these groups. If they are not, targeting other sources of funding could be more effective.  Similarly, if the armed groups can easily shift to alternative funding sources (DRC is rich in minerals that are not on SEC’s list), the rule’s benefit would be rather limited.
  • The rule presents no alternatives. One can easily think of other ways to reduce armed violence in DRC, including military assistance to DRC’s government or US-led operations to disrupt arms flows into the country. It is difficult to say whether SEC’s approach is more effective when the rule presents no alternatives that its decision could be compared to.
  • The rule fails to estimate benefits. In contrast to its elaborate discussion of the rule’s costs, SEC devotes less than a page to describe the rule’s benefits (only to acknowledge that it is unable to quantify the benefits due to lack of data). While few would expect SEC to have internal expertise on armed conflicts in Africa, the agency’s failure to solicit expert opinions from external sources is inexcusable.
  • The rule makes no plans to measure its effectiveness. In light of the SEC’s admission that it lacks data to estimate the rule’s effectiveness in reducing violence in DRC, one would expect the agency to identify specific metrics to measure success and to establish plans to collect data on the rule’s progress. Yet, SEC seems uninterested in whether its rule will actually produce positive outcomes.
  • The rule makes no plans for retrospective review. Even the best-intentioned regulations can lead to unintended consequences. Given that SEC knows so little about the area that it is regulating with this rule, the chances for things to go wrong are even higher. In fact, some commenters suggested that the rule’s burdens may fall mostly on ordinary citizens and not the armed groups that the rule targets. It is possible that the rule may do more harm to ordinary Congolese than good. Since SEC makes no place to reexamine the rule, it will likely remain in place regardless of its merits.

Troublingly, the court sided with SEC, singing off on the agency’s virtually non-existent economic analysis. My colleague Hester Peirce commented last week:

Although the court did not believe that the SEC had to do cost-benefit analysis for this particular rule given that Congress–not the SEC–made the public interest finding for this rule, the court signed off on the SEC’s analysis. The court reasoned that the SEC’s consideration of efficiency, competition, and capital formation sufficed; “to suggest that the [Securities] Exchange Act mandates that the SEC conduct some sort of broader, wide-ranging benefit analysis simply reads too much into this statutory language.” The need to assess benefits, according to the court, is particularly weak when–as here–a rule’s benefits are supposed to be humanitarian.

 The court’s assertion that humanitarian benefits need not be assessed is startling. One can reasonably argue that benefits of reduced violence cannot be easily monetized. Yet, the reduction in violence can and should be measured. How else would SEC know if its rule is having any impact?

Proponents of better economic analysis are often criticized that they only care about costs. As this example demonstrates, a better analysis can lead to a better rule – the one that actually saves lives.

Why are there no libertarian countries?

In a recent article in Salon, Michael Lind posed a question:

Why are there no libertarian countries? If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?

He (or more likely his editors) called it the “question libertarians just can’t answer.” The headline of E.J. Dionne’s piece in praise of Lind’s article was more direct, calling the question “Libertarianism’s Achilles’ heel.”

Before addressing the substance of the question, it is worth noting that Lind seems to have misunderstood a central tenet of libertarian thinking: Few libertarians claim to have any superior knowledge of how to organize society. More often, libertarians come to their world view precisely because they think that no one could know how to plan the affairs of others.

Setting this aside, though, is the absence of a purely or even mostly-libertarian state proof that libertarian goals are unworthy? I don’t see how. No one thinks that the existence of poverty makes charity an unworthy goal. Why should the existence of widespread government intervention in private affairs make individual freedom an unworthy goal?

The key here is to appreciate the distinction between an optimal position and an equilibrium position. Optimality—whether it is defined as Pareto efficiency or justice as fairness—is a normative description of the degree to which we think a condition is ideal. Equilibrium, on the other hand, is a positive description of the way we think the world will actually turn out.

The two can be one and the same, as when economists predict that the outcome in a competitive market will be efficient. But the two needn’t be the same.

And in fact, a long list of libertarians and libertarian-leaning thinkers seem to have believed that liberty is emphatically not a stable equilibrium. Perhaps the most famous statement to this effect is Thomas Jefferson’s lament that “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, & government to gain ground.” More recently, in his introduction to Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman averred that “Freedom is a rare and delicate plant.”

Perhaps these statements can be dismissed as rhetorical flourishes. But formal public choice models quite often predict sub-optimal political equilibria. And libertarians frequently cite these models in support of their limited government perspective. So, like a great deal of progressives, it turns out that libertarians seem to think that “what is” is not optimal and that we should strive for, well, progress.

Much of the rest of Lind’s piece is dedicated to Mauritius, a small economically-free island nation off the coast of Africa. Mauritius often ranks high in economic freedom while, Lind notes, it has comparatively high infant mortality and comparatively low literacy rates. From this sample of one, he concludes:

Libertarians seem to have persuaded themselves that there is no significant trade-off between less government and more national insecurity, more crime, more illiteracy and more infant and maternal mortality, among other things

This is not the way social science–or any science–should be done. Do you know someone who regularly exercises yet seems to struggle with a weight problem? If so, this is hardly a reason to conclude that limited exercise is statistically significantly related to excess weight. It might be an indication of a broader relationship. But wouldn’t you want to gather more data and examine it in light of your existing theories?

Fortunately, economic freedom indices such as the Economic Freedom of the World Index (EFW) by Gwartney, Lawson, and Hall, have permitted researchers to do just that. And as it happens, each of the “trade-offs” that Lind names has been examined. Let’s take each in turn:

  • National insecurity and economic freedom: David Steinberg and Stephen Saideman examined the relationship between government involvement in the economy and ethnic violence in a 2008 article published in International Studies Quarterly.  In their words, “Our theory of insecurity predicts that free market economies reduce violent ethnic conflict by reducing fear and insecurity. We present statistical analyses, using data from the Minorities at Risk project and the Index of Economic Freedom, showing that government involvement in the economy increases ethnic rebellion. Our results suggest that the overall size of the public sector is less important than government interference with the market allocation mechanism.”
  • Crime and economic freedom: Edward Stringham and John Levendis explored the relationship between economic freedom and homicide in their chapter in the 2010 EFW. They found economic freedom and homicide to be negatively correlated. Here is Figure 6.1:

economic freedom and homicide, 2010 EFW

  • Illiteracy and economic freedom: A number of authors have looked at the relationship between economic freedom and literacy, often focusing on male/female inequality in literacy. In her 2006 study in Independent Review, for example, Michelle Fram Cohen used a Gender Empowerment Index that included disparities in female and male literacy, life expectancy, and income.  She found economic freedom was positively related to the female empowerment index. Michael Stroup also looked at this relationship in his 2007 article in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. He, too, found a positive association between economic freedom and female literacy (he also found economic freedom was positively associated with life expectancy, fertility, and contraception use by women). Then there is this chart in the 2011 EFW (click on the chart to make it larger):

economic freedom and literacy, 2011 EFW

  • Infant mortality and economic freedom: This relationship was charted in the 2007 EFW:

economic freedom and infant mortality, 2007 EFW

  • Maternal mortality and economic freedom: Stroup visited this question in his chapter in the 2011 EFW. Here is the chart, which also shows the relationship between economic freedom and adolescent fertility:

economic freedom and maternal mortality

For an overview of the entire literature, check out Lawson and Hall’s recent article in Contemporary Economic Policy (here is a non-gated working paper version). They reviewed 198 articles using the EFW as an independent variable. In their words:

Over two-thirds of these studies found economic freedom to correspond to a “good” outcome such as faster growth, better living standards, more happiness, etc. Less than 4% [MM: 8 articles] of the sample found economic freedom to be associated with a “bad” outcome such as increased income inequality. The balance of evidence is overwhelming that economic freedom corresponds with a wide variety of positive outcomes with almost no negative tradeoffs.

———

Update:

Here is Jonah Goldberg’s response to Lind. Many others have had excellent responses as well.

 

Trust and the Long Shadow of Slavery

Back in October I wrote about trust, describing it as an important lubricant of commerce. I then talked about new research by Omar Al-Ubaydli, Daniel Houser, John V. Nye, Maria Pia Paganelli and Xiaofei Pan. In an experimental setting, they found that subjects primed to think about markets tend to be more trusting than those who are not primed to think about anything in particular.

In sum, I wrote:

Progress depends on the extent of the market, the extent of the market depends on trust, and trust can be facilitated with familiarity with markets.

Now, in the latest issue of the American Economic Review, Nathan Nunn and Leonard Wantchekon present some disturbing new results on trust and the long shadow of slavery:

We show that current differences in trust levels within Africa can be traced back to the transatlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades. Combining contemporary individual-level survey data with historical data on slave shipments by ethnic group, we find that individuals whose ancestors were heavily raided during the slave trade are less trusting today. Evidence from a variety of identification strategies suggests that the relationship is causal. Examining causal mechanisms, we show that most of the impact of the slave trade is through factors that are internal to the individual, such as cultural norms, beliefs, and values.