Tim Harford at BHTV

Today on Free Will I chat with Tim Harford about his new book The Logic of Life.
Tim's book isn't just another foray into pop econ. It's a fascinating and entertaining overview and synthesis of a good deal of the most important recent research in economics. I wasn't expecting to discover work that would help me on my inequality project, but I did.

29 thoughts on “Tim Harford at BHTV”

  1. “My diagnosis is that many libertarians prefer to live in a place where it easy to find others who share their individualistic and libertarian values over living in a place where they would actually be more free, but would feel more culturally alienated.”
    This rather makes it sound as though U.S. Libertarians are looking more for ideological conformity (other libertarians to hang with) rather than real freedom. Also, in regards to Canada’s cultural homogeneity, we have six functioning national political parties and two official languages.

    1. It’s not cultural homogeneity that’s the issue, it’s ideological homogeneity that is. The claim is that it is a platitude of Canadian politics that the government should be busy doing all sorts of things. That this is the default position in Canada, whereas, in the U.S., the default is not always that.
      And, yes, I think the suggestion that many libertarians would rather hang out with other libertarians than live in a different country that may be freer is a central point and criticism of Will’s post. But I don’t think that makes libertarians in any way different than any other group of politically engaged individuals. Remember all that talk about Democrats moving to Canada after Bush won a second time?

  2. “But I don’t think that makes libertarians in any way different than any other group of politically engaged individuals. Remember all that talk about Democrats moving to Canada after Bush won a second time?”
    Except that I thought Libertarians were supposed to be ideologically committed to maximum freedom. That was part of the definition of the term.

    1. BCL,
      My guess is that many libertarians (esp. on the right) are going to be wary about talk of maximizing freedom. Actually, I see it as kind of a dilemma:
      1. Accept the maximization of liberty as the goal, but define liberty such that it can only be reduced through the deliberate activities of other agents. Thus, you’re less free after I punch you in the face, but not less free if you accidentally fall down a well and break both your legs, and now can’t get out.
      2. Accept a definition of liberty that is more robust, so that the person who falls down the well is indeed less free than he was before, but deny the maximization of liberty as a goal.
      It’s a dilemma because the thin conception of liberty in (1) seems deeply implausible to anyone who isn’t already a libertarian. But (2), a robust conception of liberty — maybe we should call it autonomy — might obligate us to improve the autonomy of others, e.g. by helping the guy get out of the well, esp. if the overall goal is to maximize autonomy.
      In my opinion, this is directly connected to the thick/thin libertarianism debate. If politics has to be detached from deeper moral issues, like the nature and value of autonomy, this could provide additional support for a thinner conception of liberty.

  3. When talking about political attitudes and economic policy in Canada, there is one big outlier – Alberta. Alberta is markedly different from the rest of Canada in many ways. It is more conservative, much more economically free, and much wealthier than most of Canada. Albertans in general probably have more in common with Texans than they do with people from eastern Canada.
    Each year, the Fraser Institute publishes an index of economic freedom in North America, which ranks all the states and Canadian provinces together. The 2008 version can be found here:
    All of the Canadian provinces except Alberta are ranked at the very bottom of the list. Alberta, on the other hand, is ranked 2nd of all states and provinces when considering total government expenditure, and 8th when looking at local government expenditure.
    After the new rules and regulations pushed by Obama come in, and the new stimulus bill passes, I suspect Alberta will rise to the top as being the most economically free region in North America. And it also has the strongest economy in North America, and perhaps even in the world at this moment.

    1. I’m not sure what the studies say, but I lived in Alberta twice in the last 25 years. I certainly didn’t feel any freer or any wealthier! Maybe I wasn’t there long enough to get past the “cultural alienation,” but if told tomorrow we had to go back and live there again, I’d fight tooth and nail to avoid it.
      Some of us don’t mind a little human civilization and progress!

  4. Re: “If I look at actual indices that attempt, however imperfectly, to measure various freedoms, the U.S. and Canada come out pretty much identical on a classical liberal conception of freedom. And Canada comes out ahead on contemporary capabilities conceptions of positve liberty.”
    I’m much more concerned about the “classical liberal conception of freedom”. Some “conceptions of positive liberty” are actually reductions of liberty.
    As for “classical liberty” – Canada has higher taxes, more restrictions on guns, the “Canadian Human Rights Commission”, and more socialized medicine, and other sorts of limitations on freedom.

  5. Seemingly, Americans equate freedom with an entitlement to profits (and ordinance.) When it comes to caring for the health of my loved ones, I want the motivation to be an altruistic one to promote good health and preserve life, not to generate a profit in any way. From the Canadian side of the border, one clearly sees the conflict between profit and positive outcomes for ALL of your citizens. Sure, if you can pay the profoundly inflated costs born of runaway profits (and your private insurer doesn’t disqualify you from funding), you’ll likely get the best health care anywhere. If not. you die a miserable, suffering, premature death. If freedom means treating your fellow citizens as unworthy of care because of a lack of ability to pay, then I’ll take the Canadian/European model any day. Fortunately, I don’t find myself needing a gun, either, so I feel entirely at liberty to the extent I need to be here in the Great White North.

    1. The last thing I want for anything vital is to rely on altruism. I don’t trust the alutrism of farmers for food, and that is more important for good health and preserving life. Every attempt at removing the profit motive from agriculture has lead to famine.
      What makes you think that people in the health care industry are only there for alutristic reasons? Why do so many Canadian doctors leave Canada? Why doesn’t altruism reduce wait times for Canadian medical procedures?

      1. Everyone has their favorite way of using the internet. Many of us search to find what we want, click in to a specific website, read what’s available and click out. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because it’s efficient. We learn to tune out things we don’t need and go straight for what’s essential.
        This goal-oriented way of surfing the web is largely based on short-term results. For example, finding facts to write a blog post, doing a comparison before making a purchase and reading a news site to find out what’s happening right now.

    2. Even if allowing people to pursue profit is generally a bad thing (a bizarre idea), it is freedom. If you think reducing freedom will produce better results, then go ahead an argue that, but you aren’t making an argument relevant to the issue at hand (Is Canada freer than the US or is it the other way around?)

    3. If leftists who promote and then administer socialist welfare programs are such altruists, then please tell me, why are their government salaries, benefits and pensions so outsized compared to people with similar education and experience working in the “greedy” profit-oriented private sector?
      In fact all people are about equally greedy and equally altruistic. The trouble with government programs is that they are monopolies. This means that no matter how bad the service, no matter how overpaid the employees, no matter how pathetically outdated or irrelevant their organization, the public are forced to support it anyways, and will be thrown in jail or even killed if they refuse to support it.
      And who do these monopolies hurt more than anyone else? Poor people, of course. The rich can avoid crappy public schools and health care waiting lists by buying private services. The poor are forced to put their kids in lousy schools and wait for months to get treated for things like cancer and heart disease. And why is that? Because the “altruists” in the government decided that it’s a lot more lucrative in the long run to build up fat, highly-paid and unresponsive bureaucracies than it is to offer lean and cost-effective services. And the really funny thing is, it is because of “the poor people” that all these expensive, ineffective monopolies were created in the first place.
      The best way to fix health care, for example, is (1) do away with government funding, and (2) end the doctor licensing monopoly which is nothing but a cartel to give a small group of doctors sky-high salaries by severely limiting the number of practitioners. Health care is not inherently expensive. But monopolies ARE inherently expensive, wasteful and unfair.

  6. Will, would you care to point us to some substantiation of the core claim of this post, namely:
    “If I look at actual indices that attempt, however imperfectly, to measure various freedoms, the U.S. and Canada come out pretty much identical on a classical liberal conception of freedom. And Canada comes out ahead on contemporary capabilities conceptions of positve liberty.”
    Judging by the comments, and in my understanding as well, this is implausible.

  7. As a Torontonian, I find the discussion of cultural homogeneity here out of place. Anyone who has travelled to Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal would be amazed at the diversity of people and cultures. I would agree there is considerable ideological homogeneity: widesperad beliefs of freedom, tolerance and respect.

  8. I was raised in the US and moved to Canada in my early 20s, when I married my husband. At first I felt “cultural alienation,” but once I got through that phase, I truly came to appreciate the Canadian way of life. Americans seem nuts to me now.
    If there’s one thing I regret, it’s that Canada is becoming much more Americanized with respect to things like consumerism and placing profits ahead of other values, such as family. When I first came here, we didn’t have shopping on Sunday, let alone 24/7. And it was a huge hardship for me to bear. But after a while, I began to see just how ridiculous that was. Now we have Sunday shopping and lots of all night stores — but I stay home with my family. I learned something so precious moving to Canada — and maybe Canada lost something so precious as technology narrowed the gap between the two cultures.
    (Except Alberta — they always were crazy out there. Like Texans. Like a province full of George W. Bushes and Dick Cheneys. You have to stand and watch a bunch of rootin’ tootin’ Albertans go prairie dog hunting with handguns and fire crackers to know what I mean. Hilarious! Normally I’d object to this sort of animal cruelty, but I never actually saw them get a prairie dog and and it seems to amuse the prairie dogs.)

  9. @ Joyflc
    Those are all reasons why I despised living in Canada. Mindless consumerism and profits are under-rated, especially when all those nice toys such as Kindles, PSP’s, Palm Pilots, and iPods are placed out of your reach because you live in an economically and culturally stagnant backwater like Manitoba or Saskatchewan.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. Every time a store was closed on a Sunday, or a line at a supermarket was 20 people long because only 5 people are allowed to work in the whole store past 7pm, I wanted to scream and start driving south. And don’t even try to get anything done at a bank.
      Let people spend time with their families of their own free will, and I will consume, of mine.

      1. I can relate, Nicole. The first few years I lived here, I constantly felt that my rights and freedoms were being violated because it was 3 AM, dammit, and I had money to spend and no one would let me. Why, back home in Michigan, I remember going to a drug store on my way back home in the wee hours one morning. At 3 AM, I bought tampons, chips, soda, a couple record albums, and some brake shoes for my car. Now that’s America!
        But I was a kid then, in my 20s, newly married. At that time, I was what I bought. My consumerism was my self-esteem. Thank goodness I grew up!
        But with respect to people doing as they wish, I’d agree with you — except for one thing. People who work as clerks and cashiers in stores are often the least able to decide whether they work on a Sunday. The owners, the board of directors, the executives, the upper management of the store might choose to stay home on a Sunday to spend quality time. But the people providing you customer service usually have two choices: work or lose your job.
        It’s not that Canadians aren’t hardworking. I think they just used to be less brainwashed by the cult of consumerism than Americans were. When I first came here, Canadians were their families, their friends, their town.
        Sadly, I think you’d be much more comfortable up here now. You can shop ’til you drop. Our loss.

      2. That’s another thing I dislike about political discourse in Canada – classifying perfectly normal human behavior desires (or “consumerism”) as a pathology, and turning diminished expectations(“less brainwashed”) into morally virtuous behavior and using it as a stick with which to beat those who disagree with you.

      3. That isn’t a “Canadian” perspective–the comment pre-supposes that there is a significant difference between attitudes in Canada and the U.S. regarding consumption, which I highly doubt. I may be wrong, but I believe the negative attitude towards consumption largely stems from environmentalism. And that attitude will vary depending on subgroups considered (e.g., geographic, rural-urban, socioeconomic class, field of work, etc.).

  10. I don’t understand the post, because I don’t know what you’re talking about.
    Can you give specific examples of freedoms that exist in Canada and not the US, and vice-versa?

  11. I think people are mistaking a different ideological “starting point” placement for ideological homogeneity. It is not ideologically homogeneous, but rather, academia and other groups “begin” not only further on the left, but perhaps on a different axis. I say this as a rural PA transplant to Toronto. Ideas aren’t the same, they just come from a rather different basis which doesn’t necessarily ring true with the one us USians are used to.

  12. Canada: Average family spends nearly half its income on taxes: “The average Canadian family spends nearly half its total income on taxes, more than it spends on food, clothing, and shelter, according to a new study from independent research organization the Fraser Institute. The Canadian Consumer Tax Index 2009 shows that even though the income of the average Canadian family has increased significantly since 1961, their total tax bill has increased at a much higher rate.”
    Read the rest here: http://www.fraserinstitute.org/newsandevents/news/6643.aspx

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