A Disturbing New Trend?

Those of you following the news have probably heard that the implementation of the portion of the Affordable Health Care requiring large employers to provide health care has been postponed by a year so that its effects and feasibility can be further assessed.  For those of us who follow constitutional news, this should not be of any surprise.  This action is just the latest in many which reflect a new and perhaps disturbing trend in constitutional law where by the executive branch is exercising more control over what laws it chooses to enforce.

In a perfect world, laws are to be created by the legislators, and the executive branch proceeds to enforce said laws.  The executive branch is really not supposed to have any discretion in enforcement of the laws not within the powers and duties outlined to it by the legislator.  But one of the trends that has been developing under Obama’s administration is the executive branch exercising greater discretion in which laws it enforces and how.   I see this as probably the most troubling development for the constitution under Obama, more so than perhaps those activities associated with drones or the NSA.  However, even more troubling is that it is hard to blame this completely on Obama as there does seem to be a dynamic developing where this is actually becoming a new norm.

Obama certainly has no trouble picking and choosing with laws.  When he took office, he notified the Justice Department, that regarding medical marijuana laws, the federal government would not arrest individuals who, though in violation of Federal drug laws, were legal under state laws (he then subsequently changed his mind, and then changed it again, and now with several states having outright legalized it, there is a degree of ambiguity coming from the administration about what it plans to to).  However, federal drug laws, which were enacted by the legislature, clearly say that the federal government should have been enforcing those law against medical marijuana facilities, and that under any interpretation of the constitution the Executive branch not only has the ability to do this, but the obligation.  Certainly the Executive branch has the discretion regarding funds and feasibility of enforcement of the law, if enforcing a certain law (like the prohibition of marijuana) carried with it high costs and logistical impracticability which took away from the government’s ability to enforce other, more important law, the president can certainly order executive officers to put more priority to the enforcement of those more important laws.  However, for a president to refuse to enforce a law purely out of discretionary, non-logistical reasons, it is really an act of the executive branch legislating, and hence constitutes an abuse of discretion by the executive branch.

But when Obama did this, nobody cried foul, liberals are sympathetic to medical marijuana because they generally do not support the harsh drug laws, conservatives are sympathetic to it because they generally support state’s rights.  Because of this, nobody actually tried to challenge Obama’s decision, because most people believed that it was in general good policy.  But the responsibility of creating good policy is supposed to be the legislature’s.  In other words, in the perfect world, if our federal drug laws regarding marijuana are bad policies, congress should go back and change the laws to correct these imperfections.

Then of course a series of laws were passed by Obama, including the banking regulations under Dodd-Frank, and the Affordable Health Care Act.  Both of these laws were passed rather hastily, and done under the understanding that congress would come back and amend it after committees could fully explore their effects.  Dodd-Frank, in many ways, was simply regulation for the sake of regulation and done because after the 2008 crisis, everyone was in agreement that something had to be done to keep this from happening again, and both conservatives and liberals agreed that a reform in the banking laws was the best way to go (even if they disagreed as to what reforms needed to be done).  Though Dodd-Frank does have some good regulations, there are other parts of it which are contradictory or unclear, and certainly needed to be addressed before enforcement.  Obamacare too contained many complicated, sometimes contradictory provisions.  The Senate passed it so that it could get these reforms in place, but with the understanding that obviously it would have to be amended in the future to tinker out some of its problematic features.

But then, in 2010, a wave of congressional elections brought in a new crew of tea party legislatures to Washington.  These individuals had a radical agenda, and sought to bring about radical reform.  Their new attitude was not merely to disagree with policies they didn’t like, but to do everything in their power to repeal them.  As such, the use of the filibuster has been greater under Obama than all the other president’s in history combined.  Washington came to a complete gridlock, and could barely even pass a budget without it turning into some historic showdown.

This created a problem for Dodd-Frank and Obamacare, because the gridlocked Congress has been unable to make any amendments to them.  Instead, the tea party legislatures have called for their outright repeal, and rather than see them corrected to function better, they simply have refused to compromise to any degree, completely holding up the entire process and demanding that they get their way.  However, the behavior of these obstructionists has been quite unreasonable, the Democrats, as predicted, have not caved in to their radical demands, and instead both groups have been in a perpetual staring contest to see who blinks first.

We are now dealing with an instance where our legislature is quasi-suicidal, as members of congress have shown their willingness to plunge the nation into great harm in the name of demanding reform.  Things like the sequester, which had for decades been used as a simple incentive to encourage agreement (as the understanding was that congress would never be stupid enough as to never let this actually occur) have actually now gone into effect.  Budget showdowns have pushed the government to the brink of an unnecessary default.  For whatever reason, the tea party believes that there is a level of great urgency to this which justifies obstructionist behavior that actually brings harm to the nation in the short term, perhaps under the belief that in the long term it will be good for the country and constitution.

But there is very good reason to believe that in the long term such behavior will be bad for the country and the constitution.  Unable to get Dodd-Frank amended, the executive branch has been withholding enforcement of nearly 2/3 of its provisions.  This is because the executive branch realizes that many of these provisions in Dodd-Frank will bring harm to the economy if they are enforced, and should be amended to be more functional.  In a perfect world, the legislature would set up committees, call in experts and economists and figure out the best ways to amend the law so that it does not cause any harm.  However, this is not a perfect world, instead the legislature has refused to do any of this and instead put large sweeping demands on the country.  Thus, something as simple as amending banking regulations, is used as collateral for things which are wholly unrelated like getting rid of the EPA.  This is of course because the obstructionists see themselves as under a duty to bring about wide sweeping change, and that they are not just against individual laws they think are bad, but against what they see as an entire idea of what the government should be doing.  Thus, seemingly unrelated laws are seen as the same in their mind, as they both are part of what they view as the enemy.  Because they are both part of the obstructionist’s idea of what “the enemy” is something like financial reform is seen as being the same as environmental law, despite the fact that they are two wholly separate things.

Now the ideas of the obstructionists are in fact absurd, and dangerous.  And the executive branch realizes this.  However in the meantime they are forced to deal with the fact that they are dealing with a congress which actually wants to see bad laws enacted which will hurt the economy, because the obstructionists unreasonably believe that it will somehow help to change the tide and bring about a radical new era in American history.  In reality the most likely thing it will do is only make things worse.

So, stuck between a rock and a hard place, the Obama Administration has chosen to take matters into its own hands, and instead simply refuse to enforce laws which it knows will hurt the country.  He has done this with a number of laws including Dodd Frank and now with the latest decision regarding Obamacare.  At the same time, the Administration is using its regulatory powers to the fullest extent, as the gridlock in Congress prevents the legislature from doing its normal job of being able to react to changed conditions and alter government practices to ensure that laws are being well made.  Obama has been using the power of executive order and regulation to the fullest extent that he can.

Just like Obama’s decision to not enforce federal marijuana laws, the actions regarding Dodd-Frank and Obamacare have not been met with scorn by either parties, despite the questionable legality of such actions.  Conservatives are happy because they simply don’t want Dodd-Frank or Obamacare to be enforced, and so any delay in enforcement is seen to them as a vindication that these laws are bad.  Liberals don’t want to see the country be harmed needlessly because the government is forced to enforce bad policies.  And it is hard for any reasonable person to disagree with this, after all, nobody wants to have bad policies being enforced.

But this doesn’t mean that this dynamic is a good thing for the country.  The executive branch has the important job of enforcing the laws made by congress, but as the commander in chief, the president also has the job of protecting the country from harm.  If we find ourselves in a position where the legislature is actively trying to harm the country, the president is in a constitutional conundrum, and one can argue that whether he enforces harmful laws and arbitrarily hurts the country, or if he refuses to enforce certain parts of certain laws, he may be acting unconstitutional in either decision.  Certainly, enacting purposely harmful laws is a terrible and dangerous precedent, but refusing to enforce laws is also a dangerous precedent.

Because now what is happening is that congress is actually undermining its own authority and giving more authority to the presidency.  A future president could decide to radically up the enforcement of federal drug laws, or outright refuse to enforce them at all, making it so that citizens could have their legal duties and situations changed purely by presidential decree, rather than by legislation.  A future president could decide to enforce all of the provisions of Obamacare or Dodd-Frank, or perhaps not enforce any of them.  Even more scarily, a future president may decide to halt Planned Parenthood, or the EPA, or even the military, all without any congressional approval.  In effect, you would have the president legislating solely from his own discretion, which would destroy the balance of powers constitutional governance is meant to bring about.

And finally, the day may come when the president actually changes the substantive portions of a law solely through his presidential powers.  A time may come when Obama decides that it is simply not worth it to wait for Congress to change the terms of Obamacare or Dodd-Frank, and he may simply expand his regulatory powers to change the actual rules of the acts themselves.  This would be devastating for democracy and put us into a very serious and dire trajectory.

The obstructionists see themselves as trying to restore constitutionalism and correct what they see as a deviance from the principles and rule of law on which this country was based.  However, thus far, they have only succeeded in creating a dynamic whereby we only move further away from that ideal.  If the legislature is obstructionist and refuses to participate in its role in governance, the executive branch is faced with the decision of either letting the whole thing fall to ruins, or to take control and maintain stability.  And the executive branch will always choose the latter option, and indeed, the latter option is probably the best and most constitutional decision given the situation it is placed in.  However, for the long term health of our Republic, this is a dangerous road to go down, and I fear that it may constitute the end of American Democracy.  However, rather than having it turn into the free market, decentralized paradise that the obstructionists hope for, in all likelihood it will instead turn into a dictatorial, centralized direction whereby even more power is consolidated into the executive branch, rather than less.  This coincides with a deepening divide among the public, which is a recipe for disaster, as we are facing the possibility where a presidential election can radically shift policy from one extreme to another depending on who wins.  The genius of the balance of power created in the constitution is that it makes it so that no matter who is elected president, there are enough checks to power that it will not result in a radical shift in either direction.  However, if that balance is lost, then we face the possibility that a radical president could decree his way into transforming us from a Republic to a much riskier form of government.  If the legislature is able to come to its senses, and once again be able to work together and cooperate to make and amend laws, then perhaps this will only be a blip in American history, and will not constitute a long term trend.  However, if a gridlocked and dysfunctional congress becomes the new norm for congress, then I predict that we will see new norms develop for the presidency as well, and future generations may live under a government which is far different, and far more dangerous than the one which we grew up with.  Either way, this is something which all citizens should be concerned about.


10 responses to “A Disturbing New Trend?”

  1. Roman P. says :


    Wouldn’t authoritarianism be better than a democracy in which a major group of legislators seeks to act against the state itself? You are curiously non-hobbesian here, though I perhaps understand your concerns that the next president might be a wingnut.

    • thehobbesian says :

      Yes, the original Thomas Hobbes certainly would have said that authoritarianism is better than a legislature determined to wreak havoc. Hobbes himself lived at a time when the parliament was actively challenging the king, as well as trying to pass laws on things like heresy and speech, some of which were directed at people like Hobbes. Ironically Cromwell and the Kings were more liberal rulers than the parliament was, which is probably why Hobbes was so skeptical of democracy and favored monarchism, his experience with dictators and kings was far better than what he saw from the legislature. I would say that authoritarianism is not bad if the ruler is a good ruler, but even Hobbes acknowledged that things like succession are problematic for monarchies. Though I will say that as a man of the 21st century I have to diverge from Hobbes in that I do see how a government with separated powers is able to function. Though if Hobbes could be brought to today’s time he would probably tell me I am wrong and use the unruly congress as evidence of that.

      However, given that America’s system has managed to function for over 200 years with a track record which is better in almost all ways (economically, civil peace, individual freedoms) than places like Germany and Russia who did have authoritarianism, I am not ready to turn my back on democracy quite yet, and am willing to gamble that it can work out. Keep in mind that I still think its a good thing for Obama to do what he can given the situation, as ultimately he is the commander in chief and is in charge of watching over the wellbeing of the country. And what he is doing, though constitutionally questionable, is probably what is best for keeping our country afloat. Perhaps Hobbes would be advocating that Obama establish himself as president for life to avoid uncertainty! Which leads me to my next point, you are correct, my main concern is not so much in Obama having more power, but the fact that we elect a president every 4 years. If we elected presidents to 20 year terms it may not be as big of a deal. But since we elect them every 4 years, you are more at risk of getting a real asshole in office. And America has had assholes in office before, but due to our balanced system we can survive them. But the trend really has been since Bush that the executive branch is becoming more powerful, in terms of scope of what he could do Bush was the most powerful president in US history, until Obama came along, and chances are the president after Obama will be more powerful still. Though as a Hobbesian, I would say that there may actually be many benefits to having a stronger executive branch. But the traditionalist in me remains worried about what the future may hold with us clearly going into this direction. What I would prefer would be if we had a congress who respected the president’s authority and worked with him or her to pass laws, but I guess you can’t always get what you want in this life.

  2. Buddy Rojek, CPA says :

    On Azizonomics you wrote ” I am not aware of it occurring endogenously from governments printing it to solely be used domestically to boost people’s incomes and such”

    Read Mein Kamp, for Hitler’s perspective on the hyperinflation problems in Germany. From that I read other information which does back his claims.

    In a nutshell the Unions were paid to encourage the workers to strike (And pay the workers to live) to stop output in the Ruhr valley (They did not want to repay in commodities in regard to the Versailles dents owed) Borrowed money from the USA Bankers paid the workers not to work. Here Hitler describes the Weimar Government getting Germany in Debt to the US Bankers. Robbing Peter to Pay Paul so to speak. The result zero output and skyrocketing prices.

    • thehobbesian says :

      Generally I don’t consider Hitler to be the most trustworthy authority on things. But I do think that this can be true and still accept that exchange rates were the primary driver. The fact is that history shows that it is extremely closely related to the German government purchasing foreign currency to pay off debts. And even Hitler seems to be saying that it really came from German debt anyways, its just that in his usual right wing manner he chooses to blame it on unions. But the German government had a number of debt problems in the early 20s, the Kaiser chose to fund WW1 entirely through bond sales rather than through any increase in taxation, and Versailles piled on even more debts onto the German government, and if Hitler’s union analysis is right, that makes for even more debts. Also the hyperinflation didn’t actually begin until shortly after the German government paid its first major payment for Versailles. The conditions on Versailles required that they make the payments in foreign currency as well. So I think that there is still a pretty solid case that what really triggered it was the German government purchasing US dollars and other foreign currency to pay off debts which dramatically altered the exchange rate, triggering a currency run which was disrupting the economy, and that the government was stuck in a position where they had to keep printing more money just to keep the economy afloat. Eventually they had to jump ship and create a new currency, which is really the only way out of a hyperinflation scenario. But it really can be traced to purchases of foreign currency. And when looking at other hyperinflation scenarios like Zimbabwe it seems that sovereign debts and purchases of foreign currency are a major part of the hyperinflation dynamic.

  3. Unlearningecon says :

    – Completely Off-Topic –

    I recall some time ago you had an excellent diatribe on my blog against Gary Becker and the effect he had on law enforcement on one of my posts a while back. Do you have some good sources on this, or on the impact of other areas of Becker’s work (or similar)? I’d be grateful if you did.

    • thehobbesian says :

      First of all, if you are planning on writing an exposé on Gary Becker I stand behind you 100%. In regards to his effect on law enforcement, he has been quite influential in that field. The relationship between academia and policy is a little less explicit with criminology than it is with economics. For example, we don’t really need to look very hard to see the impact someone like Keynes or Friedman had on policy because often times they were working directly with the highest levels of government and advising them. However, with the legal system its a little bit different. Most countries only have one treasury and one central bank, so if they take the advice of an economist and change policy you can see it and clearly trace it back to whoever suggested it to them. However, in a country like America, most criminal law is crafted at the state and local level, even down to towns and cities themselves. Thus, as opposed to something like public finance where there are only a handful of entities, in a country like America there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of separate jurisdictions, each crafting their own policies in dealing with criminal law. So when you try to see the impact a criminologist has had on criminal law, you have to look at it in more of a macro-historical sense in that you see trends emerging in jurisdictions bit by bit, and you try to trace these trends to attitudes in academia and a few influential individuals who helped to drive those attitude changes. This is because criminologists don’t generally directly advise the justice system in the way that economists directly advise government officials(the one exception to this is the prison system where criminologists and sociologists do directly advise prison officials on a regular basis). If there was an Adam Smith or Keynes of criminology, it would probably be Bentham since his work has had a profound impact on the penal system, but other than Bentham, you aren’t going to see as many direct links like you do with political economy. Anyways, lets get to Becker.

      Gary Becker entered the world of criminology with his famous essay “Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach” Published in 1968(here’s a link to it http://www.nber.org/chapters/c3625.pdf). In the essay, he applied economic analysis to the area of criminal law, as you can see in his essay, he essentially attempts to break down criminal law and essentially turn it into a mathematical equation, a true Benthamite analysis. And like Bentham, he kind of gets carried away with the whole thing. Anyways, Becker tries to argue that criminal policy should be looked at the same way economic policy or business decisions are made, to try to assess the costs of crime and adjust policies accordingly. The offenses which are costlier to society get more money, while the ones which aren’t get less, law enforcement, argues Becker, should be looked at in economic terms with efficiency and cost/benefit being the key. In many ways this was the beginning of the “law and economics” crusade which was blossomed in the 70s and gave rise to the god awful Public Choice theorists. In short, Becker believes that criminals are acting rationally, and that by increasing the costs of the crimes you will cause many people to decide not to commit crimes. And there is some truth to that, all of us can think of instances where we had the ability to commit an act which was illegal, and maybe even wanted to, but did not because we were afraid of the punishment. However, Becker takes it one step further by adding another dimension to it, which is that law enforcement should focus more on those crimes which are the costliest to society. The implications of this are quite simple however, a robbery in a wealthy area is costlier to society than a murder in a poor, crime ridden neighborhood, therefore, it would make sense that law enforcement value justice more for the wealthy area than the poor area. To make up for this, one could conclude that you simply divert resources away from the lower cost crimes and simply amp up the punishment, so as to deter criminals, and use law enforcement resources more on the higher cost crimes, all with the goal of being as efficient as possible. To be fair, Becker does warn that moral and ethical concerns should trump this stone cold analysis at times, as a complete following of this approach would seem to lead to unfairness, especially amongst socio-economic classes in society. However, Becker’s plea for moral appropriateness is overshadowed by his intricate and complex models which suggest the complete opposite of a justice system based on moral awareness.

      His essay had a profound effect on the field of criminology, you can simply type in “Gary Becker effect on criminology” into google and find numerous articles attesting to this (most of them kissing his ass, but nevertheless acknowledging his impact). As for his impact on criminal law itself, as I noted, criminology and criminal law have a different relationship than economics and economic policy, I don’t have any sources of Becker directly advising law enforcement authorities (though he probably did if you are willing to put some time into investigating this). However, by observing trends in American law since his essay one can trace these trends to the influence of people like Becker. The War on Drugs for example, started with Nixon a few years after Becker exploded onto the scene of criminology, and though Becker himself probably opposes drug prohibition, the war on drugs does incorporate much of Becker’s ideas on criminal law. Penalties for drug possession and distribution were greatly increased, and more attention was given to its enforcement. Because drugs are a bigger problem among the lower classes, more attention was given to stopping them in poor areas than in rich areas since the fact is that drug use among the poor is of higher cost to society than drug use among the rich. The reason is quite simple, drug use does incur economic costs, but the wealthy are able to absorb those costs easier, while the poor cannot and thus those costs are externalized more often than for rich drug users. The result of course has been that poor people and minorities (often one in the same) are arrested and convicted of drug crimes in FAR greater rates than among the rich. American drug laws are incredibly racially disproportionate in their enforcement and have done great damage to the African American community. Of course Becker will probably try to weasel his way out of this by simply saying that he doesn’t support drug laws, nevertheless, his ideas were used by law makers in crafting it.

      We also saw the advent of mandatory minimum sentences in the years following Becker’s entry into criminology. These took away judicial discretion for setting the sentences of convictions for things like robbery and imposed harsh mandatory minimum sentences. This too directly coincides with Becker’s analysis that decreases in enforcement can be made up for by increasing penalties. However it also incentivizes people to fight in court or take a plea deal to avoid convictions, and the fact is that people who can afford good lawyers will avoid these harsh sentences more than people who can’t. And just like the drug war, the poor and African Americans got the short end of the stick with this.

      We also saw the advent of three strikes laws in the years subsequent to Becker, these laws are incredibly harsh, and hold that if someone is convicted of the same felony 3 separate times they automatically get an incredibly harsh sentence (in most states it is 35 years to life, or a life sentence). This too has hurt the poor more than the rich and when combined with drug laws has led to a far higher rate of incarceration.

      A far higher rate of incarceration has also happened in the years subsequent to Becker, America now has more people in its prison system than the Soviets ever had in their Gulags at any given time! Literally 1 out of every 100 Americans is currently living in a cage in our jails and prisons, it has cost America billions and has helped to foster a culture of criminals (prison is often referred to as “con college” because you often leave with more knowledge about how to be a criminal than what you came in with). This can be traced to the models of Becker which suggested heavier sentences to make up for decreased surveillance. I haven’t run the numbers, I suspect that in the long run the sheer costs of running such a large prison system is greater than or equal to the costs which would have been incurred had we simply had more surveillance and lower penalties. Outside of the financial costs, the social costs of our prison system have been immeasurable. Millions of African American families are single parent because as many as 3 out of 4 African American males are carted off to prison at some point in their life (dependent on the community, some states are not as bad as others). Instead of having father figures the gangs and criminals became the father figures for many impoverished youth, graduates of con colleges were the professors and the youth were their students.

      You also saw the social effects of Becker’s ideas take their toll in the 70s and 80s. Many inner cities were turned into warzones because less enforcement was directed at them, places like Harlem in NYC were incredibly dangerous places in the 70s and 80s, and the crime rate in NYC was very high (at one time as many as 8 out of 10 New Yorkers had been mugged at some point). This only fueled things like the drug trade, leading to even more people filling our prison system and creating an insidious feedback loop. However, in a pure cost benefit analysis, it made sense to have crime hotbeds in poor areas, which would be contained by greater enforcement in rich areas to keep wealthy areas safe and sound. Economic efficiency taken to an amoral extreme which Becker realized and warned about even in his earliest writings on the subject. But even if he warned about these moral concerns, he still created the methods which enabled to it.

      Now to be fair, you can’t blame this all on Becker, there were many players involved (for example, the god awful libertarian Thomas Szasz http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Szasz) and as I said criminal law is complex and not as direct as economic policy is. However, Becker was at the forefront of a movement which included people like those in the Public Choice school and the Chicago School, culminating in Reaganism and Thatcherism which promoted looking at all of society through such a lens. Wikipediaing or googling any of the laws and trends I described should give you plenty of good sources about this trend. Also, it should be of interest that Becker runs a blog with Judge Richard Posner, who is probably the most influential federal judge in America outside of those on the Supreme Court. Although Posner is better known for his work in commercial law than criminal law, this should give you an idea to just how much sway Becker has in the American legal community. Posner by the way is another one of the Chicago School “law and economics” crowd and is a huge advocate of using “economic”(aka, marginalism) analysis for crafting legal policy.

      Thankfully by the mid 80s things had gotten bad enough that new ideas started to emerge. Mayors of New York like Ed Koch and Rudy Guliani began to approach law enforcement in a new way, putting more resources towards stopping the minor, less costly crimes under the idea that maybe such an approach nips these problems in the bud. Contrary to Beckerian conclusions, more resources were put towards surveillance than punishment, and while policies like stop and frisk have gotten lots of criticism from liberals, the statistics clearly show that things like that are correlated with lower crime. The crime rates in cities dropped significantly in the 90s, and in fact the murder rate in America dropped as a whole in the 90s and today is far lower than what it was in the 70s and 80s. Freakanomics tried to say that it was because of abortion, but personally I think that Freakonomics needs to be taken with a grain of salt and probably has more entertainment value than anything else. Increased gun control laws, greater survellience, and easing of harsh penalties all were occurring during these times. And the results have been far more positive than what was seen when the law and economics crowd was at its influential peak. There is a growing consensus that the homo economicus approach of Becker may not be the right way to look at criminology, and that maybe we should return to the moral and philosophical roots of criminal theory, crafting policies not based simply on cold economics, but on the equity and empathy that the justice system is based on.

      If you ask me, Gary Becker has made a career out of taking homo economicus and applying him to every social analysis. I believe his biggest problem is that he doesn’t fully understand cost calculations and the things which influence it, which leads him to conclude that people are determining costs in a way which translates into pure economic reasoning. Of course this is a problem of all marginalists. But Becker is a symbol of the damage which neoclassical economics has done to society as a whole. Everyone is familiar with the damage they have done in purely economic realms like trade policy, regulatory process and the actions of central banks, but less people are aware of what they helped to create in areas outside of economic policy. There is no doubt that much of the racial disparity, high incarceration rate, and rise in crime we saw the past 50 years can be linked to the ideas coming out places like the Chicago School, which although were not directly encouraging it, were fueling the ideological basis and academic justification behind it. And I do think it would be beneficial if more people were aware of this because these ideas, though no longer at their apex, are still around, and there are still people who are advocating for them.

      There are other areas where Becker can be criticized as well. For example, in his work on family economics, he suggested that social security causes parents to invest less in their children since they wouldn’t be as dependent on them financially in old age because of SS payments. This seems to contradict the overwhelming evidence that investment in future generations for things like education has skyrocketed since the advent of the welfare state. Also, I think one can argue that if SS were repealed, much of the operating income of adults would be devoted to caring for their parents, rather than being invested in their children or going into savings (similar to what I said in my article about charity and welfare), so it is highly questionable whether children actually see any more money and investment like Becker claimed they would, in fact I think they would get less investment and have more pressure to get into the workforce at a younger age and forgo things like education which can ultimately raise their income and socio-economic status in the long run.

      Becker also had a very curious view on policies to fight racial discrimination. He said that racism acts as an added cost to things, for example, if I am hiring an accountant and I am prejudiced against blacks, if I have a choice between a white accountant and a black one who are of equal ability, I will still view working with the black one as a higher cost because of my prejudice, even if economically this is not the case. I actually agree with Becker on this and think that it is a reasonable view. However, then Becker goes on to say that in a free market, firms would be able to see through this cost illusion and eventually hire minorities, thus things like the Civil Rights Act are unneeded. I personally find this to be absurd, because in a racist society (like the American South in the 1960s) those costs are REAL costs for businesses. If people are viewing minorities as an added cost, a firm which hires more minorities would be seen as costlier, and people will avoid it in favor of ones which are all white. It is not a cost illusion but a real cost, with real economic effects on businesses, no different than hiring a highly unpopular person to your workforce, it will cost you business and cost you profits, firms will avoid it. This is why most blacks were kept out of professions like law and medicine and sales which involved direct contact with customers, and instead blacks were often relegated to behind the scenes work like distribution or factory work, kept far away from the contact with the public. And of course those jobs always paid less. The Civil Rights Act forced businesses to change their ways, and it was the only thing that brought more equality, had Becker been right the problem would have fixed itself long before the 60s. Thankfully Becker’s work on racial discrimination has been far less influential than his work on criminology.

      Anyways, I hope this helped you get a better understanding of Becker’s influence and points you in the right direction for some more in depth sources on the matter. I will warn you that there are very few sources which I found that were as critical of Becker as I am, for the most part everyone seems to be kissing his ass. However, even the sources praising Becker will say that he has played a major role in the theories and attitudes of law the past decades, though they will shy away from the links between Becker and the negative developments which have occurred the past 50 years and mainly focus on the positive ones. If you are planning on writing an article about him, I wish you luck and hope that you take no prisoners, the man needs a good smack down.

      • Unlearningecon says :

        Thanks a lot for you response, will be very useful in my upcoming post! 🙂

      • thehobbesian says :

        No problem, I look forward to reading it. I feel that much of the thing with Becker is indicative of the greater social debates of our time, and show that they spill out much farther than economics. In fact, I think the whole reason why political economy is so divided is because it is not just about the best way to deal with things like interest rates and trade policies, it’s part of a greater debate about society itself, one which ultimately boils down to aesthetics about what kind life styles people should be living and what kind of inefficiencies and dysfunction should be tolerated. The differences between Keynes, Marx and Friedman were not just based on how well they understood economies, because they were all experts on the subject and were more or less equal in their understanding of it, the differences between them were rooted more, in my opinion, in their aesthetic tastes of matters at the peripheral of the economic realm, that is to say, what life should be like for people and what society should be like.

      • Unlearningecon says :

        I have a few specific requests, if that’s OK.

        You’ve said:

        “What actual criminologists (not Gary Becker) later discovered was that the way to reduce crime is to increase enforcement and decrease penalties.”

        Do you have any studies for this?

        And for examples of enforcement being reduced, but penalties increasing (aside from mandatory minimum sentences)?


      • thehobbesian says :

        Yes, what I was talking about is called “Situational Crime theory”, it is based on the idea that criminals value opportunity more than the consequence and thus more enforcement and prevention strategies should outweigh increased penalties or Beckyer’s meta cost benefit analysis. It has gotten more influential from the 90s onward, coinciding with many of the policy changes I talked about earlier. Here are some links

        Click to access situationaldevelopmentfactsheet_nov2011.pdf


        Hope it helps!

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