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Pierre Lemieux

Articles by Pierre Lemieux

Is the Fall of Unemployment Good?

4 days ago

Is it good news or bad news that the rate of unemployment in the United States has gone back to a 50-year low of 3.5%? It depends on what caused it. Discussing this question will lead us to look at numbers that some may find surprising.
Figure 1 and Figure 2 show the evolution of the unemployment rate and of total (non-farm) employment under the previous and current administration. There appears to be little difference. If we calculate the average (compounded) quarterly growth of employment between, on the one hand, the first quarter of 2009 and the first quarter of 2017 (the Obama administration) and, on the other hand, the first quarter of 2017 and the third quarter of 2019 (the Trump administration thus far), we get a quite small difference with respectively

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Public Health, Parens Patriae, and Sex

15 days ago

In a Thursday post about public health, I mentioned the parens patriae legal principle, which justifies the state to act toward citizens like a parent toward his or her children. One of the readers who commented, JK Brown, quoted a 1910 book, Popular Law Making, by Harvard law professor Frederic Jesup Stimson:
You can have regulation of the hours of labor of a woman of full age in general employments, by court decision, in three States (Massachusetts, Oregon, and Illinois) … The Oregon case, decided both by the State Supreme Court and by the Federal Court in so far as the Fourteenth Amendment was concerned, after most careful and thorough discussion and reasoning, reasserted the principle that a woman is the ward of the state, and therefore does not have the full

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The State as Our Father (or Loving Mother)

18 days ago

Current attacks on the Food and Drug Administration for not regulating e-cigarettes enough remind us of an inconvenient truth. In the mind of public health activists and many medical experts, the state is to adult citizens what parents are to their children. This fiction has even been consecrated by a century-old old legal principle.
The Wall Street Journal of yesterday (“Researchers Say FDA Has Fallen Down on E-Cigarette Testing”) reports that the current attacks against the FDA are of two sorts:
The Food and Drug Administration has come under fire for not moving quickly to address the health risks of e-cigarettes, but outside the public spotlight it is also under attack for not prioritizing study of whether those vaping products may well be an important way to

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The Basics: Anarchy and Public Goods

18 days ago

Should Socrates have drunk the hemlock? Should you obey the state? What is the state for? The economic concept of “public good” is crucial for economics and political philosophy and for answering that sort of question. Here’s a short introduction (with some further questions).
A public good (sometimes called “collective good”) is something for which all members of a group are willing to pay some price but for which it is impossible (or too costly) to charge a price to consumers. Whether or not the state is required for the production of public goods is what makes James Buchanan a limited-government liberal and Anthony de Jasay an anarchist, even if other considerations play a role (such as the effects of political competition).
The theory of public goods as today’s

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From Sewer Workers to Literary Men

21 days ago

Public health is an interesting area of research and political activism. Especially since the growth of industrial cities in early modern times, inefficient disposal of garbage and human waste has been known to favor epidemics of certain diseases. In the 19th century, it was also noticed than sewer workers were, quite understandably, more exposed to these diseases. The scope of public health was extended to occupational health.
This suggests a series of questions and considerations that public health activists seem to ignore (as they generally continue to ignore economics): Why sacrifice the health of sewer workers to an improvement of the general population’s health? Do we need a cost-benefit analysis to count the corpses? No, because sewage workers—contrary to,

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Milton Friedman

November 16, 2019

Today marks the thirteenth anniversary of the death of Milton Friedman. I am using this occasion to bear witness to the influence the Nobel economist had on my intellectual development as it had on the opinions of countless others. (See, for example, the testimony of my co-blogger David Henderson.)
When I was a graduate student at the University of Toronto at the turn of the 1970s, Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (University of Chicago Press, 1962) appeared as a suggested reading on our microeconomic theory reading list, after countless required articles. One of my classmates (who has since become a pillar of the Canadian academic establishment, if I am not confusing him with some other classmate) probably echoed the conventional wisdom among students in the

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The Rhetoric of the Paris Agreement

November 11, 2019

On November 4, the US government started the process of leaving the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (also called the Paris Agreement) by transmitting the formal one-year notification (“U.S. Formally Begins to Leave the Paris Climate Agreement,” NPR, November 4, 2019). A Wall Street Journal report (“U.S. Starts Process to Exit Paris Climate Agreement,” November 4, 2019) alluded to the official reason:
The U.S. has officially started the process of exiting the Paris climate agreement, citing an unfair economic burden posed on American workers and businesses, the State Department said Monday.
Leaving this agreement is a good idea, but for other reasons than that one.
As I confessed before, I am rather agnostic on climate change or, as it was

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Banning E-Cigarette Flavors

November 3, 2019

The state (the whole apparatus of sovereign government) does not reach decisions randomly at some sort of ritual coin-throwing ceremony. Given its claim as an ultimate monopoly of violence and its decision-making technology—in the cases of interest here: majoritarian democracy with its problems of collective action and voters’ rational ignorance—the state will be led, as by an invisible hand, to reach certain decisions and to avoid others. Resisting these built-in biases, if anyhow possible, presumably requires the support of strong non-state institutions and, from those in power, a deep understanding of the issues and problems involved.
As liberal institutions have been undermined by a century of power aggrandizement and as few individuals (but where are they?) in

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Giuliani’s Well-Deserved Disgrace

November 1, 2019

A story in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal throws light on the suspicious business history of Lev Parnas, one of Rudolph Giuliani’s helpers in the Ukrainian affair (“Giuliani Associate Left Trail of Troubled Businesses Before Ukraine Probe Push,” October 31, 2019). Mr. Parnas has been charged by federal prosecutors and Mr. Giuliani himself may be under investigation. In an article titled “The Unravelling of Rudy Giuliani (October 17), The Economist wondered how the former adulated mayor of New York City has come to be embroiled in the Ukrainian scandal with shady figures:
One answer—popular in New York—is that his mayoral successes were significant but exaggerated, and weighed by character flaws that have worsened over time. … In truth it is hard to find any

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The Autocrat and the Free Press: A Model

October 25, 2019

How should a rational autocrat or would-be autocrat deal with a free press? Rationality does not mean conscious, formal, or consistent rationality: the autocrat could be an entrepreneur with good intuitions. (In this model, I take “autocrat,” “dictator,” or “strongman” as roughly equivalent political beings.)
Being an autocrat is not easy. On the one hand, a free press is dangerous because it holds the autocrat to account by revealing to “his” people things that he does not want them to know. A free press also, at least indirectly, helps the organization of collective action against him, although social media are a new competitor in this field.
On the other hand, a free press is useful to the autocrat. It provides him with information about the conditions of life,

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Is It Sufficient to Just Believe?

October 17, 2019

What’s the importance of truth in economics? Has the presidency of Donald Trump taught us anything in that respect? By “us”, I mean we libertarians who have been tempted by populist enterprises. The Economist writes (“The Man Without a Plan: Donald Trump Suddenly Withdraws from Northern Syria,” October 10, 2019) that Trump’s advisers
are coping with a commander-in-chief who, according to his own former secretary of state, “is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says: ‘This is what I believe.’”
This characterization corresponds to what an observer can gather from listening to the President or reading his tweets. And it is independent of what one

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Emergency and Shortages in Altruistic California

October 14, 2019

Sometimes, one gets the impression that knowledge of economics has progressed. It can be guessed that proportionately fewer people than in the 17th century now think that trade wars are good (except within some backward governments). At other times, it seems that knowledge has not progressed much: take “price-gouging” laws, whose effects the California power blackouts illustrate again.
In rich California, the preventive power blackouts created many shortages, in the proper sense of non-availability of goods at current, legal prices:
Within the Bay Area blackout zones, residents were rushing Tuesday to buy food, water and electric generators–almost as if a hurricane were approaching. Stores including Rite Aid and Target across Oakland had run out of flashlights and

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Did Sustainable Atlas Shrug?

October 12, 2019

Ayn Rand’s 1957 philosophical novel Atlas Shrugged may not be a literary masterpiece or the last word in political theory, but it does hold some lessons. It tells the story of very productive and creative individuals who, harassed by politicians and bureaucrats, shrugged and retired in their own secret anarchic community. The rest of the world suffered.
These days, more than one million Californians have suffered from prophylactic power cuts meant to prevent falling electric lines from starting wildfires. Some fires did break out anyway. In Venezuela and other centrally planned countries, power cuts are staged for other reasons.
An editorial in the Wall Street Journal (“California’s Dark Ages,” October 10, 2019) writes about PG&E, the main electric utility

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Do People Want to Be Free?

October 7, 2019

The heroic resistance by many Hong Kong residents suggests that all individuals want liberty, an idea inherited from the Enlightenment. But is this classical-liberal and libertarian vision generally valid? Here are some related questions.
In the Fall issue of Regulation, I have an anniversary review of James Buchanan’s What Do Economists Do?, a collection of essays he wrote in the 1960s and 1970s. One of these essays, a lecture he gave at a 1978 Liberty Fund conference, makes an uplifting statement consistent with the classical-liberal and libertarian tradition (italics in original):
Man wants liberty to become the man he wants to become.
Buchanan apparently did not remain as optimistic. In a 2005 Public Choice article, “Afraid to Be Free: Dependency as

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The Pursuit of Nuttiness

October 2, 2019

There is much enthusiasm these days, from adults and adolescents alike, for the pursuit of nuttiness. Consider two instances.
One instance can be found in the environmental crusade, as explained by Gerard Baker in the Wall Street Journal (“St. Greta Spreads the Climate Gospel,” September 20):
The High Church of Environmentalism has acquired many of the characteristics of its ecclesiastical predecessor. An apocalyptic eschatology warns that we will all be consumed by fire if we don’t follow the ordained rules. The notion that it is our sinful nature that has brought us to mortal peril—from the Original Sin of a carbon-unleashing industrial revolution to daily transgressions with plastic bottles and long-haul flights—is as central to its message as it was to the

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American Sanctions: Why Foreigners Obey

October 1, 2019

Why are international sanctions decreed by the US government obeyed by the targeted “sanctioned persons,” who are foreign nationals generally out of reach of penalties from American authorities? The answer is simple but apparently unknown to many people. The sanctioned persons are not expected to do anything to obey. What the sanctions do is to prohibit Americans (as well as nationals of third countries) from dealing with the foreign sanctioned persons (which include individuals and entities), and the criminal penalties target Americans.
Sanctions are like tariffs or embargoes: they first hit the very subjects of the sanctioning government in order to affect the foreign targets. The embargo of 1808-1809 provided an advance example.
On September 25, the US

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Trump’s UN Speech: An Introduction to Politics and LGBTQ

September 26, 2019

The speech delivered by President Donald Trump at the United Nations on September 24 provides a good introduction to politics. I recommend reading the actual transcript or watching the speech, not because it is especially surprising–many politicians say similar things in similar grandiloquent speeches–but because it is caricatural. It exemplifies many phenomena: collectivist political speech, the default philosophy in political discourse, and state propaganda through false or misleading statements. Let me give a few examples, starting with the last point.
In his speech, Trump said:
The United States, after having spent over two and a half trillion dollars since my election to completely rebuild our great military, is also, by far, the world’s most powerful nation.

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The Problem of France

September 16, 2019

The explanation may look too simple, but it is very likely the correct one. The problem of France is not wine, literature, or the sensuality of the whole country. The problem was illustrated by a French government minister a couple of days ago. Alexis de Tocqueville and other observers already pinpointed the problem as it sailed unchanged from the Ancient Regime through the democratic governments that followed the devastating revolution of 1789. The problem is the French state.

On Thursday, Bruno Le Maire, Emmanuel Macron’s minister of the Economy and Finance, attacked Libra, the tame and regulation-friendly cryptocurrency that Facebook is trying to launch. Le Maire fears that Libra could lead to “an eventual privatization of a currency” and to many other problems

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Power to the Children and Hail to the State!

September 11, 2019

Three dangerous aspects of the relationship between children and political power are worth noting. First, children have been getting more and more political influence—that is, influence on making other people move under the threat of government guns. Greta Thunberg is their current face. The 16-year-old Swedish girl is waging an international campaign for environmental control that lead her to sail (literally) to the shores of America without the carbon footprint of flying. She was already demonstrating when she was 15. In America and elsewhere, high school students regularly participate in demonstrations in order to try to impose their preferred political solutions on others—including on their parents who pay for their schooling. Parents bring their toddlers to

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Is the State Your Father or Your Mother?

September 7, 2019

The problem of the relations between the state and the individual was illustrated by a short Twitter exchange with a frequent contradictor of mine. He tweeted:
One of those general moral/political rules is the social contract, that Libertarians routinely deny … Or if there is such a contract, it is with the globe, thus justifying sacrificing the interests of the country of your birth that raised you.
I responded:
Oh your country raised you? Is ze/hir your father or your mother?
There was a mistake in my reply: I should have simply written “ze” instead of “ze/hir.” I admit I am not very much on top of that. Of course, anybody might use any noun or pronoun while referring to zirself, although I would deny that ze has the right to impose hir preference on others,

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The Purpose of a Gun Is Not to Kill

September 2, 2019

If the purpose of guns were to kill, cops would not be allowed to have them because, in civilized countries contrary to James Bond movies, they don’t have a license to kill.
A tool or instrument, observed Friedrich Hayek, cannot be defined outside of human purposes. For example, the definition of a hammer must include what most people want it for, that is, as the online Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us, “for pounding.” In his 1942 Economica article “Scientism and the Study of Society” (reproduced in his The Counter-Revolution of Science), Hayek noted:
Take the concept of a “tool” or “instrument,” or of any particular tool such as a hammer or a barometer. It is easily seen that these concepts cannot be interpreted to refer to “objective facts,” that is, to things

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Why Turkeys Are an Endangered Species

August 28, 2019

The truth is, turkeys are not an endangered species. If they were endangered and fell under Appendix 1 of the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), their trade would be forbidden and grocery stores could not sell them. Around 17% of the world turkey production is exported (see also the data from the USDA). Why aren’t turkeys disappearing since more than 800 million of them are eaten every year in the world? To ask this question is to start understanding the misrepresentation in CITES.
The Economist used to understand the problem. The March 6, 2018 issue explained (“Trade Bans and Conservation: Call of the Wild”):
The obvious economic explanation is that the over-exploitation of animals and plants is an example of

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Rights as Government Power and the Kiss of Judas

August 25, 2019

As many analysts have noted, including Anthony de Jasay, the idea of rights is slippery, for it can mean that everything not specifically listed as a right is forbidden to ordinary citizens. A related way to turn the modern idea of rights on its head is to claim that the state or the rulers have specific rights opposable to individual rights. We just had an illustration of this, not in Papua, but in America itself.
On Friday, escalating his trade war with China, president Donald Trump tweeted:
Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China.
A Wall Street Journal editorial commented:
Order? Somebody should tell Chairman Trump this isn’t the People’s Republic of America.
Guess what? Trump is probably correct.

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Self-interest and Capitalism Are Not Synonymous

August 22, 2019

“I am in favor of self-interest and thus of capitalism. It follows that I may legitimately judge any public policy according to whether or not it furthers my personal interest.” This is a paraphrase of what an intelligent Twitter correspondent of mine seems to believe. Although he does know something about business and economics, he is completely wrong on that point.
It is not because one favors self-interest that one must support capitalism. (I take capitalism in the sense of free markets or economic freedom.) Socialism and its extreme of communism are also based on self-interest, both in the sense that many or most who support such systems believe it is in their self-interest to do so, and in the sense that individuals living under those regimes continue to act

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And They Want to be Sovereign!

August 18, 2019

Under the title “The U.K. Banned a Cream Cheese Commercial Due to Gender Stereotypes,” Reason Magazine journalist Ben McDonald reports:
The first ads to fall prey to the U.K.’s new ban on gender stereotypes in advertising are tepid spots for Philadelphia Cream Cheese and Volkswagen. The law, which is enforced by the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), went into effect in June … The ASA said it received 128 complaints regarding the cream cheese ad and three complaints about the car ad.
It’s worth reading the whole story. Reason Magazine, which used to be a sympathetic libertarian voice, has become an essential source of information about the absurdities and dangers of statism and our authoritarian culture.
I know that some Brexiteers honestly believe that

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Ethnic Studies and Hxrstory: Not Doubleplusgood

August 17, 2019

In his last book, The Fatal Conceit, Nobel Laureate economist Friedrich Hayek seemed too pessimistic on the future of civilization. But when one looks at the current project of a mandatory Ethnic Studies class for California high school and Cal State students (“Ethnic Studies May Soon Be Mandatory. Can California Get It Right,” August 13, 2019), some pessimism is warranted.
Hayek believed that traditional, evolved morality formed the basis of a civilized society. He was referring to rules of property, freedom, justice, exchange, privacy, and such. (He pointed out that some moral rules, such as those related to sexual mores, may need to change because they have outlived their usefulness: he was a classical liberal more than a conservative.) His pessimism came from

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El Paso etc.: A New Behavioral-Economics Bias?

August 14, 2019

Over the last few decades, behavioral economists have found rational limitations or biases that, they claim, prevent individuals from pursuing their own good. State agents who intervene to correct individual biases, however, are typically not subject to biases that would prevent them from implementing the common good. (See my recent Reason Foundation paper.) But what if the state instead fuels dangerous individual biases?
Consider the “Big Chief bias,” a new bias that, I suggest, behavioral economists should add to their long list. It describes the tendency of many individuals to blindly follow the big chief of the group—tribe, nation, race, party—they identify with. If the state fuels this bias, the consequences will likely be more detrimental than they would be

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A Simple Economic Question About Guns

August 14, 2019


Aug 14 2019 at 8:32am

Why would they?  I think we can make a large list of places they don’t/haven’t targeted yet, and it doesn’t seem particularly illuminating.  Why not dog shows? Or Pokemon conventions? Or yoga retreats?
I think it first makes sense to classify what seem to be the basic motivations for mass shootings as far as we understand them.  I should note that I do my best to avoid much reporting on mass shootings, so completely possible I’ve missed something here, but I think we can broadly put motivations into 3 buckets.
Animus towards a particular institution or set of people.  I think a lot (but not all) school shootings fall into this

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Reflections on an Interview with Bernie Sanders

August 12, 2019

If you watch the interview of Bernie Sanders by Joe Rogan, which has been clicked close to eight million times, you will find that the Vermont senator and presidential candidate looks honest and persuasive. One reason is that he has been a politician for nearly all his life, but there is more than that.
One thing is that he stands on the shoulders of two centuries of socialists. He is promising lots of goodies: free college, free health care, free dental care, higher wages at no cost (nobody will lose his job), protectionism, a ban on assault weapons but no confiscation of the millions already owned, saving the earth, no oil, more income for everybody except the corporations and “the billionaires,” rebuilding communities, retrofitting buildings…
This looks like a

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Are Trade Wars “Good and Easy to Win”?

August 6, 2019

“Trade wars are good and easy to win,” President Donald Trump famously tweeted on March 2, 2018. (His circumstantial qualifications do not matter because they are based on a trade-balance fetish.) Anybody with reasonable knowledge, or perhaps even just a good intuition, of economic theory and history would beg to differ.
Adam Smith knew something about economics and economic history. In fact, he knew more than nearly all his contemporaries and more than Mr. Trump and his ignorant or sycophantic advisors. Smith was a moderate classical liberal, although very radical compared to the garden variety of today’s conservatives and “liberals.” He did not benefit from the future development of economic analysis that his own work would launch. He believed in exceptions to a

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