The Political Economy of the Virtual Wall

January, 2021

Besides using physical walls to attempt to restrict government across the U.S.-Mexico border, the United States government has also spent billions of dollars on the construction of "virtual walls." A virtual wall, sometimes called a "virtual fence" or a "smart wall," uses advanced surveillance technologies to detect and deter unauthorized border crossings.  The following explores the political economy of virtual walls with focus on two negative consequences—the entanglement of private defense firms with government through crony relationships and the violation of the liberties of both non-U.S. and U.S. persons.

Infectious Diseases and Government Growth

May, 2021

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the world adopted a variety of policies expanding the scope of their power. Some of these effects are immediate and observable. Others, however, are not readily observable and only appear over time. We explore these long-run consequences with specific focus on how institutional changes can persist after a public health crisis ends, causing increases in state power. These changes have the potential to undermine the liberties of future persons and disrupt bottom-up, non-state processes of social coordination. We illustrate these dynamics with three historical case studies—(1) The bubonic plague in Cape Town, South Africa in 1901 and its influence on apartheid, (2) The emergence of modern zoning and urban planning in the United States in response to the cholera, typhoid, smallpox, and tuberculosis epidemics, and (3) Compulsory vaccination in response to the smallpox epidemic of 1902.


Polycentric Defense

September, 2020

Orthodox economics has long treated defense from threats foreign and domestic as a public good requiring provision by a central nation-state. Yet both theory and history show how polycentric defense systems, with dispersed groups of people searching for context-specific solutions, have provided collective security.

Economic Pathologies of the State

December, 2020

What is the appropriate role of the state? The list of desired activities that many people want the state to perform is potentially endless and includes national defense, policing, dispute resolution, healthcare, humanitarian aid, welfare, environmental regulation, the funding of scientific research, immigration control, financial regulation, monetary policy, park maintenance, health and safety regulation, and drug prohibition, among many others. Proponents of these and other roles for the state tend to assume that the state’s taking on a task guarantees that it will achieve the desired end. From this perspective, if the right people are in charge and they have the appropriate resources and “political will” to accomplish a task, they can succeed. Where markets and voluntary association may fail, the state can fill the gap, provided its leaders are good, resolute people with the right ideas and resources to implement their plans.

Drones, Development, and Discovery

April, 2020

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, offer significant potential benefits for development. This is especially true in environments where transportation is costly, such as mountainous regions or areas with poor infrastructure. Throughout Africa, people currently use drones to address diverse challenges. For example, in Rwanda, mountainous “remote areas…are difficult to reach, especially during the rainy season.” This prevents healthcare providers from obtaining blood in a timely manner. Blood has a short shelf-life, so slow deliveries can result in blood going to waste. With patients’ lives at stake, the Rwandan government hired Zipline, a Californian start-up, to deliver blood using drones. Ghana’s government pursued a similar strategy by hiring Zipline, also to deliver blood. The country now uses drones to deliver a range of cargo including birth control and medical supplies. As these examples illustrate, drones serve multiple functions that improve people’s lives and, as a result, the commercial drone market in Africa is predicted to continue to grow. According to one projection, the commercial drone market in the Middle East and Africa will generate $218 million in revenue in 2022, up from $82 million in 2020. Given this, it is crucial that governments adopt regulatory frameworks that incentivize innovative uses for drones.

Sounding the Alarm

February, 2019

What role do whistleblowers play in democratic politics?  This paper answers this question by analyzing the political economy of whistleblowing within the democratic political insitutions.  Democratic politics is charaterized by numerous principal-agent problems creating significant space for opportunism.  

Gifts as Governance

September, 2019

How do gifts relate to formal and informal institutions? Giving gifts, especially in the form of anti-poverty aid, opens the givers to a serious social dilemma: the Samaritan's dilemma. We explain how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints uses a mixture of formal and informal governance to provide sustainable social welfare programs that avoid this dilemma. These institutions not only govern aid arrangements, but also provide governance across the entire Church community, encouraging religious adherence and broad-based participation.