November 13, 2002
Libertarianism II: Internal Contradictions
In the last essay I argued that libertarianism has not been well-argued because it exists more as creed than philosophy of governance. In this essay I will argue further that libertarianism in theory and practice evinces a self-contradictory view of man. As a result, libertarians are largely ignored both by the political classes and by average citizens.
Most libertarians believe in some version of public choice theory, which suggests that government grows because state officials: 1) want more money, power, and prestige; and, 2) spread the costs and concentrate the benefits of government (except when targeting unpopular minorities). The latter insures that citizens will not oppose government, either because they are direct beneficiaries, or because the costs of organizing people to eliminate a particular program far exceed its cost to the individual. In short, libertarians largely accept the economic model of man as a rational maximizer of personal utility.
The libertarian model of social change, however, is to convince citizens (mostly by use of logic and data) why they should oppose big government. In other words, while their explanatory model assumes that most citizens are rational maximizers, their political model assumes that people can be talked out of their own self-interest.
I'm not saying this expectation is misplaced. The economic model of man doesn't do a good job of predicting things like the American Revolution, so we shouldn't let it constrain us from hoping citizens will rise up and return their government to its Constitutional boundaries. The inconsistent libertarian model of man, however, (and more importantly, the failure to recognize it) has two very costly consequences for the libertarian movement.
First, by portraying government officials as simple-minded vote and budget maximizers, it ensures a steady drumbeat of shrill attacks that demonize agencies and officials. As a result, the choir is entertained while key audiences are alienated. This is a recipe for ensuring perpetual work for libertarian essayists and think tank wonks. It is not an effective recipe for social change.
The second consequence of not recognizing the self-contradictory libertarian view of man is that it leads to the wrong kinds of messages. If it is true that most people believe it is not in their self-interest to oppose government programs, then appealing to them with logic and data is a losing proposition. If you have concluded that it isn't worth spending five dollars to buy a ten percent chance of saving one dollar, then I won't change your mind with a math lesson. But this is precisely what many libertarians do. They focus on the cost of government, its inefficiency, its abuses -- but their own model of human behavior posits that government grows because the majority of citizens believe that the costs of opposing it outweigh the likely benefits.
Libertarians also talk about the costs of inaction (the state will grow), but have virtually nothing to say about the benefits of acting, or, more specifically, about the probabilities of winning. Remember, the economic model implies that every potential actor adjusts the perceived benefit of action by the odds that his action will produce a desired outcome. This yields what economists call an "expectation." Well, the very model employed by libertarians posits that the expected cost of opposing the state exceeds the expected benefit. Until libertarians can show that the expected benefit of action makes it worthwhile, they will not, by their own logic, persuade significant numbers of citizens to adopt their agenda.
Unless, that is, they are willing to use a language other than logic (which defeats them by their own reasoning) or rights (which is either irrelevant or easily opposed by alternately contrived individual philosophies). To borrow a phrase, libertarians need a language of poetry, as opposed to a language of calculus. There are very few decent libertarian poets, however. Most of us with an interest in politics have been buttonholed by a pedantic libertarian overly eager to set us straight on how the bastard statists are persecuting pot smokers and tax dodgers. But how many of us have had a conversation with a libertarian who can describe the encroachment of the state in a way that makes the average citizen ready to pick up a pitchfork (and not as a handy means of self-defense in case the libertarian lecturing him comes completely unhinged)? Better yet, how many libertarians have painted a compelling picture of the libertarian society?
I'm sure some of you right now are thinking "Ayn Rand!" I could be wrong, but I believe you are out of touch with human beings. I know about the 1991 survey of readers which listed Atlas Shrugged as second only to the Bible in terms of influence. What most people forget is that all of the books after the Bible were, according to the Library of Congress, a distant second. (Unfortunately, there is no data I can find on how the sample was drawn, or what the actual responses were.) In any event, Rand's portrait of utopia is most compelling to healthy young people without children, and to old curmudgeons with an overly exaggerated sense of their ability to create value.
In short, libertarians do not know how to talk to normal people. They can talk to the tech-savvy, to the politically conscious who aspire to high incomes, and to students of history who are exceedingly well-grounded in a philosophy of rights. Unfortunately, some portion of the other 99% of society must be persuaded as well. To be fair, the Libertarian Party website has essays that sound much better than listening to the typical libertarian talk. But words not spoken often matter more, and even the well-designed Libertarian Party site makes little reference to things very important to people, like community and faith. Libertarianism in practice largely consists of a homogeneous group of people talking to one another about a narrow set of things that matter most to them (legalized drugs, lower taxes), and hoping that the rest of America will wake up and elect them to office.
Libertarians can fairly ask at this point for my alternative. What, in other words, should libertarians be saying? I'll discuss this in the essays to come. In the next essay I will consider an additional problem, which is that libertarianism not only has no viable model for taking power, it also lacks a model for maintaining power.
Posted by Woodlief on November 13, 2002 at 09:14 AM
Posted by: Llana at November 13, 2002 5:58 PM
My Long-Winded Response can be read here, if anyone is interested.
I agree with the assertion that libertarians need better PR. It's hard to articulate the abstract concepts we favor. It's difficult to convince people to give up the government support they've been taking for granted for their lives. It's formidable just to get the half of the country which doesn't vote off it's ass; changing the minds of the rest of the country runs into blind political dogma, apathy, and responsibility adversion.
I disagree with Tony's "public choice theory" examples, mainly because I think there are better reasoned and less cynical ways to explain why government grows.
Still, I anticipate the next installment :)
If you haven't read it yet, take a look at Brink Lindsey's post on where he belongs in the political spectrum. Sorta on topic.
Posted by: Charles Hueter at November 14, 2002 2:33 AM
"I will consider an additional problem, which is that libertarianism not only has no viable model for taking power, it also lacks a model for maintaining power."
Hm. As an ex-leftist who's now sort of in the twilight zone between libertarianism and traditional conservatism, I don't have any answers to your thought provoking comments. In my admittedly limited reading of libertarian writings I haven't seen a lot of pragmatic discussion of these issues.
One intriguing thing I read recently was "How to Destroy the Enemy Class: A Manifesto for the Right" by an Englishman named Sean Gabb.
"The purpose of this manifesto is to discuss how England might be taken over and indefinitely held by the political right...We should abolish functions, destroy records, sell off physical assets, and sack people by the tens of thousand...even if we did lose an election, the Enemy Class would face an administrative mountain before it could re-establish itself. It could repeal all our acts of abolition, but this would no more bring back the abolished institutions than repealing the Government of India Act 1946 could bring back the Raj. The buildings and other assets would have been sold. The more effective workers would have disappeared into other employments. Above all, the records would have been destroyed. An hour in front of a shredding machine can ruin the work of 20 years; and we would have been feeding these machines day and night. All correspondence, all adjudications and other decisions, all internal memoranda and personnel records - in short, everything that gives effectiveness to a bureaucratic institution - would have irretrievably vanished. The Enemy Class might re-enact the statutes under which, say, English Heritage had operated, but would have nothing more to start with than a name, a bitterly contested grant of the taxpayers' money, and a few dozen filing clerks too useless to have found jobs elsewhere. At the very worst for us, it would take the Enemy Class a generation to get back to the position it now enjoys."
Gabb describes himself as an old fashioned English liberal or Whig, but he does seem to have a strong appreciation for traditional values and has thought about how libertarians and conservatives could profitably cooperate in a viable political strategy.
I was particularly intrigued by his insistence that focusing on ending the welfare state or state education too early would be a mistake; a wiser strategy being to wreck or abolish the institutional structures which support and employ the defenders of left welfare statism.
His remarks on charities are telling.
"The most prominent charities - Oxfam, the RSPCA, the NSPCC, and so forth - are run and staffed by the Enemy Class. They wrap themselves in the mantle of selflessness while pushing an almost wholly political agenda. As they are private bodies, it might not be advisable to shut them down by direct means. But we should reform the charity laws, so that the only organisations able to claim charitable status would be those unambiguously devoted to feeding soup to tramps and looking after foundlings."
I'd like to see someone apply a similar analysis to the American scene: I don't have the knowledge or time to do so, unfortunately.
The Manifesto can be read at:
Posted by: Joseph at November 14, 2002 1:47 PM
"The second consequence of not recognizing the self-contradictory libertarian view of man is that it leads to the wrong kinds of messages. If it is true that most people believe it is not in their self-interest to oppose government programs, then appealing to them with logic and data is a losing proposition. If you have concluded that it isn't worth spending five dollars to buy a ten percent chance of saving one dollar, then I won't change your mind with a math lesson. But this is precisely what many libertarians do. They focus on the cost of government, its inefficiency, its abuses -- but their own model of human behavior posits that government grows because the majority of citizens believe that the costs of opposing it outweigh the likely benefits."
The costs of opposing a particular government expenditure do tend to outweigh the likely benefits. However, there is still logic to the libertarian position. If you work to elect people who are committed to downsizing the government in general, and not simply oppose this or that government program, then there is a chance that you can help bring about a situation where everyone's pet program gets slashed at once. Still a tricky proposition, but once you establish the principle that every government expenditure is wasteful until proven otherwise, you can (in theory) reach the happy state where you can give up whatever pet benefits (special tax breaks, subsidies, etc) you get from the government in exchange for everyone else giving up their pet benefits, and nearly everyone comes out ahead.
The problem is that we haven't established that principle yet, and trying to oppose each wasteful expenditure one by one runs us smack into the "public choice" problem that you've pointed out. Clearly a different approach is called for, but it doesn't require a suspension of logic, a willingness of people to vote against their own interests, or any internal contradictions.
Posted by: Kenneth Uildriks at November 17, 2002 8:46 PM