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Friday, November 22, 2002

Libertarianism V: Rebuttals and Rejoinders

Well, I've seen my essays on libertarianism described as "intelligent" and "potshots." I'll settle for something in between. A number of smart people have responded to my thoughts, both in the Comments sections attached to each essay, and on their own sites. Here I would like to address, buffet-style, some of the smarter and/or more interesting rebuttals to my arguments.

The intelligent DC, among others, takes issue with the numerous smacks other commentators (including me) delivered on the issue of drug legalization:

"But doesn't the imprisonment of so many people for a voluntary act require some kind of response? Should it not be a cause of concern? And shouldn't more conservatives who supposedly worry about limited government think about how that government becomes even more invasive when it seeks to regulate private, personal behavior? In the face of so much empirical evidence, too, that the drug war is a failure, corrupting of the civic order, and so forth, the question shouldn't be why are libertarians worked up about the drug war, but rather why is most of the rest of the political spectrum silent."

I think he is largely right. My critique is not that this isn't an important issue, my point is that it has, fairly or unfairly, become tightly identified with the libertarian "brand." Insofar as it is a losing issue politically (someone in the comments pointed out that it appeals to young people, but they are the least likely to vote), libertarians ensure that they will never be able to do anything about it. If they were to build a political base by focusing on issues where they can gain traction, on the other hand, they might be able to do something about drug criminalization, and not just in the long long term; states and cities have avenues to reduce the bite of ridiculous federal drug laws, and they can also serve as proving grounds for the legalization experiment.

And if libertarians are intent on addressing this problem first, they can still be more strategic about it. The smarter ones are, focusing their energy on medical marijuana, which is the potential camel's nose under the tent.

Amsoapundit lays into me for telling libertarians what they already know, and for discounting their "powerful kinds of tools of analysis." The response to the first critique, of course, is that it is insufficient to know something -- one must learn from it. It is not at all clear that libertarians have learned from the overwhelming feedback that suggests they tend to be pedantic, provincial, uncritical of their own hypotheses, intolerant of dissent, and overly wedded to economic theory.

Amso is right that economic and Public Choice theory are powerful tools, but he betrays an ignorance of alternatives. Public Choice theory passes Milton Friedman's test by providing reasonable predictive power (bureaucracies tend to grow), but it doesn't provide explanatory power, because its hypotheses about the motivations of public officials are frequently wrong. This is problematic because there are alternative theories of government behavior that have equal or better explanatory power, and much more realistic postulates of individual motivation. Economists, in their congenitally provincial manner, are just now discovering this, though political scientists and psychologists have been showing it for several decades.

I make this point not so much to refute Amso as to make an additional point -- the libertarian allegiance to old economic theory contributes to its continuing demonization of government. Public Choice theory is popular among libertarians both because it makes prediction that suits them (government grows and grows unless you stop it), and because it characterizes the behavior of their enemies in a suitable fashion (they just want more power and prestige). An alternative model, say a path dependence approach (well-meaning people in a complex policy arena make errors that get locked in, leading to policy that nobody is happy with), doesn't scratch that itch. Public Choice theory does, but it also blinds its followers to potential solutions, while sharpening their tongues in ways that are ultimately unproductive.

Blabla fulfilled a prediction I made when I began these essays. Once when I wrote an op-ed for the Detroit News, I got an anonymous call to my home from someone with a smug voice who simply said, "You need to read Ayn Rand. I think it would help." I'm not sure if this is common in other ideologies -- read this book and then it will all make sense -- but I've heard it enough from libertarians.

In Blabla's case, the recommendation was that I read Ludwig von Mises. According to Blabla:

"Mises' utilitarianism is based on the fundamentals of human action, and it's no use to perform more "study." From a few basic axioms, most political questions can be logically answered."

I'm astounded that intelligent people can believe this. The Austrians were pioneers, and there is still much fertile ground in the interstices of their work. But to think that one can deduce answers for ordering an exceedingly complex system from the theoretical work of a reductionist logician-economist seems to require a deliberate suspension of one's reasoning faculties. Even Mises admitted in the first fifty pages of Human Action that his basic axioms of human action rested on the black box of human cognition, and called at the end for greater understanding of how this box works.

Mises also said this, which touches directly on my essays: "The flowering of human society depends on two factors: the intellectual power of outstanding men to conceive sound social and economic theories, and the ability of these or other men to make these ideologies palatable to the majority" (Human Action, p. 864, emphasis mine). Blabla is precisely wrong -- Mises' axioms can provide guidance about human action and some types of macro-behavior, but it tells us little about how to answer political questions, which concern how to move the body politic from position A to position B.

In many ways, Mises was one of the first complexity theorists, telling a story, much advanced by Hayek, about the creation of complex order from simple rules. An important lesson to draw from their work, however, is that small rules can have large, unintended consequences. Thus, in the world of policy change, they are of limited help -- they can point us toward better policy in general, but they cannot help us devise the tactics to get there.

If you disagree, then name one living free market economist who has helped the Soviet Union. Dozens of them flocked over there two decades ago, but they were able to provide little guidance beyond the well-known mantra: "property rights, rule of law, contract enforcement." These are ideal goals all, but they are little help when one is trying to sort out the transition.

After my essay addressing foreign policy, DC had these critiques, in helpful numerical fashion:

1. WWII - it's not profitable to debate this today, but suffice to say that in 1940 it was not clear at all that intervention by the US was wise or widely supported. The real problem, of course, was American intervention midway through WWI (followed by a subsequent withdrawal of power from the continent which set the stage for a resurgent Germany).

2. Civil War - who doesn't take into consideration the rights of blacks? The argument turns on whether war was necessary, not on whether blacks should've been enslaved. See Jeff Hummel's book for more.

3. Most sophisticated arguments I hear for non-intervention don't turn on some coercion principle, but rather are based on the view that intervention by gov'ts in economies and foreign states is a blunt instrument that often causes more harm than good, and resentment that leads to a backlash.

4. "Likewise comes the libertarian claim that American adventures in the Cold War were misguided. In this they display an ugly penchant for concerning themselves with the liberties of white Americans." Would this be the same "ugly penchant" that conservatives show when the complain about foreign aid to developing countries?

My replies follow DC's numerical arrangement:

1. The question is not whether it was readily apparent in 1940 that intervention was wise. The question is whether it was wise, period. I do appreciate your claim that American withdrawal from Europe after WWI helped lead to WWII (can't you get kicked out of the club for arguing in favor of American intervention?), but I think this is more of what I criticized in the essay: historical argumentation without a counterfactual. Lacking the ability to go back in time and re-run the experiment allows us to propose connections between causes and events that our knowledge of a complex world should make us recognize are questionable.

Perhaps a better method for bolstering the libertarian argument against armies would be to identify large, wealthy societies that survived, surrounded by hostile armed states, for extended periods of time. But wait, comes the libertarian rejoinder, the U.S. isn't surrounded by hostile armed states -- heck, our grandmothers could whip Canada. While the latter is likely true, the larger point is irrelevant, because it reduces libertarianism to a function of geography and time (i.e., the U.S. was at one time free from proximate threats, but in the nuclear/terrorism age this is no longer true). The other libertarian argument is that surrounding states are hostile because we intervene in their affairs. There is truth to this, but there is also truth to the reality that 1) totalitarianism doesn't produce wealth; while 2) dictators have no compunction about seizing wealth from their weaker neighbors.

2. Read carefully what I wrote: "Likewise comes the libertarian claim that American adventures in the Cold War were misguided. In this they display an ugly penchant for concerning themselves with the liberties of white Americans, which explains the view of many that the U.S. Civil War represents the earliest great infringement on liberty (as if the liberty of slaves doesn't count in the balance)."

First, it is clear that many libertarian thinkers (or a few influential ones, who go uncontradicted by the rest) believe that the Civil War led to the greatest early infringements on American liberty. I don't argue that slavery couldn't have ended without war (though when is a central question). My point is that this view overly minimizes the costs of slavery, which came pre-eminently in the form of horrific human bondage. In other words, while we can recognize that the war led to infringements on liberty, we have to balance this against the benefit of earlier liberation for slaves. One rarely hears even an acknowledgement, when libertarians talk about the Civil War, that it led to the end of slavery. To be sure, when they are reminded, they give some lip service to it -- but their primary thinking on this topic is that it was unnecessary and costly. I think this is because libertarians are largely white and hence do not think about slavery in the same way that American blacks do. I'm happy to be wrong, by the way, and appreciate your vigorous challenge on this.

3. Libertarians are right that intervention is a blunt instrument, frequently misused. They are wrong to conclude that its high blunder rate ipso facto disqualifies it from consideration. The question is always: what action (or inaction) will lead to a better outcome? Libertarians are very good at constructing alternate history, but this rarely amounts to more than Monday morning quarterbacking. They are adept at pointing out the blunders, but not really interested, I think, in truly testing the proposition that inaction -- take Israel's destruction of Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981, for example -- would likely have produced a better outcome.

4. A girl isn't any less ugly when her sister is ugly too.

Charles Heuter's strategic blunder in responding to my essays with so many excellent thoughts is that I am able to pick which of his arguments I want to tackle and plead overwork and an unfinished basement as my excuses for not addressing the rest. Webmaster's prerogative, I guess. I want to take up one of his arguments in response to my fourth essay:

"I certainly don't think it's true that those who say little or nothing about behavior they believe is bad have a reduced moral authority."I believe moral authority derives from belief, behavior and speech. In other words, a person's moral position is worth listening to (i.e., it has authority) when we see that it comes from strong and creditable belief, is backed by actions that either support or do not contradict it, and is articulated in persuasive and clear fashion.

Libertarians can't even agree among themselves however, that drug use, or consensual sex with underage youngsters, or making pornography, or divorcing one's spouse, are bad/immoral/worthy of opprobrium. They champion the liberty to do these things, and in some cases champion the behaviors themselves (e.g., Reason magazine's recent celebration of drug use).

But let's assume that libertarians do agree that most of the behaviors I've defined as bad in my essays are in fact bad, and need discouragement. I think it is incorrect to argue that one can have moral authority and remain silent and inactive. Whence came the moral authority of Martin Luther King, or his namesake, or of Mother Theresa? They spoke and they acted against perceived evil and injustice.

A fellow named Joseph suggested that another fellow named Sean Gabb provides a good example of a libertarian who does focus on practical strategy, as opposed to the pie-in-the-sky libertarianism I critiqued in the second essay. Gabb's website is interesting, but it exhibits exactly what I have been talking about; what passes for strategy are suggestions like "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." This isn't strategy, it is cathartic venting.

Finally, I want to call attention to an excellent comment by Kenneth Uildriks, who challenged my argument that libertarianism can't win by its own logic:

"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 . . . 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."

I suspect there is something right here. My point was that libertarians must learn to use the language of poetry, rather than calculus (or Public Choice -- wait, is there a difference?) to build such a movement.

Enough for now. I may not talk about this here for a while, because I'm feeling like Garth Brooks after he made a rock album. All he succeeded in doing was alienating his fan base while proving that his cross-over power wasn't, in fact, all that and a bag of potato chips. Thus Monday I suspect I'll regale you with some cute kid stories, perhaps a recounting of an annoying encounter with a bureaucrat, or maybe we'll pick on Jimmy Carter a little.

That doesn't mean this is over, though. Nothing is over until I say it is.

posted by Woodlief | link | (7) comments

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Libertarianism IV: Hey, You, Get Off of My Cloud

Faith and community are slogans for most politicians, but they are real to most people. They have little place in libertarianism. That's not completely true -- many libertarians have a faith in spontaneous order that borders on mystical; it is almost literally the god in the machine that will bring peace and prosperity to social arrangements if only the state will diminish far enough. But faith in a God who judges the wicked and the just is alien and offensive to most libertarians. This is probably because it implies a conscious external authority. Far better to be ruled by markets and community norms (though not really -- more on this below) than by someone who refers to himself as a Lord or a King (and in upper-case, at that).

It is important at this point to distinguish between people who are libertarian and those who appear libertarian because of the Nolan Chart, or because it suits their contrarian temperament, and between those who practice a faith and those who conveniently claim it when it suits them. After all, Bill Maher calls himself a libertarian, while Bill Clinton calls himself a Christian. I'll limit myself in what follows to those who consciously and accurately reflect in word or deed the applicable creed.

Now most libertarians have a friend who is both a libertarian and a believing Jew or Christian. For some this allows the pretense that libertarianism isn't nearly exclusively an atheistic following. It is readily apparent, however, that faith has little role to play in either the belief, behavior, or work of influential libertarians, i.e., scholars, politicians (such as they are), activists, and thinkers.

A good libertarian will respond that faith has no role in libertarianism because the essence of this creed is that people should be free to make their own personal decisions in all spheres, so long as they don't infringe on the corresponding liberty of others. Thus libertarianism has nothing to say about faith any more than it has something to say about what you eat for dinner -- it's your choice. But imagine that virtually all active libertarians were anorexic, and largely disdainful of the eaters. They wouldn't suggest any laws to keep these people from doing their thing, but they probably wouldn't come across as very sympathetic either. In other words, there are important costs, borne of this unnecessary fusion of libertarianism and atheism, to the libertarian cause.

The first results from a frequent inability to distinguish between belief and behavior. If a Christian politician calls for vigorous enforcement of anti-pornography laws, for example, the prevailing view among libertarians is that he is not only wrong to infringe on liberty, but also silly for thinking pornography is an evil thing. They would view its prohibition as terrible in itself, not because doing so creates a precedent for prohibiting other forms of commerce and expression. There is a significant difference between these positions.

A thought experiment: imagine that there are two societies with open borders. The first has complete economic and social liberty, but faith and community norms are so strong that nobody produces or desires to use pornography, or narcotics, or even profanity, and virtually everyone attends church on a regular basis. Imagine that the second has less regulation of economic and social activity than the U.S. today, but considerably more than the first society. On the other hand, its members are completely tolerant of free sexual expression, all forms of speech, and drug use. In which society would you choose to live?

My hunch is that most libertarians would prefer the second society. Theirs is not just a political libertarianism (i.e., this is how rights and government should be arranged), but a cultural libertarianism (i.e., people shouldn't be upset by behaviors that don't violate the rights of others). Furthermore, a considerable minority of libertarians probably view these so-called vices as positive goods, whereas the rare Christian or Jewish (by faith) libertarian views them as significant negatives that must be tolerated for the sake of liberty.

The libertarian intolerance of intolerance thus leads to the second negative consequence of fusing libertarianism and atheism -- it leaves libertarians shy about saying what should guide behavior, and distrustful of those who do. Libertarians are very fond of pointing out that a (if not the) primary directive in a free society is to refrain from violating the rights of others. This is all well and good, but a society will not thrive on non-intervention alone. The libertarian society more than others, in fact, depends on self-discipline, an impulse for charity, and serious attention to moral education of one's children, among other disciplines.

These are important elements in the libertarian society, but libertarians are profoundly uncomfortable at judging bad behavior as such. That's for conservatives after all, and hey, aren't they the ones who get all uptight about porn? Live and let live, that's our motto, baby.

Libertarians in the area of morality are like corporations in the area of business ethics. Nobody believes them when they talk about the rules that should govern the game, because they are rarely willing to condemn bad behavior that is technically within the rules. Like corporate America, libertarians will begin to have moral authority when they are the first to condemn poor behavior.

The problem, of course, is that libertarians might be hard-pressed to admit that things like divorce, or making pornography, or propping one's children in front of the idiot box for hours on end, or failing to respect one's parents, etc., are examples of bad behavior. It is an even greater stretch to expect them to condemn it.

I think this reluctance to pronounce moral opprobrium on bad behavior results from a fear that behaviors labeled as immoral tend to be regulated by the state. The libertarian response to this reality seems to be to pretend that such behaviors really aren't so bad after all, or at least not nearly so bad as theft by taxation.

If it is true that defining behavior as bad inevitably leads to its regulation, then libertarians are in a quandary, because I think civil, productive, happy society depends on the recognition by a large majority of its population that some behaviors are bad, and their practitioners worthy of ostracism. If the libertarian position is that people cannot be trusted to hold these beliefs without yielding to the temptation to use government to enforce them on others, then it faces two seemingly intractable problems.

The first is that it places itself in the unwinnable situation of needing to convince various pluralities that behaviors like the aforementioned really aren't so bad, and thus unworthy of government intervention. The second is that in doing so it ends up advocating a society that will ultimately reject its suggested system of government, because a society filled with people who have few community norms beyond those of a college libertarian club is likely to disintegrate to the point that it falls prey to internal or external tyrants. Ayn Rand aside, selfish, godless people do not a good society make.

Note: As you might have noticed in the comments sections, there are several smart people with their own webpages who have responded to this collection of essays. They are worth reading. In a future post I'll take up some of their challenges.

posted by Woodlief | link | (10) comments

Friday, November 15, 2002

Libertarianism III: It's All About Me and My Needs

In the last essay I argued that libertarians have the wrong approach to advancing their cause. I could have quoted libertarian godfather Murray Rothbard: "While Marxists devote about 90 percent of their energies to thinking about strategy and only 10 percent to their basic theories, for libertarians the reverse is true." Rothbard observed that the libertarian strategy amounts to an intellectually satisfying but strategically impotent method of talking at people. "Most classical liberal or laissez-faire activists have adopted, perhaps without much thoughtful consideration, a simple strategy that we may call 'educationism.' Roughly: We have arrived at the truth, but most people are still deluded believers in error; therefore, we must educate these people -- via lectures, discussions, books, pamphlets, newspapers, or whatever -- until they become converted to the correct point of view."

Libertarians not only suffer from a lack of strategy for winning, they have little to offer in the way of maintaining authority should they some day emerge victorious. This is important to consider because American liberty (and I am largely confining this to be an American question, though many of my comments apply to libertarians in other countries) has enemies both internal and external.

Start with external enemies -- the host of armed authoritarian states that would relish an opportunity to seize American wealth and liberty. There is no gentle way of saying this: libertarians sound like absolute fools when they talk about foreign policy. I have heard libertarian thinkers much smarter than me give brilliant, sophisticated, world-wise discourses on libertarian domestic policy, only to sound like naive sophomores when the talk turns to foreign affairs.

Libertarians like to pretend, for example, that the U.S. could have avoided World War II without consequence for liberty. At best they argue from historical accident rather than principal -- the claim that Hitler would have lost by virtue of his failure in Russia, for example, or that Britain could have survived without the American Lend-Lease program.

Likewise comes the libertarian claim that American adventures in the Cold War were misguided. In this they display an ugly penchant for concerning themselves with the liberties of white Americans, which explains the view of many that the U.S. Civil War represents the earliest great infringement on liberty (as if the liberty of slaves doesn't count in the balance).

These arguments against foreign intervention derive from the libertarian principle that coercion is wrong, which is really no fixed principle at all, because nearly all libertarians admit that a military financed through taxation is a necessity for the protection of liberty. Somewhere in their calculus, however, they conclude that this coercion shouldn't extend to financing the liberation of non-Americans. Perhaps this is principled, but it is certainly not the only viable alternative for a true lover of liberty. To tell people languishing in states like China and the former Soviet bloc that our commitment to liberty prevents us from opposing their masters is the height of churlishness and foolishness.

Perhaps the worst is the libertarian position on Israel, which amounts to a replay of Joe Kennedy's see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach to Hitler in the 1930's. Sure, without American support every man, woman, and child among the Jews might have their throats slit by Muslim thugs, but it's not like they got that country fairly in the first place, and really, it's none of our business. That's not a caricature, by the way. At an event in Washington I heard a prominent libertarian argue that we shouldn't support Israel because what happens to them is their problem, not ours. And libertarians wonder why nobody takes their views on foreign policy seriously.

The libertarian response to this critique is to point out examples of failed U.S. intervention. Yes, the CIA sowed seeds of anti-Americanism in Iran by supporting the Shah. Admitted, we supported a tyrant in Haiti. True, we armed the mujahaddin in Afghanistan. But we also dealt the death blows to Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and accelerated the self-destruction of the Soviet Union while controlling its expansion. These are not trivial events in the history of liberty. Libertarian academics have developed a cottage industry, however, to produce counterfactual histories which amount to claiming that all of the good things would have happened anyway without American intervention, and probably would have happened faster.

Of course one can just as easily tell a story in which American isolationism leads to the emergence of totalitarian states that divide the rest of the world, restrict trade, and make all of us worse off. The point is that in the area of foreign policy libertarians are most likely to argue from principle, yet this is the area where consequentialism is most required. Nobody cares about principle if it leads to enslavement or death. When libertarians do argue from consequence, they have no experience or expertise to speak from, nor do they associate with people who do. Name the libertarian scholars with serious expertise in foreign or military affairs. Name the libertarian activists with considerable experience in foreign or military affairs. You get the point.

To be taken seriously as a philosophy of governance, libertarianism must grapple with foreign affairs, and with the possible reality that liberty depends on strong military power. Suggest this at a libertarian gathering, however, and you'll hear chuckles of derision. Perhaps they are right. The fact that they chuckle, however, but have yet to answer this question in a convincing manner, is evidence of the libertarian closemindedness on this issue.

But let's assume that most libertarians would support a military large enough to fend off foreign enemies. They would still have to confront the reality that they have no viable model of power maintenance against domestic enemies of liberty. To see what I mean, imagine that libertarians have nominated a slate of charismatic, well-funded, highly networked candidates (indulge me -- it's a Friday) who have won the Presidency and a solid majority of Congress. These revolutionaries proceed to create the libertarian wet dream -- drug legalization, plans for phasing out government schools and Social Security, isolationist foreign policy, no more ATF . . . and did I mention drug legalization?

In this fantasy the economy booms but foreign states are deterred by our minimal armed forces, people are happy, and sales of Atlas Shrugged go through the roof. It is the End of History.

Except, people get older. Memory fades. The Left remains committed to brainwashing children and co-opting public and private organizations. A child overdoses on heroin. Drugs are slowly re-criminalized. Some idiot old babyboomers (sorry for the triple redundancy) starve to death because they could never be bothered to save for old age. Others lose their savings when they invest them all in Bill Clinton Enterprises. Hello Social Security and financial regulation. The schools stay private because the Left realizes how much easier it is to peddle garbage by McDonaldizing it (i.e., by becoming the low-cost provider and pandering to human weakness).

So, in a generation or less, the revolution is slowly dismantled, and libertarians are blamed for the ills of society. They go back to holding their convention in a Motel Six in Las Vegas, and cheering when their candidate for Sonoma County Commissioner comes in a close third in a three-man race.

The Left doesn't face this problem. Deprived of principle, integrity, or honor, they are happy to snip the bottom rungs as they climb the ladder of power. You can already see this in Europe, where EU thugs are slowly transferring decision-making authority from quasi-democratic legislatures to unelected Brussels technocrats. We saw a hint of it in the U.S., when supposed children of the free-thinking sixties proved strikingly willing to use the power of the federal government to punish and stifle opposition.

But libertarians are all about individual liberty. Thus they face a quandary: How to maintain their state once it's built? This question should be especially pressing, insofar as their model implies that government tends to grow and become oppressive.

There appear to be two avenues open: the first is to adopt a variant of the Left's strategy, and eliminate unfavored options for future generations. Libertarians might, for example, replace the Constitution with a mirror document that does not contain any provision for amendment. This would leave the states open to adopt all manner of idiocy, however. Perhaps libertarians at the state level could adopt similarly permanent protections of individual rights as well. Thus libertarians could effectively ban most opposition parties, without suffering the guilt that Third World dictators endure when they do so more directly. I'm not sure if this would be acceptable in the libertarian paradigm. No matter, however, for the point is that they don't discuss it.

The second avenue for maintaining the libertarian state is culture. If children and new citizens are thoroughly educated in logic, economics, and other foundations of libertarian thinking, then perhaps they can be trusted to maintain liberty even in the face of very persuasive demagogues. But then certain topics become central: childrearing, childhood education, individual self-censorship and discipline, community norms, and reciprocal obligations. It would also require a consideration of the place religion plays in all of the aforementioned. Nearly all of these topics, however, are ignored by individualist libertarians, who furthermore routinely deride -- almost as a condition for membership -- those who call for their rigorous pursuit either as policy or personal practice.

Libertarians have less that's interesting to say about childhood education, for example, than does the Democratic Leadership Council. But childhood education is probably the linchpin of the libertarian society. How many libertarians, however, give much thought to where even their own children will go to school? Sure, they want safety and effectiveness, like any other parent, but how many give serious attention to finding or building schools that inculcate in children the ability to think critically, along with a sense of moral responsibility? Precious few.

If libertarians were serious about taking and maintaining power -- truly serious -- then they would drop the caterwauling over drug criminalization and focus every drop of energy on building schools. The latter is hard work, however, and forces consideration of messy things like moral instruction, and self-discipline, and what makes for good parenting. It's far easier to toke up in the discounted hotel room at the Libertarian Party Convention and rail against the DEA. Thus libertarianism remains less a force for change than a tool for self-expression.

This is in part a product of the natural individualistic nature of libertarianism. The solution isn't to eliminate -- or even drastically reduce -- the individualism that underlies libertarian philosophy, but it does require reconciliation with the social nature of human beings. It also requires acceptance of the fact that people are not only communal in nature, but spiritual. I will address this in my next essay.

posted by Woodlief | link | (17) comments

Wednesday, 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 | link | (4) comments

Monday, November 11, 2002

Libertarianism: Bringing Back the Lower Case

Today I begin a series of posts on the topic of libertarianism, or, more specifically, why I think it is currently a flawed and failed religion posing as a philosophy of governance. I originally intended to entitle this series "The Rotten Heart of Libertarianism," but decided that would be too combative. Besides, some of my best friends are libertarians.

The reason I will address this topic -- and the reason you should care -- is because libertarianism represents perhaps the best set of potential political solutions to America's problems, and is the legacy of a truncated set of the Founders' beliefs (subtract their belief in God and a strong central government, and you have libertarianism). Thus it is worth knowing something about, if you care about politics.

For those who already know something about libertarianism, it is worth considering what is wrong with it, and thinking about how to fix it. I promise not to be overly erudite or pedantic, though I suspect I cannot extend that promise to the "Comments" section.

For those of you who aren't familiar with it, libertarianism can best be summarized in this way: "you leave me alone, and I'll leave you alone." It is strongly intertwined with the economic philosophy known as laissez-faire. Libertarians have their own political party, which essentially calls for government to stop doing most things beyond national defense and enforcement of contracts.

I like this philosophy. I am not a Libertarian, but I probably come close to being a libertarian. The upper-case capitalization, as I shall explain later, is critical.

There are several problems with this philosophy. None of these are well articulated by the Left, which still seems to believe that it can set the country on a path toward socialism without ever actually facing the consequences of getting there. In other words, I will say little about their rebuttal to libertarians and conservatives, which amounts to: "If government doesn't do all these things, they won't get done." That causality strikes me as a good thing. I will assume my readers have an appreciation for both economics and the power of the marketplace, and that none of you lie awake at night wondering whether bananas would take inedible form if not for the vigilance of the EU.

Still, though I suspect that libertarians are right in most of their speculation about the proper bounds of government, I think they have yet to do a comprehensive and rigorous job of demonstrating such. Jeff Friedman, editor of Critical Review (disclosure: I've been published there) noted this problem in his compelling essay several years ago entitled "What's Wrong With Libertarianism?" In a nutshell, he observed that libertarians make a moral case for their philosophy (i.e., it is wrong for government to push people around) which they are unwilling to push to the extreme, namely, to the point where they argue that their system of governance would be best even if one could prove that people would be materially better off in some system of stronger government. At that point they switch to what we call consequentialism, and argue that not only is the libertarian system more just by virtue of its minimal coercion, but that it is also produces more prosperity for its citizens.

The problem, Friedman rightly observed, is that we have shown no such thing. To be sure, economists have done a good job of demonstrating that heavy government management of the economy reduces economic growth by destroying property rights and incentives. Nobody has shown, however, that a libertarian system of nearly non-existent government would make people better off. We have anecdotes, we have some notion that we can extrapolate from partial analyses of more ostensibly libertarian times at the turn of the century, and we have the rational profit-maximizer of economics -- but we do not have a methodologically rigorous study that can even explain, for example, the inescapable correlation between sizable government (say, 20-40% of gross domestic product) and sustained economic growth.

The reasons for this surprising reality are several. To begin, libertarian scholars largely exist in a dual world of academia and libertarianism (note: this is not true of all libertarian scholars, and is especially not true of the most interesting ones). In academia they publish the esoteric minutiae essential to tenure and advancement within the university system. These works have little to say about the big questions both as a consequence of their form (confinement to a niche of knowledge where the scholar has competitive advantage) and their surroundings (academics tend to value the exchange of ideas less than they value uniformity of thought).

In the libertarian world, ironically, scholars face similar strictures on thought. After publishing his essay Friedman, for example, was held at arms length by many in the Libertarian movement (note: my switch to upper-case is purposeful). Libertarian scholars rarely evaluate their own first principles, even more rarely do they invite non-libertarian scholars to do so. This, unfortunately, is a recipe for academic stasis. It is no wonder, then, that the Libertarian canon is heavily weighted with economic theory (the scriptures), normative philosophy (the catechisms), and polemical, anecdotal history (the sermons).

In keeping with the religion metaphor, it is also unsurprising that Libertarianism has its own heretics, who are often treated with greater disdain than genuine members of the hard Left. Recall Ayn Rand's latter years, when she held her own secret tribunals by which members of the fold were cast out for being unorthodox. This mentality still pervades the Libertarian community, though in (mostly) muted form.

Anyone with experience in Libertarian circles has witnessed the following scene: during a dinner party someone raises a problem that the market doesn't appear capable of solving. There is spirited argument about whether it is truly a market failure. Someone ventures that it must really be a consequence of government intervention. Someone else suggests that the market would provide a solution if it were truly unfettered. Eventually the person in the group with the strongest Libertarian credentials refers to some study of 16th-Century private health insurance among wheel-makers in Southern France to prove that the market could solve this problem, too. The relief, when the faith is restored by one of the priests, is palpable. I have never been a communist, but I imagine the Trotskyites have similar dinner parties.

In short, there is libertarianism, the philosophy of governance, and there is Libertarianism, the creed. The persistence of the latter interferes, I think, with the development of the former.

There are other problems. Specifically, aside from the lack of rigor and the religious fervor, libertarianism suffers from a lack of attention to practical politics, and a growing and well-deserved association with libertinism, which is (or should be) another bag altogether. I'll address these issues in the next essay.

posted by Woodlief | link | (27) comments

Tuesday, June 4, 2002

Crime, Math, and Libertarians

I started out to make a simple point, and then it got bigger, and soon butted up against an issue that I plan to lay out here in clearer form at a later date. But in deference to the patriarchal, eurocentric linear time concept, let's start at the beginning, shall we?

The New York Times reported a recent study that reveals a climbing recidivism rate among inmates released from prison. The study's authors, along with a host of other experts interviewed for the article, blame inadequate rehabilitation for the increase.

Here's another thought. Assume that criminals derive some satisfaction from their deeds. Let's call this the demand for crime. Assume further that this demand has some elasticity, meaning that it is affected by the "price," which comes in the form of risk-adjusted punishment (i.e., the odds of incarceration multiplied by the average time served for a particular crime in a particular state). Now we have a math problem.

Thankfully, the fine folks at the National Center for Policy Analysis have done the hard work for us. They find, by examining data on crime and clearance (the odds someone will serve time for a crime) rates, that the "price" of committing crime has dropped considerably since the 1950's.

But here's the catch for the claim that a declining price for crime is the cause of the elevated recidivism rates: the price started to increase in the 1990's. Here's where the sociologist (perish the thought!) might come to the aid of the economist. Imagine not just a price threshold confronting the potential criminal, but a moral threshold as well. This moral threshold is determined in part by how others in the community view crime. As the price for committing crime dropped from the 1950's into the 1980's, more and more people in some communities succumbed to the temptation. Every person who did so thereby weakened the social norms against crime in his community. Thus even after the price has started to rise, the moral threshold continues to decline.

This appears to be what happened in another area: out-of-wedlock births. Illegitimacy increased with welfare payments, but continued to grow even as AFDC was reduced, in real terms, during the early 1980's. Most welfare experts (dominated by the hard left) pointed to this as proof that welfare doesn't breed illegitimacy. Some bright thinkers argued, however, that the continued growth of out-of-wedlock births even after a reduction in AFDC payments was the result of a similar moral threshold erosion, precipitated by an initial erosion of the economic cost of illegitimacy.

Interestingly enough, both crime and illegitimacy display marked geographic clustering, with considerable variance even across poor neighborhoods, which is a strong sign that community norms matter. In other words, both phenomenon behave as epidemics, spreading as more and more people in a neighborhood "contract" them.

The difficulty this reality brings to those (mostly conservatives and libertarians) who want to adopt a purely economic view of crime and welfare is that an increase in the economic price of these pathological behaviors may not bring about a cure. Pandora's box, in the form of eroded social norms, has been opened in many neighborhoods. The cost of closing it again, if we rely solely on punishment, may be extremely high, amounting to little more than transplanting entire families and neighborhoods into prisons. Absent any sort of moral or spiritual awakening, we may simply create a new way of life for these people -- a brief stint in public school, a few years of wilding, and then life with friends and family behind bars.

But the state has never been good at administering moral and spiritual guidance. It has at its disposal mostly the blunt tools of economics. And now that it has, after decades of drunken liberals at the wheel, contributed to the destruction of community social norms, it may have no means of recreating them. Conservatives and libertarians, whose social prescriptions often amount to nothing beyond the reduction of government, may have little to offer as well.

This, I think, is an overlooked problem confronting libertarians especially. Our solutions are anti-solutions, namely, the elimination of government. We assume that when the cause is removed, the problem will be removed as well. I wonder if there is room in libertarian philosophy for something more.

posted by Woodlief | link | (7) comments

Wednesday, April 3, 2002

Morality Matters

It's always enjoyable to hear Libertarians give electoral advice. But something that undermines sanctimonious Libertarian claims about sanctimonious Republicans scaring off potential voters with excessive moralizing is the wealth of survey data indicating that the majority of Americans are not, in fact, "live and let live" types. If moral issues do affect electoral behavior, more often than not they affect it in a way that favors Republicans, e.g., voters for whom abortion is the single most important issue are more likely to be pro-life than pro-choice.

The latest case in point is this survey of American attitudes towards bad behavior. 79 percent say that lack of courtesy and respect is a serious problem in the U.S., and a solid majority claim that taking God's name in vain is wrong.

So while Republicans forego the vast crowds of Libertarian voters currently casting their lots with the Democrats, perhaps they gain more votes in the process -- a good trade for a party concerned with actually placing candidates in office.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)