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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