Bryan Caplan  

The Mirage of Libertarian Populism

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Orwell and War Socialism... Elitism or Populism: Pick You...

There are times and places where most people want more individual freedom than they have. The majority of the citizens of the Soviet Union did not want the state to seize farmers' land, or send Orthodox priests to Siberia. The majority of the citizens of 18th-century France and Spain did not want to pay high taxes to build their kings more palaces and fund more foreign wars. And I bet that the majority of the citizens of modern China want the freedom to have any many kids as they want. In the right times and places, a libertarian can say "give the people what they want" with a good conscience. In the right times and places, a libertarian can be a populist.

In modern democracies, however, libertarian populism is not a viable option. Why? Because there is very strong evidence that the majority favors either as much or more government than exists. (For a summary, see here). All of the main categories of government spending - Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, military - are popular. The only item the public consistently favors cutting is foreign aid - about 1% of the budget. Furthermore, the public heavily supports even the least defensible infringements on personal liberty - like prohibition of marijuana.

OK, libertarians: Suppose you could press a button that overruled one of the multitude of statist policies that a majority supports. Would you push?

If you won't push the button, you're not much of a libertarian. The libertarian who refuses to overrule popular statism is saying, "Individual freedom will have to wait until the majority thinks it's a good idea." That's more tedious than waiting for Godot.

If you are willing to push the button, however, people will call you an "elitist" for second-guessing the majority. And they'll be right. The libertarian who overrules popular statism is saying "At least on this issue, I know better than most people."

With my recent piece in Cato Unbound, several people have questioned whether my elitism is consistent with libertarianism. They've got it all wrong. In a modern democracy, not only can a libertarian be elitist; a libertarian has to be elitist. To be a libertarian in a modern democracy is to say that nearly 300 million Americans are wrong, and a handful of nay-sayers are right. So how can you be one of the nay-sayers, unless you think you and your fellow nay-sayers have exceptionally good judgment?

None of this means, of course, that libertarians ought to be rude or unfriendly. If we want to change the world in a libertarian direction, we have to convince people who don't already agree with us. And rhetorically speaking, "I'm right, you're wrong" falls flat. (I prefer "I'm right, the people outside this classroom are wrong, and you don't want to be like them, do you?") But in a modern democracy, libertarians cannot honestly praise the wisdom of the common man. He's the guy who got us where we are today.


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TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/603
The author at Economic Investigations in a related article titled Libertarian on Libertarian Verbal Violence writes:
    In his latest EconLog post, Bryan Caplan offers the following assement: OK, libertarians: Suppose you could press a button that overruled one of the multitude of statist policies that a majority supports. Would you push? If you won’t push the but... [Tracked on November 12, 2006 12:56 PM]
COMMENTS (20 to date)
Fazal Majid writes:

China's population would be 400 million more if they did not have the one child policy. Given that over 60 million Chinese died of famine in the last 50 years alone, it is hard to imagine a similar humanitarian disaster wouldn't have occurred since then.

We all like to believe a libertarian system is best, but numbers like these ought to give us pause. When there is a thirty year lag between a decision (to have an extra child, or to selectively abort a female child) and the consequences (an adult dying of famine or a son who will never get married due to a dearth of females), letting people do as they please is not always the best policy.

Seth writes:

Shorter Bryan Caplan:

"I know what's best for you; stop arguing."

or

"Statism is the surest path to casting off the shackles of statism."

I'm really growing tired of all these posts that rest on assumptions like

Suppose you could press a button that overruled one of the multitude of statist policies that a majority supports.

Ah, yes. But wouldn't a fiat to overrule statist policies actually be part of a statist regime? A paradox!

Thankfully, the button does not exist. Neither do omniscient, purely benevolent vigilante serial-killers. Neither does a group of "elites" that have all the answers and can rule us better than the rabble.

Are these the questions George Mason economists ponder? How utterly frivolous.

Mike Linksvayer writes:

Fazal, aren't the cause of both Chinese famines in the last 50 years and the one child policy the same?

There have been no famines in India post-independence despite a higher population growth rate.

Adam S writes:

I don't agree that you need to be elitist. You can be quite concerned about the rights of a minority, and think that the best way to protect them is to limit the ability of the majority to impose their will.

It is clearly unjust and in my interest to vote that people named Kling should be made my personal slaves. Is it elitist for you to oppose such a law?

Swimmy writes:
Ah, yes. But wouldn't a fiat to overrule statist policies actually be part of a statist regime?
The Bill of Rights is, essentially, a button to override populist doctrine. (I can guarantee the majority would outlaw certain forms of free speech if it got the chance.) Is it a statist document? Considering it's at the core of our state, of course. Is it a bad idea? Of course not. Does it undermine the libertarian position? Maybe an anarchist's.
Randy writes:

Bryan,

I don't consider myself a libertarian because I want the government mostly out of everyone's life, but rather, because I want the government mostly out of my life. If the majority of government spending consisted of voluntary or user funded programs I would have no complaints about government - even if voluntary contributions and users fees reached 90% of GDP. So yes, I would push the button, but I do not consider this to be elitist.

Seth writes:

"The Bill of Rights is, essentially, a button to override populist doctrine."

Wrong. The bill of rights is, essentially, a part of a constitution - a defined and ratified set of parameters by which we choose to govern ourselves. And it is subject to a process of interpretation, amendment, and repeal. You basic assumption is flawed because you're trying to hammer a constitutional regime into Bryan's proposed "magic fiat button."

James writes:

Fazal,

When politicians enforce policies that prevent people from doing what they please, someone is still doing as they please: the politicians. Since it's much easier to force individuals to bear the full cost of their mistakes than to force politicians to bear the full cost of their mistakes, I think I'd rather leave the decision to have a second child to the individual.

Seth,

A device to disrupt violations of property rights is not a part of a statist regime. Sorry that you don't see the use of counterfactuals for illustrating an idea.

Bruce G Charlton writes:

My feeling is that libertarianism is not really a political view, it is a moral basis (or intuition).

But libertarian views are currently associated with a modernizing kind of centre-right politics: pro -free markets, -economic growth, -globalization, -science and technology, -mass media etc. Pro-'progress'. I think the libertarianism fits this because the individual is increasingly the social unit in modernizing societies.

This contrasts with the ideological left and right who are anti-modernization and pro-groups (ie pro groups such as unions, the aristocracy, the professions such as law or medicine).

Democracy - in a very general sense of popular vote as the way of choosing governments - is a part of modernization.

I feel that Bryan Caplan has created a straw man version of democracy in which democracy is supposed to mean that all major questions are settled by popular vote. This is obviously not true - but then it has nothing to do with democracy.

Democracy is only about politics (not about other social systems such as science, law, the military). And it is only about choosing between (or at least rejecting) political personnel, policies and systems of government.

In the UK, democracy entails not much more than voting for one of of two parties every four years or so, with each party presenting a package of priorities and policies - there are hardly ever any referendums on specific issues.

Generally, the incumbent party gets re-elected unless or until the public comes to regard them is corrupt, incompetent of generally 'burned-out' at which point another gang are given a chance.

But how long the 'other gang' (opposition party) are made to wait will depend on how good they are at convincing the voters that they are serious/ competent - and it seems that facile, pandering populism doesn't convince the voters.

In fact, getting elected depends less on presnting a rag bag of populist policies than projecting a kind of core belief/ principle of rule - which includes a set of priorities (eg. the main issue is the war on terror versus helping the poor), and often also a preferred method (eg. promoting growth by deregulation of the economy versus government planning and investment).

Tough talkers (who promise 'blood, toil, tears and sweat') will often get elected above people who merely say whatever they think the voters want to hear.

It is interesting than one consequence seems to be that democracy (once established) usually yields reasonable governments (as contrasted with other possibilities such as evil maniacs, thieving gangsters, or ideological ncompetents). Voters seem to look for some broad sense of coherence in their leaders, at least in relation to what they regerd as the important issues.

The point is that libertarianism is only indirectly related to democracy; as being a factor influencing choce of party (or person) at an election. You can't truly have a 'libertarian party' because political parties are not that kind of thing - they are not founded upon moral principles; they are founded upon shared priorities and methods.

Swimmy writes:
You basic assumption is flawed because you're trying to hammer a constitutional regime into Bryan's proposed "magic fiat button."
The "magic fiat button" is a thought experiment, not a literal policy recommendation. Even in the Cato essay, prof. Caplan says,
By and large, we don't even ask voters whether we should allow unpopular speech or religion, and this "elitist" practice has saved us a world of trouble. Why not take more issues off the agenda?
Paddy Carter writes:

By your logic communists are also elitist, because they think they know better than the majority. (At least those who would push their 'make communism' buttons). I don't think that 'anybody who disagrees with the majority and would do something about it if they could" is a very useful way of construing elitism.

Tom West writes:

Why is this debate any different for Libertarians than any other political belief? The truth is that general government policy doesn't exactly match *anyone's* particular belief. Are holders of any position betraying their beliefs because they don't advocate for a way to subvert democracy to better support their beliefs? Are the only "real" Christians those who overthrow government in order to govern according to God's law?

Most of human history is an example of those who felt that the dominance of their beliefs was more important than the adherence to the desires of the masses. Most of human history is an example of bloody conflict.

Civil society only began when people where able to acknowledge that despite that what they felt, they would have to accept that people with "wrong" ideas would rule over them. Instead of simply acting upon the knowledge that "we were right", they chose to accept that their mission was to persuade the public of the correctness of their views. Of course this meant that often their positions would not be accepted, but understood that the alternative was infinitely worse.

Essentially all the players in civil society must accept that *they could be wrong* (no matter how infinitesimally likely), and that thus society has a right to pass judgment upon them.

Either Bryan is bating us here for the sake of sophomoric argument, or his arrogance is leading him down a path that leads to rejection and isolation. After all, what Bryan claim comes down to is "I am the ultimate authority in all things". He may claim to defer to greater minds like himself, but they only reason he would grant them such status is that they think like him. If they did not, he would consider them wrong, not himself. That in itself is certainly fair. (After all, I believe I'm right in all things I care about).

However, I am not arrogant enough to believe that the world would be better off if I had the the power to impose my beliefs on others. I, like any scientist who sends his papers into a peer-reviewed journal, accept that I could (conceivably) be wrong, and that others have the authority to check my genius, no matter how wrong-headed they are.

Kent G. Budge writes:

In modern democracies, however, libertarian populism is not a viable option. Why? Because there is very strong evidence that the majority favors either as much or more government than exists.

But is this an unavoidable reality of human nature? Or have libertarians simply done a lousy job of selling their position?

Zhu Benben writes:

A person who believes liber could be an elite. But she definitely cannot be an elitist. That's different. By the way, an elitist is not definitely an elite in the common sense. He could be a moron.

Disagree doesn't mean I will overrule. Remember Patrick Henry. I won't overrule, but I can disagree. That's liber.

Domocracy + Popular belief in freedom + Law that is the only effective way known to us to preserve liber and to preserve democracy too. If we seek elitism, the result is most definitly no elitism and no liber but a dictator and a stupid dictator.

Churchill knew this. That's what happens when econ prof discuss politics. You don't know enough history. That's why I like Schumpeter. He emphasized this.

Seth writes:

James,
"A device to disrupt violations of property rights is not a part of a statist regime."

Sure it is. It's statist if it's one person's (or one cabal's) fiat and that person also gets to define property rights (see: communism). This is where the brilliance of our constitutional republic comes in - we institute rights by appealing to the public reason and protect those rights through just procedure.

Look, I'm sympathetic to Bryan's ultimate ends, but the processes that he advocates are silly. Rule by elites - even if those elites are right - is a sure path to contrary results. Forcing democracy on Iraq gets you a repressive Islamic state, and forcing libertarianism on the US will get you central planning. In order to avoid those unintended ends, the state would have to resort to the use of force. Now you have a repressive statist regime, even if a well intended one.

Bryan says

If you won't push the button, you're not much of a libertarian. The libertarian who refuses to overrule popular statism is saying, "Individual freedom will have to wait until the majority thinks it's a good idea." That's more tedious than waiting for Godot.

But he's ignoring reality (making this a real waste of time, imho). The fact is, you can't just force people to do (or not do) what's good for them - even if you're right - because people will resist your control. The path to freedom is a slow and tedious path, to be sure. But if you want anything other than a fleeting glimpse at freedom, it's the only proven one.

Swimmy,

"The "magic fiat button" is a thought experiment, not a literal policy recommendation. "

No kidding?

Mr. Econotarian writes:
Given that over 60 million Chinese died of famine in the last 50 years alone, it is hard to imagine a similar humanitarian disaster wouldn't have occurred since then.

Please, 60 million in China were killed by Mao's Great Leap Forward central plan, not libertarianism or capitalism at all!

Look at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_leap_forward

The central idea behind the Great Leap was that rapid development of both China's agricultural and industrial sectors should take place in parallel. The hope was to industrialize by making use of the massive supply of cheap labour and avoid having to import heavy machinery. To achieve this Mao advocated that a further round of collectivisation modelled on the USSR's "Third Period" was necessary in the Chinese countryside where the existing collectives would be merged into huge People's communes.
Despite these harmful agricultural innovations, the weather in 1958 was very favourable and the harvest promised to be good. Unfortunately, the amount of labour diverted to steel production and construction projects meant that much of the harvest was left to rot uncollected in the fields in some areas. Although actual harvests were reduced, local officials, under tremendous pressure from the central authorities to report record harvests in response to the new innovations, competed with each other to announce increasingly exaggerated results. These exaggerated results were used as a basis for determining the amount of grain to be taken by the State to supply the towns and cities and export markets. This left barely enough for the peasants to eat, and in some areas, starvation set in. During 1958-1960 China continued to be a substantial net exporter of grain, despite the widespread famine experienced in the countryside, as Mao sought to maintain face and convince the outside world of the success of his plans.
Monte writes:

But in a modern democracy, libertarians cannot honestly praise the wisdom of the common man. He's the guy who got us where we are today.

So the wisdom of the common man, who got us to where we are today (comparitively speaking, this is a bad thing?) should defer to libertarians in establishing an economically superior society. Am I missing something, or have we come full circle back to socialism, which has a dismal record of failure in the real world?

Three cheers for the common man!

secret asian man writes:

I am both a libertarian and a populist.

This is because while I distrust the population, I distrust our elites even more. It is better to side with the people.

bob writes:

Isn't a libertarian supposed to be someone who wants the freedom to make his own decisions AND grants the same to others? Why, then, would you WANT to push the button to take away the rights of others to choose statist policies? Would you not become a fascist for doing so? Just a thought.

hooligan1717 writes:

If you won't push the button, you're not much of a libertarian.

Isn't a libertarian supposed to be someone who wants the freedom to make his own decisions AND grants the same freedom to others? Wouldn't pushing the button deny such freedom to those who freely choose to support statist policies? Would you not, then, be a fascist?

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