Arnold Kling  

Tyler on the Problems of Libertarians

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Tyler Cowen writes,


Overall libertarians should embrace these developments. We should embrace a world with growing wealth, growing positive liberty, and yes, growing government. We don’t have to favor the growth in government per se, but we do need to recognize that sometimes it is a package deal.

I will comment at length below on this interesting essay.

What Tyler says in the first part is that as people accept libertarian critiques of command and control, government gets better. This in turn allows government to get bigger, but in softer forms, such as transfer payments.

This may be right. But let me offer a cynical alternative. Government got off of the "commanding heights" of nationalized steel, coal, and railroads not because it rejected command-and-control, but because those no longer represent the heights. The commanding heights of the economy today are education, health care, and leisure, and government is doing everything it can to take over those sectors.

Tyler then argues that pandemics and natural disasters pose a bigger threat today than they did 50 years ago. One reason is more population--we provide a much more inviting target for viruses. That is an interesting observation, and I can see that we may need new social institutions to deal with pandemics, but I hate to see us rely on government to provide those institutions.

On climate change, Tyler writes,


Yes, I know some of you are climate skeptics. But if the chance of mainstream science being right is only 20% (and assuredly it is much higher than that), we still have, in expected value terms, a massive tort.

What does he mean by mainstream science? Is it Al Gore's scenario of oceans rising by 20 feet? Or is it the "consensus" forecast of an eventual rise of 20 centimeters over the next century? I still think of climate change as something that calls for a just in case approach.

Speaking of pharmaceuticals, Tyler writes,


No matter what our views, I don’t see any uniquely libertarian approach to the resulting questions of intellectual property.

I agree. Libertarians tend to gravitate toward the extremes--either very strong intellectual property rights or no intellectual property rights. I think that the problem is more nuanced.

Tyler asks,


What will the world look like when small and possibly non-traceable groups can afford their own nuclear weapons, or other weapons of mass destruction?

I have been thinking about this problem since Bill Joy's Wired piece over seven years ago. I had a clear picture of the problem as early as this essay, when I wrote,

Surveillance is not necessarily a bad thing.
Friendly surveillance is a good thing. Certainly, it is less expensive and dehumanizing than hostile surveillance.

However, since then, my thinking on solutions has evolved in the direction of The Constitution of Surveillance.

What excites me about Tyler's essay is that he is exhorting libertarians to join the 21st century, which means paying less attention to the debate with the early-20th-century Progressive movement over government vs. the industrial economy.

What concerns me is that although we have pushed Progressives off of the Commanding Heights of steel and coal, the forces of statism stopped us on Social Security, and they are moving forward on education and health care. Would Tyler say that there is not much point in fighting these trends, because they are inevitable and not terribly harmful? I think I would disagree, certainly on the latter.

Tyler strongly suggests that we need a new libertarian movement, but he is quite modest about what that movement might look like. I have the same sense, and I find my reaction to reading Brian Doherty's book to be similar to Tyler's reaction.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



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The author at The Gun Toting Liberal â„¢ in a related article titled Classical Liberals, Neoliberals, Populists And Endangered Moderates: Continue To Lament Or Has The Time Come To Unite? writes:
    There are a couple of very good essays floating around out there in the blogosphere today, touching upon those of us who lie somewhere within the “mighty middle” of the political spectrum; one by Paul Silver of The Moderate Voice entitled... [Tracked on March 12, 2007 3:40 PM]
The author at The India Uncut Blog in a related article titled Reading about libertarianism writes:

    There's a feast of good reading on libertarianism available at the moment: the latest issue of Cato Unbound has a lead essay by Brian Doherty mapping the growth of libertarianism through the last few decades and speaking about its prospects. In...

    [Tracked on March 16, 2007 4:03 AM]
COMMENTS (9 to date)
David writes:

One of Tyler's main points is that positive liberty is a good thing, and should be valued over negative liberty if one must choose. I see positive liberty as being choices. More choices are better, and lead to a better life.
The key that I believe Tyler misses is where positive liberty comes from. One must be able to afford choices to have them. Even redistributed choices (from government, of course) are paid for by someone else. What allows for one to afford these choices and this positive liberty? Markets and the negative liberty which must accompany them.
Negative liberty creates prosperity. Prosperity creates choices, or positive liberty. More choices lead to a better life, which is the ultimate goal. Tyler has the right idea that positive liberty is the goal. However, he should remember how one gets there.

AK says: "What concerns me is that although we have pushed Progressives off of the Commanding Heights of steel and coal, the forces of statism stopped us on Social Security, and they are moving forward on education and health care."

This is something I learned from AK a few months ago, and I think it is a profound and chilling truth! Some time ago I spoke at a conference on the Public Sector about my book The Modernization Imperative. Another speaker was an old-style lefty pro-union type, and he outlined a strategy based on the fact that the public sector was basically actually-existing socialism, and that the way to pursue socialism was to expand the public sector.

Which is precisely what has happened in the UK over the past seven or so years: the NHS has doubled in size and the education sector has grown fifty percent - growth rates _much_ faster than the private sector.

So socialism is steaming ahead in the UK.

UK libertarians may have won the battle in the private sector back in the 1980s, but now the public sector is where the (in)action is.

Matt writes:

I haven't time to read and analyze all the points.

Regarding government:

When government exceeds its core function, then the New Libertarian wants to know what market the government action will impact, what are the competative alternatives, and what is the price offered.

For example:

If government takes on a partnership with the oil industry to develop some far away oil nation, then government should get venture capital rates for its participation, 50% at least, not some paultry 35%.

This is not wealth distribution, this is competetive investment practice.

Matt writes:

Now I have more time.

On health care:

The medical industry is huge and complex. However, one thing libertarians seem to agree on is that local emergency rooms are socialized, and like public roads, not much is to be done.

The classical liberal (not the progressive) would argue that emergency rooms should therefore be federalized for uniformity. In a governming partnership with the classical liberal, the libertarian might agree to federalize.


On Global Warming:

I have stated the libertarian position, Tyler agrees. More specifically, global warming is a conflict between property rights and northern migration.

Other stuff will come later.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Interesting observation on libertarian views of intellectual property. It's indicative of a wider divide. On one side, you've got the hippie mud hutters. On the other side, you've got Randian men of the mind. Both use strong libertarian themes to arrive at their position. The mud hutters want to be left alone and free to do as they like. The Randians appeal to specialization, investment, and other capitalist arguments.

Current IP Law is a poor implementation of a strong IP approach. IP proponents would prefer to not risk losing the approach to get better implementation. IP opponents would be fine with tearing down the implementation in hopes of changing the approach. Libertarian IP proponents' natural allies in the mainstream political spectrum are statist control freaks like Orin Hatch, while libertarian IP opponents' natural allies are run of the mill info-commies like Richard Stallman. Neither ally really does either libertarian position any justice.

Maybe libertarians should just ditch the big tent and separate into "capitalists" and "libertines". Both sides can take names that the other side would snicker in disgust at. We go our separate ways, but understand that when we agree, we make better allies than mainstreamers.

Marcus writes:

One good point that is a heavy topic of discussion is the natural dissasters and catastrophes. Is this world able to handle all of the world's population? Me myself I don't know at this rate that our population is growing no it won't, but the world will find ways to regulate the population through natural dissasters. It's scary when you sit back and think about it because if you open your eyes a little wider you will see that more and more tragedies are occuring and not just in nature but also as a product of mankind. So yes I agree there is a such thing as to much wealth and population.

Bill Stepp writes:

There is no such thing as "intellectual property" rights, which are just a figleaf for state-imposed intellectual monopoly.
Information cannot be owned, but can only be possessed or experienced, as John Perry Barlow pointed out, "Selling Wine without Bottles: The Ecnonomy of Mind on the Global Net," in Peter Ludlow, ed., High Noon on the Electronic Frontier: Conceptual Issues in Cyberspacee, p. 17.
Information can be instantiated in tangible property, which is defined as a tangible object ("ideal object") with boundaries that can be possessed. Tangible property can also be alienated. "IP" is not tangible and cannot be alienated for Jeffersonian reasons--if I give you information, I still possess it, unlike a piece of tangible property (or one or more of the bundle of rights that attach to it) I sell to you.

So the libertarian line on "IP" is that it's really a coverup for intellectual monopoly, and that it doesn't exist in a free market.
To put it in Friedmanite terms, there's no such thing as "IP" in a free market.

Matt writes:

The New Libertarian view on public and private property rights:

The new libertarian asserts libertarian property rights in both cases.

The New Libertarian views the federal government as a public corporation in which voters are equal shareholders. Taxes are income from government operations. A consistant federal surplus is an indication that government is operating at a profit. A consistent deficit is an indication the government is operating at a loss.

Only emminent domain trumps private property rights.

However, open access and due process trump public property rights.

Using the accounting methods of the New Libertarian, we, along with our classical Liberal partners, consider the alliance between the Republican conservative and progressive Democrat to be a communist enterprise.

The defacto alliance between progressive Dems and conservatives Repubs should no longer be denied by any careful observer of the American economy over the last 50 years.

TGGP writes:

I guess I'd be a capitalist in that I like liberty for consequentialist reasoning (lots of people flee their crappy countries for prosperity in the U.S, few go in the other direction) and have some distaste or even revulsion for libertines. However, I'm firmly in the anti-IP camp. I haven't seen any empirical evidence that it actually makes us better off, leading me to believe it is just another form of government granted monopoly holding back industry.

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