Bryan Caplan  

Worst Advice to Libertarians Ever?

A Relic of Prohibition... Taxes and Tipping...

I'm not sure if Tyler Cowen's advice to libertarians is the worst any serious thinker has ever given us. But it's up there. I'd like to give my dear friend and benefactor a charitable reading, but I just can't. Stripped of its rhetorical grace, Tyler's essay basically makes two big points:

1. We're really rich, so libertarians should quit trying to roll back the New Deal, even though we're basically right:

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.
Let’s not obsess over all the interventions represented by the New Deal, even though I would agree that most of those policies were bad ideas.

It's hard to make any sense of this argument. If Tyler was trying to help libertarians overcome psychological depression by saying, "Sure, we live under statism, but cheer up - you're rich!" he'd have a point. But "Sure, the New Deal was a bad idea, but quit fighting it - you're rich!" makes no sense. In fact, the richer you personally are, the more spare resources you have to argue against bad ideas.

But what about Tyler's argument that prosperity and the growth of government are a "package deal"? Again, it's hard to make sense of this. There's got to be more to being a "package deal" than the fact that two things both happened. Here's the closest that Tyler comes to arguments that prosperity and more government are a "package deal":

The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand.

The first argument is trivial. With statist preferences, more wealth brings more government. How is that a reason to quit arguing against statist preferences? You could just as easily tell an atheist that more wealth brings more religion - and he'd naturally respond, "It wouldn't if people knew the truth - and I aim to tell them."

The second argument builds on the strange assumption that libertarians have made government work better in any sense other than making it do less. Maybe Gore's "good government" panel made government work better. But as Tyler has previously complained, libertarians barely acknowledge variation in the quality of governance.

2. Libertarians should jump on the scare-mongering bandwagon and start worrying about global warming, epidemics, and nuclear proliferation - not to mention asteroids.

But contrary to Tyler's suggestion, libertarians have been thinking about scary predictions for a long time. Remember Julian Simon? Long story short: (a) Scary stories are usually greatly exaggerated; (b) Government "corrections" are quite likely to make problems worse; (c) Liberty will suffer in the bargain. The "War on Terror" inspired by the 9/11 attacks provides a nice confirmation of these deep lessons.

The bottom line is that libertarians need to pay attention to these issues because non-libertarians are eager to do something about them. But libertarians' skeptical presumption against both the likelihood of disaster and the likelihood that government will avert disaster is wise and justified. Journalists (John Stossel excepted) should be learning from us, not the other way around.

The underlying theme of Tyler's essay is that "times have changed, and libertarians need to change with them." As he puts it: "America in the mid to late 1970s was a wreck, and libertarians indeed had a lot of the right answers."

But frankly, I see no reason why Tyler couldn't have written virtually the same essay in 1975. By historical standards, we were really rich then, too. Gas queues and 10% inflation were hardly the end of the world. Furthermore, in 1975 we also faced an array of threatening menaces. At least one - the Soviet threat - looked far worse than anything we live with today. If Tyler is right that libertarians had a lot of the right answers in the '70's, then we still do today.

Comments and Sharing

TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL:
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 4:04 AM]
COMMENTS (13 to date)
Kevin Nowell writes:

Finally. I was waiting for you to say this.

Gabriel M. writes:

My impression is that he wants the next generation of libertarians to be social-democrats (or "liberals", in US-speak).

Is a libertarian who is not a libertarian a libertarian? -- It puzzles the mind!

Josh writes:

Thank you Bryan. I felt the same way when I read Tyler's essay but I didn't have the stones to tell him so to his face (i.e. in his blog comments). I'm glad you did.

TDL writes:

I have been puzzled by a lot of what Tyler Cowen has been saying over the past year, he seems to be more of a contemporary liberal than a classical liberal or libertarian. Good post, I've been waiting for someone to pretty much call him out.


David writes:


Tyler Cowen writes:

Bryan's extreme rhetoric is a sign my points have hit home. I regularly debate these topics with him over lunch, I think Bryan is tired of being beat up upon in person. Note that in my essay I mention pandemics, global warming, and intellectual property as problems areas. There are plenty of facts on each topic. Bryan doesn't mention one of these in response, instead shifting ground to the war on terror and resource pessimism, which he then punctures. He is rationally irrational, I suppose. His invocation of religion as irrational supports my view that neither religious preferences nor statist preferences will go away anytime soon. In fact Bryan's research, more than anything, has convinced me of that conclusion.

Scott Scheule writes:


Jeff Hallman writes:

Tyler: Note that in my essay I mention pandemics, global warming, and intellectual property as problems areas. There are plenty of facts on each topic.

Well, let's just consider a few of those facts. Do pandemics pose a bigger threat to 21st century medicine than they did to 15th century medicine? 16th century? 17th? I really want to know: just when did the increasing danger from a larger population (more targets) begin to outpace the increasing ability of medicine to combat the threat? This is just nuts, especially when you stop to think that more people means more original ideas, and hence better medicine along with better techonologies in all areas.

The global warming farce is amazing. The people who proclaim the danger of burning ever-more fossil fuels are the same people who breathlessly tell us that we are running out of oil. So what was the problem, again?

How is intellectual property a problem calling for more government? The real question is: should you be able to use the coercive power of the state to keep other people from using an idea that you claim to have had first? The Constitution says: Yes, but only in a limited way, and only if it promotes progress in the Arts and Sciences. That's a reasonably good answer. The term 'Intellectual Property' begs the question. Animals don't have property -- it's a social construct that has proven very useful over centuries. Software patents have not.

Andras Ludanyi writes:

Well, I guess this would be 1:0 for the libertarians :)
I couldn't agree more. Thank you.

DS writes:

The REAL Libertarian paradox is that being a libertarian, truly following its reasoning to its logical conclusions and spending any amount of time telling the rest of the world about it is a lonely, thankless job. It means a life of intellectual ostracism and loneliness.

Few have the courage to spend a lifetime on the outside of the political conversation, content to throw rocks at all sides, especially those in academia. Tyler Cowen has obviously run out of that courage, and who can blame him? Most of us have a natural human need to be liked and the best way to get people to like you is to agree with them, which is essentially what Tyler has done with respect to the dominant political orientation of the academic community: modern, American post-New Deal liberalism.

While I am theorizing about psychology, I also think many become libertarians are drawn to the philosophy by a non-conformist and contrarian nature. But if you spend enough time in a libertarian environment, like GMU for instance, the contrarian impulse manifests itself in taking heretical positions. The irony is that the heretical position Tyler has taken turns out to be the plain vanilla left-liberal statist position common to most in academia. How's that for irony?

Let's lay out the uncomfortable truth for all to see, so there's no more confusion of this type: As a libertarian you nor I will see any kind of arrangement of human affairs to our liking in our lifetimes. Modern day libertarians are akin to the monks who kept western cvilization preserved during the dark ages by copying the classic texts, preserving them for future generations during the Rennaissance and the Enlightenment. We are simply keeping the ideas of liberty and the voluntary organization of society alive so that future generations will be able to benefit when the opportunity arises.

Take that thankless job as a badge of honor and know that you are providing the logical foundations for some future collection of individuals to throw off the parasite of government and live with true liberty and without bloodshed and war. Somebody way in the future may just write a book about you (not you Tyler, you will be forgotten).

Tom West writes:

Indeed, despite libertarianism being a futile crusade, it does serve the function of being a counterweight to the equally futile crusade of massive government intervention in everything.

A (non-wingnut) fringe without a balancing counter-weight (non-wingnut) fringe begins to actually start seriously pulling society from the center.

So even as a left winger (mildly right wing by non-US standards), I'd hate to see the Libertarians simply accepting the status quo on the basis that there's no possibility of victory.

However, I do like the idea of Tyler failing to conforming to non-conformism :-).

James writes:

While I agree that Tyler's advice is pretty bad, I think the real reason it's bad is that (like most advice) it is given without any thought toward the motivations and constraints of the intended audience, in this case, libertarians.

Tyler, if you read this, perhaps you can answer my question: If I want for myself and my loved ones to be as free as possible subject to the bounds of what I consider to be moral, how does it follow that I should embrace a world where a growing government subsidizes the growing positive liberty of some through the forced taking of the growing wealth of others? It seems to me that if I'm among the government or the some, I'm not acting within the bounds of what I consider moral and if I'm among the others, I could be a lot more free without that growing government forcibly taking my growing wealth. So now that you know the relevant motivations and constraints that I suspect most libertarians share, why on earth should I (or we) take your advice?

kldimond writes:

I read Cowan's comments and had the same reaction Bryan had.

I also resonate with someone above who thought Cowan got lonely. What he's done with this essay appears to be what we used to call "selling out."

I marvel at one thing in particular, though, about Cowan's essay: how does he figure things are better economically?

Mercantilistic public policy is on a rampage, and the beneficiary companies are pushing prices up and creating contrived shortages; and we're building an elite of businesses that are in league with ill-advised public policy makers (and worse, vice versa). Medicine and oil come to mind. This isn't new, by any stretch, but I see it advancing at a very accelerated pace.

Flip that, and see the banking industry, backed by government programs and what amounts to junk-bonds-like securities sales on Wall Street pertaining to subprime lending, creating a certain kind of money glut, pushing real estate prices into oblivion and baiting unsuspecting buyers with interest-only loans and other instruments almost designed to create a foreclosure market.

Subprime mortgage companies are being and/or will be pilloried for this, but Wall Street and the unduly insured banking industry are in it up to their teeth. They created the situation.

On another level, for those of us who have to have "day" jobs or are close to others who do, where we're employees, most people I know are complaining that managements are increasingly condescending and committed to the idea that employees are chattel. I see decreasing use by management of the "I'll help you meet your goals if you'll help me meet mine" ethic, and increasing "You should just be glad you have a job."

And this bears out in a recent survey tht showed the numbers for employee satisfaction having dropped precipitously in the last 10 years.

This latter should be indicative that things are not better, but worse. The job market sucks, or we'd see increasing employee satisfaction instead of the other way around.

As you might guess, I burned a little when I read Cowan's proclamation that things are better.

Still, I'm one of those weirdos who believes a libertarian victory could well be just around the corner.

...which also made me burn at Cowan. "We can't beat 'em, so let's grin and bear it and learn to cheer it." I can only think of Hanoi Jane and Tokyo Rose.

The truth is that in America, we most definitely have a class system that blatantly defies the concept of equality before the law. Our markets are not free; they are mercantilist (and the difference between that and fascist is ... what?). Injustice done using courts and legislatures as the weapons is rampant.

And I think it'll get worse, until it arrives at some critical mass where people realize that we've been duped and scammed--to the point where they will force change however they have to.

Whenever that comes, and I think it'll be not too many years out, those of us who understand the moral and practical value of freedom need to have our message out there, so people have a good vision what to change to, or we'll see something really stupid.

Comments like Cowan's are, I think, practically the wolf howling and trying to tell us it's a bleat.

It undermines the communication of the message we need to be on, which is that the reason government exists in the American model--the only excuse for it, that is--is and, after 1776 ever was, to protect Americans' Life, Libery and Property, our freedoms...

If it doesn't do these things, or if it "does" them in some way that does not treat everyone equally (Robin Hood government, elitism, graduated tax schemes), then it is renegade.

This is the message we need to get out there. Does Cowan help? No. He's gone renegade.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top