Bryan Caplan  

Are Libertarians Especially Predictable?

The Insider Narrative... What I Told the Liberaltarians...
I'm grateful for the Wall St. Journal's coverage of EconLog, even if they can't spell my name correctly.  I was struck, though, by its "quibble":
The blog's libertarian viewpoint means that you can almost always guess the punch line.

1.  The same complaint plainly applies to forthrightly liberal and conservative blogs.  But I'd go further: It also applies to moderate and contrarian blogs.  You can count on moderates to be moderate.  More strikingly, you can count on contrarians to be contrarian.  Consider Tyler, my favorite contrarian.  You can be almost sure that he's not going to give a clear, unadulterated answer to a controversial question and stick to it.  Yes, he may change his mind; but when his mind changes, it changes it to another contrarian answer.

2. It's important to distinguish between consistently partisan and consistently ideological blogs.  Since every group of reasonable size contains blatant wrong-doers, consistently partisan blogs always wind up defending the undefendable.  As a result, they're awful and unreadable.  In contrast, consistently ideological blogs might be correct - and even when they're not, they help you refine your thinking.  Many libertarian blogs are dogmatically ideological.  Since they rarely feel compelled to stand up for all members of a group of human beings, though, at least they don't sound like something out of 1984.

3. Yes, predictable can be boring.  But there are many sources of entertaining variation.  If I fear I'm boring my readers, I don't need to change my mind for their amusement.  It's at least as stimulating - and a lot more intellectually honest - to simply change the subject

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COMMENTS (19 to date)
OneEyedMan writes:

I once had a friend who said to me that "all libertarians sound the same, as though you all read the same stuff", which is probably true for most groups, but libertarians are saying such different things that it sounds unusual when they do it.

Brandon Robison writes:

They wrote basically the same "quibble" for Megan McArdle. Perhaps they only deserve one light bulb for originality.

Constant writes:

Libertarianism is predictable in the sense that much or most of it can be expressed compactly. Once you have learned and accepted the basic ideas, you too can become a libertarian, and your specific policy positions are likely to coincide with the specific policy positions of most other libertarians most of the time. While some may critique the idea that libertarianism can be reduced rigorously and logically to the non-aggression principle, or to some small set of axioms, nevertheless as a practical matter libertarians, having accepted some basic ideas, are able to apply those ideas to many different topics in ways that tend to agree with other libertarians. You don't have to have read anywhere that libertarians oppose the war on drugs to be able to predict, based on their general principles, that libertarians would be opposed to the war on drugs. Conservatism and liberalism are not like this, at least not anywhere to this degree. And certainly not moderatism.

Peter Twieg writes:

You should just replace this post with a diatribe about the Spanish Inquisition. Take that, WSJ!

But yes, it was noteworthy that the "predictable" label was directed at multiple libertarian blogs, but no others, as I recall.

Sam Wilson writes:

Perhaps they think economists change the hard "C" sound to a "K" in general and not just for capital.

Bryan Kaplan. Sounds like you should be helping desperate undergrads get into Harvard Law School.

I shouldn't jest. My wife is finding the Kaplan course for her NCLEX exam to be worth every penny. You could do worse than be associated with that organization.

At least they didn't call you Bryan Adams.

Scott Wentland writes:

I'm not sure how relevant the predictable critique is. And to me, predictability doesn't mean boring either. For example, in, say, 99% of all movies or fictional stories, the good guy wins or you have some sort of happy ending. Most endings are "predictable" in this sense. What's not all that predictable in many cases (well, the interesting cases), is how the story unfolds. Great stories can have "predictable" endings in the same way as great blogs can have "predictable" punchlines.

That is, even if the "punchline" is libertarian in the sense that it calls for less government, the way the story unfolds is the most important part. I think this is the case for ALL blogs...partisans, ideologues, contrarians, etc.. What's interesting is not their predictability, but the nature of their arguments (e.g. how creative, logical, or reasonable they sound) and the strength of their evidence.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

If you understand the ways in which anarchists, minarchists, or "Big L"/Neolibertarians differ, then I think you can expect a certain level of a point. A libertarian is very much the individualist, which is a wild card, and as a result, I have found that it's almost impossible to maintain friendships with them.

Les writes:

It is important to distinguish predictability of diagnosis from predictability of prescription. For example, liberals and socialists tend to rely upon dogma rather than factual evidence in diagnosing the ills of humankind, and tend to rely upon dogma rather than factual evidence in prescribing "cures" for those ills of humankind. These "cures" predictably require government policies that have a consistent record of repeated failure.

In contrast, libertarians tend to rely upon factual evidence rather than dogma in diagnosing the ills of humankind, and tend to rely upon factual evidence rather than dogma in prescribing cures for those ills of humankind.

Then why do libertarians often differ in both diagnosis and prescription? Because the real world is complex and difficult to diagnose with certainty. So even a reliance upon factual evidence can lead to different interpretations and conclusions.

Adam writes:

Predictable could mean logically consistent. That's a good attribute. On the other hand, predictable could mean just simplistic and blind to facts and real ethical issues.

Take Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty. There are some great and intriguing arguments in that book--such as his chapter on human rights. At the same time, there are some really simplistic and predictable analyses as well--such as the chapter on children's rights.

Intriguingly consistent is good. Simplistically consistent and blind to facts/ethics is not so good.

jb writes:

Frankly, the WSJ saying that Libertarianism is predictable is like a Creationist arguing that Evolutionists are predictable.

I've been a hard-core libertarian for almost 2 decades now, and yours is one of the blogs I read because it isn't completely predictable, and when you guys deviate from what I expect, you have some really good and thought-provoking points.

Blackadder writes:

I disagree about Tyler. Knowing that a blog author aims to be contrarian doesn't tell you much about where he'll come down on any particular issue (there are hundreds of ways to be contrarian)

However, I think you're missing the most important counter-quibble, which is that unless a blog is a joke, knowing the punchline in advance isn't really a problem. All the stuff leading up to the punchline is just as if not more important.

Bryan Caplan writes:

Your point about punchlines is very well put, Blackadder.

Yancey Ward writes:

I could have predicted the WSJ writers would write something like that. writes:

They said the same thing about Megan McArdle, which I thought was strange. I think it was their (im)polite way of saying (wrongly) that you and Megan are boring.

bil. A. writes:

Isn't there a famous quote out there about there being an infinite number of ways to be wrong, but only one truth? So in general, error will be much less predictable.

Granite26 writes:

Libertarians are so far northwest of baseline thinking that on any issue we're all going to be the same direction.

It's like complaining that Europeans all live in the same spot because anytime one points to his home it's always across the Atlantic.

Max writes:

Why are we predictable, because mainstream-thinking is about the medium issues and at most times in our history mainstream thinking was more leftish and pro-state than freedom-oriented (though those statists used the word liberty A LOT). So, yes, it is pretty predictable that we don't agree about some narrow "differences" that we don't see really as different options but as variants of the same.

On the other side, there is no real "we" in libertarians, because if you look at libertarian blogs than their thinking is really wide-spread on a number of issues.

@Cupboard is bare:

Actually, I am a libertarian and I think I have (outside the internet) just one friend who is a little like me, BUT I get along with most Democrats and Greens quite fine (not so with conservatives). This is mostly because they have the same opinions on drugs/sex/alcohol and are against war. Of course, even with political differnces you can be friends! And you don't have to talk about it. And lastly, libertarians are not loners by force of their ideology, actually they should be quite social as long as it is voluntary...

Monte writes:

Notwithstanding WSJ’s pejorative application of the term, isn’t predictability, in this instance, a good thing? We should expect an ideology that relies on a set of clearly defined methodological norms for resolution to be predictable. Unpredictable ideological viewpoints are incoherent. They suffer from a lack of conviction, or what Mises would have called an “intransigent adherence to principle”, a notable exception being the unpredictability of creative thinking, which we could all stand to do more of.

Billare writes:

In my experience libertarianism is associated with people who have an axiomatizing, compartmentalizing, turn of mind. If they agree on a few basic principles expounded upon by previous thinkers, it makes sense they would have a smaller variance of thought than other ideologies.

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