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Five Responses to Eggers and O'Leary's "Five Reasons Why Libertarians Shouldn't Hate Government"

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EconLog reader Justin Longo asked me to respond to Eggers and O'Leary's "Five Reasons Why Libertarians Shouldn't Hate Government."  Here goes, point-by-point:

E&O's Reason #1: Bad government leads to bigger, badder government.
[I]n societies where people distrust large institutions--whether government or big business--the demand for more regulation and for more government is higher, even when government is incompetent or downright corrupt.
E&O might be right that cynicism about government perversely increases support for government.  But if so, libertarians shouldn't attack the public's justified cynicism.  Instead, they should help people see the logical anti-government conclusion of their cynicism.  Academics who are cynical about government generally are anti-government; see for yourself at the Public Choice Society meetings.  Why not teach laymen to make the same connection?

E&O's Reason #2: To shrink government, you need to love government. 
Until small-government types better master the nuts and bolts of the public sector--how to design policies that work in the real world and how to execute on large public undertakings--their initiatives to downsize government will continue to disappoint.
There may be something to this; unfortunately, it is also true that those who love government don't want to shrink it.  It's a conundrum.

The least-bad solution in my view: Follow your libertarian conscience.   If you're a moderate libertarian, maybe you can make government less bad without hating yourself.  If you're a hard-core libertarian, stay out of government.  To quote the underrated 8mm, "If you dance with the devil, the devil don't change. The devil changes you."  Hard-core libertarians' comparative advantage is to play watchdog for moderate libertarians - and make them seem reasonable by comparison.

E&O's Reason #3: Market-based reforms are not self-executing.
Without a keen appreciation of the process by which legislation and programs are designed and implemented, efforts to move from monopoly to markets carry a high risk of failure.
This is true for privatization of state assets and partial deregulation, but not true in general.  Simple-minded abolition often works great.  Eliminating price controls or legalizing kidney sales does not require complex design or implementation.  Once again, though, there's a useful division of labor between moderate and radical libertarians.  Moderates shepherd reforms through; radicals watch the moderates and make them seem reasonable by comparison.

E&O's Reason #4: Government bashing alienates those you want to reach.

Incessant government-bashing may make you feel good, but alienates most everybody who knows and loves a police officer, firefighter, teacher, social worker, anyone who has ever collected an unemployment check, and anyone who saw NASA put a man on the moon.

This sounds wise, but dodges an important issue.  There's nothing wrong with growing wheat, so you can criticize government provision without impugning the character of government wheat farmers.  But what if government is doing something that no one should do?  If you think that drug prohibition and immigration restrictions are crimes against humanity - and they are - the people who apply these laws are, well, criminals.  If E&O reject these examples, it is easy to construct other examples (involving slavery, Nazis, etc.) that they do accept.  The sad fact is that many positions are true, yet extremely unpalatable to the public.

E&O's Reason #5: Nobody will care what you know until they know you care. 

Many voters today may indeed want smaller government, but what they want most of all is competent government. In addition to pointing out the flaws of government, free-marketers also need to communicate a genuine interest in the effective performance of the important duties of government.

Again, it matters what government is doing.  If it's providing an otherwise legitimate service, E&O make a fair point.  I'm a professor in a state university.  If I figure out a low-cost way to better teach my students, I do it.  If government is persecuting drug users or illegal immigrants, on the other hand, incompetence really is good.

In any case, E&O neglect libertarians' comparative advantage.  There are millions of non-libertarians who want to improve government efficiency, compared to thousands of libertarians who want to shrink government.  Libertarians should focus on the latter task, because if we don't do it, no one will.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (7 to date)
Kurbla writes:

It doesn't appear that anti-x logically follows from cynism toward x. Many people are cynical about capitalism, corporations, academia, humanity, USA and American values for sure. If you advice people to make conclusion from cynicism about state to anti-state, shouldn't you advice them to make same conclusion and become anti-capitalists, anti-academic, anti-humanity and anti-American?

Matt writes:

About deregulation, Oleary has a point most deregulation attempts don't end well. 1) Republicans politicians don't care about small government, but 2)more importantly we all know regulatory capture exist and so does the opposite. Since the deregulated market will still have regulations and government interference you will have things like the S&L crisis every time. HOw can we ever expect the state to deregulate properly?

nels writes:

Isn't that like telling an atheist he needs to accept Jesus as his savior before believers will be persuaded that there is no god?

Ben Kalafut writes:

I'm reluctant to adopt a terminology that has people who hold positions I find untenable or silly being somehow the same as me but more "hard core", but:

The reality of the "hard core" libertarians is that they will not "play watchdog" but rather that they will backstab their supposed non-"hard core" fellows and cripple their political efforts.

For examples of crippling: Consider every State Libertarian Party platform fight wherein the "hard core" insists that the document call for a total end to taxation.

And for backstabbing: It shouldn't take too much thought, but what Dave Nolan did to Bob Barr while the latter was at the height of his fundraising and earned press coverage comes immediately to mind.

Matt Simpson writes:

"In any case, E&O neglect libertarians' comparative advantage. There are millions of non-libertarians who want to improve government efficiency, compared to thousands of libertarians who want to shrink government. Libertarians should focus on the latter task, because if we don't do it, no one will."

Libertarians are far more likely to know how to improve government efficiency than people with other ideologies, knowing econ and stuff. It seems improving the government in general would be libertarians' comparative advantage where "improving" is defined to include addition by subtraction.

David C writes:

Shorter Bryan Caplan:

1) Disagree with an argument they never made.
2) Radical libertarians are necessary to act as supervisors and help out with public relations for the moderates.
3) Repeat 2.
4) We also need to preach to the sinners and tell them why their moral values are wrong.
5) It's better to throw a bunch of money at failing to do the wrong thing, then succeeding at doing the wrong thing very cheaply.

On 2 and 3, liberals made similar arguments to defend their criticism of Obama. The result was that the media never caught on that a fourth of Obama's criticism on health care was because it wasn't liberal enough. For libertarians, the problem is much worse. The supervisors and PR officers greatly outnumber the "drones".

On 5, since incompetence increases expense, how does anybody weigh the relative worth of forcefully relocating people out of the country and taking their money through taxes?

Glen writes:

"Hard-core libertarians' comparative advantage is to play watchdog for moderate libertarians - and make them seem reasonable by comparison."

Or make them seem ridiculous by association. That's more often my experience.

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