Arnold Kling  

Libertarian Schisms

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I started with a post by Jim Manzi, worked back to Jonah Goldberg, and landed on an article by Brian Doherty, about some newly-released writings from Murray Rothbard.


The uneasy relationship between Rothbard and Hayek is echoed to this day, with such modern Hayekian libertarians as Virginia Postrel (former editor of Reason magazine) and Will Wilkinson lamenting the conflation of their thought with Rothbard-style beliefs. All sorts of intra-libertarian squabbles follow along the same rough lines of the no-compromise, anti-statist Rothbardians versus the more classical liberal, utilitarian, fallibilist, prudential Hayekians. The differences in ultimate political ends are often also reflected in differences in tone and willingness to engage--as opposed to rail against--the standard bastions of mainstream power and influence.

This discussion made me want to think about where I fit in with all of this. Let me pose a few questions.

1. How are willing are you to talk about compromises with the state as it is?

My answer is, "very willing." For example, when I talk about raising the retirement age for Social Security, that is a compromise relative to "abolish Social Security."

I justify this not on the basis of political pragmatism but on the basis of self-doubt. I believe that the state could reduce or phase out Social Security without harmful consequences, but I am not certain of this. One can imagine potentially harmful consequences, including repercussions that ultimately harm the cause of liberty. In general, I think in terms of incremental steps and experiments rather than in terms of the ultimate libertarian ideal. The much-ignored Unchecked and Unbalanced champions those sorts of ideas, even as it aims for an ideal that is very different from our current form of government.

2. What is your attitude toward Progressives?

Here, I seem to be more with Rothbard than with Wilkinson. Doherty cites this essay as an example of Rothbard's thinking.


The enormous growth of intellectuals, academics, social scientists, technocrats, engineers, social workers, physicians, and occupational "guilds" of all types in the late 19th century led most of these groups to organize for a far greater share of the pie than they could possibly achieve on the free market. These intellectuals needed the State to license, restrict, and cartelize their occupations, so as to raise the incomes for the fortunate people already in these fields.

I differ with Rothbard in that I see the advance of the Progressive ideology less as a result of conscious conspiracy and more as an emergent phenomenon based on man's status-seeking nature. The academy is a fractal set of ranking systems, almost as if it were designed to appeal to people looking for status measures. Moreover, to a great extent, your status depends on your profession of faith, in things like global warming. The system is recursive, in that above all, you must profess faith in the process by which intellectuals gain power, both within the academy and in the apparatus of the state.

(Given that the Obama Administration consists of the exact sorts of technocrats that the Progressive movement exalts--not a single businessman among the key players--I predict that the Progressive narrative will never concede that this Administration failed. Instead, the narrative will necessarily be that its problems were inherited and that the country became ungovernable. Robert Wright is the latest contributor to this narrative. Another narrative variation that you will find is that Obama's only flaw was his unwillingness to fight harder for Progressive policies.

Again, I do not see a conspiracy to protect Obama. Instead, I see a natural attempt to resolve the cognitive dissonance that results from having to reconcile a nearly ideal Progressive scenario--Obama plus 60 Senators plus a House majority--with adverse poll numbers, a failed stimulus program, a health care reform that was hardly worth fighting for, and in general not much to show for all the technocratic brilliance.)

3. Does the state have necessary functions?

I believe that it does, but I am not sure. I am strongly inclined to believe that unless we agree to have an ultimate arbiter of disputes, the equilibrium is what North, Weingast, and Wallis call "the natural state," in which a coalition of violent gangs extorts from the general public and shares the loot. Our imperfect democracy, or "open-access order" in NWW's terminology, is far from perfect, but it allows more people to have more opportunity to hold onto more of the wealth that they create.

However, my guess is that what we think of as typical government functions--education, income security, police and fire protection, etc.--could be supplied competitively by profit-seeking firms, charities, or mutual aid societies. There are various issues with this approach--again, see my much-ignored book if you want more discussion.

Overall, I think my views may not be far from Rothbard's, but I am far more intellectually cautious. I am aware that I have changed my mind over the years, which suggests that I could be persuaded to do so again.


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The author at Instead of a Blog in a related article titled Klinging to the State writes:
    Arnold Kling writes, Does the state have necessary functions? I believe that it does, but I am not sure. I am strongly inclined to believe that unless we agree to have an ultimate arbiter of disputes, the equilibrium is what North, Weingast, and Wallis... [Tracked on February 7, 2010 3:54 PM]
COMMENTS (22 to date)
MernaMoose writes:

Now, here's a discussion worth having. And if libertarians ever want to become politically relevant, they shouldn't be talking about anything else. For the core issue is: how much government is enough, and how do you justify your position?

It's clear the majority of the voting public isn't buying the standard libertarian shtick.

Rand's answer: government provides police, courts, and a military. The End.

But how many of you are really willing to go without the EPA?

Corporation X buys lakeside property and dumps cyanide in Lake Erie. The End of Lake Erie. The only recourse in Rand's world is lawsuits, which will never bring back Lake Erie.


OTOH, whatever benefits the EPA giveth with one hand, it taketh away (perhaps even more) with the other. Their handling of "HazMats" today is frequently nothing short of insane, and the economic costs are substantial and real (and economics is only one dimension of the problems they cause).

This is a non-trivial question you pose, Arnold. A question that deserves far more attention than I see it getting.

The stock libertarians answers to these questions frequently come across to the mainstream public as little more than a different flavor of philosophical nihilism. The limited government agenda will not win significant converts until it's given a much stronger, much clearer philosophical underpinning.

I should like to see libertarians seriously working to generate that underpinning. Sadly, I don't see it happening.

John T. Kennedy writes:

"I am strongly inclined to believe that unless we agree to have an ultimate arbiter of disputes, the equilibrium is what North, Weingast, and Wallis call "the natural state," in which a coalition of violent gangs extorts from the general public and shares the loot."

1. If we agree to that then we have a contract, not a government.

2. The world currently has no ultimate arbiter; do you think we'd be better off if it did?

Felix writes:

3. Does the state have necessary functions?

Consider the licensing/regulating job governments are used for now.

Break this job in to separate components.

  1. Gather information about a product or service (e.g. doctoring, building contracting, etc.)
  2. Insure that the gathered information is true
  3. Process the information to produce a brand (usually in the form of a certificate or license)
  4. Broadcast the branding information
  5. Monopolize the market for the brand
  6. Insure that no one spoofs the brand

Specialization is a good thing in lots of other endeavors. What if these various tasks are unbundled?

With this job broken up, the interesting thing is that three of these tasks: gathering, processing and broadcasting, are very typical of tasks currently going buggy-whip on us. There are simply better ways to do them now. Governments don't add value.

But. If you're looking for a necessary function of government, look to the honest, trusted cop tasks. And, if governments get out of the other tasks, they'll be in a better position to be honest and trusted. They are no longer put in the position of being the fox guarding the hen house.

MernaMoose writes:

John T. Kennedy,

1. If we agree to that then we have a contract, not a government.

So then tell me, how would this work if we had a "government" and not a mere (?) "contract".


2. The world currently has no ultimate arbiter; do you think we'd be better off if it did?

It's not impossible that mankind would be better off. But given the current condition of the world (and entire historical past) it's highly improbable that such an institution could be created.

It would basically require that a reincarnated Alexander the Great come along and conquer everyone. But even given this, there remains the question of what kind of order this global institution would impose. Good, bad, or otherwise are options.

This question doesn't seem to get us very far. The fact that a global order is probably out of reach, doesn't mean that more localized governments (i.e. countries as we know them) don't make sense, or provide benefits.

As much as I'm sympathetic to what anarchists would like to achieve in banishing central government, there are nonetheless reasons why central governments and countries have existed for many thousands of years. Wishing it wasn't so won't change things.

MernaMoose writes:

Felix,

Specialization is a good thing in lots of other endeavors. What if these various tasks are unbundled?

Interesting idea, but how would you bring it about?

It sounds like you're advocating the Rand solution.

John T. Kennedy writes:

MernaMoose writes:

"So then tell me, how would this work if we had a "government" and not a mere (?) "contract"."

We have a govenment when we have an ultimate arbiter that we don't agree to - like this one.

John T. Kennedy writes:

MernaMoose writes:

"This question doesn't seem to get us very far. "

It gets us this far: Kling is saying he thinks we probably must have something we're not going to have: An ultimate arbiter.

Eric H writes:

Great post Arnold. And great links too. Postrel's piece was particularly illuminating:

"The most important challenge to markets today is not the ideology of socialism but the ideology of stasis, the notion that the good society is one of stability, predictability, and control."

I don't think contemporary libertarian energy is squandered in arguments against socialism, because I think socialism, or control, or planning, or whatever you want to call it, requires stasis. In fact, I have no problem thinking of socialism as stasis. Planning presumes a knowable future--a static future, by definition. But the future is at least as dynamic as the present. The problem of socialism, of planning for stasis, is that it approaches multidimensional systems with linear thinking. It creates a model for the future based on a linear interpretation of present multidimensional, concurrent events.

fundamentalist writes:

Rothbardians and Hayekians could easily debate the merits of more or less government if Rothbard hadn't fabricated his own ethic. When the debate becomes an ethical issue instead of an economic one, then no Rothbardian is going to give an inch and surrender his ethics. That makes discussion impossible.

floccina writes:

government provides police, courts, and a military

I would add to that management and maintenance of traditionally public property. Things like air, ground water ways, water ways, local roads etc.

Harrison Searles writes:

I agree with fundamentalist, and the Hayekian-Rothbardian divide is primarily an ethical divide for while Hayek wrote about the importance of the evolutionary nature of ethics, Rothbard deduced his through pure reason. Like it or not they are two different paradigms that while they may theoretically agree on some policy prescriptions, are fundamentally at odds with each other.

SydB writes:

"more as an emergent phenomenon based on man's status-seeking nature. The academy is a fractal set of ranking systems, almost as if it were designed to appeal to people looking for status measures."

But this implies that we can't trust what Mr Kling says either. Because he could also simply be seeking status in his analysis.

The problem with arguments that include "emergent" and "fractal" is that they can usually argue for just about anything.

Tom West writes:

Starting with the assumption that libertarianism is going to remain a fringe movement, I would say that both the morality and outcome based libertarians are needed. Moreover, I don't think splitting their numbers is problematic.

When it comes to the fringe, they provide value not by dictating policy, but by continually having their voice heard, which serves as a counterbalance to the fringe on the other side.

For example, while almost no-one wants *full* responsibility for their own lives, without the Libertarian voices, those who advocate almost *no* responsibility for one's own life could (i.e. no penalties for bad decisions) shift society significantly left of where it is now, to its detriment.

Morality-based libertarians are needed to remind people that governments *are* taking money without consent (and thus if we're going to do it, it should be done for a very good cause), and outcome-based libertarians are needed to remind people that the extra security/stasis that people crave and gov't provides comes with a very real cost in terms overall wealth (and that while we crave security, too much of it makes us unhappy as well).

As for working without or within: again, the more places libertarian voices can be heard, the more effective, so both are needed.

Of course, almost all of this advice applies to equally well to the left fringe as well.

Bo Zimmerman writes:

I'm reminded of the "Bootleggers and Babtists" storey from one of Russ' podcasts. The idea is that democratic change often involves both forces pushing together.

Now, I have Rothbardian tendencies myself: in any policy debate, I always start with a utilitarian argument, but end up saying something like "But in the end, even if I'm wrong about that, I still can't sit here and advocate theft and murder."

So, in the Bootlegger and Babtist storey, if the Rothbardians play the role of the Babtist, our job remains to evangelize about the simple evils that government does. If the utilitarians want to stand in as the Bootleggers, they either need to get rich and fund our ramblings, or raise money that will.

Just A Citizen writes:

MernaMoose

Having spent most of my life dealing in environmental matters I assure you I can live wihtout the EPA.

Most folks wouldn't at first. But I think it would be easier to convince them than you think.

The EPA would not have prevented the poisoning of the Lake in your example. They would simply fine the crap out of the company, keep the money and then spend billions on the clean up.

Tha actual people harmed would get nothing. There is great room for improvment.

JAC

MernaMoose writes:

JAC,

You may be right.

I'm an engineer who has watched so many common materials get labeled "HazMats" in recent years. The sheer stupidity (not to mention cost and damage on many fronts) has reached staggering proportions.

They've reached the point that almost everything gets either gets labeled a carcinogen or is credited with "causing birth defects". I swear at this point, they don't even care if the contrary evidence is overwhelming.

I'm ready to forgo the EPA myself. Too bad it won't happen until Alexander the Second Great invades and takes over.

MernaMoose writes:

JAC,

A question though. Do you suppose that the EPA has prevented damage because it exists?

In the 1950's metal plating shops were still dumping their spent metal plating baths in the creek out back. I'm no tree hugger (on contrare, I'm a People First type), but you'd have a hard time convincing me that this was a good thing.

But it's far cheaper to dump your plating bath in the creek out back. Do you suppose maybe they don't today, in large part because it's been made illegal and they'd face stiff penalties?


I believe the core of the problem here, is that we have yet to come up with clear principles to guide our actions on the environmental front. How do we deal with The Commons?

Sadly, what we have today is an EPA run by tree huggers who'd be happiest stripping us all of our technology.

We need principles. What we shall have is a gigantic mess, until we develop them.

MernaMoose writes:

Just for what it's worth, the environment isn't the only corner of the universe where we lack sufficient guiding principles -- principles that neither of the libertarian themes is providing.

Would we, for example, be better off if the interstate highway system had never been undertaken by the government? Color me unconvinced.

I well know the stock libertarian answer: privatize all roads. But while you may have 25 competing restaurants within four blocks of each other, there isn't enough room or money in the world to allow 25 different competing systems of roads, to get you there and home again.

Roads are just one example where free markets, whether considered theoretically or actually, simply cannot function.

By all means, free up every inch of the economy where free markets can function. But are we sure that in those corners the economy that free markets can't function, we aren't actually better off with significant (or even complete) government involvement?

The fact that libertarians are so adamant about privatizing nearly everything (the anarchists going so far as to ask for competing governments) is one huge reason that libertarian ideas just don't get any traction on the national stage. People can tell that something smells funny.


These are not easy questions. But if libertarians want their freedom, they better get a lot more serious about finding answers that make more sense than the stock answers being offered today.

Get a grip, libertarians. They aren't buying your shtick and they aren't going to. The shortcoming is our own. Our thinking needs some serious evolving.

Just A Citizen writes:

MernaMoose

I believe that halting the types of pollution you mention had been and could still be done without the EPA.

It is the laws that put the fear in the bad players and it was environmental awareness that changed behavior of the good players. There are still some bad ones but anyone who doesn't recognize the parardigm shift in this country regarding the environment is not paying attention.

Principles are indeed what we need. On the topic of where do we go, I would let EPA be replaced by private organizations who monitor and report good science. This information can then be used by people to litigate harm from pollutants. That is the general concept.

There are unsolved issues regarding how you act against non point sources and deal with individual polluters when cumulative effects but not single effects are harmful.

But we don't need an Environmental Cop to do all this.

I am in complete agreement that this exercise is critical and needs to be done NOW.

Best regards and hope you have a great day.
JAC

Nikolaj writes:

This dichotomy Rothbard-Hayek is a very convenient way of concealing the real problem with the modern liberALtarianism; Hayek was not a minimal state liberal, but moderate social-democrat willing to approve all major functions of the welfare state, such as government-run health care and pension system, government monopoly in money, antitrust and so on.

So, before one includes Rothbardian anarchist position into discussion, one should first confront Hayek with the REAL classical, minimal state liberalism, for example that of Ludwig von Mises. Hayek-Rothbard dichotomy suggested here means that either you are a moderate social democrat willing to compromise on every corner with the welfare state, or you are anarchist. Sorry, first address minimal state position, that is to say, contrast Hayek with Mises, not with Rothbard.

anon writes:

equilibrium is what North, Weingast, and Wallis call "the natural state," in which a coalition of violent gangs extorts from the general public and shares the loot.

+++++

really? You mean like the Democrats and the Republicans?

P.M.Lawrence writes:

"I believe that the state could reduce or phase out Social Security without harmful consequences, but I am not certain of this".

Try this and this (via this) - or just see here.

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