Bryan Caplan  

Do All Libertarians Sound Alike?

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What I'm Reading... My Opening Statement...
An old cliche tell us that "All the music you don't like sounds alike."  Does the same hold in politics?  Does everyone on "the other side" sound the same?

They don't to me.  Krugman, Rawls, Marx, and Lenin are all left-wing in some sense, but I wouldn't say that they're "formally committed to similar political beliefs."  It's puzzling to me, then, that Matt Yglesias would say exactly this about me and Tyler Cowen.  While Tyler and I are the best of friends, we constantly disagree.  (See here, here, here, and here for starters).  We certainly disagree more fundamentally than say Obama and McCain, or even Reagan and Carter - and lots of people think that their disagreements were major.

What would account for the misperception of libertarian homogeneity?

1. People generally misperceive their political opponents as more homogeneous than they really are.  On this theory, most libertarians would consider Krugman and Lenin's political beliefs to be similar.

2. People misperceive non-mainstream political opponents as more homogeneous than they really are.  On this theory, the typical Democrat would also see Marx and Lenin's political beliefs as similar.

3. People mistakenly equate amicable disagreement with fundamental agreement.  On this theory, non-libertarians would not lump Cato and Mises Institute people together.

4. There's no misperception; lumping your opponents together is just a rhetorical tactic to lower their status.  On this theory, people wouldn't equate dissimilar dead belief systems.  For example, since the Catholic-Protestant dispute is irrelevant to modern politics, we would readily acknowledge the differences between Luther and Loyola.

#2 seems closest to the truth to me.  Is it?  Got a better explanation?


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COMMENTS (24 to date)
razib writes:

i think #1 and #2 are both important. i've seen liberals generalize about and conservatives and vice versa in similar ways as what happened to you & tyler. but, i think that's because most people perceive political opponents as non-mainstream by definition. most liberals socialize with liberals, and most conservatives socialize with conservatives. even with they do cross-socialize (e.g., at work, or family gatherings) they try and not talk politics so they don't get anymore familiar with the worlviews of their opposite equivalents. so i think #1 occurs primarily because #2 is alway really operative, because opponents are by definition "non-mainstream."

Doc Merlin writes:

5. People aren't really listening to the substance of the statements and just lump people with similar ideology to each other but not to them into one black box.

6. They are far more interested in their own and similar ideas so they know a lot about those and minute differences there. They don't care as much about the other side's ideas so they end up being seen as less differentiated.

7. It could just be a function of them being different kinds of socialists. Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom that different types of socialists will naturally war with each other, because they both want control over the economy but have different ideas on how it should be run.

Robert Simmons writes:

Um, how about the tyranny of small differences? Plus, you and Tyler are academics who love to argue and see each other pretty much every day. Of course to you it seems like you two are very different.

Peter writes:

Covering your ears and humming loudly whenever a libertarian speaks might achieve the same result. So I agree with Doc Merlin.

Justin Martyr writes:

I remember reading that post and thought Matt was rude and insulting. The fact of the matter is that virtually all progressive bloggers have a mean-spirited attitude. That is not your defect Bryan, it is his. I think the correct answer is

#5. Make a play on social status in order to stigmatize the somewhat more orthodox libertarian.

Ted writes:

Two Points.

(i) Stop reading into something when there is nothing there.

(ii) Those examples were terrible. No fundamental differences in your core beliefs were exposed as being so dramatically contrary to one another that you can't be lumped in the "similar beliefs category." At least come up with good examples, not something stupid like whether we are all special or not.

Dan Hill writes:

Most people adopt and are attched to their politIcal views in the same way as their religious views - it's about faith not reason. Those who don't hold the same views are heretics - the substance of the heresy doesn't matter.

AS writes:

A bit ironic that, to facilitate your argument that you and Tyler are very different, you rely on one of his favorite blogging strategies: the brainstormed list.

Koz writes:

I'd be really interested in an explanation of why the disagreements between you and Tyler are more fundamental than Reagan and Carter.

That one just doesn't pass the smell test for me, though I'd love to hear your rationale for it.

John Thacker writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for rudeness. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

bdm writes:

There are a million different ways for government to intervene, but only one way for government not to intervene. Yes, there are many different reasons that libertarians give for laissez-faire, but there are also many different reasons that liberals give for why they support intervention. Liberalism does not have an "end goal" the way libertarianism does.

Kurbla writes:

I do not think that all libertarians are alike. I think that libertarians are specifically American phenomenon. Because of the bi-party system, libertarian movement has two main components - (a) classical liberals, (b) various marginal crypto-fascist schools - mixed together. Not only these two groups of people, but these two ideologies are lumped together, and theses are interconnected on strange ways.

How's that? The libertarians do not have incentive to profile the movement and separate these two main ways of thinking. They do not see large difference between pro-democracy and counter-democracy. In supposed real politics, partners who offer coalitions provide such incentivess. They say "we can work together, but please guys, get rid of these extremists, they can be members, but not in the leadership of the party." Moderates accept that, while the extremists feel betrayed and join to Aryan Nationalist Party.

Sure, US is not strict bi-party system, but Libertarian party is artificially kept low. In decent multi-party system, I guess you'd have something like 20% votes, gradually decreasing to stable and frequently pivotal 10%.

And what is the reason that people think all libertarians are alike? No special reason, people just do not care enough.

Giedrius writes:

You can say that all socialists are the same based on a common denominator - that all af them support the use of political means (initiation of physical force against other peopple) to achieve their ends. So Lenin, Krugman and Ron Paul agree in principle and disagree only in details.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Why do you think #2 over #1? That distinction seems a little self-serving. I think #1 is true.

And trust me - there are plenty of libertarians out there that claim there is no difference between Marx and Krugman. Just the other day on Cafe Hayek I had one raving that I was a social democrat. I am somewhat center-left, but I reject (on Cafe Hayek, regularly) large portions of the American Democratic party's platform. The idea that I'm anywhere near being a social democrat is preposterous.

I definitely think it's #1.

It's also all relative, you have to remember. Compared to the Krugman-Marx comparison you and Henderson ARE a lot alike. You agree on much more than Krugman and Marx do, and you at least have some foundational principles that you share. Krugman and Marx don't even share foundational principles. I think Krugman-Henderson or Krugman-Caplan is probably closer than Krugman-Marx, so the comparison that you raise itself is sort of strange to begin with.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

*you and Tyler. Not sure why I said Henderson.

Kevin Donoghue writes:

We certainly disagree more fundamentally than say Obama and McCain, or even Reagan and Carter - and lots of people think that their disagreements were major.

If Reagan and Carter were blogging academics they would be as different from each other as Casey Mulligan and Dani Rodrik. Presidents have to compromise. I can't imagine there being much difference between President Cowen and President Caplan, after the election campaign and the first few months in office had knocked the corners off them.

jb writes:

I'm guessing it's a status thing - Matt is very dismissive of unorthodox political thought. So it's easy to just put all of us in a box marked "deranged" and go on about his day.

I also would like you to elaborate further on how you think you and Tyler are more different than Carter and Reagan. I think that might be near-far bias on your part.


Noah Yetter writes:

#3 seems most likely to me, or a variation thereon. Things that seem "fundamental" to you seem trivial to people like Yglesias. We could talk all day about the "fundamental" differences been, say, Randians and Rothbardians but to a modern left liberal those differences just don't matter.

BZ writes:

Kurbla, forgive me if I misunderstand you, but I'm really curious where you see "Crypto Fascism" in the libertarian movement. Given that the credo of Fascism was “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State”, I'm sure you'll understand my confusion.

Over the years, I've come to the Brian Dougherty way of thinking about the freedom movement, that is, to give the whole thing a big hug and try my best not to get emotionally pulled into the inter-factional disputes. Doughterty's book "Radicals for Capitalism" comes highly recommended. Keeping up with Reason, antiwar, lewrockwell, objectvistindividualist, and various economic blogs (like this one) goes a long way in this respect.

Yancey Ward writes:

Yglesias simply doesn't read enough, or at all, the arguments of his opposition. This is a recurrent problem with him and other young bloggers like Ezra Klein. At one time, I thought they were simply intellectually dishonest, but then it occurred to me that they simply don't try to understand the opposition.

The very best opinion writers expend great energy in reading opposing argumentation with as open a mind as possible. I think this is a prime characteristic of mature thinkers. Not every one reaches this level of maturity- see the writings of people like E. J. Dionne or the rantings of Rush Limbaugh. If I had to predict based on output of the last 3 years, I would give neither Yglesias or Klein any real chance of ever evolving into serious opinion writers of the level of Broder or Will- they simply have never displayed the open intellect that is required.

staticvars writes:

It's simple to me, he views you two as politically the same, because he views you both as opposing many of the ideas he espouses. He is also obsessed with labeling and in group loyalty to his brand, "Progressives". Rather than deeply consider what either of you think, he is focused on his own agenda and your relation to it. Those that are opposed to his agenda, are the same for his purposes. Ygelsias only expresses some token sympathies for Dr. Cowen because agrees with him on some points here and there.

Kurbla writes:

BZ, I see "Crypto Fascism" in few important elements:

    (1) criticism toward democracy and
    (2) idea that economic freedom leads to political freedom.

On the base of these two, I believe that some libertarians, if left to chose, would prefer non-democratic regime with 40% tax than democratic regime with 50% tax. It is quite a consistent deduction. Surely, libertarians cannot easily accept Mussolini's glorification of the state, but they can accept similar type of regime without such self-definition as a lesser evil.

And even the state is not ruled out if it is redefined to private property owned by individual or elite, and not some kind of implicit collective contract as usually believed. As the most radical example, I have find Hans Hermann Hoppe's citation from Democracy: the God that Failed (p. 218).

    There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society. Likewise, in a covenant founded for the purpose of protecting family and kin, there can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They “ the advocates of alternative, non-family and kin-centred lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism “ will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.

Hans is not in the main current, but he is influential. Such ideas - if barely tolerated in the movement during relatively stable, peaceful political conditions - can become dominant in the atmosphere of political violence.

Pavel writes:

Well, your disagreement with Tyler Cowen appears to be about best strategy and what's practical more than about what the goal should be. So from my perspecitve (and I happen to agree with at least one of you on most issues) saying that you are formally commited to same political belief is more or less true.

When it comes to politics, people jump to the bottom line. Libertarians all sound the same because they all believe in the same government solution--LESS.

I would like it if I could stop being lumped in with Glenn Beck.

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