Bryan Caplan  

The Libertarian Missionary

The Neo-Reactionaries... The ZMP Hypothesis...
You've already heard from the Conservative Missionary - the hypothetical conservative debater eager to convert libertarians to his side.  Now it's time for the Libertarian Missionary to take the podium.

Why Conservatives Should Be Libertarians

I agree with my conservative opponent that there are many important values.  I'll accept his whole list - happiness, prosperity, equality, virtue, culture, common decency, and survival.  And I agree that all of these values conceivably conflict with liberty.  But like other conservatives, my opponent is too quick to deny priority for liberty - and much too quick to confidently announce that serious conflicts exist.

Liberty is not just another important value.  It is a moral constraint on the pursuit of other values.  Consider the classic thought experiment where five people require organ transplants to survive.  Almost everyone grants that it would be wrong for a doctor to murder a stranger to save his patients' lives.  It might be noble for the stranger to volunteer, but taking his organs without his consent is wrong, even if it leads to a better overall outcome.

The standard response to this experiment is to raise the stakes: What if the doctor could save a million lives instead of five?  This is a good objection to absolutism.  But the weaker conclusion  - you shouldn't violate liberty unless you can reasonably expect a much better outcome - still stands.
In any case, conservatives are too quick to accept alleged conflicts between liberty and other values.  My opponent mentions standard market failure arguments against laissez-faire, but the connection between these arguments and major government programs is tenuous at best. 

Take Social Security, the biggest program in the U.S. budget.  Conservatives want to curtail this program, but why won't they go further?  My challenge: Name the market failure that leads people to neglect their own retirement.  Irrationality is the only credible candidate, but this would at most justify forced savings for the irresponsible minority, nothing like the universal program we have. 

Still, when faced with an alleged conflict between economic liberty and other values,  conservatives often show a healthy skepticism.  Outside of economic policy, unfortunately, they leave their healthy skepticism behind.  Take drug prohibition.  Alcohol ruins far more lives, destroys more families, and kills more bystanders than all illegal drugs put together.  Conservatives barely think about this problem, but they're confident that we should keep fighting the Drug War for the foreseeable future. 

Unlike some libertarians, I agree that prohibition reduces consumption.  But probably not by much - see the Netherlands or Portugal.  And after the American experiment in alcohol prohibition - or Econ 101 - conservatives can't reasonably deny that violent crime and adulterated products are largely side effects not of drugs, but of drug prohibition.  Liberty will save lives - and when it does, conservatives should support it even if it isn't popular.

Conservative opposition to immigration is even more disturbing.  Immigration promotes almost every value my opponent mentions - especially for the low-skilled workers he wants to exclude.  Life in the Third World ranges from hard to hellish.  Just letting an immigrant move here to work at Walmart spreads happiness, prosperity, equality, common decency, and yes, survival.  The economically illiterate assume, of course, that immigrants' gains come at the expense of the native population.  But conservatives know better: International trade enriches the people of both countries, even if they're trading labor. 

Yes, some American sub-groups lose.  But Borjas himself, the most prominent detractor of immigration in economics, estimates that decades of immigration have cut high school drop-outs' long-run wages by a mere 4.8%.  And before you worry about the effect of immigration on the welfare state, remember that the American welfare state focuses on the old and the sick - and immigrants tend to be young and healthy.

I know I'm not going to convince conservatives to join me in calling for open borders.  But it's crazy to call open borders "crazy."  The U.S. had virtually open borders for over a century - and it was a tremendous success.  Mass migration didn't kill the goose that lay the golden eggs; instead, the golden geese multiplied like rabbits.  It's possible that immigrants will vote to destroy the system that attracted them, but unlikely.  Immigrants come here because they prefer life here to life at home.  It wouldn't take a marketing genius to win them over to the cause of American liberty. 

Finally, let's turn to foreign policy.  I don't know whether respecting the rights of innocents conflicts with our survival.  Neither do you.  The War on Terror might deter future attacks by putting the fear of God into our enemies.  It might inspire future attacks by enraging otherwise harmless people who see their families die by American hands.  It could go either way.  This isn't wishful thinking; it's honest ignorance.  (If you disagree, I will bet you; but since you claim knowledge, and I claim ignorance, I want odds).  And honest ignorance isn't worth killing for - especially when the victims are innocents.

Conservatives' greatest strength is their skepticism of government.  But they aren't nearly skeptical enough.  When government "solves" dubious problems by dubious means, abolition - not moderation - is the sober solution.  And the burden of proof shouldn't fall on those who oppose the status quo, but on those who deprive their fellow human beings of their liberty.

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COMMENTS (23 to date)
Doc Merlin writes:

The first two paragraphs are absolutely, positively brilliant. The rest are good, but the first two are almost perfect.

anon writes:

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John Fast writes:

Bryan: This is very nice, and it doesn't deal with the main objections that conservatives have to libertarianism. In particular, they (or at least the ones I've seen) are unhappy with the idea that people would be allowed to engage in "immoral" behavior such as recreational drug use, homosexuality, being a "hippie" (i.e. dressing sloppy, having poor hygiene, and/or refusing to hold a job), having heterosexual intercourse outside of marriage, not going to church, and so forth.

When I talk with conservatives who are skeptical of a completely free market and even more skeptical of social tolerance for different lifestyles and behaviors, I point out that a pure free market will "punish" hippies and drug users by condemning them to unemployment, poverty, social opprobrium, and possibly even starvation (unless they are willing to grovel and/or change their habits in return for a handout from a religious charity), and and will reward decent solid citizens by giving them good jobs, high incomes, and therefore high social status.

Sometimes I claim that other "lesser" sins such as promiscuity will be punished as well (because women who bear children out of wedlock will not be given any government aid), and sometimes I simply point out that, given that a majority of Americans believes that such behavior is not inherently wrong, the best a conservative can hope for is to have the government be neutral . . . because any enforced morality would be *against* conservatives rather than *by* them.

Foobarista writes:

Your first one was a heck of a lot better. Featuring open borders as a central argument is about as good as the ancient joke about Digital Equipment's awful marketing: if they sold sushi, they'd call it cold, raw fish.

And it sounds like your stock "conservatives" are big-biz fatcats and not God-fearing, pro-America tea party types who are far more numerous - and a heck of a lot more interesting. I know that both God-fearing and pro-America are both politically incorrect positions for many libertarian intellectuals, but they form the core for many if not most conservatives.

agnostic writes:

In the back of the conservative's mind is diminishing marginal returns. That's the tragic vision that Sowell talks about. The missionary libertarian has a more utopian view, unconstrained or at least far less constrained by that downer of an idea.

Clearest example is the immigration case: we had open borders for over a century and it worked because there was lots of prime land available throughout. The best will fill up first, then the next best, etc. Pretty soon we're left with only crummy land. And land will always be zero-sum.

So open borders will either keep people where they are and drive up the cost of land, or move them to a place that's as expensive as things used to be, but of crummier quality to compensate. No one likes that picture.

Ditto the returns to having lots of immigrants here -- the first hour saved by a professional because they can contract out menial jobs will go to something highly productive, like an extra hour at work. Then it goes to less and less productive activity. At some point -- arguably reached by now -- the time freed up by adding the next immigrant just gives the professional another hour to fart around on the internet in Starbucks or take a trip to a day spa.

And yet the cost of housing, educating, insuring, etc., each successive immigrant does not diminish -- indeed increases over time, given that in the short-run these are all zero-sum resources.

lode Cossaer writes:

Knocked this one out of the park too.

Carl The EconGuy writes:

Libertarianism is not just about values, given a political structure and collective decision making institutions, and Bryan neglects that. Under current simple majoritarian rules, it is much to easy to trade individual liberty for perceived "collective welfare." But we know that the latter is not an attainable concept, because in a diverse society there can be no social welfare function. Add to that the reality that politicians and bureaucrats act mostly in their own interest, and we get liberty sacrificed for no gain, all day every day.

Thus, the libertarian critique of both liberalism and conservatism must begin with a discussion of how to restrain political decision making and political power in favor of (i) alternative means of implementing social responsibilities, i.e., non-governmental organizations based on voluntary participation, and (ii) of how to attain higher decision making thresholds, preferably complete Wicksellian/Buchananite unanimity, or something close to it. A libertarian needs to argue for limiting politics as the way to solve collective problems, and stress community based organizations, along with a stronger reliance on common rather than statutory law. The libertarian critique is that statutory legal frameworks are open to abuse, and failure.

It's all about the imperfections of all collective decision making institutions, and how to understand their characteristics in order to blend them most appropriately, in accordance with individual values and individual liberty.

Pat writes:

"It wouldn't take a marketing genius to win them over to the cause of American liberty."

So much for the Myth of the Rational Voter.

Just because some immigrant wants more freedom than they have in their awful country doesn't mean they won't vote to make our system less free.

Joel writes:

It wouldn't take a marketing genius to win them over to the cause of American liberty.

And even if it did, we could just hire all the marketing geniuses who won our current population over to the cause of American liberty!

Andrew writes:

Much weaker than Friday's.

You don't quite grok the conservative worldview or perspective.

Hyena writes:

You won't convince conservatives. Conservatives don't value liberty to begin with.

You can convince libertarians to be conservatives by tugging at normal human failings--the desire for collective prestige, to eliminate competition by those they dislike, etc.--but you cannot appeal to a conservative's "principles". They simply don't have any by libertarian standards.

Conservatism is a political movement. Libertarianism is mostly a political philosophy. These two things intersect rarely and briefly.

Richard A. writes:

This is what immigration -- primarily caused by illegal immigration -- has done to California.

An immigration policy that lets in only immigrants with a good middle class education (or better) would not have caused this.

Richard A. writes:
But Borjas himself, the most prominent detractor of immigration in economics, estimates that decades of immigration have cut high school drop-outs' long-run wages by a mere 4.8%.

But this 4.8% drop in wages is due to semi-literate immigrants presently in the country. What too many libertarians want is to eliminate the minimum wage while allowing unlimited importation of poorly educated immigrants. This would push down the wages even more for those with less than a high school education.

Blackadder writes:

If I were going to argue that conservatives should be libertarians, I would rely chiefly on two arguments. First would be the old fusionist argument that virtue presupposes liberty. The second would be that even if you wanted the state to impose morality and foster conservative values, you can't trust the state to this. In practice when the state imposes morality it imposes liberal morality and values (e.g. political correctness, sex education, evolution, etc.) not conservative ones. Whether this is the case in all circumstances, it is the case today and for the foreseeable future. The only way to protect and foster conservative values, therefore, is to limit the power of the state along libertarian lines.

Philo writes:

"Consider the classic thought experiment where five people require organ transplants to survive. Almost everyone grants that it would be wrong for a doctor to murder a stranger to save his patients' lives. It might be noble for the stranger to volunteer, but taking his organs without his consent is wrong, even if it leads to a better overall outcome."

This thought experiment ignores the question how the doctor can know that murdering the stranger would produce the best outcome. This is Hayek's problem of knowledge in society; the nearest we can come to solving it is by instituting a libertarian regime, including property rights (in one's own organs, inter alia). This isn't perfect, but it is far better than relying on the off-hand judgments of doctors, or anyone else.

By the way, note this little detail: that the victim is supposed to be a *stranger*. So far as the argument is concerned, he might as well be the doctor's own child. But the experiment is designed to insinuate that the doctor's judgment will be *biased*: he will care more than he objectively should about his patients, less than he should about the stranger. He will be *tempted* to discount the stranger's interests unduly. Also, although it is stipulated that the doctor knows that sacrificing the stranger will be for the best, making him a stranger makes this practically unlikely: how would the doctor come by the stipulated knowledge about a stranger?

As with many thought experiments in moral philosophy, this one is set up to suggest factors that are not officially part of the story, factors that prompt intuitions which are then treated as if they were responding to just the official elements of the story. These insinuated factors contaminate the intuitions in ways that are hard to recognize.

robbl writes:


you say "Conservatives' greatest strength is their skepticism of government"

What makes you say that? Can you prove it...or even defend it?

I would say conservatives, like leftists, are skeptical of government run by their political opponents.

Lord writes:

I think you need a conservative to write this one, it only focused on a few issues and not central ones for conservatives. It's difficult to write persuasively on arguments your opponents have already dismissed.

Kevin Driscoll writes:

On the immigration issue, I think conservatives unduly prefer native workers to immigrant workers.

First, I don't think jobs is a zero sums game and to be totally honest, neither is land allocation. We need only look at our current labor markets to see that job allocation is not zero sum. During normal economic times, thousands of new laborers enter our markets every month and they manage to find employment (for the most part), even those that that are relatively low-skilled. Although an immigration shock could cause short-term unemployment, long-term unemployment will return to the NAIRU.

Even if we grant that immigrants will take jobs from native workers, in a Libertarian world there are very few government program so these newly unemployment will not burden the rest of the economy. And if an immigrant worker can take the job of a native one (either by grater productivity or lesser pay) then I say we should APPLAUD it because it represents a net economic BENEFIT for our society. Automatically preferring native workers to immigrants is just irrational discrimination.

As far as land is concerned, there are always substitutes. If land prices rise high enough, workers will move to lower cost areas (and there is PLENTY of room just about everywhere except the NE, California, and Florida, how else could we have such high levels of new house construction during the bubble?). Plus, less efficient housing can be destroyed to make room for more efficient housing. Not everyone needs to live in a 2000 sq ft house. If need is great enough more apartments and condos will be built.

StrangeLoop writes:

I don't believe this a weak defense of libertarianism; I also don't believe it's inferior to his arguments for conservatism.

One person who has advocated libertarianism as a defense of conservatism is Hans-Hermann Hoppe:; I wish Bryan would have incorporated some of Hoppe's thinking:

"In conjunction with the even older compulsory system of public education, these institutions and practices [the welfare state] amount to a massive attack on the institution of the family and personal responsibility. By relieving individuals of the obligation to provide for their own income, health, safety, old age, and children’s education, the range and temporal horizon of private provision is reduced, and the value of marriage, family, children, and kinship relations is lowered. Irresponsibility, shortsightedness, negligence, illness and even destructionism (bads) are promoted, and responsibility, farsightedness, diligence, health and conservatism (goods) are punished. The compulsory old age insurance system in particular, by which retirees (the old) are subsidized from taxes imposed on current income earners (the young), has systematically weakened the natural intergenerational bond between parents, grandparents, and children. The old need no longer rely on the assistance of their children if they have made no provision for their own old age; and the young (with typically less accumulated wealth) must support the old (with typically more accumulated wealth) rather than the other way around, as is typical within families. Consequently, not only do people want to have fewer children – and indeed, birthrates have fallen in half since the onset of modern social security (welfare) policies – but also the respect which the young traditionally accorded to their elders is diminished, and all indicators of family disintegration and malfunctioning, such as rates of divorce, illegitimacy, child abuse, parent abuse, spouse abuse, single parenting, singledom, alternative lifestyles, and abortion, have increased."

Urstoff writes:

The case for libertarianism rooted in the intrinsic rightness of liberty seems old hat, if not simply wrong. I know that Bryan is a moral realist (though he shouldn't be), but the modern case for libertarianism must rely on instrumental goals and public choice. That is, we all have goals that we want to accomplish. States can sometimes help with that, but if given the power to help, they also have the power to hurt. Basic work in public choice shows us that they will indeed hurt more than help. So in order to have a society that tends to maximize the achievement of goals across all people, we should limit the state as much as possible.

Note that this isn't a strictly utilitarian case, since utilitarianism says that such an institutional arrangement produces morally optimum outcomes. Rather, such an arrangement produces instrumentally optimum outcomes. If we want to draw Rawls into this, any person in the original position should pick a libertarian society since there is no guarantee that they will be a member of a favored special interest. Unlike Rawls, though, this isn't what is just (and may not be Pareto efficient, as is one of his conditions), but is the most likely institution to maximize the achievement of any individual's goals.

Larry Bernard writes:

The problem with this argument is it clearly doesn't have a philosophical understanding of Liberty

Nor do most Libertarians

BZ writes:

@Urstoff: The reason your claim to escape morality through "instrumental goals" that aim towards "optimum outcomes" is, IMHO, naive. You are claiming to escape absolutism, but in reality only pushing it back one level. The "morally optimum outcomes" goal still begs the question: what makes YOUR outcome claim better than mine?! My outcome claim is a world without murderous acts, yours is one of maximized satisfaction of individual goals. Whose is better? I know the answer -- can you even ask the question?

Seth writes:

Yes. I guess I'm libertarian. My Mom won't even know what that means.

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