Bryan Caplan  

The Stages of Libertarian Denial

The County Where I Live... Roger Cohen on TSA...
Libertarians set themselves apart from other political thinkers by habitually denying that government should do things.  Denial is therefore at the heart of libertarian thought.  Thanks to pop psychology, unfortunately, "denial" has come to mean "refusing to admit the truth" rather than "refusing to admit what others claim."  But denial is still a concept worth holding onto.

Once you appreciate the role of denial in libertarianism, you're ready to categorize it.  Playing off of pop psychology, I find it most useful to think about six stages of libertarian denial.

Stage 1: Deny the problem exists.  Ex: When someone complains about Chinese imports, the libertarian says, "What's the problem?  They're selling us cheap stuff."

Stage 2: Blame the problem on the government.  Ex: "Sure, Third World poverty is terrible.  But without their governments' statist economic policies - and our immigration restrictions - they'd already be rich."

Stage 3: Admit that the government didn't cause the problem, but insist that government action would only make the problem worse.  Ex: Opposing price controls for grain after a severe drought.  "The market is making the best out of a terrible situation.  You're going to destroy the incentives that will get us out of this disaster."

Stage 4: Concede that government action wouldn't make the problem worse, but say that the cure is so expensive that we're better off just living with the problem.  Ex: Opposing handicap accessibility regulations.  "It's going to cost 1% of GDP.  For that price, we could give every handicapped person three full-time helpers."

Stage 5: Admit that government action could solve a problem at a low cost, but claim that the libertarian principle is more important."  Ex: "Freedom means tolerating the very views that you find most abhorrent - even Satanism."

Stage 6: Yield on libertarian principle, but try to minimize the deviation.  Ex: "Yes, government has to supply some roads.  But we can still fund them with user fees, not taxes."

I suspect that what sets me apart from the typical libertarian is that I lean especially heavily on Stage 1.  On discrimination, for example, I think that (a) taste-based discrimination is almost entirely eliminated by market forces, and that (b) statistical discrimination is at worst a venial sin.

How would you position other libertarian thinkers on the stages of libertarian denial?  Yourself?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (21 to date)
mick writes:

Denial is also a handy intellectual shortcut to avoid explaining why America, and only America, is responsible for America's debt. Instead, we are "powerless" over the problem, powerless over those scheming chinamen who would dare lend us money that we wanted to borrow.

Fred Smith writes:

This is an interesting breakdown of common libertarian arguments. I doubt, however, that many people would be able to identify a particular level that applies to them, other than perhaps the two extreme ends.

Part of the reason for this is that I don't think that all 6 stages could find application to a typical problem. Notice that in your own examples, you switch the problem up to suit the particular stage. It might be interesting to see if you could apply all 6 stages to a single problem.

jc writes:

Stage 7: Yes, govt can fix this problem, and in this case that fix outweighs stage 5's libertarian principle argument. In a vacuum, I'd agree. In the real world, though, this one successful example of govt. intervention will be used as an excuse for 99 interventions that make us worse off.

So the real choice is not yes or no, 1 worthy intervention or no intervention. The real choice is: (a) 100 interventions, 1 of which was justified, with 99 making us worse off, or (b) no interventions, leaving us better off 99/100 times.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Fred Smith,
I don't get your point. Of course, you wouldn't see the same person say all 6. One example: Stage 1: I deny the problem exists. Stage 2: I agree that the problem exists.

Hyena writes:

I'd propose Stage 1.5: admit there's a problem but insist that you can only shift around the costs, not derive a net benefit.

That's what I tend to think about things like Chinese exports. Sure, we could do something about it but even the perfect outcome is just a wash.

Stephen Smith writes:

I'm very happy that you used the road example. Although I'd like to emphasize that covering the accounting (but not the opportunity) costs of state/federal highways (but not local roads) with a gas tax is a wildly imperfect deviation from the free market that does more harm than it does good, because now we have self-described libertarians claiming that because we fund a miniscule amount of the costs through a puny user fee, we can declare the status quo a creation of the market.

I'd say, though, that most libertarians actually fall into the trap of what Kevin Carson (who, yes, I know, is not well respected by "right"-libertarians) calls "vulgar libertarianism" – that is, they see a status quo, assume that since America is quote-unquote ""CAPITALIST"" then it must be the free market at work, and then they make excuses for the status quo. You see this all the time with transpo/land use (I have a whole blog about this), but also with other fields like food policy ("Processed food is a great market innovation!"...nevermind that half the, uh, junk we eat would be twice as expensive if not for corn subsidies) and telecom policy ("I love my Verizon plan!"...nevermind that cell phone plans would probably be half the cost they are now if the government opened up all the spectrum - not just auctioned it off, but actually just stepped out of the regulation game almost entirely - like they did with the wifi bands).

So I guess I'd say most libertarians are stuck in an ignorant version of stage 1.

David N writes:

I think I agree with Fred Smith. Something that happens in "stages" implies a progression. A libertarian losing an argument might start out at stage 1 and progress to further, weaker states of denial. A libertarian winning an argument might stop at stage 1. So to properly elucidate that there are six stages of denial it would be useful to have them all involve the same topic. Perhaps levels of denial is a better term.

Bryan admits as much in the third sentence, but it bears repeating that denial is a word loaded with implications that undermine his meaning. Likewise "stages." Just because a libertarian argument matches one of the six patterns doesn't mean it's incorrect.

Jacob writes:

There are so many other writers busy trivializing libertarianism as a psychological malady that I refuse to help them along.

We can also look at this as stages of civil libertarian denial

Stage 1: There are no terrorists.

Stage 2: The terrorism problem was caused by blowback.

Stage 3: If fighting a War of Terror means TSA agents are searching body cavities, the terrorists have already won.


We can also reverse the stages and think of stage 6 as Stage 1, etc.

Daniel Elmore writes:

I think that stage five needs a much better example, as I can't imagine how the government could solve the "problem" of Satanism as what almost any American would define as "low cost".

In fact, that seems to be totally category 1 to me: someone worshipping Satan isn't a problem.

Also, I'd suggest a level -1 denial: like when Ayn Rand proposes that taxing people to fund child health is a choice for death, while letting them die is a choice for life.

Thomas Boyle writes:

By Stage 6 it's clear you're describing an anarchist, not a libertarian.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

I couldn't get beyond your Stage 1, which might be a poor example. If the US had no income or corporation tax, and instead a sales/fair tax, those cheap Chinese imports would be raising revenue, and entrepreneurs in the US would get to keep the money they risked everything to get. This seems like two good reasons to move one's manufacturing operation back to the US.

So, in general, I believe government creates such titanic structural problems that everything it does is an attempt to close off an unanticipated side-effect.

And I'm not so sure those side-effects are all that unanticipated. If you look at the political wrangling, say, around airport security, you'll see that one side wanted the security, and the other side wanted government employees. So we get awful compromises.

8 writes:

What about human nature? Many libertarians deny human nature (tribalism, community), just as much as communists (self-interest).

Ayn R. Key writes:

Interesting. now what would you say about someone who starts at stage 6 and moves over the course of their life to stage 1?

Brett_McS writes:

I'd be interested to hear what libertarians think of the Libertarian Party, either as it exists now, or as a concept. To me (and a lot of others, judging by their lack of success) the idea of a libertarian political party seems almost oxymoronic.

Metamorf writes:

An interesting collection of arguments, but a bad use of two words in particular: "denial" and "stage". First, "questioning" would be more accurate than "denial", for all but the most ideologically locked. And second, "types" would be better than "stages", since the latter suggests some sort of sequential or successive process of foot-dragging over an issue rather than simply different arguments or questions over different kinds of issues. I.e., "Types of libertarian questioning" would have been a better title for the post.

Curt Doolittle writes:

BRYAN: "Libertarians set themselves apart from other political thinkers by habitually denying that government should do things."

CURT: "Libertarians set themselves apart from other political thinkers by consistently researching private and market solutions to social problems in order to protect themselves from the necessary dysfunction of the bureaucracy that forms whenever government manages processes rather than assists in the resolution of disputes."

It's not that we don't need government. It's that we are often poorly served by it for exactly the reasons libertarians have put forward. And we will continue to have ridiculous political discord (denial of all sorts on both dimensions of the spectrum) as long as tax money can be used for purposes and by means, that are against the desires of the taxed - most importantly when doing so alters a group's social status, political power, forces them into minority status, or creates long term regime uncertainty.

Positing something in the form of cute populist allegory is one thing - entertaining. But recognizing that the libertarian research program, even the extremes of the anarchic one, has provided us with solutions that are arguably superior, is something yet again. And it has provided solutions where both positivists, and conservatives have failed, and done so for the very reasons that libertarians have suggested.

You're wonderful btw.


c0yote writes:

Libertarians set themselves apart from other political thinkers by habitually denying that government should do things. Denial is therefore at the heart of libertarian thought.

Let me fix that for you..

Rabbits are fuzzy, eat grass, and hop around. Sunshine and unicorns meat is therefore what rabbits are made of.

You fail at logic.

TMLutas writes:

When did this site become a language blog? I'm surprised that nobody seems to have challenged the idea that "denial is a concept worth holding on to." No it isn't. This article hands a propaganda club to beat small government advocates over the head with.

Cut it out.

MrSatyre writes:

I consider myself a libertarian, and ascribe to none of the points of denial you list. I have always found liberals to be in complete denial of the facts and the problems therein.

Curt Doolittle writes:

"...nobody seems to have challenged the idea that 'denial is a concept worth holding on to.' No it isn't."

In the contest between Denial, Skepticism and Faith, the only rational position is Skepticism. The problem is, that since we are never certain of our knowledge, the boundary between skepticism and denial is simply a difference in the perception of risk and reward between the people debating. Therefore, whenever such a debate arises, these are not questions of truth. They are questions of cost and benefit.


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