Arnold Kling  

Libertarianism: How, not Why

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The game that I call "trolling for libertarians" seems to be quite popular this week. I guess it's a slow summer. So you make straw-man attacks in order to draw hits.

Do you want to dissuade people from taking a libertarian position? Then you need to convince me that I should expect the institution of government to outperform individuals in making decisions. That is a tough sell.

Broadly speaking, individuals can make prudential errors, and they can make moral errors. I can fail to act in my best interests. Or I can fail to act in others' interests when it would cost me little to do so.

Contrary to straw-man representations, I believe that individuals make prudential and moral mistakes all the time. However, the institution of government is not some magic correction fluid for wiping out these mistakes. So, on the issue of economic inequality, for example, it is not enough to say that you believe that extreme inequality is unacceptable and therefore we need government. What if private institutions, flawed as they are, do a better job than government at improving the lives of those who are not well off? I believe that is the case. If you want to engage in an empirical debate over that issue, then let us agree that I will not simply assume that markets always work and that you will not simply assume that government works wherever markets fail.

I actually think that the best point at which to engage libertarians is over how, not why. In the real world, how can the potential harms of the institution of government be minimized? It is on the how questions that I see libertarians divided among ourselves, evading difficult issues with hand-waving, and engaging in wishful thinking.

For example, on the issue of financial bailouts, it is easy to say that we oppose bailouts. What is difficult to do, starting from where we are today, is to implement institutional mechanisms to prevent bailouts. Each bailout is like paying ransom for a kidnapping. No matter how much you promise never to pay ransom, in a real case involving someone you love, the incentive is to pay the ransom. Similarly, no matter how strongly we believe that bailouts are wrong, in a real case where a major financial institution is in trouble, politicians have an incentive to undertake a bailout.

There are many problems like this that libertarians face. It is really difficult to restrain the use (and, most importantly, the misuse) of power. I am more than willing to discuss the challenges of restraining the misuse of power. But I don't respond to trolls who assume away the misuse of power and from that assumption proceed to reject libertarianism.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (11 to date)
Michael writes:

"you need to convince me that I should expect the institution of government to outperform individuals in making decisions. That is a tough sell."

Perhaps it is a tough sell because the institutions of government don't make decisions. Only individuals make decisions. Isn't that a standard libertarian, reductionist line? This dichotomy is not very useful.

Seems to me that the individuals in the military (a government institution) make better decisions about military matters than individuals in a private military could make. Critics of the libertarian view do not hold that the institutions of government outperform none government institutions in *all* cases. Many don't even hold that view for most cases. The line is drawn based on the type of activity.

If you were to read Charles Sable you would find that "liberals" do not believe that the institution of government is "some magic correction fluid for wiping out these mistakes."

I guess straw-man attacks can come from both sides.

kebko writes:

I think the disagreement is about violence. The notion that libertarians are for naked, unrestrained self-interest is at the heart of many of these strawman arguments, even though it grossly misses the point. For libertarians, the choice isn't framed as one of acting selfishly versus acting altruistically (Rand probably did a lot of damage here.), it is one of acting voluntarily versus acting under threat. At the heart of libertarianism is a radical pacifism.

Progressives bend the notion to one of self-interest because it's a much easier fight. To address the notion in the libertarians actually frame it would require being explicit about the violence inherent in a progressive world view.
I think we are being led into needless confusion to try to deal with these arguments about self-interest on their face. First, the notion of violence needs to be addressed.
The idea of this libertarian rugged individualism is quite silly, in any case, as we are really arguing for the right to association. The argument is about whether the association is voluntary or coerced. Even if government occasionally does a better job of one thing or another, pragmatically, this fundamental issue needs to be addressed.

stunney writes:

I'm all for empirical comparisons...

http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2011/06/20/249061/chart-taxes-economic-growth/

roystgnr writes:
in a real case where a major financial institution is in trouble, politicians have an incentive to undertake a bailout

Politicians' honest incentives would go away if only there were some standardized process for dealing with troubles in which the owners of a still-viable institution have incurred liabilities in excess of their ability to pay. If the rest of the institution's income statement still looks good, it wouldn't have to actually stop doing business; the highest bidders could buy it out without creating a moral hazard by rewarding the old owners or their imprudent creditors for their ruptured balance sheet.

The trouble is, even if such a "bank-rupture" process existed, it would still leave politicians with *dishonest* incentives for bailouts. To get rid of those, I suggest it *does* "matter how strongly we believe that bailouts are wrong", just as long as "we" includes a sizable chunk of politicians' voters.

Not sure how to improve those beliefs, though. What are the voters' incentives to even pay attention? A one-in-a-million chance of changing the outcome?

Jonathon Hunt writes:

@ Michael

Perhaps it is a tough sell because the institutions of government don't make decisions. Only individuals make decisions. Isn't that a standard libertarian, reductionist line? This dichotomy is not very useful.

That dichotomy is very useful if you want to be realistic or even logical. It is correct that only individuals can make decisions, but the difference in performance is surely the superior incentives that voluntary interaction among individuals results in compared to the actions of individuals acting on the behalf of government. That is, individuals acting on the behalf of the institution are exposed to incentives that would not exist in a market arrangement. From what I've seen, nearly all sides merely like to take convenient shortcuts by saying, "markets decided..." or "government did..." instead of the correct, "the result of the interaction among the individuals participating in the market..." or "employees of the government." So, I would expect a little more than an irrelevant accusation of reductionism to refute Kling's original statement.

Of course, I'm sure Kling is not merely implying the different incentives; I'm sure he's alluding to the great amount of problems a bureaucratic institution inherently has, such as the infamous knowledge problem that the market remarkably and efficiently solves.

Seems to me that the individuals in the military (a government institution) make better decisions about military matters than individuals in a private military could make. Critics of the libertarian view do not hold that the institutions of government outperform none government institutions in *all* cases. Many don't even hold that view for most cases. The line is drawn based on the type of activity.

I would agree with the assertion of national defense being a "market failure," yet there are multiple theories regarding how a market for private defense could work. One of the most common arguments made by defenders of the private defense is pointing out the fallacy of "national defense." Again, I would not say this is a fallacy at all, but I am only briefly mentioning this argument.

If you were to read Charles Sable you would find that "liberals" do not believe that the institution of government is "some magic correction fluid for wiping out these mistakes."

Do you mean Charles Sabel?

BZ writes:

kebko stole some of my thunder, but I'll take a stab anyway...

In the real world, how can the potential harms of the institution of government be minimized?

I'm not sure if this is what you meant by hand-waving and wishful thinking, but in the case of overseas military adventurism: Just Stop It. Killing Innocents is Wrong. Stop It Right Now. And there went a great deal of our deficit and harm.

If you buy that answer, then accept that the others sound similar. ;)

Tom West writes:

"you need to convince me that I should expect the institution of government to outperform individuals in making decisions. That is a tough sell."

Luckily we *don't* have to persuade you. We merely have to persuade a majority of our citizens. And to be honest, that seems (and has seemed for decades) like a slam-dunk. Even the most right-wing modern Republican is far to the left of is compatriot of 50 years ago.

Sorry, but I think the #1 thing we purchase with wealth is security, and for most of us, government and government regulation provides us with more security than their private counterparts.

Can and does it go off the rails? Of course. But in the minds of people, government has one big advantage - nominally government's purpose is to serve the people, and business' purpose is to serve itself. Granted governments don't always serve their citizenry and businesses often serve themselves best by serving others, but never underestimate the importance of the nominal in the minds of people. Often it's a *lot* more important than the actual results.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

"No matter how much you promise never to pay ransom, in a real case involving someone you love, the incentive is to pay the ransom."

Save "Wall Street" to save "Main Street"? How about having a Main Streeter like me as the regulator? I'll do it for free and will need only a "Denied" stamp on my desk. I dislike them all. Bailout money is not "government money", it is my money.

stunney writes:

"...you need to convince me that I should expect the institution of government to outperform individuals in making decisions. That is a tough sell."

I think the vast majority of non-libertarians individually prefer and voluntarily choose and decide to join together to create and use governmental institutions to achieve certain ends and in particular comply with certain strict moral duties.

When there's a famine in Africa, everyone in the US should just stop what they're doing, buy some canned goods, and get on a plane to Ethiopia, or wherever? The government should not provide tax-financed aid to those starving Africans, but leave it to personal acts of charity, even if doing it this way means, oh, maybe 745,000 people unnecessarily starve to death?

Rational agents, precisely because they are rational, consciously use government to accomplish certain ends which they know, or which they reasonably believe, are unlikely to be adequately accomplished otherwise.

People cooperate. They set up democratic political authority. They deliberate and vote on certain ends, and the best means to achieve them. Surely this is far from being unChristian!

Objection:
"People who are motivated to support the government's efforts would likely have given their own money anyway (unless they are hypocrites),
while people who pay taxes begrudgingly or without knowing the government's expenditures are doing exactly nothing to satisfy any Christian duty of care."

Response:
Nor is a murderer satisfying his duty not to murder people. But the government is perfectly justified in spending taxpayer money on policing the streets, catching murderers, trying and incarcerating them. In other words, it's justified in spending taxpayer money to enforce the duty not to murder.

Why is it not also justified in trying to enforce duties of care, duties that, at least from a Christian point of view, are so strict and so stringent that our very salvation depends upon our complying with them (see the parable of judgement in Matthew ch. 25)?

The unwilling taxpayer is not justified in witholding money for crime prevention and punishment. The unwilling taxpayer is not justified in witholding money to assist the destitute either, in principle.

It's an empirical matter whether crime prevention and/or poverty relief are best done by government, or with at least some governmental apparatuses acting in addition to private initiatives.

The taxpayer doesn't go out looking for murderers (usually). He hires folks called police officers to do that. Does this mean that the taxpayer has less respect or concern for human life than if he was simply a vigilante? Does it mean that vigilantism is preferable from a Christian point of view than having a tax-financed police force? That vigilantism is a purer way to fulfil the commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill', than having professional ‘cops’?

I say that's crazy! We enforce the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' very justifiably using taxpayer-funded police forces against murderers or would-be murderers, and more so than we would with volunteer vigilante groups alone.

So now what we have to decide is whether the strict duty of care for the indigent and sick which is enjoined by Christ upon pain of eternal damnation is analogous to the strict duty not to murder in respect of the moral legitimacy of having a taxpayer-financed government apparatus do it.

It strikes me that if it was empirically the case, and was widely known to be the case, that government poverty relief and health-care subsidies funded by taxation were more effective means than voluntary charity alone at helping the indigent and sick, then, just as a Christian would want to coerce his fellow-citizens into paying for a professional police force (in preference to vigilantism), he'd want to coerce them
into paying for some poverty relief and health-care for those unable to afford it. In other words, I don't see any sharp difference in principle between the two cases.

Now, just as it's an empirical matter whether having the FBI is an effective and desirable way of caring for our fellow citizens' security and policing, so it is an empirical matter whether Food Stamps and Medicare are effective and desirable ways of fulfilling our duty to feed the hungry and care for the sick. But to say that it constitutes a lessening of a Christian's personal moral responsibility consciously to use government apparatuses to discharge and enforce morality in the case of murder (or foreign aggression) would strike me as really quite bizarre, and not something that is said in the teaching tradition of the Christianity. So why should using government agencies to address poverty and lack of health-care be different from using such agencies to address crime and foreign aggression?

Did Jesus tell his disciples that it would be best if tax-funded Roman public officials didn't arrest criminals, and that they (his disciples) should do it themselves instead? Or that doing it themselves rather than paying taxes to finance Roman police officers was somehow morally superior? Certainly there's no record of him doing so.

I see no reason to deny that it is at least sometimes, in some contexts, legitimate, good, and wise for rational Christians to order society by choosing and using coercive government authority to ensure that certain vital moral values are better respected than they would be if it were all left to personal voluntary actions alone; and that this use of government to achieve certain moral ends can be and sometimes is, far from being a less virtuous way of certain fulfilling moral duties, actually a much more obviously virtuous and wise way of certain fulfilling moral duties.

If vigilantism rather than professional policing resulted in a big jump in the murder rate, it would be a lot less virtuous, indeed it would be just plain wrong for Christians or indeed anyone to opt for vigilantism rather than professional policing funded by taxes!

This example, to my mind, establishes the principle, and in principle answers libertarian objections concerning coercively redistributing income for a moral end. In principle, it can be and sometimes is justified.

What the libertarian would now need to do is come up with reasons either of principle, or of empirical efficacy, for saying that while granting that having a public police force specifically is better from a Christian viewpoint than vigilantism, having, say, Food Stamps is specifically worse from a Christian viewpoint than relying solely on church and other voluntary food banks (i.e., worse than the latter just by themselves).

Well, I just don't see any reason of principle here. In both cases, taxes are coercively levied to achieve some moral end---in one case, feeding the hungry, in the other case preventing and punishing crime. It strikes me they're both important moral ends, from a Christian point of view. If it was the case that, in the absence of Food Stamps, an additional 430,000 persons would be malnourished in America, then that would make me, as a rational Christian, vote for Food Stamps.

To me, that's just like the example of famine in places like Ethiopia. If famine relief all being done without any government, tax-funded action meant that many more people would starve to death in Ethiopia, then it would just strike me as morally obvious that a rational Christian ought to favor taxpayer-funded famine relief, and moreover, that he would be fulfilling Chrstian morality much less well if he knew this fact and still objected to governmental, tax-funded famine relief.

I repeat, rational agents use government. Jesus knew it, and didn't forbid it (“Render unto Caesar…”).

For most of the history of Christianity, the Church didn't even say that the government had to be representative of the individual wills of its subjects, or that it couldn't coerce its subjects, or tax its subjects, to do things which the government deemed to be moral ends----such as giving the king the lifestyle befitting his office, or employing hangmen to execute sheep-stealers, or establishing beneficent works for the poor and sick under royal patronage, or beautifying the polis by employing artists and architects, or waging war against the infidel. None of this was ever protested by the Church as a matter of principle, or on the grounds that it would be better for the king to tend the sick personally rather than tax his subjects and get others to do it for him. It was understood by the Church that though the king might personally feed the poor and tend the sick in his spare time out of Christian devotion and gain merit thereby, he actually fulfilled this duty of care more fully by establishing hospitals and bread distribution centers which helped far more hungry and sick folk than his personal care alone could hope to achieve. Indeed the establishment of such publicly funded works of social welfare was regularly praised to the heavens by priests and preachers, steeped in the Word of God and prayer as they were.

How could they have been so blind to the true message of Jesus---is that what the Christian libertarian is claiming?

I ask, because that strikes me as an interpretation of Jesus's message which Christians should vigorously reject, since it requires that we diminish our use of practical reason and wisdom, for the sake of gaining an individualistic sense of our own personal moral righteousness, but with the effect of letting many more people suffer and die than is necessary.

Once again I say, libertarianism, taken to its logical conclusion, is not at all an obviously Christian doctrine, but rather in opposition to it!

Lord writes:

What is more astounding, that some people believe government can solve problems or that some people believe markets are an alternative to government rather than an alternative of government?

Lord writes:

Or, government fails. Use government.

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