Bryan Caplan  

Compromise and Priorities

PRINT
Losing Ground, The B... Matt Yglesias on Urban Develop...
I'm steering clear of the Cato-Koch dispute.  But these remarks by Will Wilkinson are intriguing at the meta level:
[I]n actual large-stakes political fights in Washington, Cato is generally on the Republican side. It would not be strange to spot a Catoite at Grover Norquist's infamous Wednesday morning meetings. Because Cato functions as part of the right.

It's tempting to think that Cato almost never does anything to help the Democrats largely because it's just too far to the left of the Democratic Party on foreign policy and civil liberties. Yet Cato is equally far to the "right" of the Republican Party on economic policy, welfare policy, education policy, and lots more. Social Security privatization is a forced savings program. School vouchers and/or education tax credits are taxpayer-funded education. Lower income-tax rates concede the income tax. Again and again Cato finds a way to settle on non-ideal, "second-best" economic, welfare, and education policies, and argue for them in away that provides "ammo" to the right. But it very rarely develops compromising second-best policies on foreign policy or civil liberties that would be of any practical use to dovish or civil-libertarian Democrats. Why not? Why was coming out in favor of gay marriage more controversial at Cato (the state shouldn't be involved in marriage at all!) than coming out in favor of school vouchers (the state shouldn't be involved in education at all!)? Why not a bigger institutional push for medical marijuana as a second-best, nose-under-the-tent alternative to outright legalization?...

Cato staff tend to use their principled intransigence on certain "left" issues as proof of their partisan neutrality. We're the furthest thing from conservative! We want to legalize drugs and prostitution! We're anti-war! I spent years saying this sort of thing. But now it strikes me that it is precisely this hesitancy to seriously commit to non-ideal, second-best policymaking on "left" issues -- in the realms of foreign policy and civil and personal liberties -- that makes Cato a de facto institution of the right. The issues on which you're prepared to compromise and politic are the ones about which you're most anxious to see the world move in your direction.
Most people's presumption, I suspect, is that willingness to compromise is a sign that you don't take an issue seriously.  Imagine a pro-life advocate crusading for a "15% reduction in the abortion rate."  But once you understand expressive voting theory, Will's story is fairly plausible.  Unwillingness to compromise clearly reveals high priority if you have the strength to actually get the extreme outcome you want; see e.g. the Allies' "unconditional surrender" policy in World War II.  For everyone bargaining from a weaker position, however, unwillingness to compromise often means you won't make any headway at all. 

Still, I'm not entirely convinced by Will's account.  Many people, myself included, rarely bother to offer compromises because we realize that we speak only for ourselves.  And when I do offer compromises, I don't think I'm appreciably increasing the probability of good policy prevailing.   My motive, rather, is to hold up a mirror to the world - to convince the undecided by showing that my opponents' true objections to reform are uglier than their professed objections.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (20 to date)
Mark Brady writes:

Thanks for the link. Will Wilkinson makes an insightful point that I'd like to see addressed by Cato supporters.

Jason Braswell writes:

I think Wilkinson just has an incredibly awful eye for political feasibility.

It is way, way more likely that this country will legalize prostitution than it is that it will close down all public schools.

Can you imagine a state banning government schools, even in a few rural counties, like Nevada has legalized prostitution?

Has *any* European country shut down its public school system the way that some have legalized drugs or prostitution to some degree?

(For full disclosure, I am staunchly pro-Cato in this affair.)

Pandaemoni writes:

I think it's the case that if Cato routinely compromised with the left where they have some common ground, the institution would lose some of its supporters on the right. It's generally safe politically for conservatives to ally themselves with Cato because they know that Cato is very unlikely to ever be on the other side of a political fight (even if they are known to hold but not strongly advocate for certain other positions like their opposition to war or the legalization prostitution).

Cato's scholars might find themselves invited or welcome at considerably fewer meetings, infamous or otherwise. That sort of exclusion has real consequences, both in terms of a loss in the effectiveness of its advocacy in general, and psychological costs of those working for Cato because we are all social animals.

The Left acts the same way, so I am not saying this is peculiar to conservatives. Politics is a dirty business. One rarely has colleagues whose opinions differ, one has enemies whose opinions are dangerous.

Gian writes:

Will Wiliamson is the person who recent blogged that

"I don't think embryos or fetuses are persons, and I don't think it's wrong to kill them. I also don't think infants are persons, but I do think laws that prohibit infanticide are wise"

That Caplan with unfeigned joy in babies should be intrigued by this person is a surprise.

Gavin Kennedy writes:

The distinction of being a quasi-supporter of "left' or "right", seems a lot like the old Soviet charge against you advocating a "second best" variation of this or that Soviet policy of being "objectively an enemy of the people", with the inevitable consequence of a close proximity of a revolver to the back of your head or a long vacation in a Siberian Gulag.

I am always suspicious of those who assess the minute variations of an otherwise pure policy in political discourse.

RPLong writes:

The flaw in Wilkinson's point - supported by apparently unanimous consensus (???) - is that the right owns economic issues. Balderdash.

The vast majority of libertarians became libertarians by paying close attention to economics as a discipline and the writings classical liberals, many of whom were also renowned economists.

It is therefore no surprise that libertarians tend to hold economic issues more important than the few pet social issues of the left. Why does that automatically mean that libertarians are operating as a wing of the right? Complete non sequitur.

mdb writes:

The one response I would have is this, democrats and republicans are terrible on both war and civil liberties. You might find a few in either party that agree with you, but it will still be an extreme minority position. Given this, why compromise at all? Either way you are not going to influence the outcome, but you can add a voice to the debate.

MikeP writes:

What Will says may be accurate, but there is another possible explanation.

Libertarian positions that are shared by conservatives are more amenable to compromise because money is fungible, while the positions that are shared by liberals are more discrete.

The compromise between high taxes and no taxes is low taxes. The precise level of "low" can even be tuned.

The compromise between the state defining marriage as a man and a woman and the state not defining marriage is the state defining more marriages.

This may well be a natural outcome due precisely to the fact that libertarians are fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Fiscal policy is simply more continuous and therefore compromise-admitting than social policy.

MPerry writes:

Wilkinson also notes that libertarians have several times tried alliances with the left. Murray Roithbard made a very active ffort to reach out to the New Left in the 1960s. Cato tried very hard in the 1970s and early 1980s (Inquiry magazine was part of that effort). They came away with little t show for it.

Just a few years ago, some libertarians tried to reach a common ground with the left on the issue of the Iraq War. They quickly found themselves kicked to the curb as soon as a Democrat was elected president.

And what do Wilkinson and Brink Lindsay have to show for their efforts to create a "liberaltarian" coalition?

Maybe Wilkinson;s judgement just isn't that sound. Or maybe he just wants to play with the cool kids and is more willing to bend to their desires than they are to his.

txslr writes:

I am always troubled by self-identification as “economically conservative, socially liberal”. Put more succinctly, I usually don’t believe. What it really means, much of the time, is economically conservative, socially not-willing-to-align-with-positions-which-virtually-no-one-holds.

Do “econ-conservative, social libs” support social engineering? Expanding the welfare state? “Human rights” to everything from food to condoms to parking spaces? Affirmative action quotas? Legislation from the bench? It’s not as if liberals support freedom of religion or speech or the right to own weapons with any consistency.

It makes people feel good to come out forthrightly against banning contraceptives and putting gays in jail, but no one is actually advocating those positions. Once you get rid of cartoon images of conservatism, there are a lot fewer things about which Libertarians and Conservatives disagree.

The conservative political scientist/philosopher Kenneth Minogue once said that when he surveys the societal wreckage modern liberals have wrought, he finds that there is not much left in society to conserve, and so conservatism comes to look more and more like libertarianism.

Nathan Smith writes:

One reason that Cato downplays the social issues where they agree with the left is that they're actually wrong on those issues even from the perspective of libertarian theory.

Gay marriage is the most obvious case. Yes, one may ask why the state should be involved in marriage at all. Failing that, it seems clear that you should advocate less state involvement in marriage-- for example, by not gratuitously advocating that the state recognize and authorize whole new classes of marriage. But at a deeper level, libertarianism ought to be for spontaneous order, for, so to speak, pre-institutional humanity. If the law is to recognize marriage, a libertarian should recognize that marriage is a pre-institutional fact of human life; it is not a creation of the government. Pre-institutional humanity recognizes marriage, but not gay marriage. Gay marriage clearly is a creation of the government. No one could argue that it has emerged and spread merely as a spontaneous evolution of social customs. Moreover, even if that were the case, the case for recognizing gay marriage is much weaker than the case for recognizing straight marriage, since the latter is instrumental in the protection of children. The state should not really recognize just any contract people want to sign. Should libertarians really advocate letting people sell themselves into slavery? And once you acknowledge that the state shouldn't recognize all contracts, it becomes clear that marriage is a rather odd contract, which but for the issue of protecting children would be best left outside the sphere of law and in the domain of unenforceable private promises. Gay relationships, which are not normally linked to the protection of children, are generally a matter for private individuals, private promises, not the state, though of course it may be expedient to recognize some joint ownership and other arrangements. So gay marriage is precisely an unwarranted extension of government power. But even that doesn't do justice to the real insidiousness of it. For why, after all, so much ado about a word? If we offer whatever contractual substance they want but call it "civil unions," shouldn't gays be satisfied? No, because gays want their unions to be normal, like everyone else's, that is, they want the government to use its legal power to force changes in language that will block ordinary people from talking about their relationships as "sex outside marriage" and therefore presumptively sinful. You can certainly understand that desire. But let's be clear: gay marriage is about using the power of government to change social norms. It's no business of libertarians to support such a thing.

On abortion, once again, the libertarian position should be firmly agnostic. If fetuses are persons, they should get the same protections that other persons get; if not, not; and whether they are or not is a kind of strange philosophical or a scientific question which ideological libertarians-- people who think about freedom and markets and law and society-- are not particularly well equipped to answer. Leave it alone then.

Even on the war, it's far from clear that Cato took the right line. There's no getting around the fact that in opposing the war in Iraq, they were objectively supporting Saddam's remaining in power. Maybe that can be justified... but it must at least make one uneasy. And what if the war in Iraq was, in fact, a smart strategic way to wage the war on terror, as now seems to be the case, since the devastating defeat al-Qaeda suffered in Iraq has ruined the organization's global prestige and rendered the Taliban's impending victory in Afghanistan (the one war Cato supported!) strategically innocuous? You might still oppose the Iraq war on the ground that it violated Iraq's "sovereignty" (based on the Hobbesian idea that Iraqis had consented through fear and thereby authorized all the actions of their sovereign, Saddam, even if they hated him) but a more unlibertarian argument than that is hard to imagine. In general, foreign policy is an issue where Cato would have done better to "use their principled intransigence," as Wilkinson puts it, as a pretext for staying as marginal as possible-- or better yet, to adopt a frank agnosticism on whether the use of force by one government to put an end to the far more egregious use of force by another government might sometimes be good. Instead, "defensive realism" led them into saying a lot of things that sounded like they meant Iraqis were not fit for freedom and preferred dictators (as long as they were "their own" dictators), and thus denying the universal applicability of libertarian doctrines.

In short, with the exception of drug legalization, the issues where Cato sides with the left tend to be the issues where Cato is wrong, even from a properly thought through libertarian point of view.

Nathan Smith writes:

"With the exception of the war on drugs."

Oh yes, and how could I forget-- with the exception of immigration! The most important issue of all, and the issue where the right is wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong. Where do the Koch brothers stand on that one?

Matt writes:

I think it has something to do with Liberals being less predictable than Conservatives and that having an impact on whether they are to be "trusted." Liberals like to get creative with new ideas, so if you give them a new idea, they're likely to change it. Conservatives are more sticky to the status quo.

Philo writes:

Occasionally a voice in the wilderness ends up strongly influencing a whole society, but this is extremely rare. Most of us sensibly conclude that we have negligible political influence. Then there is no point in our offering compromises, except in the vein of Bryan Caplan—with the motive simply of embarrassing holders of the wrongheaded, but dominant, policy position. But evidently Wilkinson doesn’t see himself as thus powerless; he imagines that *his* advocacy of compromises is important, because it has a fair chance of influencing, perhaps even determining, the actual political outcome. This strikes me as a misjudgment, bordering on egomania.

Tom writes:

In regards to the immigration question posted earlier (forgive me in advance if my internet sarcasm meter is broken), but if recent writings are any indication it's that CATO is basically on the "open-borders" side of the debate.

Glen Smith writes:

Problem is that most second-best solutions are the worst as they create rent opportunities that attracts the right out of the market (or at least provides more fodder for the left's propaganda mill). Privitization is an excellent example of a thing that is supposed to reduce government but almost always expands it and, worse, institutionalizes it as a creature of the right.

MikeP writes:

Pre-institutional humanity recognizes marriage, but not gay marriage. Gay marriage clearly is a creation of the government. No one could argue that it has emerged and spread merely as a spontaneous evolution of social customs.

And yet states did not see the need to recognize marriage for thousands upon thousands of years. They started recognizing marriage in the last couple centuries not due to the well-known pre-institutional reasons, but due to property and agency reasons.

The problem is that the state overloaded the notion of marriage in order to provide for household incorporation. The solution is to rewrite the laws so the legal contract is not marriage, but household incorporation.

You are using the state's appropriation of a preexisting institution in defining a household incorporation to deny people who want to form a household incorporation under the same terms and definitions. It's the state's fault that they misappropriated the institution. The correction is to apply that misappropriation equitably.

Note that people who want to form households of three adults are similarly left out because of the state's error in originally defining household incorporation. This will be even harder to shove into the state's malformed legalisms. Maybe then states will fix it for real.

Lee Kelly writes:

To paraphrase Milton Friedman: a society that puts political freedom before economic freedom will get neither. A society that puts economic freedom before political freedom will get a good measure of both.

This is why libertarians tend to side with Republicans and conservatives. Economic freedom is the requisite; it has to take priority.

infopractical writes:

Will starts a good conversation this time.

I only read some of the comments, so I don't know if this has been addressed, but for a few years now I've had a theory as to why CATO and many libertarians lean to the right when it comes to political compromise.

*libertarians favor the economic right
*libertarians favor the social left

(obviously I'm being simplistic, but it works for now...)

Perhaps it is true that

*States (nations) tend to move toward the economic left in discrete chunks, but to the right incrementally.

*States (nations) tend to move toward the social left incrementally, but to the right in discrete chunks.

These "chunks" may require revolution, which carries a heavy cost, not to mention great organization.

The slippery slope of recent losses in civil rights serves as an example of an issue where libertarians don't want to budge. It often takes a large scale movement or amendments to restore freedom on the level of civil rights.

Perhaps taxes serve as a counterexample -- we often see incremental moves in both directions. But we see massive increases in bureaucracy, with no retreat, which may be the better way to view the overall tax curve (as implications of future taxes).

Floccina writes:

I think that it is because the Democrats have so dominated Government that they do feel the need to ally with Libertarians. Cato could compromise all that they want but the Democrats will not ally with them.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top