Bryan Caplan  

Somin on Extremer Extremists

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Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy methodically answers my questions about extremer extremists.  My original suggested response umbrellas:

1. Public relations. Views more extreme than your own are counter-productive because they alienate the moderates you need to convince to get better results.

2. Transition costs. While you agree with the extremer extremists about the ultimate goal, they underrate the transition costs of getting from here to there....

3. Latent pluralism. Despite your often one-sided rhetoric and disdain for the "other side(s)," they actually make some valid points; they just overstate them. Thus, even if you habitually dismiss the view that statist policies give bad incentives, you might ultimately agree that your policies would provide disturbingly bad incentives if they were pushed further than you advocate. Picture a socialist who opposes a 100% marginal tax rate....

4. Papered-over fundamental differences. Even if you psychologically and sociologically identify with your extremer extremists, you don't philosophically identify with them. They're just fellow travelers who fail to grasp the principles that really count....

Somin's response:

Bryan's point 1 isn't really a reason to reject the more extreme view. At most, it's a justification for not revealing that you hold that position, in order to avoid alienating moderates. A genuine "extremer extremist" can still choose to seem more moderate than he really is for public relations reasons. In any event, I don't soft-pedal the substance of my views on issues I regularly write about for the sake of attracting moderates, though I am very conscious of this issue when it comes to questions of style. I might act differently if I were running for public office or gunning for a judgeship. But fortunately I'm not.

Point 2 is potentially significant. There are various government programs whose creation I consider to be unjustified that I would not abolish immediately, because of reliance interests. In most such cases, however, I would still want to abolish them gradually rather than leave them in place permanently. So this is not really a big area of disagreement between me and more extreme libertarians.

The fourth point is a bigger issue for me. Many of the libertarians who are more extreme than I am believe in absolute property rights, whereas I do not. I think utilitarian considerations matter also, and individual rights (including property rights) can sometimes legitimately be sacrificed if there is a large enough utilitarian benefit. However, some libertarians who are more extreme than I am actually hold very similar fundamental values. Economist David Friedman and Bryan Caplan himself are good examples. Both of them also reject absolute rights and are partial utilitarians.

The really big factor for me is ultimately point 3, "latent pluralism." There are a few market failures (mostly certain public goods problems) that I think private sector institutions can't handle, while government has at least a reasonable chance of doing better. I think liberals and conservatives (to say nothing of socialists) greatly overstate the frequency of such examples. But I believe they are correct about a small but important set of cases. I'm familiar with the more extreme libertarian and anarchist literature arguing otherwise, some of which makes excellent points. But I don't find it fully convincing.

Read the whole thing.


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COMMENTS (3 to date)
Greg G writes:

The American right wing has had enough success stigmatizing the word liberal that they have now been encouraged to set their sights on stigmatizing the word moderate. It's becoming a bit Orwellian.

John Jenkins writes:

The American left wing has done a fine job of stigmatizing "liberal" without any help at all.

adam zur writes:

When you say "extreme" I think you mean "vertical." Like the way a mosquito can attack a human much bigger than itself. It concentrate on a small area. It is people that do this that are the successful ones. The people that have only one goal and work on it all the time. This is how Marxism became the language and thought of the modern world and how the liberal ideas of john Locke are forgotten. The Marxists were driven rabid fanatics. I have never heard or see a person that was a driven rabid fanatic followers of john Locke. The whole idea sees absurd in itself since he was the peak of moderate liberal rational thinking.

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