Arnold Kling  

Hardline Libertarians?

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Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson write,

Central planning maximizes the extent of control that the state, and the people running the state, exercise. The desire to control others is a constant in history and is part and parcel of the construction of states. If the state can grab all the land and resources and control who and on what terms people get access to them, then this maximizes control, even if it sacrifices economic efficiency.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

This argument comes across to me as a hardline libertarian position, not one that I would typically associate with the authors. It is hard to root for government intervention after reading just this post. To make the case for government intervention, you want to ascribe moral authority to those who advocate intervention and ascribe evil motives to those who oppose it. In this post, it's the other way around.

I am somewhat less hard line. I believe that the motives and intentions are sometimes (often?) better than "the desire to control others." In any case, I think that a major goal of economic reasoning should be to focus attention on consequences rather than motives and intentions.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (17 to date)
RPLong writes:

In that case, I suppose I am somewhere in between Kling and Acemoglu/Robinson. The way I see it, there is no getting around the fact that interventionists believe they are entitled to intervene. However noble their intentions, at the end of the day, they have arrived at a point in their politics where they feel justified in saying what goes.

This is an inconvenient fact for them, but a fact nonetheless.

David Tufte writes:

I agree that the "desire to control others" is not necessarily the driving force.

But we keep putting bait in front of people likely to succumb to that weakness when we create social capital structures for the control of others. We shouldn't be surprised if they rise to it.

Eee writes:

"It is hard to root for government intervention after reading just this post."

What on earth would make you try to equate central planning with all goverment intervention? Or appear to abstract from the type of government that exists?

In a functioning democracy there are no doubt some government initiatives/interventions intended to merely enhance the power, reputation, wealth or liklihood of being re-elected of the ruling party. And there are others that are designed to enhance the well-being of the citizens.

It's always a continuum, shades of grey, Arnold; try not to be quite so simplistic.

Shayne Cook writes:

@ Arnold:

Acemoglu/Robinson hit the mark on part of the implications of the centrally planned/command economy. But I suspect they missed the very much larger issue. And I suspect you at least hinted at the existence of that larger issue ...

"I believe that the motives and intentions are sometimes (often?) better than "the desire to control others." [my emphasis added, although I would use the term, different instead of "better"].

You are correct. The "control" exerted in a command economy is obviously over ALL factors of production, not just people/labor. And the control of all factors of production in a centrally-planned economy is exerted with the sole express intent of making the accountancy of that economy look pretty - no unemployment rate, no inequality of income, constantly growing GDP, no inflation, no recessions, perpetually adequate money supply, etc. - by definition. The Marxist ideal - the "workers paradise".

Acemoglu/Robinson assert that central planning results in a "sacrifice of economic efficiency". I would state their result slightly differently. The centrally-planned economy results in minimal production of wealth.

The Soviet experiment didn't necessarily fail because it of it being a centrally-planned or "communist" experiment. It failed because it was, and had to be, a closed economy.

The reported Soviet "accountancy" (of GDP growth, unemployment, inflation) throughout all of its existence was always superior to that of any western economy. And why would it not be? The Soviets controlled the accountancy and every single factor that makes up that accountancy. Again, the accountancy always looks pretty in a closed, controlled economy. That is the expressed purpose of the control.

Note that when Mikhail Gorbachev orchestrated the end of the Soviet experiment in 1991, he did NOT abandon his fervent belief in communism or even centralized control. He merely opened the Soviet Union economy - both to trade and transparency.

That was the profound essence of the document signed in December 1991 that voted the old Soviet Union out of existence, and the "Commonwealth of independent States" into existence - "... in order to define an economic space". It was THE operative element of "glasnost" (openness) and "perestroika"(restructuring). Gorbachev understood explicitly that no matter how favorably the reported Soviet accountancy numbers were with those of the West, the wealth production of the Soviet Union never did begin to match that of the West.

A centrally controlled economy can only be considered successful if its reported "accountancy" verifies success, relative to other economies. If the centrally planned/controlled economy is also a closed economy, there is no relevance to other economies, and is therefore ideal, by definition.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

The point about the "desire" for "control" is being obscured.

That desire may arise from the "most pure" of motivations; a parent's control of the child;the teacher's control of the classroom; and many other instances.

In practically all instances, those motivations are butressed by a conviction of "knowing what's best;" or, at least, "knowing better." In the course of history, determinations of "best," and "better," and the manner of those determinations have shaped social orders and governments.

See: The History of Government From the Earliest Times by S.E. Finer (Oxford 1997-3 Vols.)

In the context, the uses of the mechanisms of governments to direct the actions and relations of individuals as determined by a limited or "central" body, for whatever objectives, does require an over-riding of individual determinations (based on individual distinctions and information) for purposes of control necessary to the objectives of those making "centralized" determinations. The motivations are for the objectives, to be sure; but, they do require means of "control," which the mechanisms of governments offer.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Let me add - that is not "hard line."

Normative Libertarianism is framed by the impacts of the functions of governments on individual Liberty and thus to limit those impacts by limiting those functions.

Therefore; opening those functions to the use of planning by some to direct the conduct of others offends Normative Libertarianism.

Philo writes:

The consequences of giving power to X depend to a considerable extent on X's motives and intentions.

Ken writes:

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Shane L writes:

My understanding was that they thought that states arose out of brutal and selfish desires for control, but that without states societies would never emerge from primitive tribal anarchy. States had positive, unintended consequences.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

@ Philo who wrote:

The consequences of giving power to X depend to a considerable extent on X's motives and intentions.
No, not ordinarily; perhaps seldom.

Motives and intentions may fram the possibilities, but not the consequences.

Matt C writes:

> In any case, I think that a major goal of economic reasoning should be to focus attention on consequences rather than motives and intentions.

I agree, but arguing for liberty should include more than just economic arguments.

The liberty movement in the Western world is in pretty bad shape, partly because welfare state ideals have completely claimed the moral high ground in most people's eyes.

Without some appeal to emotion, the best I think we can hope for is a tolerably rational approach to the welfare state, something along the lines of liberaltarianism (that word just keeps on being awful). Not that we're likely to get that, either.

Glen Smith writes:

How would the stakeholder of a corporation be an issue? The businesses voluntarily relinquished control of what they owned by incorporating in the first place.

Tom West writes:

For what it's worth, personally, "desire to control" is far more evident in my dealing with private enterprise than with the government. Not because the management are moustache-twirling villains, but because they believe they know better than I do how to fulfill organizational goals.

I'll admit I find the tendency lamentable (I find the track record of management more than 2 levels above knowing better than those on the ground fairly iffy), but it's perfectly understandable (and, of course, I'm wrong and they're right just often enough for me not to be smug).

I've always greatly admired people who can willingly cede control to others of significant responsibilities, but I have to say, I find it pretty rare. After all, how many of us trust someone else *more* than we trust our own opinions?

tldr; "Desire to control" does not equal evil and is not confined to government.

RickC writes:

Tom West,

"Desire to control" does not equal evil and is not confined to government."

I don't believe that anyone would argue that the desire for control is confined only to government. As Dr. Johnson wrote, “There are few minds to which tyranny is not delightful.” The problem, of course, is in the extent and impact of said control. A CEO of a corporation makes a decision, controls the direction a company will take and the results of that action affects the employees, investors and customers of that company. Our government decides a certain policy and every person in the country is effected. And unlike with a corporation, when the issue is government control, while I might be able to take my business elsewhere it would come with enormous personal costs. In other words, you seem to be conflating two very different levels of control.

John David Galt writes:

I have to disagree. Policy makers, especially those on the left, are always using good intentions as an excuse when their policies don't deliver the benefits they've promised the public. Therefore I think it's both quite valid and important to hold their feet to the fire over bad motivations they've admitted to their own side, such as those quoted on

Joe Cushing writes:

"I believe that the motives and intentions are sometimes (often?) better than "the desire to control others."

This belief is understandable but flat wrong. The reason you feel this way is because the point about controlling others isn't fully developed. Control doesn't have to have evil motives. You can have good intentions and still have the desire to control others. A person may want to force somebody to not take drugs, for example. Everything the government does is controlling others. If you have the desire for the government to do something it's because you don't think people lack the ability to think for themselves, do right by others, or earn for themselves. You believe people need to be controlled.

Joe Cushing writes:

It's the "I'm smart and moral and everyone else is stupid and immoral" fallacy.

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