Bryan Caplan  

Tough Luck: A Followup Conversation With Bill Dickens

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My post on "Tough Luck" sparked a Facebook conversation with the great Bill Dickens.  Reprinted with his permission:

Bill: You've got to be kidding me. The problem with most of your examples is simple. While Libertarians have to say tough luck! The person defending government would say "Hmm... your right! Let's change that!" At worst they would say "The benefits outweigh the harms" (as in the case of regulation). There is no comparision.

Bryan: Are you kidding me, Bill? Libertarians can't say, "The benefits outweigh the harms"? They can't say, "Let's change that by giving more to charity" or "Let's persuade people to live more prudently"?

Bill: @Bryan, you were the one who put the words "tough luck" into the mouths of libertarians, not me. I wouldn't have objected to a post that made the point that there are other ways of dealing with the examples you cite besides saying "tough luck." I also wouldn't have objected if you had tried to make the case that we are better off not giving government support. I worry though that "tough luck" is the first thought and that the reactions in your response are an after thought. It seems to me that radical individualists really don't feel responsibility for others and reject Rawlsian/social insurance sorts of arguments. It seems to me there really is a difference here in the desire to fix problems rather than to excuse ignoring them.

Bryan: @Bill - My point is that everyone eventually says "Tough luck." The hypotheticals were constructed to skip to that point. If X, Y, and Z are how you fix problems, just specify, "What if X, Y, and Z are inadequate. What then?"



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COMMENTS (9 to date)
sieben writes:

"Tough luck" is the first response because libertarians are intellectually honest. They recognize that if they advocate private property rights, they have to bite into all that entails.

Statists, on the other hand, are not advocating statism. They're advocating virtuous statism, which is why they can never be held accountable for bad government outcomes. Such bad outcomes are, by definition, not virtuous!

Really, if substituting virtues for real political philosophy were valid, all we'd need to say is "I wish everyone played nice"

MikeP writes:

"It seems to me that radical individualists really don't feel responsibility for others and reject Rawlsian/social insurance sorts of arguments."

So do kindhearted liberals, unless they advocate taking most every dollar currently redistributed in the US and giving it to the truly poor in other parts of the world.

Alex Godofsky writes:
Bryan: Are you kidding me, Bill? Libertarians can't say, "The benefits outweigh the harms"? They can't say, "Let's change that by giving more to charity" or "Let's persuade people to live more prudently"?

Like it or not, the people you're talking to believe that "the government" has some sort of agency in the relevant context, such that we can talk about what policy "should" be; by contrast, almost no one ever assigns any sort of agency to society as a whole.

Public choice, etc. give us solid reasons to question the scope of the former, but it seems pretty clear that in some sense they are right that we can talk about what policy "should" do and we can't talk about what society "should" do.

Tom West writes:

MikeP, you are, of course, correct.

As I said before, it's here where a liberal's most basic impulses run aground on the hard rock of the reality that there are very real limits to what we'll do to help others.

Very useful to remember before one hectors conservatives for being heartless :-).

MikeP writes:

Tom West, yes, I recall your candor on this topic.

But there is definitely a clear middle ground between the government letting people starve in the streets and the government writing checks to millionaires solely so the elderly who actually need welfare aren't embarrassed that they are getting it.

Let's ease the government back 70 or 80% to the point where redistribution actually goes to people in poverty rather than to millionaires, exporters, energy companies, unions, scientists, farmers, etc.

Floccina writes:
But there is definitely a clear middle ground between the government letting people starve in the streets and the government writing checks to millionaires solely so the elderly who actually need welfare aren't embarrassed that they are getting it.

And what bothers me most is that the checks that go to the millionaires are much bigger than those that go to the elderly who actually need welfare. It would be simple to just give every SS recipient the same amount.

Already more doctors take Medicare than Medicaid but it seems Medicaid will be cut before Medicare.

Also the most common excuse for Government education is that the poor would not send their children to school without it. Well then let the poor children go to government school for free and make everyone else pay something with the above median paying the full cost.

I bet that the 5% of my income that goes to doing good works in poor countries does much, much more good than does the 40% of my income that goes to the Government.

The US government is one messed up charity.

Ted Levy writes:

We live in the age of Google and Flicker. Would someone who actually believes in their existence please take a moment to direct me to a photo of someone in America who, prior to the growth of the welfare state, was actually "starving in the streets." A lot apparently hangs on the existence of such people, so it would be nice to confirm their reality.

I've seen photos of people horribly treated in America's compulsory mental health system and in America's prison system, but I've never seen photographic documentation of people free to move about on the streets and yet starving for the want of any aid and assistance. Yet the argument goes that it must have been a grave problem, what with all those people saying, "Tough luck," else why set up the welfare state?

I've seen pictures of people in Africa, and parts of the Caribbean basin, who appear to be "starving in the streets." No doubt if it were easy to gain photographic evidence in North Korea, similar proof would be quickly obtained there. But with all those photos of Ellis Island and the subsequent squalor of the tenements of the early Industrial age in America, I've never actually seen images of people starving in the streets in America...So if you can help me out I'd appreciate it. A simple link would suffice.

blink writes:

I don't think your hypothetical interlocutors will agree that we can "skip to that point", even in a thought experiment. Policy-space is infinite, after all, and so there are always more ideas to try and regulations to implement. No finite amount of data will suffice.

Seth writes:

I wonder what Bill would say about a poor libertarian who was defrauded of his retirement savings, with the perp vanishing into thin air. 'Tough luck?'

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