Bryan Caplan  

Brennan's Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know

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Learning and Retention in Medi... Center Libertarian?...
As expected, Jason Brennan's latest book, Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2012) is excellent.  The format works well for the blog age: thoughtful libertarian answers to a hundred and five frequently asked questions. 

My admittedly somewhat random favorite passages:
A study by Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz found that Americans use guns in perceived self-defense nearly 2.5 million times per year.  This same study found that nearly 400,000 Americans believe gun ownership saved their lives.  Of course, these Americans might be exaggerating the danger they faced, and they might be mistaken in believing that a gun was necessary to save their lives.  However, suppose just 1 out of 10 of these Americans were correct.  Under that assumption, the number of lives saved by private gun ownership each year exceeds the number of lives lost.
Brennan's wording admittedly made me nervous.  The second sentence sounds like 400,000 total, while the last sentence gives an annual figure.  When I dug up the original study, though, Brennan's summary was exactly correct.  (Also check out this calm discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of Kleck and Gertz and competing estimates).

Another surprising passage:
If Wal-Mart started to pay high wages, Wal-Mart jobs would become attractive to skilled workers.  People who currently work as medical assistants or car mechanics would want Wal-Mart jobs.  Since they are more productive and have more skills - since their labor is worth more - they will outcompete the kind of people who currently work at Wal-Mart.  So, raising wages above market levels is unlikely to help unskilled workers.  Instead, it causes job gentrification. (Imagine if Wal-Mart offered to pay its workers $100/hr. Then many of my colleagues would consider becoming Wal-Mart cashiers).
Wisdom:
As the philosopher David Schmidtz says, if your main goal is to show that your heart is in the right place, then your heart is not in the right place.


COMMENTS (16 to date)
Bedarz Iliaci writes:

The libertarian utopia is the state of rational intercourse between Strangers. Think of a trading post in Indian territory or at frontier between two tribes or nations.
This would be State of Nature: the arguments (or discourse) between the strangers serve for protection of persons and chattel property but not for ownership of land.
The Justice is arbitrative (cf David Friedman's The Machinery of freedom).

But the frontier trading post fails to capture the full richness of the human life. For that, one needs the state of rational intercourse in the City (i.e. the tribe or the nation).
The life is lived within the tribe and not at the boundary of two tribes. But the libertarian prefers frontier life.

Tom West writes:

This same study found that nearly 400,000 Americans believe gun ownership saved their lives.

Wow. With gun ownership around 40%, this suggests 600,000 American lives are lost (per year?) due to non-ownership of guns. That, or gun-owning Americans put themselves into life-threatening situations on a regular basis...

Either way, not a comforting way to raise tourism rate to the USA :-).

Mike W writes:

"222 of the 4799 respondents reported having at least one DGU in their household in the past 5 years. After correcting for oversampling in some regions, this figure drops to 66 personal accounts of DGUs in the preceding year, indicating that 1.326 percent of adults nationwide had experienced at least one DGU. When multiplied by 1.478, the average number of DGUs reported per DGU claimant for the preceding year, and by the total adult population, an estimate of 2.55 million DGUs per year was arrived at."

Is the "1.478" adjusting for "households" vs individual "adults"?

John B. writes:

Re Tom West's comment

Perhaps Americans who live in more dangerous areas and are thus more likely to be threatened with death know this and thus choose to own guns. I don't think we can assume that threats of death are distributed randomly.

Wikipedia says 12,632 non-suicide deaths from guns in the US in 2000.

It's also not clear what "gun ownership saved my life" actually means here but I suspect that it's not all "I won a shoot-out". Many respondants might be thinking "I carry openly and therefore never get bothered" or even "my neighbors know I shoot and so my house doesn't get broken into like the one down the street".

darjen writes:

That is a really interesting quote from the Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz study. My local newspaper just today ran a very anti-gun editorial piece, and I copied and pasted that quote in their comment section. Maybe someone will actually see it and try to think. Here's hoping.

Richard writes:

@ Mike W:

Your whole comment requires its reader to know what a "DGU" is. Well, that's not an acronym in common usage. So, unless you explain it, your comment is basically gibberish.

When writing, try to think of your reader. It's just the considerate thing to do.

Ted Levy writes:

John B.: I think it frequently means, "I was hostilely approached, or I heard people beating on my door, and when I brandished a weapon, or shouted, 'I'm armed!', they backed off." This is the sort of story that is frequently (and I assume truly) often described among gun owners.

Chris H writes:

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

The libertarian utopia is the state of rational intercourse between Strangers. Think of a trading post in Indian territory or at frontier between two tribes or nations.
This would be State of Nature: the arguments (or discourse) between the strangers serve for protection of persons and chattel property but not for ownership of land.
The Justice is arbitrative (cf David Friedman's The Machinery of freedom).

But the frontier trading post fails to capture the full richness of the human life. For that, one needs the state of rational intercourse in the City (i.e. the tribe or the nation).
The life is lived within the tribe and not at the boundary of two tribes. But the libertarian prefers frontier life.

Hey Bedarz! I think you've come across a misunderstanding of libertarianism. When libertarians talk about situations you define as more on the Frontier they are not saying that the Frontier is the preferable place to live one's life. They are attempting to solve the problem of the Frontier, namely how should one interact with complete strangers.

To illustrate why libertarians have no inherent problems with the City and indeed why the City is no even a real problem, we need to discuss what is the key difference between the City and the Frontier. That difference is interpersonal trust and knowledge. On the Frontier in interactions with strangers one does not have strong trust with them or knowledge about them. Thus when disputes arise, the possibility that two people can simply come to a mutually agreeable accord is unlikely and thus third party assistance is required to prevent the dispute from turning mutually destructive. As you note from your citation of The Machinery of Freedom libertarians have an answer to solve that problem.

So then what about the City? In the City interpersonal trust and knowledge about others is high. As such if and when disputes arise the two parties are much more likely to come to a mutually agreeable conclusion on their own. More than that an intrusion of a third party is more likely to lead to an intensification of problems than a solving of them. Libertarians are opposed to unnecessary third party intrusions which would disrupt the self-organizing harmony of the City.

Finally, we should not view the Frontier and the City as two discrete positions, but instead as poles on a spectrum of interactions. The most extreme example of the Frontier being interactions between people with zero knowledge about one another and zero reason to trust one another. The most extreme example of the City on the other hand is close family where levels of trust and knowledge about one another are extremely high. Most interactions actually fall somewhere between these poles.

The goal of a libertarian justice system can best be understood as a way of increasing knowledge and trust between strangers. When there is the recourse to third party dispute resolution (arbitration) strangers on the Frontier can act in manners more similar to those interactions within the City. As such, contrary to the conclusion you have come to, libertarian is actually better understood as an attempt to make the Frontier into the City rather than a glorification of the Frontier.

Nate writes:

"So, raising wages above market levels is unlikely to help unskilled workers. Instead, it causes job gentrification."

Yea, that's not the whole story.

Libertarianism often fails to incorporate the concept of status into it's socioeconomic models, and thus does not accurately describe reality.

Tom West writes:

Perhaps Americans who live in more dangerous areas and are thus more likely to be threatened with death know this and thus choose to own guns. I don't think we can assume that threats of death are distributed randomly.

I figure that accounts for much of it, which is why my heart goes out to the ~200,000 Americans who die each year because they refuse to carry a gun.


:-)

Greg G writes:

If we are going to accept as fact everyone's subjective opinions about when easy access to guns might have saved their lives then we ought to compare that to other people's subjective opinions about how often such access to guns has endangered their lives.

Or maybe we should just admit this whole approach is so silly as to be a parody of a scientific approach to the question.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Chris H,
You are right that the libertarians "are attempting to solve the problem of the Frontier, namely how should one interact with complete strangers."

But then the libertarians should not extrapolate their solution to the life in the City, should they?

It is not an accident that interpersonal trust and knowledge is higher in the City. In fact, the City may be defined as a community with a common conception of the Good, that means a shared conception of Justice, a common worship, and kinship to a significant degree. Absolute uniformity is not essential because a City can be and is usually a hierarchical entity with sub-cities. The City has nothing essentially to do with race. , leaving aside the fact that all modern races have been constructed entities, some quite recent, such as the putative "White" race in America.

"In the City interpersonal trust and knowledge about others is high. As such if and when disputes arise the two parties are much more likely to come to a mutually agreeable conclusion on their own

The Justice is the City is Sovereign and can hand out true punishments. The arbitrative justice is not really justice but more in nature of agreement and can not hand out punishment to the offenders.

One may accept adverse judgment from arbitration from game-theoretic calculus but sovereign justice is not a choice.

Chris H writes:
But then the libertarians should not extrapolate their solution to the life in the City, should they?

I think you are being too atomistic in your definitions, the Frontier and the City are always intermixed to varying degrees. There is no pure City without a Frontier mix or vice-versa. Areas of disagreement are typically solved in arbitration because these areas of dispute actually constitute an intrusion of the Frontier into the City. Within the pure City, everyone will agree on what is Good and Just and will therefore willingly make any amends required for violations of those norms. Arbitration is not needed in such an instance, but neither is any other interference.

Absolute uniformity is not essential because a City can be and is usually a hierarchical entity with sub-cities.

Hierarchical authority can actual be a problem for the City, but I'll get more into that later.

The Justice is the City is Sovereign and can hand out true punishments. The arbitrative justice is not really justice but more in nature of agreement and can not hand out punishment to the offenders.

And here is a problem. If the people of the City broadly agree on what is the Good and what is Justice, a Sovereign is unnecessary at best and more typically will deviate from this common conception of Justice and Good. Consider, disagreements which could be brought to the Sovereign constitute two classes. One is a disagreement about whether a particular act has violated Good and Justice. This is an intrusion of the Frontier into the City and is best dealt with as such through arbitration. The other is when side has deliberately violated the Good and Just, either because they don't care about Good or Justice or because they have an incompatible view of Good and Justice from the rest of the city. What is the use of arbitration in the second case?

Arbitration in the second case informs the larger City that someone has decided to live outside the City's conception of the Good and Just. As such they are not protected by such concepts so long as they remain in contact with people of the City. Justice is not voluntary in such a situation. Either Justice will be served through the perpetrator paying the price arbitration decided for him, through citizens taking advantage in this person's lack of protection under the City's norms of Good and Justice, or through expelling the person altogether from interaction with the City. This situation requires us to come up with a third category, the Outlaw.

The Outlaw is in a worse situation than the Frontier. With the Frontier, knowledge and trust are uncertain. With the City, knowledge and trust are certain in a positive sense. With the Outlaw however, knowledge and trust are both certain in a negative sense. All people know they cannot trust an Outlaw and all Outlaws know they cannot trust non-Outlaws (as they have the right to enact Justice upon Outlaws at will), and they cannot trust other Outlaws (in most cases, some exceptions may exist depending on the particular norms of Good and Justice of the City doing the outlawing). They live a truly isolated life at best.

But what does adding a Sovereign do to this situation? A good Sovereign will not deviate from the City's norms about Good and Justice. In this account, a Sovereign is no improvement. A bad Sovereign however, will break down the agreement, trust, and knowledge within the City and send the inhabitants into a Frontier or even Outlaw situation with one another. A bad Sovereign will favor certain groups within the city creating divisions that break down inter-personal trust and knowledge. This will revert the situation to the Frontier, only with arbitration as a no longer guaranteed solution as the Sovereign may overrule or take over the arbitrators for the advantage of favored groups and itself. Tensions may get so bad that knowledge and trust turn negative and relations between privileged and unprivileged will become more akin to the situation of the Outlaw.

As a result the power of the Sovereign is incredibly dangerous to the harmony of the City and at best cannot improve upon such harmony. The danger is magnified when one realizes that the power of the Sovereign to benefit certain people and groups will tempt many to try and corrupt the Sovereign. This temptation might turn many otherwise good Sovereigns into bad ones, leading to the destruction of the idea of the City and its replacement with Frontier and Outlaws.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Chris H,
The crux of the matter is Who is sovereign?.
The individuals collectively as the City or the individuals severally?
Note that the Declaration of Independence refers to We The People, i.e. to the collective.

Indeed, I argue that the notion of individual sovereignty can not mesh with the notion of justice that is meted out.
How can I arbitrate myself to suffer life imprisonment or worse?. Why would I agree to such an arbitration? And even if I agreed once, I can back out anytime since I am sovereign.

In fact, the concept of individual sovereignty is not meaningful. One is sovereign over something.
The City is sovereign over its territory.
But we don't call an individual sovereign over his property and for good reason, because the individual holds his property by law (i.e. the laws of his City) while the City holds its territory by Assertion.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

"If the people of the City broadly agree on what is the Good and what is Justice"

Deeper the agreement, lesser is the need for an explicit Government. Thus, libertarianism, that presumes a bare minimum of moral agreement, works in synergy with Progressivism to produce an expanding Government, even if this result is unintended by the libertarians themselves.

This phenomena was captured by Dostoevsky as
"Starting with the perfect freedom, I conclude in a perfect despotism."
The Possessed.

Chris H writes:

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

The crux of the matter is Who is sovereign?. The individuals collectively as the City or the individuals severally? Note that the Declaration of Independence refers to We The People, i.e. to the collective.

A sovereign that we're talking about must either be a dictator or some form of collective, but both Friedman and myself oppose the concept of a sovereign. The Declaration thus does not go far enough in it's arguments in my opinion.

Indeed, I argue that the notion of individual sovereignty can not mesh with the notion of justice that is meted out. How can I arbitrate myself to suffer life imprisonment or worse?. Why would I agree to such an arbitration? And even if I agreed once, I can back out anytime since I am sovereign.

You've read the Machinery of Freedom and if so David Friedman offers an explanation for why this would occur. I also was giving such an explanation above. Being an Outlaw, with no right to challenge whatever anyone does to you or to get any institutional support for oneself, not to mention the social ostracization, means that some forms of prison might actually be more attractive than being declared an Outlaw. But even if that isn't the case, punishment is still meted out through being isolated or actively attacked by others without any recourse to normal means of defense (such as private courts and defense agencies). So I reject your notion that justice is "voluntary" under a libertarian anarchist system.

n fact, the concept of individual sovereignty is not meaningful. One is sovereign over something. The City is sovereign over its territory. But we don't call an individual sovereign over his property and for good reason, because the individual holds his property by law (i.e. the laws of his City) while the City holds its territory by Assertion.

I agree that sovereign is the wrong term when applied to individuals. But then again I also argue that sovereignty is a bad thing. The City though does not need to be sovereign. A City like what we have been speaking of can exist purely on the direct and explicit consent of those who live within it. Laws are not the creation of a sovereign, but instead the organic discoveries of the preferences of the individuals in the City. Think of laws like language. No sovereign dictated language nor keeps control of it. Dictionaries and linguists do not control language, but to the contrary are controlled by it. If the dictionary said the meaning of the word "apple" was "a long-distance communication device" people would not change their definition of apple, they laugh at the dictionary and stop using that version.

True laws are similarly the result of spontaneous order. If a sovereign came up and said that "I am now allowed to kill anyone without provocation or warning" everyone would recognize that as a perversion of the law. Of course the difference is compared to language that a sovereign can use force to compel people to accept this law.

Deeper the agreement, lesser is the need for an explicit Government. Thus, libertarianism, that presumes a bare minimum of moral agreement, works in synergy with Progressivism to produce an expanding Government, even if this result is unintended by the libertarians themselves.

This is true, if there is a government to begin with. A night-watchman state that many minarchists argue for does tend to lead to encroaching expansions. However, if there is no government, the jump from "no government" to "a small government" is a much bigger conceptual and practical leap than the jump from "small government" to "enormous government." Getting people to accept a sovereign in the first place is difficult even in a society with high trust. A society more like the City sees no real need for government while a society more like the Frontier distrusts too strongly to trust any group to gain sovereignty. On the other hand, once a sovereign is established, then it's monopoly on force combined with the habit of obedience makes it easy to gradually build up an increasingly large state.

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