Art Carden  

Conservative Authoritarianism: An Exercise Based on Bryan Caplan's "Liberal Authoritarianism"

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Co-blogger Bryan Caplan opened the month with a post on "Liberal Authoritarianism." he left "the writing of the companion post on "Conservative Authoritarianism" as an exercise for the reader." I accepted his challenge, so here we go.

In Bryan's way of putting it, "an authoritarian is someone who doesn't mind the use of government power," and he goes on to say that "consequentialism is inherently authoritarian!" He finishes with a thought experiment:

In the end, the consequentialist has to either abandon consequentialism or say, "I refuse to leave you alone. Although the difference between the best and second-best is small, you have to do A whether you like it or not." And isn't that an awfully authoritarian attitude?

Bryan offers a definition of "authoritarian" that people will find off-putting because it gets almost everyone on the "Statist-Libertarian" spectrum who isn't an anarcho-capitalist. I doubt he will get very far with this as a rhetorical strategy because when people think "authoritarian," they usually think "Stalin" or someone similar, not "my city council representative who wants to pass a law against sagging pants." Perhaps it would be better to point out that a lot of people are authoritarians on at least some margins without realizing it. With that caveat in mind, let's consider some of the ways conservatives flex their authoritarian muscles.

Like liberals (and everyone else), conservatives can be guilty of mental substitution, which happens when people confronted with very difficult questions substitute much easier questions that don't require much reflection. This isn't the same thing as breaking a complex problem down into its constituent parts. It's changing the question, albeit subtly: "should the government punish people who produce and listen to this music?" becomes "do I want my kids listening to this music?" Sometimes the substitution is explicit for rhetorical effect: "do you want your kids listening to this garbage?!" Indeed, the best examples of conservative authoritarianism that come immediately to mind involve sex, drugs, rock & roll, war, and immigrants.

Sex: Some sex acts are still illegal in some places, and we're not too far removed from a world in which even more sex acts were banned. Prostitution, for example, is still illegal almost everywhere, and Alabama's Court of Criminal Appeals recently struck down a provision that had criminalized consensual homosexual conduct. Our Attorney General wants the court "to reconsider its decision" because it "leaves all Alabamians less protected from nonconsensual sex and potentially calls into question numerous past convictions." Even on consequentialist grounds, the AG would need to provide pretty compelling evidence that having the ability to prosecute people for consensual homosexual encounters reduces rape. If consensual and non-consensual sex are substitutes, then my prediction would be that legalizing consensual sex will actually reduce rape. I'm not really sure how there's a non-authoritarian way to square this with the Harm Principle, which James Stacey Taylor explains here.

Here, I think, is the mental substitution that takes place: "Do the benefits of outlawing consensual homosexual acts exceed the costs?" becomes "Do I think homosexuality is a sin?" or "Does homosexuality gross me out?"

Drugs: Here's a pretty obvious case in which even the consequentialist case breaks down. I had a professor in grad school who said he's a Bayesian in theory but a frequentist in practice because classical econometrics can do most of the heavy lifting. Similarly, I'm a natural rights libertarian in theory but a consequentialist in practice because most people are (or claim to be) consequentialists and because it's easy to show that the consequences of government interventions are often the opposite of what their advocates intend. The drug war is literally a textbook example of a policy regime with serious and negative unintended consequences (I explain in my most popular Forbes.com column).

I doubt that many serious drug warriors have considered the evidence and have instead performed a mental substitution. "Do the benefits of outlawing drugs exceed the costs?" becomes "Do I think drug use is a sin?" or "Do I want my kids smoking meth?"

Rock & Roll: Musicians and others have been fighting censorship for a very long time. In the 1980s, Dee Snider went before Congress to testify in defense of heavy metal at the behest of the PMRC. In the early 1990s, as I was nearing adolescence, 2 Live Crew went up on obscenity charges (link SFW, by the way).

Again, the mental substitution here was clear: "should we outlaw this kind of music?" became "do I want my kids listening to this?" This could just be availability bias, but I think it's a substitution that can backfire easily: as everyone who entered their preteen and teen years in the Bush I administration can tell you, the only thing they probably did was increase demand for 2 Live Crew albums and concert tickets through a forbidden fruit effect.

War: While Chris Hedges is right that War is a Force that Gives us Meaning and while Stanley Hauerwas is right that we should seek to understand war as a fundamentally liturgical act, most defenses of war are offered on consequentialist grounds. Hauerwas makes a compelling Christian case for pacifism; in a couple of EconLog posts, Bryan offers his arguments for pacifism (1, 2). Bryan bases his argument on three points:

1. The immediate costs of war are clearly awful.

2. The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain.

3. For a war to be morally justified, its long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs.

Most voters don't spend a whole lot of time and energy evaluating wars in light of these points. The mental substitution: "For a war to be morally justified, its long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs" becomes "Would I be happy if Tyrant du Jour weren't slaughtering people?"

Immigration: Regular EconLog readers will know that Bryan and I are fans of open borders, or at least of substantial increases in immigration. Reading Lant Pritchett's Let Their People Come convinced me that relaxing barriers to immigration is not just good economics but a moral imperative. Most of the arguments people put forth to advance their views on immigration aren't much more sophisticated than the anti-immigrant protests in the"Goobacks" episode of South Park.

There's a pretty substantial body of theory and evidence suggesting that the conservative "strong borders" position is flawed. Immigrants aren't a threat to our economy or to American civilization. Two recent places to go for summaries of the literature are the Winter 2012 issue of the Cato Journal and this series of papers from the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech. Alex Nowrasteh's paper "The Fiscal Impact of Immigration" and Jacob Vigdor's paper "The Civic and Cultural Assimilation of Immigrants to the United States."

With immigration, the mental substitution is often as explicit as it is with Rock & Roll: "Do the benefits of 'border security' outweigh the costs" becomes a question people have asked me before, usually a variation on "would I like it if someone I don't know came through my front door, helped himself or herself to the contents of my fridge, and then plopped down on my couch?"

Furthermore, people advocating government encroachment on liberty rarely if ever consider the financial, institutional, cultural, and social costs of enforcement. There's no such thing as a free lunch, and there's no such thing as a free border fence or a free crackdown on vice. There are direct financial consequences because we have to pay for a border fence and Border Patrol agents. There are also institutional and cultural costs. Compulsory registration with E-Verify in order to ensure that you aren't hiring illegal immigrants isn't "freedom." There are second-stage financial costs, as well. Such incursions raise the costs of doing business in some places and soak up resources (like your HR director's time) that could otherwise be spent doing other things. Even if we can show that homosexual, drug-using immigrant musicians take our jobs and impoverish our culture, we have to ask what it would cost to keep them out.

While we're thinking about costs, in his book Applied Economics, Thomas Sowell encourages us to ask "and then what happens?" The long-run effects of solving one problem are by no means a net positive. There isn't much to stop a government that can enter your bedroom to prosecute you for having consensual gay sex from checking the nightstand to see if you have an unapproved handgun or from checking the fridge to see if you have unapproved soft drinks.


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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Philo writes:

"[T]he consequences of government interventions are often the opposite of what their advocates intend." Quite so; and those who support these government interventions *ex ante* usually make very little effort to investigate what the consequences are likely to be, nor do they bother to observe *ex post* what the consequences have been. Their support is a sort of public gesture, divorced from practicality, because the share of bad consequences that falls on them as individuals is quite small. Like "expressive voting," they are engaged in expressive public policy advocacy. (Of course, this has nothing to do with the leftist/conservative distinction.)

S writes:

More immigrants could never result in a bigger welfare state.

S writes:

[Comment removed for crude language. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges.--Econlib Ed.]

Glen writes:

For most people in the USA, Canada and Western Europe — left, right or center — the open borders substitution is (fairly accurately) “Would I like my hometown to look a lot more like Mexico City? Or Mumbai? Or Cairo?”

James writes:

Bryan offers a definition of "authoritarian" that people will find off-putting because it gets almost everyone on the "Statist-Libertarian" spectrum who isn't an anarcho-capitalist.

Defending Caplan, and as an An-cap myself, I find that most statist-libertarians would prefer not to use government power for anything, but see the existence of the state as a necessary precaution against the many imperialist-Genghis Khans of history. Statist-libertarians adhere to pragmatism, but would gladly abolish the state if they believed it to be both feasible and wise. As such, Caplan definition doesn't snag statist-libertarians, because I argue that they DO mind using statist power for anything, but find it necessary for safeguarding liberty. Conservative/Liberals on the other hand, couldn't care less about safeguard liberty, caring a lot more about taking it away and siphoning it to their personal belief, regardless of long-term consequences or moral inconsistencies.

Ali Bertarian writes:

Carden wrote "Regular EconLog readers will know that Bryan and I are fans of open borders, or at least of substantial increases in immigration. Reading Lant Pritchett's Let Their People Come convinced me that relaxing barriers to immigration is not just good economics but a moral imperative."

What happens when effecting a moral imperative leads to destroying other moral imperatives in the future? While open borders is a moral imperative for a society that is already libertarian, it is a path to increasing government power over everyone's life in a majoritarian democracy in which poor people, including poor immigrants, have a history of voting for bigger government.

If open immigration is a moral imperative, then why should prospective immigrants be compelled to take tests that ensure their knowledge of the Constitution, or of the United States? Where does coerced knowledge fit into Carden's system of moral imperatives?

Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winning economist once said:

It is one thing to have free immigration to jobs. It is another thing to have free immigration to welfare. You cannot have both. If you have a welfare state, if you have a state in which a resident is promised certain minimum level of income or a minimum subsistence regardless of whether he works or not produces it or not. Well then it really is an impossibility.
NZ writes:

Art, you wrote:

I doubt that many serious drug warriors have considered the evidence and have instead performed a mental substitution.
When I first started researching the war on drugs as a young libertarian, my attitude was similar to yours: I assumed that serious drug warriors simply never considered the issue fully and made lazy mental substitutions and other logical errors instead.

Now, many years later, I have discovered this to be a false assumption. There are deeper and more complex motives behind drug prohibition, and the people in favor of it are many things but not a pack of idiots. I still disagree with many of their arguments, but they are not nearly as simple and dismissible as you might think.

A good example of this is the "drug possession as a proxy for other criminality" argument. It is easier to find drugs on someone than to catch him in the act of committing a violent crime. Many people who commit violent crime also sell or use drugs, and so drug laws create a handy way for police to lock these dangerous people up. Truly nonviolent drug offenders who are not drug dealers are also arrested from time to time to keep up appearances, but generally they are only fined or made to go to some classes (i.e. slapped on the wrist).

Now, I think that argument eventually fails because these people don't stay locked up forever and in fact become more dangerous for having been locked up--but that evolves into a separate argument from the one about drug laws. The drug law argument is sound from a consequentialist perspective.

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