Scott Sumner  

I now consider myself to be a Libertarian

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I've always been a small "L" libertarian, but have had an up and down relationship with the Libertarian Party. I was a member when younger, but then let the membership lapse. I continued to vote Libertarian, but mostly to try to build up the party to a level where it would become more pragmatic. They often failed to nominate serious candidates.

My preferred form of libertarianism is based on utilitarian reasoning, and hence is a bit more moderate than the extreme version adhered to by many recent Libertarian candidates. I see myself following in the footsteps of people like Friedman and Hayek. As a result, many commenters who are libertarian purists insist that I'm not a "real" libertarian. I have no problem with people defining libertarianism differently from the way I do.

A commenter recently sent me a very long interview of Gary Johnson, by the LA Times. I was really surprised by how much I liked the interview. Not because our views are identical (I'm less libertarian than Johnson on some issues, and more libertarian on others) but rather because I liked the pragmatic way he thought about public policy issues. Overall, I think I'm about as libertarian as Johnson. His VP choice (Bill Weld) is also a moderate libertarian. In addition, both men have the background, knowledge base, and temperament to be President. In my view, neither of the two major candidates comes close.

I'm not telling anyone how to vote. In this election, my vote would depend on whether I live in a swing state or not.

PS. Consider this story:


The second story was about the hullabaloo over a proposal by Maine Gov. Paul LePage to prohibit food stamp recipients from using their food aid to purchase junk foods, such as sugary soft drinks and candy bars. He says that the state has an obesity problem and that he will "implement reform unilaterally or cease Maine's administration of the food stamp program altogether." The Obama administration rejected his request, and leftist activists act as if saying that a welfare recipient can't buy a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream at taxpayers' expense is a violation of civil liberties.

There's a big outrage over a proposed rule that would prevent food stamps from being spent on high sugar sodas, and no outrage that food stamps cannot be spent on beer. I'd rather not get into a debate about this proposed new rule. Instead, I'd point out that the discrepancy between these two views helps explain why I'm a libertarian. Both major parties want the government to be like a parent, they merely disagree as to what type of parent. I believe that society works better when adults are treated like adults.


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COMMENTS (24 to date)
Johnson writes:

Not sure your example is a good one. The point may be good, but republicans wanting some influence over what they are subsidizing may not be efficient or good policy, but it's not quite not wanting to treat people like adults. I guess you can take the position that anything other than a cash transfer is not treating people like adults, but if the gov't is going to take money through force from some people, it seems reasonable that when they give that money to other people, they try to limit the use of that money to the less objectionable uses.

EricCharles writes:

Curious- as long as food stamps exist, does being "treated like an adult" assume accepting restrictions that try to discourage unhealthy habits or allowing recipients to spend however they want?

Scott Sumner writes:

As a utilitarian, I believe a money transfer is probably better. In general, I believe that people are likely to behave more responsibly if you treat them like adults, than if you treat them like children.

I do understand the argument for restricting the use of food stamps, but I fail to understand how a restriction on beer is considered sensible, but a restriction on sugary sodas is considered reactionary. Can someone explain that to me?

Brian Donohue writes:

Even in a swing state you should vote your conscience unless you think it would be a tie otherwise.

I think I'll vote for Johnson. If he could get up to 15% in polls, we could have a debate that includes a friend of freedom. Imagine that.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

The question will be whether the Libertarian Party (and really I mean not the national organization, but state Libertarian Party organizations) can effectively make use of this "special opportunity" to grow real membership and gain more local elected officials under the party banner.

Politicians really do need experience being in office to be most convincing that they are ready for higher office. The Johnson/Weld ticket of two great former governors is very impressive. But if the LP has to depend exclusively on ex-demopublicans, that would be sad.

(compare with Jill Stein, whose highest & only office was election to a Town Meeting Seat of Lexington, Massachusetts.)

RAD writes:

Beer vs soda: beer is something that adults recognize as a luxury starting at the first beer while it's a bit mean to deny children an occasional sugary treat? I dunno, just a guess.

I'm with Scott on the nannying left/right only disagreeing on where they apply their paternalistic powers. Food stamps sound paternalistic to begin with (I'm not American) and I'm assuming the beer rule is in place because the stores that accept food stamps also sell beer.

Can food stamps be used at a grocery store pharmacy (morning after pill) or at the sports department of a Wal-Mart (guns/ammo)? Hot button issues galore.

Jon Murphy writes:

I agree with your assessment of Gary Johnson. Ideologically, I'm more in line with Austin Petersen, but I'm a huge Gary Johnson supporter for exactly the reason you laid out:

"Not because our views are identical...but rather because I liked the pragmatic way he thought about public policy issues."

As a standard-barer for the party, I'm glad to have him in the election with Trump and Clinton. He and Weld can come off (and do) as calm voices. My parents, who are very much Republican, and my brothers, who are very much Democrat, are going with Johnson this year. That, I see, is a very good thing.

Kgaard writes:

The flaw in Libertarianism is that it has no response to the mob-rule problem of Democracy -- particularly multi-cultural democracy. Libertarianism is a fundamentally male, Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. How can it work when half the population is not male and an ever-growing portion of the electorate is not Anglo-Saxon and increasingly inclined to vote according to the interests of its DNA?

White men are polling 2-1 in favor of Trump. Single women are polling 2.5 to 1 in favor of Hillary. Minorities are going to vote 80% for Hillary. Libertarianism today is akin to sticking one's fingers in one's ears and going la la la la. It completely elides the real issue.

Anthony writes:

I really like that he says he is open to a carbon tax. I often hear other libertarians argue that the market can solve global warming (they usually don't know what "externality" means).

However, even if you apply the Non-Aggression Principle (disclaimer: I don't agree with the NAP), a carbon tax would be kosher for libertarians. Almost all libertarians view the protection of private property as an essential part of society (whether government does it or not), and we should recognize that the damage of carbon emissions is a violation of that. If Johnson frames a carbon tax in that light, and keeps it revenue neutral, I think many libertarians and conservatives would be open to the idea.

James writes:

"As a result, many commenters who are libertarian purists insist that I'm not a "real" libertarian."

The only thing worse than radical libertarians saying that moderates are not "real" libertarians is moderates claiming to be more utilitarian and pragmatic than radicals just because their motives are more utilitarian and pragmatic.

Compared to the rest of the population, politicians and regulators are extremely un-pragmatic and un-utilitarian when making decisions in their official capacity. The libertarians who favor the least amount of decision making authority for politicians and regulators are the ones seeking the most pragmatic and utilitarian world, even if their philosophical motivations lie elsewhere.

Is there any policy that would have as much real world impact as persuading the general public that governments are unnecessary and, in most cases, exploitive?

James writes:

Anthony,

A carbon tax would be kosher with me only if it were collected and spent by my bowling team. Wait. That's too arbitrary, right?

It's just as arbitrary for those for favor a carbon tax only if it is collected and spent by politicians.

B Cole writes:

I like libertarians. Especially when I find the ideology to be convenient.

Polygamy? No more property zoning? Brothels with plate-glass window at airports? Cage fighting until death?

I would say most libertarians are "libertarians except for x"


Toby writes:

@Brian Donohue:

Even in a swing state you should vote your conscience unless you think it would be a tie otherwise.

You're right if you view voting as merely a spectator sport or, but less so, if you view voting as essentially selfish.

I think though that Scott is more of an ethical voter. He puts a much higher weight on the sum total of the utility of others.

@Scott: Feel free to correct me but you seem to fit more the mold of an ethical voter if I am not wrong?

@Scott & Brian: What do you think would happen if polls would ask not who people would vote for but rather whom they'd like to win instead? I can imagine that the preferences of many voters remain hidden and that these voters fail to coordinate on their ideal candidate because of this.

E.g. if a substantial portion of Johnson voters vote for Hillary or Trump to keep either out of the White House, then other Johnson voters will be discouraged. If, however, it is known that these voters prefer Johnson, then these voters might in a subsequent poll announce that they will vote Johnson.

James writes:

Scott,

Do you think your likeliood of causing some kind of change in society is greater if you vote or if you stay home and write blog posts?

required name writes:

I live in a swing state, and I mean swing in the non-libertarian sense. That concludes my little joke.


I live in Ohio


I've made up my mind: I cannot in good conscience vote for Trump. Vulgar. Repellant. Orange. I think I'm going to vote Johnson/Weld.

Scott Sumner writes:

Kgaard, I'm not sure I follow your point. The data you provide suggests that minorities vote more wisely than white men. I'd add that minorities stopped Sanders from becoming our first socialist president. Or are you arguing that socialism is good?

James, I agree that greatly reducing government regulation is consistent with utilitarianism.

Toby, There are only two kinds of voters, ethical voters and stupid voters. It's never in one's self interest to be a selfish voter, because voting itself costs (in time costs) more than you gain from it. Anyone voting for selfish reasons is dumb. I believe that most selfish people do not vote. Thank God.

James, Stay home. Two in a million is a bigger number than one in a milion.

Libertarianism is not about pragmatism, it is about principle, especially the principles of non-initiation of aggression, of self-ownership, private property and free and voluntary association.

We either have a right that our persons and property not be violated, or we don't have that right.

We either have a right to associate or to not associate with others by our own choice or we don't. If we don't, then others have a right to force us to associate with those with whom we don't want to associate, and others have a right to prohibit us from associations we want.

We have a right to make use of our own bodies, energy and labor, our own property and wealth as we see fit, or we don't.

Aside from libertarianism, the Johnson-Weld ticket is a social justice/foreign interventionism ticket. One thing they don't seem to be is extremely narcissistic, corrupt, dishonest and dangerous, as Trump and Clinton clearly are. So if it might be a worthy risk to vote based on personality then perhaps the Johnson-Weld ticket could be preferred.

fyddych writes:

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Don Kirk writes:

The capital 'L' Libertarianism is a name that masks its ideology of anarchic hedonism [or, hedonistic anarchism], and is certain to languish at the political fringes in any of the three Abrahamic cultures. The small 'l' libertarianism describes those who are attracted to the morality in the philosophy of freedom, which , a la John Locke, puts a premium upon 'responsibility' to avoid the chaos of anarchy and the self-destruction of hedonism. So, a Judaic/Christian culture like the United States will never elect anarchic hedonism (Mr. Johnson's Libertarian Party) to guide their governance; they will prefer to elect a chronic liar or a belligerent bully rather than even the most "reasonable" hedonistic anarchist.

Louis Woodhill writes:

Working-age adults are supposed to be self-supporting, so as soon as the government gives them any form of welfare, it is treating them as children. (The most that an adult would need would be a loan.)

So, once welfare is provided, there is no longer the option of "treating them like adults." so, there is no reason not to go farther with the parent-child relationship that has been created.

Edogg writes:
Overall, I think I'm about as libertarian as Johnson. His VP choice (Bill Weld) is also a moderate libertarian. In addition, both men have the background, knowledge base, and temperament to be President. In my view, neither of the two major candidates comes close.

Hillary Clinton doesn't have close to the background, knowledge base, and temperament to be president? Why do you think this/do people think this?(Aside from questions of policy, as you seem to be saying.)

ChacoKevy writes:

Two thoughts:

I'd add that minorities stopped Sanders from becoming our first socialist president. Or are you arguing that socialism is good?

Any thoughts on the notion that between Sanders' "no" votes on the Iraq War and Patriot Act that he is actually the most right-wing major candidate in terms of net spending and civil liberties?

Thanks for the Johnson interview link. In it he advocates for a flat tax; "A 28% tax on goods and services". OECD calculates the US as having around an average 25% taxes as a share of GDP for the last few years. Now, I can get behind it for the aims of simplicity, but in the accounting sense, isn't this a call to raise taxes?

James writes:

Kgaard,

The libertarian soution to democracy is to reduce it and let more decisions be made by property owners rather than voters, politicians, etc. Just by reading what the bloggers here write about democracy you would have been able to know this.

You may doubt that this solution will be implemented but your original claim, that libertarianism has no response to the problem of mob-rule democracy, is false.

If you know of some alternative that deals with decision making even better than leaving decisions to property owners, please do share.

James Hanley writes:

"small "L"

Agh, so confusing. ;)


"In this election, my vote would depend on whether I live in a swing state or not."

I don't expect to hear this from an economist.

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