David R. Henderson  

Reply to Adam Ozimek

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Adam Ozimek has written an article on Forbes.com titled "Libertarianism Needs To Become More Realistic." HT to Tyler Cowen. Although authors rarely get to choose their articles' titles, the title does seem consistent with his message. Ozimek is friendly to libertarianism, and so his suggestions should be seen as friendly amendments to the strategies pursued by some libertarians.

Here's his final paragraph:

Instead, people want quality of life, economic growth, and good government. All three of these can be helped on some margins by utilizing market forces, deregulating, and increasing freedom. Libertarianism should focus on these margins, and accept that the all-too-popular vision of radical freedom and minimal government at all costs is not wanted by enough people to actually matter. Realistic libertarianism would unabashedly accept limits of markets, and embrace in rhetoric, theory, and practice the first order importance of quality government, which on many margins trumps small government.

I agree with some of it, and disagree with much of it.

I agree that libertarians are in a minority. He gives strong evidence for this, focusing on a factor that many libertarians, and almost all libertarian economists, would accept: the evidence on voting with one's feet. If libertarianism were really popular, he argues, more people would be moving to New Hampshire and fewer people would be moving to Texas. So, yes, we are in a minority.

But what follows from that? Ozimek thinks we should give up trying to persuade people to be more libertarian.

Consider, though, two historical episodes where libertarians were in the forefront: the decriminalization of homosexuality in the 1970s and the anti-draft movement of the 1960s.

I remember returning to the University of Rochester from the national Libertarian Party convention in 1977, where I had allowed the Gay Caucus of the Libertarian Party to use my room for a cocktail party. When I told some colleagues about it, I got an icy glare. Now, I would bet, the reaction would be much different. What happened to change the landscape? I don't quite know. I do know that we were right to pursue this issue. More important, if Adam Ozimek were writing on this in the 1970s, what advice would he have given? It seems that he would said that we should give up.

Or the take at the anti-draft movement in which Milton Friedman, Walter Oi, and others were leaders in the mid-1960s. My impression is that the majority position was pro-draft. Would Adam Ozimek have counseled us not to pursue this?

I said above that I agree with some of his bottom line. Here's the part I somewhat agree with:

Instead, people want quality of life, economic growth, and good government. All three of these can be helped on some margins by utilizing market forces, deregulating, and increasing freedom. Libertarianism should focus on these margins

It makes sense for some of us to focus on these issues. But it also makes sense for some of us to pursue apparently quixotic causes that turn out to be quite realistic.

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Pajser writes:

I think it is best to be sincere. People who believe in radical ideas should advocate radical ideas, and those who are moderate should advocate moderate ideas. It is simpler to live that way.

jc writes:

Another observation... Just because you're not willing to physically move to a new part of the country in order to support a position (e.g., libertarianism) doesn't mean you're not willing to vote for a position. Moving often has high associated costs (personal, material, etc.), while voting does not.

Granted, the lack of libertarian success at the ballot box is a pretty damning bit of evidence w/ respect to the proposition that libertarians can win office and directly control policy this way.

But, yes, changes can be made by influencing people who directly pull the levers, and yes, this includes more extreme positions such as (at the time) gay rights and the draft.

And as some polls seem to show (e.g., those referred to by Gillespie and Welch), support for softer libertarian mixes (e.g., fiscal responsibility plus social tolerance) seem to be becoming more mainstream all the time. And more people seem to be less enamored of mainstream, establishment-based political parties all the time, here and abroad (e.g., France).

It's possible that a new dominant divide might emerge, e.g., a traditional, closed, nationalistic group vs. a more open group that supports lukewarm versions of fiscal responsibility plus social tolerance. And in this scenario, yes, most people would resemble what Adam calls for (though they may not have originally been libertarians; libertarians may be simply be the hardline, extremists of this new group, instead of being outside the tent).

Not sure I'd bet on that divide emerging, but it could. I suppose, though (e.g., in the U.S.), it could simply be today's Team Blue, but w/ identity politics toned down enough to make room for poor people who are also white, especially if they're from swing states in the Midwest instead of the South (whose voters can still be portrayed a useful enemy to rally against - i.e., as intolerant deplorables hellbent on rolling back all progressive and identity-based progress).

MikeDC writes:
If libertarianism were really popular, he argues, more people would be moving to New Hampshire and fewer people would be moving to Texas.

This is weak evidence because the obvious truth is that Texas is pretty strong in the libertarian principles that have salience with most people.

"Realistic" libertarianism should celebrate that. Like, I'm all for gay marriage and decriminalization of most personal conduct that doesn't have obvious harms for others.

But the importance of those issues is relatively low both for myself and for the public at large.

The importance of economic freedom is both high for me and high for the average person because it's of tangible benefit.

There's a great line in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments where he points out that people will feel really bad about bad things happening to other people. An earthquake killing thousands in China makes us feel bad. But it pales in comparison to the prospect of personal pain. We might feel bad for earthquake victims, but not as bad as we'd feel about getting our pinky finger cut off.

Phil writes:

What happened to change the landscape? I don't quite know.

The narrative evolved from homosexuality as a moral issue to an equal rights issue. At that point in time, the church's influence on public policy had been waning, and the equal rights movement had been gaining momentum. Libertarians were undoubtedly partially responsible.

Philo writes:

And it makes sense for some of us to tend our gardens and eschew politics.

Mark Bahner writes:
If libertarianism were really popular, he argues, more people would be moving to New Hampshire and fewer people would be moving to Texas.

We're going to need a lot more global warming before I move to New Hampshire. And the earth is going to have to stop being tilted on its axis so the winter days in New Hampshire are so short.

P.S. But if those things happen, I'm totally ready. Live free or die, baby!

P.P.S. As long as it's not too cold, or the winter days too short. Did I mention that?

Ozimek's article has a picture or Ron Paul with the caption:

Not a realistic libertarian.
I differ somewhat with that judgment because Ron Paul won election in a US congressional district 12 times (if I got the number right). Somehow Ron and Rand carry their libertarianism in ways that allow them to be elected, which amazes me. Maybe it's a family-secret magic trick, which I agree would be unrealistic for me.

Adam Ozimek writes:

Hi David, thanks for thoughtful reply. I did indeed choose the headline and stand by it as you guessed.

My general reply is that I welcome the continued presence of radical thinkers in libertarianism, but am frustrated by the share of focus that goes into those issues and the predominance of radical beliefs that libertarians have. It would be as if the pro labor left was dominated by literal socialists. After all, just as you find instances of support for radical change, they could point to successful instances of radical that increased the scope of government in our life which beforehand seemed unlikely.

In general, it's unrealistic and unproductive for so many libertarians (or movement really) to have a basket of policy preferences and ideas where a large share of them require gay marriage level changes to society. Especially when more modest libertarian changes have so much potential.


David R. Henderson writes:

@Adam Ozimek,
Thank you for your thoughtful reply. What might be helpful, since you, though not a libertarian, are sympathetic to the cause, would be for you to name, say, 3 issues on which you think libertarians should focus. That would get it away from the abstract and allow me, and others, to evaluate how much we agree or disagree with you.

RPLong writes:

Some radical ideas are nonetheless reasonable. What originally attracted me to libertarianism was seeing some of those old "Free to Choose" PBS programs when I was in school. I was very impressed by how reasonable Friedman et al made even some very radical propositions seem. I had the good fortune to study economics under some great professors who had a similar ability to provide reasonable arguments for ostensibly radical libertarian positions.

Today's libertarianism strikes me as being quite a bit more ideological. The liberal-tarians have opted to focus mainly on emotional issues like "social justice," and the more right-leaning libertarians often present their ideas in a trollish way. I think Ozimek's criticism sticks to these groups of libertarians. By contrast, it's harder to make that criticism jive with the older, Friedman-esque libertarianism that appeals to me and which has resonated with so many Americans in the past.

Phil Amrine writes:

I think there's a further argument to be made in support of Adam Ozimek's original post, which is that the incremental approach will lead to the more radical libertarian victories eventually. I like to use school choice as an example. What better way to convince the inner city and other low income members of our society of the benefits of market principles than helping get their kids out of terrible government schools. They are almost monolithically Democrat voters, yet libertarian policies have the potential to radically improve their lives. Let's get started by championing this issue first. If even a fraction of them were swayed by the improvements in their children's lives from education that was accountable to the student and family, it would be a sea change in the political conversation, to the benefit of libertarian principles.

Mitchell Moore writes:

I think the only way we can win national elections or any election is with Instant Runoff Voting.
The best strategy to accomplish this is to start at the local level and use the petition/referendum process to change the system AND educate people as to how IRV works.
Then do the same at the state level and then finally at the federal level.
Thirty years ago, almost no one knew what libertarianism was about. Now they do. We have made that much progress.
To win, we need to educate people about IRV and the best way to do that is to start local and small and let people get used to the benefits of having more than one choice.

Jeremy writes:

@ Mitchell Moore:

IRV would be a disaster. You think people vote strategically now? And you think people complain about vote totals now? Look at the official tallies of the 2009 Burlington mayoral election. It's a mess. Everyone will look at that and scream fraud.

The Center for Range Voting has a lot of stuff on this. Now, I think range voting (rating everyone from 1 to 10 or similar) won't work either, because I tried it in college for a club and everyone either did 1 or 10. But I what I think would work is approval voting, where you just vote for every candidate you approve. It's simpler, it can be done on current voting machines, and moreover, it might actually bring this country down from the ledge of hyperpolarization as compromise candidates would likely get elected (i.e., if you like Candidate A & C, and "the others" like Candidate B & C, then C has a good shot of being elected.) I think the USA needs that badly right now.

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