Bryan Caplan  

The Truth Hurts: Public Choice and Liberty

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Reagan was worried that Americans were losing their love of liberty.  Here's my depressing talk arguing that Americans love liberty as a vague platitude, but are deeply statist on almost all particulars.

I am only a messenger.


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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Quite Likely writes:

This concept of a dichotomy between being pro-liberty and being statist is one of the sillier elements of right-libertarian thought. How oppressive a state is just isn't very correlated with the level of state spending at all, except in that a state needs to be at least minimally functional in order to be capable of repression. There's nothing about high levels of welfare state spending that threatens civil liberties, and nothing about low levels of such spending that defends them.

It seems like this comes from right-libertarianism treating tax rates as a "liberty" issue, which seems to just be assuming the conclusion that "larger public sector = less liberty."

Do you have any thoughts on the state of what I would call liberty, meaning your version of liberty minus tax issues?

Mark writes:

Quite Likely,

I don’t see how a larger state with higher taxes and more public services isn’t, by definition, more oppressive, regardless of how it behaves in other respects.

Public services/welfare are just forced purchasing of goods and services. A bigger welfare state means I don’t get to choose how to spend as much of my money and am forced to buy bus passes and social insurance (often that I myself will never use). How does that not reduce my freedom? How is forcing someone to buy something not a reduction in one’s freedom?

I don’t see how this belief is ‘right libertarian.’ It seems just libertarian to me, unless we define the notion of private property as a concept of the right.

RPLong writes:

Quite Likely, if I'm not mistaken, the idea stems from the widely held belief that government spending crowds out private spending. It hasn't been my impression that only right-libertarians hold this belief, but I could be wrong. What causes you to think that this phenomenon is only believed by right-libertarians?

Quite Likely writes:

Mark and RPLong, it's interesting that you equate having more money to spend with increased liberty. I like that framing a lot, but to me it's a strong justification for taxation and redistribution. There's a declining marginal liberty gain from having more money - going from being broke to having $10k in the bank probably does more for your freedom of action than going from having $100 million to $1 billion. So if I'm concerned with maximizing liberty in that sense (and I am!) my top priority is getting more money into the hands of those who don't have it. Thus the welfare state is a massive liberty-generating machine, turning small liberty decreases for the rich into huge liberty increases for the poor.

If I judge the right-libertarian perspective correctly, your objection to this framing is that the rich have an intrinsic right to the wealth they have, and that there's something wrong with taking any of it away from them even for a good cause like increasing total liberty. But to me that seems like you have this other value besides liberty - the moral / practical importance of property rights, and are saying that it outweighs liberty in at least some situations. And I get that, I'd certainly prefer systemic changes so that we get closer to the liberty-maximizing wealth distribution 'naturally' rather than needing the crude hack of redistribution. But when I am faced with that trade-off I'm going to choose liberty over property every time.

pyroseed13 writes:

Well, for one thing, it's nice to see a libertarian admit that special interests alone cannot explain why certain government programs persist, especially entitlements. But I think blaming this on the ignorance and irrationality of voters is problematic, not to mention that I do not think it is obvious that "statism," broadly construed, is a failure.

I consider myself a moderate libertarian, but I have more or less learned to make peace with certain aspects of the welfare state. Just from looking at Scandinavia it seems to me that both a free market economy and a welfare state can coexist. I am not implying that I think we should raise our tax and spending levels to those of Scandinavia, but I think libertarians should be more open to the idea that some of their more radical views are deeply unpopular because on the surface there seems to be some devastating counterexamples to them. I mean does anyone really think society would be better off if we just outright abolished our entitlement programs? At some libertarians need to adapt to certain realities.

Jess Riedel writes:

> Special interests clearly affect policy details, but alleged examples where special interests overpower the public don’t hold up.
> Old-age programs
> Protectionism
> Farm programs.

Can you say more about this, or link to further reader?

Mark writes:

Quite Likely,

You misunderstood me. I don't equate having more money to spend with greater freedom: I equate being more able to spend one's own money with greater freedom.

The concept you're ignoring here is private property. My argument is that a person has a valid claim of ownership over the fruits of his labor and the returns on his investments, and therefore the right to do with those as he wills.

You present a false dichotomy between liberty and private property, and seem to conflate liberty with utility. The way I see it, the central precept of libertarianism (I guess you would say 'right-libertarianism') is that people should be able to do what they please as long as they don't impede the ability of others to do what they please.

If you take money from one person to give to another person, sure, you're increasing the latter's purchasing power, but at the expense of the latter. The argument is this is a violation of the former's rights.

You seem to be taking the extreme utilitarian position here, and on that basis arguing that the law of decreasing marginal utility alone justifies redistribution. By that logic, would we not maximize freedom by making it legal for anyone to steal from anyone else who is wealthier than them?

Or what about mandatory organ transplants? If we deduce that one person loses less 'freedom' by losing a kidney than another will gain by gaining a kidney, the freedom-maximizing policy is to force the one person to give it to someone else. Forced labor would also be justified as a means of redistributing leisure time to those who have relatively little, and, if the forced labor is compensated, increasing the purchasing power of the forced laborers. This is all, of course, if one denies the concept of self-ownership, which is the principle from which property rights in general derive (to libertarians, at least, as I understand it).

Quite Likely writes:

Can you see why from my perspective you seem to be making this philosophical point about property rights that's orthogonal from any practical conception of liberty?

If the effect of taxation on you is that you have less money, and you don't think that the amount of money you have to spend determines how much liberty you have, then how is that taxation reducing your liberty?

You say it's because it's violating your property rights, but property rights are of course a contingent social construct that have worked hugely differently in different societies. There's nothing "unfree" about ownership of some asset coming with obligations attached. Certainly there's no incompatibility between having those obligations and every other aspect of liberty besides "right to not have to contribute any money to the public coffers."

Mark writes:

If you're defining freedom as 'the ability to do stuff', then yes, me not having Warren Buffet's money detracts from my freedom, as does me not having the right to enslave other people.

In a political context, freedom, or liberty, as I generally use the term, means negative freedom, or the right not to be coerced by other people. It doesn't mean the right to do some specified number of things; just as one's right to live means specifically one's right not to be murdered; not one's right not to be killed by an avalanche.

So sure, you increase the amount of stuff one can do by taking money from one person and giving it to another. You do so also by enslaving one person to another. Slavery surely increases the 'freedom' (in this positive sense of the word) of the master. By that definition of freedom, I think a libertarian would say that we should avoid increasing one person's (positive) freedom at the expense of another's freedom (their right not to be coerced).

"There's nothing "unfree" about ownership of some asset coming with obligations attached."
Yes, there is. If I make a flute, and you come along and tell me that my ownership of my flute that I just made comes with the obligation that I not play it on Tuesdays, you have (assuming you intend to enforce the edict) made me less free. If I agree to this rule ahead of time, of course, I'd be forfeiting my own freedom. But the goal of libertarianism is to minimize the extent to which one person can dictate what another person can or cannot do.

And I don't see how the idea of property as a social construct really matters. Slavery is also a social construct, and worked well enough from a utilitarian standpoint in many societies. Not all 'social constructs' are ethically equivalent. Or if they, I don't see what the point of this conversation is.

In conclusion, the fact that an extortionist purports to use the money he extorts for the public good does not automatically make his extortion just. And to be clear, I think the existence of governments is inevitable, and so we have to learn to deal with some small measure of extortion; but that doesn't make gratuitous extortion any less unjust. If the local mob boss comes to your shop every week and takes a cut of your revenue, but gives some of it to his favorite charity, maybe a little to help pay some neighborhood kids' tuition, while keeping a hefty share for himself and his henchman to live comfortably, while also maybe keeping the local vandals at bay, is it not still extortion?

And by what standard do extortionists get to decide how much they have the right force others to do things against their will to make others better off? Why not forced organ transplants? One guy just loses a more or less redundant organ, another guy doesn't die. Self-ownership is also a social construct with varying flavors and degrees throughout history.

john hare writes:

@ Quite Likely
The property that I have worked to obtain can be taken from me to support people that have not worked to obtain that property in your scenario. Some of the poor need and deserve help, not the majority.

I wasn't smart enough to be born on the right side of the tracks and have had a lot of contact with the poor. A high percentage of the 'poor' are there because of their life choices. Another fair percentage are poor because of life choices forced on them. It is IMO a fairly small percentage that are poor because not enough has been given to them.

Virtually all the public institutions in the US have an excess of funding if that funding is targeted well instead of randomly. It irks me as an employer that people refuse jobs that might interfere with their benefits. Both because "their benefits" are not recognized as alms instead of rights, and because the "benefits" are a major way that they are kept enslaved to the system.

You can't drag people out of the swamp against their will. You can cut roads and throw lifelines so that the ones that want out can get out. From personal experience helping, or trying to help, people get ahead.

RPLong writes:

Quite Likely, somehow you appear to have misunderstood me, since there are a couple of misconceptions expressed in your comment addressed to me (@ 1:27)

To clarify:

1) You wrote,

"RPLong, it's interesting that you equate having more money to spend with increased liberty."
Nothing about my mentioning the crowding-out effect implies this at all, and in fact I disagree with this sentiment. What I believe is that, as the Wikipedia article to which I linked explains, the more money government spends within a given industry, the less money the private sector spends within that industry.

2) You wrote,

"There's a declining marginal liberty gain from having more money - going from being broke to having $10k in the bank probably does more for your freedom of action than going from having $100 million to $1 billion."
You are no longer using the words "liberty" and "freedom" in the same way Bryan Caplan did in his presentation. This changes the subject quite substantially, and I'm less interested in that particular angle of discussion. So, I'll have to bow out of that side of it.

3) You wrote,

If I judge the right-libertarian perspective correctly, your objection to this framing is that the rich have an intrinsic right to the wealth they have, and that there's something wrong with taking any of it away from them even for a good cause like increasing total liberty.
First, it is not clear to me who you are referring to when you say "right-libertarian," but you have not expressed my views accurately at all. Second, you have presented this in a highly contentious way in saying "even for a good cause like increasing total liberty." As I mentioned above, you changed the intended meaning of the word "liberty" (and "freedom") and then started to try to create tension between libertarian ideas and the goal of "liberty" (defined your new way). This is an effective rhetorical strategy, but neither addresses the beliefs of "right-libertarians," nor any of the points made by Bryan Caplan's presentation.

Perhaps you could get us back on topic by using words the same way they are used in Caplan's presentation, and then arguing for or against any of those points, rather than using Caplan's words in new ways to make a point about "right-libertarians," who you haven't clearly defined.

James Pass writes:

Mr. Caplan, it looks to me like you are more than only a messenger. In your slide presentation it seems you are offering your views on "statism" and you seem to favor "libertarian policies." And that's fine, but unfortunately it looks like you're only offering familiar talking points. Talking points are fine, too, but I'm interested in going beyond that.

Let me respond to a couple of points you seem to focus on: Social Security and Medicare. You identify these as "the biggest programs," and I assume you mean to say they are the biggest statist programs. I agree that Social Security and Medicare are the two biggest social programs. Reasonable people could quibble over how "statist" they are. Some people think it's useful to make distinctions between social programs and statist policies.

You point out that Social Security and Medicare "just keep growing." Oddly, you make the observation that "even in 2007" Social Security and Medicare just keep growing. You don't state what was special about your expectations in 2007. Maybe you created this slide presentation in 2007 and you meant to say "even now Social Security and Medicare just keep growing." But in that case you'd still have to explain why you expected progress rather than "disappointment." Maybe you were expecting Social Security and Medicare to contract under the Bush administration? As you can see, I'm doing a lot of guessing as to what you might have meant. It would be helpful if you could clarity your points.

Given that more Baby Boomers are retiring it's no surprise to anyone that Social Security and Medicare have been expanding. We've been expecting this for decades. I haven't seen any serious effort on the part of Republicans to substantively contract these programs. Nor have I seen libertarian candidates offering serious and detailed alternatives to Social Security and Medicare (which would include the transition to any alternative).

In fact, as I tend to lean toward libertarian views, I've been trying to find detailed libertarian alternatives to our current social programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public education, and various kinds of welfare. I've been asking for book recommendations for years and so far I haven't found that book.

I'll suggest that if support for libertarian reforms is "low," a large part of the reason is because people aren't familiar with libertarian alternatives and solutions. If someone like me - who is actively looking for detailed information on libertarian alternatives and solutions - can't find it, imagine how confused the average American is.

Quite Likely writes:

"First, it is not clear to me who you are referring to when you say "right-libertarian," but you have not expressed my views accurately at all. Second, you have presented this in a highly contentious way in saying "even for a good cause like increasing total liberty." As I mentioned above, you changed the intended meaning of the word "liberty" (and "freedom") and then started to try to create tension between libertarian ideas and the goal of "liberty" (defined your new way). This is an effective rhetorical strategy, but neither addresses the beliefs of "right-libertarians," nor any of the points made by Bryan Caplan's presentation."

Sorry about the definitional issues RPLong, but it's tough to get away from because my dispute with Caplan's conception of "liberty" is sort of at the core of the issue.

You are right-libertarian, I am a left-libertarian. The core distinction is pretty much what we're arguing about here: are property rights a core aspect of liberty, or are they at best a necessary evil? More depth on the subject here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarianism#Prominent_currents

"If you're defining freedom as 'the ability to do stuff', then yes, me not having Warren Buffet's money detracts from my freedom, as does me not having the right to enslave other people."

I'd say this does get fairly close to my definition of freedom. I'm free to do whatever I'm able to do, I'm not free to do whatever I'm not able to do, whether that's because someone will stop me or because I simply don't have the capacity to get it done. If I was broke and on a tiny island with no way off, or where the only way off was an expensive ferry, I'd feel pretty unfree. On the other hand if an attack on my property rights somehow didn't actually reduce my freedom of action at all it's tough to see how you could argue that it reduced my freedom.

The "not being able to enslave someone reduces my freedom" point is what brings us to my thoughts on property. Yes, not being allowed to enslave someone is a restriction on your freedom. But being enslaved is a much larger restriction on some other unlucky soul's freedom. So the freedom-maximizing move is to ban slavery, taking a little bit of freedom away from slave owners and potential slave owners in exchange for giving a lot more freedom to slaves and potential slaves. Similarly redistribution takes a little freedom away from those being redistributed away from in exchange for giving a lot more freedom to those being redistributed to.

The throughline I'm seeing in various responses related to property rights is the concept of property as something you earned or created, which someone else is then stepping in and telling you what to do with. But of course that's not how property works at all. Property rights aren't the right to be left alone, they're the right to have someone use force if necessary to defend your control over a piece of property. It's inherently anti-freedom (in the sense I just described), in that the whole concept of property rights is about taking away the freedom of everyone except for the owner to make use of that property. You can of course justify property rights based on their creating an incentive to create property without having to worry about anyone else having access to it, which could increase total freedom by boosting growth and thus aggregate social capacity for action, but obviously that's enormously different from "the right to property" being lumped in under the definition of liberty.

"And I don't see how the idea of property as a social construct really matters. Slavery is also a social construct, and worked well enough from a utilitarian standpoint in many societies. Not all 'social constructs' are ethically equivalent. Or if they, I don't see what the point of this conversation is."

First, yikes on 'slavery worked well enough from a utilitarian standpoint' - that's an intense claim that I can't say I agree with. My point about property being a social construct is that property has meant wildly different things in different contexts. Does a feudal lord 'own' his land? Is his freedom diminished by the fact that his control over that land comes along with various obligations to the peasants who live on and work it? Or how about societies where the rights to certain things with a piece of land may be owned by different people - the king has exclusive right to hunt in the forest, peasants may gather herbs and berries, the village blacksmith may collect wood to fuel his forge, etc? If you could buy a feudal domain from its lord, would your liberty be reduced because of the obligations attached? If you don't like those obligations, why'd you buy it in the first place? And how is this different from buying a house that comes with the obligation to pay property taxes? Or taking a job where you know some of your salary will be taxed?

From my perspective it seems very strange to treat "Society needs to let me buy a monopoly on the use of certain assets and impose no further costs or restrictions on my use of those assets afterwards" as a core part of liberty. It's just so parochial - liberty is defined by this one contingent aspect of my current social system! No one who doesn't have that same practice can truly be free!

RPLong writes:
You are right-libertarian, I am a left-libertarian. The core distinction is pretty much what we're arguing about here: are property rights a core aspect of liberty, or are they at best a necessary evil? More depth on the subject here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarianism#Prominent_currents

How did you come to this conclusion about my view on property rights? Did you ask me, and if so, did I answer?

My view is similar to that of Ludwig von Mises: Respect for property rights might be contentious, but it's the only way to peacefully resolve property disputes. It's not clear from anything you've said or linked to that this makes me a "right-libertarian," or a "left-libertarian."

Finally, I note that this is twice you've asserted that I hold beliefs I do not hold. Maybe you could try to avoid jumping to conclusions.

Quite Likely writes:

Hmm, not sure what happened with my previous comment. Just emailed the webmaster to get it reinstated.

RPLong - I'm not sure what you're getting at here. I made a deduction based on what you'd written and the fact you were commenting on this blog. Yes, having the von Mises view on property does indeed make you a right-libertarian. Assuming you're any kind of libertarian that is... if you're more authoritarian (or whatever the opposite of libertarian is) than I assumed then that is my bad.

What's the other belief I put in your mouth? That having more money to spend increases liberty? We've strung out that discussion a bit above, but I'll just restate that I think that's a necessary load-bearing belief if you're going to claim that public spending crowding out private spending reduces liberty, given that the only negative effect on individual basis of that crowding out is having less money to spend.

RPLong writes:

Quite likely,

First you say this: (1) "The core distinction is... are property rights a core aspect of liberty, or are they at best a necessary evil?"

Then you say this: (2) "Yes, having the [view that private property is the only means to settle property disputes peacefully] does indeed make you a right-libertarian."

When I read these two statements, they say two completely different things. And yet, you seem to be suggesting that they are really the same thing, and that I am therefore a "right-libertarian." Would you care to explain what makes (1) and (2) the same belief?

You also write, "given that the only negative effect on individual basis of that crowding out is having less money to spend."

It's not my position that this is the only negative effect of crowding-out, and I certainly don't believe that it is. To name two additional negative effects: crowding out reduces competition, and therefore also economic efficiency.

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