Responding to a Bad Thought Experiment, or What’s Wrong with Criticisms of Libertarianism

A very long response to a typically inaccurate liberal critique of libertarianism.

Libertarians come in many flavors, but I think most of them would agree that in an ideal world, the government would be very small and have limited powers – essentially, the government would control national defense and perhaps adjudicate over property rights disputes (i.e., maintain police and/or the courts). Otherwise, people would be free to engage in whatever activities they wished provided the specific purpose of that activity was to harm a third party.

OK, as a general introduction this is fine, although I’m sure he meant to include the word “not” in that final clause.

Based on conversations with libertarians, I believe negative externalities, or inadvertent harm to third parties is OK. I have yet to have a discussion with a libertarian and come away thinking: now this is a person who views negative externalities as an intrusion on someone else’s private property requiring government intervention to halt. (If I am incorrect about this, I’ll be happy to stand corrected… but it has little effect on the rest of this post.)

He is wrong, and it makes me wonder how many different “flavors” of libertarians he’s actually talked to. Granted that many people calling themselves libertarians are much too cavalier about externalities affecting non-private property, but if we talk about the local oil change shop dumping its used motor-oil in their backyard, you’ll find out just how concerned they are about negative externalities. That is, the principle is implicit in their beliefs, even if they are sometimes unclear on the extension of it. Here are some examples of libertarians discussing this issue. It’s possible, of course, to dispute what is said in those links, but they all show libertarians who reject the idea that negative externalities are OK. Some of them do, however, highlight how simplistic the “requiring government intervention” conclusion is–some externalities are too minor to require intervention, others are actually promoted by current government policy, while some result from simple lack of clearly defined property rights. And because government isn’t a candy machine, sometimes government intervention can actually result in a worse outcome. But I’ll wager you can’t find a libertarian who thinks Kentucky Fried Chicken inadvertently dumping their used grease in my backyard doesn’t give me a basis for getting the government involved (usually through the courts).

Now, one of the side effects of a very small, laissez-faire government is that tax rates will be very low. This means that the accumulation of wealth will be faster for those with a comparative advantage at creating goods and services other people want to buy. (I’m ignoring this effect, which is easy to verify empirically, but then libertarians believe lower taxes result in faster economic growth and I want to focus on their assumptions here.)

Here the author appears not to understand the concept of comparative advantage, or he’d recognize that he’s arguing that the accumulation of wealth will be faster for everyone. Actually, taken literally he’s complaining that people who can’t produce anything other people want to buy won’t get wealthy in a free market economy. Well, yes. And the problem is?

I’m sure what he’s really concerned about, as succeeding paragraphs show, is that the distribution of wealth will ultimately be illegitimate. But he doesn’t define what kind of distribution is illegitimate. But let’s accept his assumption that government shaping of the distribution of wealth is desirable. Then a libertarian can turn his argument around on him simply by saying, “in that system the accumulation of wealth will be faster for those with a comparative advantage at influence government.” What makes that outcome a priori more desirable?

Furthermore, without an inheritance tax or estate tax (I think it is fair to say most, perhaps even all libertarians are against these types of taxes), fortunes would pass on more intact from one generation to the next than we see happening today. In such a world, the accumulation wealth over two or more generations could allow a person or family to accumulate a greater percent of a given area’s wealth than we see happening today.

I can’t get worked up into a righteous indignation against inheritance taxes myself (I’d just tax it all as standard income), but he’s probably right that most libertarians oppose them. But there are several things wrong with this argument. First, he’s claiming that libertarians aren’t dealing satisfactorily with this problem. But to libertarians it’s not a problem. It’s simply not an effective argument to say, “but you’re not dealing with this issue that you see as non-problematic in a way that I find satisfying.” Or to put it another way, “you’re not arguing from my perspective” isn’t a valid critique.

Second, he’s relying on three questionable assumptions that undermine his assumption that inheritances are problematic. First, he assumes that wealth across generations will necessarily keep accumulating. It can, of course, but that’s far from a necessity or certainty. Those who don’t earn something are less likely to value it, so future generations are less likely to value the wealth they’ve been given, and more likely to burn through it. Also, those who have been given too much too early may not develop a good work ethic, and may not be competent to add to the family fortune. Or they may get too greedy and invest in a pyramid scheme, or the latest stock boom, or develop an addiction to faberge eggs. In short, we just can’t predict the future with the kind of certainty that is assumed in this argument.

The second assumption is that the accumulation of wealth across generations is bad. But why? If the children who inherit the wealth don’t, from a philosophical perspective, “deserve” that inheritance, neither in fact does anyone else. And accumulated wealth has often done a hell of a lot of social good. It takes real accumulation of wealth to create Carnegie Libraries, or to found a university, or create a large charitable foundation. Oh, wait…those are examples of billionaires giving away their money instead of just letting their kids inherit it so it can accumulate across generations. Hmm, maybe rich people don’t all act the way he assumes they all do.

The third assumption is that accumulating wealth across generations necessitates accumulating “a greater percent of a given area’s wealth,” which is manifestly, mathematically, untrue. Is it likely that Bill Gates has a larger percentage of the Seattle area’s wealth than James J. Hill had of the Twin Cities’ area’s wealth? And if he does, does it actually matter in terms of the well-being of Seattleites today compared to Minnesotans a century+ ago?

It seems to me that this kind of misunderstanding–the fixed pie fallacy–is one of the most durable foundations for liberal critiques of libertarianism.

But… the libertarian world is one without public infrastructure. So who would build or own the roads in a given area? Well, it won’t be folks who don’t have any money, that much is evident. Presumably those who otherwise have accumulated significant resources… such as a person or a family that controls a sizable piece of the wealth in that area.

Now we move into the realm of the purely silly. Here is a writer who admits up front that there are “many flavors” of libertarianism, but thinks that all of them are opposed to public infrastructure, thus reducing all of them to the most extreme version in which public amenities are wholly absent. In other words, the author is not an honest critic. Perhaps he’s heard of a guy named Penn Jillette, who publicly admits to being a libertarian (“Hello, my name is Penn, and I’m a libertarian.” “Hello, Penn!”), but who nevertheless agrees that government has a role to play in providing infrastructure.

But let’s take the author seriously for a moment. In fact many neighborhoods have home-owners’ associations, which privately provide infrastructure, including roads, snow removal, street lights, even parks. So the issue isn’t that privately provided “quasi public” infrastructure is impossible; the issue is to what extent that scales up. At the point where it doesn’t scale up well, that’s where the break point comes (which may differ for different types of infrastructure). It’s reasonable to argue about where the break point occurs, and reasonable to argue about whether too much private infrastructure (“Stay off our subdivision’s sidewalks unless you’re carrying a 3C/A permit vouched for by a dues-paying resident and signed by the HOA President!”) is a good or bad thing. But to say either that no communal infrastructure would exist in a libertarian world or that all libertarians oppose all public infrastructure is to implicitly admit that however many libertarians he has talked to, he hasn’t actually listened to very many of them.

Now, a lot of types of infrastructure, such as roads, electric grids, and the like, have significant first mover advantages. There may be a lot of traffic on a road from A to B, or an electric grid serving the area, and monopoly rents could easily be extracted. If a second mover built a duplicate road or electric grid, it would harm the first mover… but it also wouldn’t happen, because the second mover knows the price war would make it impossible for it to profit as well.

This, by the way, isn’t pie in the sky theorizing or guesswork. We’ve seen precisely that in the real world. For example, in the years following the 1996 Telecom Act, incumbent phone companies were deathly afraid that their network would be duplicated… and except for a few BLECs in big cities (most of which promptly went under even so) there was no replication of the last mile. Similarly, you don’t see replication of the last mile in the electricity industry, which I mention because when it comes to deregulation, the electricity industry is where telecom was in the late 1990s. (Yes, it is not a perfect analogy, but electricity and phone calls aren’t the same thing.)

Yes, this can happen, and it’s why I have no patience with the type of libertarian who thinks the market solves every single imaginable problem and never has failures except when government gets involved. They are as ignorant about economics as the average liberal is, which is why both are so wrong, although they are wrong in different ways. But there is a great irony in using telecom as the example here, because the development of competition in telecom was held back for years by government intervention to protect, rather than prevent monopolies, and once we eliminated that foolish policy we had a boom in technology that wiped away the problem of it being inefficient to string wires the last mile by getting rid of the need for wires altogether.

In the case of an electric grid, the problem still seems to exist, but does that mean the problem is to keep our monopolies and just struggle to control their operations via regulation? Or is the solution to set up a competitive system in which power producers enter into contracts with end-users and dump their system into a common grid they all pay to maintain? That might require a government agency to manage or regulate that common grid (or maybe not; we don’t really know yet), but it would still be a system that utilizes the power of competition to benefit consumers. That is, it would be, if not ideally libertarian, at least more libertarian than what we have at present.

The standard response I’ve seen to this is “look at Enron, it didn’t work.” But that response is wrong on several counts. First, Enron was not the hole of the system. Second, experiments in energy markets are still on-going. Third, this “if at first it fails, totally give up,” argument never seems to apply to government policy–somehow the concept that “we’re trying something new, there’s good theory to support it, but we may have to tinker for a while before we figure it out” never seems to be acceptable when it comes to markets (although it’s how all businesses operate), but is always acceptable when it comes to government (even though most governments have a harder time tinkering than most businesses do).

We do, occasionally, see the private provision of toll roads, but usually after the owner of that toll road extracts a promise from the government to reduce maintenance of any competing publicly owned road. Which means… in any given area, there isn’t going to be competition in the provision of roads and other infrastructure.

Note the empirical claim here–that private toll road operators “usually” extracts a promise from the government to reduce maintenance of competing public roads. The author provides no citation or example; we’re just supposed to take his word for this claim. Of course government has a commitment problem, so it’s not clear why a private firm would trust a government’s promise when it’s prepared to commit literally billions of dollars to a project. And of course the commitment problem stems from the inevitable complaints users of the public road, particularly those who live along it, would have. Few things motivate people to complain to their local officials like potholes.

But beyond that theoretical problem, there are at least three high profile private toll roads in the U.S. now, the Chicago Skyway, the Indiana Toll Road (both public built but privatized via lease in recent years) and California’s State Route 91 Expressway*. Surely there should be some evidence of neglect of competing roads we could point to here? Across Indiana the competing road is U.S. 20. I drive the Eastern portion of that road occasionally, just to avoid the toll road, and I can personally vouch that it’s in fine shape. In fact, Indiana used the money from the toll-road lease to become the only state in the country with a fully-funded road building/repair program, so U.S. 20 looks to be in good shape for a long time to come. In Chicago you can take 20 (if you want to drive through city congestion on a surface street) or you can take the roundabout way on Interstate 94. I’ve never taken 20 there, but I have taken 94 and it’s in as good a shape as most freeways. As for the State Route 91 Expressway in California, it’s a private toll road built into the median strip of the existing SR 91 freeway, and was built to relieve congestion on that route. The idea that the state might let the 91 go to pot to satisfy the toll operators requires more cynicism than sense.

The US Public Interest Research Group, a liberal organization, published a critique of privatized roads in 2009. They don’t mention any private-operator demands for diminished maintenance on competing routes, although they do note “non-compete” clauses, such as Indiana agreeing not to build a four-lane divided highway within 10 miles of the toll road and Cal Trans agreeing not to upgrade the capacity of the freeway along which Route 91 runs. That’s a pretty weak complaint, to be sure, since the reason Indiana leased the toll road was because it was losing money on it, so we can be doubtful of their eagerness to build a new one, and because anyone who looks at a map of Indiana can see how easy it would be for the state to build–if it became necessary–a freeway from Fort Wayne to Chicago that was 11 miles from the toll road and served as much or more of the state’s population than the toll road does. In fact most of that hypothetical road already exists as U.S. 30, just in non-limited access form, and would only need a little re-routing on its western end to stay just over 10 miles from the toll road. And the purpose of Route 91 in California was to be the capacity upgrade.

But even more important than all this, this complaint actually constitutes little more than a critique of governments’ capacity to negotiate contracts. If the argument is, “we need to keep this publicly controlled because the government is too incompetent to negotiate a good contract,” it’s time to do some serious thinking about why you place such faith in government. Fortunately, the evidence shows that governments can negotiate good contracts, and the more frequently these types of deals occur, the more experience they have to draw on.

This is important for a combination of two reasons. The first is that a monopoly extracts monopoly rents. Monopoly rents, of course, will increase and speed the process by which wealth is concentrated, and, as most libertarians will tell you, monopoly rents create market inefficiencies.

This is true, but those private toll-roads are not monopolies, plain and simple. For each there are real alternatives, not just alternative roads, but alternative transit options. A real-world example is illustrative here. Some years back the state of Ohio reduced truck speeds and raised truck tolls on its tollway. The result was that many trucks took to the non-limited access roads paralleling the toll road’s route, creating much more dangerous conditions on those roads, which finally persuaded the state to rescind those policies. The state wasn’t even attempting to squeeze the trucks for monopoly rents, just to get them to cover the share of damage they actually do to the road, but nevertheless they still managed to price themselves out of the truck market. And of course if the state had somehow managed to ban those trucks from the other roads, they probably would have managed to just shift much of the freight to rail.

What we see here is the author’s failure to recognize that consumers are rarely captive and non-responsive economic actors. They are autonomous agents who think for themselves and try to find ways to minimize their costs.

But movie theaters run their own concession stands, and if you want to set up a snack bar in a Wal-Mart, you better expect to turn over most of your profits to Wal-Mart. Unless there are rules preventing it (not likely in a libertarian paradise), the owner of the infrastructure calls the shots, deciding who can and who cannot do business.

And this is a problem why? Nobody is required to go to the movie theater, and in fact if you’re clever it’s not hard to sneak some snacks past the ushers. And Wal Mart is not the only place you can set up a snack stand. Of course it’s a great place to set one up because Wal Mart is so great at attracting large numbers of people, so the person who wants to set up a snack stand there without paying a bundle to Wal Mart is simply trying to free ride on Wal Mart’s marketing efforts (rather than set up elsewhere and pay for marketing out of their own pocket).

The author’s complaint here simply makes no sense at all unless the case is that consumers are truly captive to that infrastructure, and he has not actually demonstrated any case in which they are.

But the second problem with a monopoly in roads and other infrastructure is far more important. It means, simply put, there is no voting with one’s feet if the road owner chooses to prevent it.

“No voting with one’s feet if the road owner chooses to prevent it”? The author here is talking about serious levels of coercion, a virtual slavery. Just how in the world does he think the private consortium running the Indiana Toll Road could possibly choose to prevent me from voting with my feet (wheels?); that is, from taking U.S. 20 instead of the Toll Road? Can the author point to even one example of a monopolist who has actually prevented people from voting with their feet that is not in fact a government? I cannot think of any, and yet the author is hanging his argument on this point. If he’s saying that we’ll be encapsulated in a web of private roads, and that the owners of those roads will charge us exorbitant fees to leave, well they’d have to simply charge exorbitant fees, because once on them it will be hard to keep people from simply leaving–so to keep people from leaving they’d have to charge so much that people would never use the roads, which means they’d receive no income from this exorbitant fees, which means they’d never charge such a high rate. Posing extreme and unlikely hypotheticals is one of the weakest forms of critique.

(Of course, the next region over might be run the same way anyhow.) So if you don’t like the way the people that own the roads and the markets and the apartment you rent do business, you can’t exactly up and leave without using their road or otherwise cutting across their land. And if they don’t let you do it, well, you’re breaking the law… and the Pinkertons could easily prevent you from doing that. The average person, the person not born into resources, could be left with one option to full cooperation – loss of shelter, food, and even membership in society.

This kind of argument is precisely equivalent to the person who looks at a public park and begins to explain how wrong communism is. The author is no longer arguing with real libertarians, but with the liberals’ favorite strawman version of libertarianism.

Now, if this sounds unrealistically dystopian to you, remember that it took far less coercion than that to keep people tied to Company Towns not a hundred years ago in this country. The Company Towns did not own the roads or the land once you were out of town, the only chains were financial.

That does sound terribly scary, doesn’t it? Because the world today is just like the world of a century ago, right? Or the world of the libertarian a hundred years hence would be just like the world of a hundred years ago. Or, something terrible that we can’t precisely explain how it would come about. What caused the decline of the company town, of course, was increasing affluence, something those evil corporations determined to enslave people weren’t able to prevent in the long term.

But of course this is all nonsense anyway, because you don’t find serious libertarians arguing for an end to all public infrastructure. They just argue for privatizing what can efficiently be privatized, finding creative ways to privately fund what can’t actually be privatized, and keeping the rest as public as necessary.

Why doesn’t the author go the whole way with his fantasy, and argue that libertarians–all of the many flavors of them–advocate privatization of the police and the military? Because at that point he might realize that in fact libertarians aren’t anarchists who argue for no government at all, and then he might actually have to think seriously about where libertarians draw the line, which might require reading what thoughtful libertarians say, and actually listening to libertarians of some of those flavors he’s so far ignored. For example, he might do well to read what Charles Murray (a man I’m not accustomed to citing) says about public goods.

If he did that, the author might realize he has to deal with some actual nuance in libertarian thought, rather than bravely attacking a one-dimensional fiction. In other words, he might find he has to do some actual homework instead of just talking out of his ass. And he says he’s happy to stand corrected, so he should be delighted to do this. But I’m not holding my breath.

_____________________________________
*Route 91 has a complex history, which is a bit much to go into in this overly long post. Look up the Wikipedia page on it to get more detail. In a nutshell, it was built with private funds for Cal Trans, which then leased it back to the company that built it. It was then purchased from the state by the Orange County Transportation Authority, which now owns it, but it is still managed by a private firm.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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69 Responses to Responding to a Bad Thought Experiment, or What’s Wrong with Criticisms of Libertarianism

  1. Phil says:

    There comes a time when intelligent people should stop arguing about theory and when they should get down to the basics of what kind of a world they want to hand down to the coming generations.

  2. Matty says:

    Or is the solution to set up a competitive system in which power producers enter into contracts with end-users and dump their system into a common grid they all pay to maintain?

    Do you not do this? As far as I know that has been the system in the UK for gas and electricity since (I think) the late 1980′s and I’d have thought the American system would be at least as luch market based.

    Interestingly one of the problems with this seems to be too much choice, people are finding it hard to select from maybe 100 tariff options with ten possible providers each with its own criteria i.e would you be better off on a flat rate or variable, do they offer discounts for pensioners etc. The government recently tried to fix this by requiring suppliers to write to everyone once a year telling them which option was cheapest for them but we’ll have to see how that works.

  3. James Hanley says:

    Matty,

    In fact we increasingly do this in the U.S. That’s part of what makes the screed irritating. My brother, who lives in Nevada, keeps trying to sell me natural gas in Michigan.

    I agree that too much choice can be problematic. That’s why I prefer not to think about alternative cell phone carriers. i’ve satisficed. If another alternative catches my attention I’ll look into it, but I won’t spend much time searching.

  4. Lance says:

    James Hanley,

    I sometimes think I should carry a card, that I can hand to people, that explains that I am not an anarchist, and explains the differences between anarchy and libertarian thought.

    Also the word externality can be abused to mean just about anything. Emissions of a certain colorless, odorless, plant food gas comes to mind, but it’s probably best we don’t go there at this point.

    I have had more than one conversation with liberals that eating red meat creates an externality because red meat is high in cholesterol, and other fats, and contributes to heart disease, colon cancer and several other medical conditions. And thus it will cause increased costs in medical treatment and hence increased health insurance costs to society as a whole.

    By this convoluted argument they feel justified to either tax meat or restrict or ban its consumption.

    If you think this is a stretch remember that seat belts laws are justified on the exact same type of argument.

    The author of your “critique” is using the same sort of distorted indirect argumentation to present libertarian ideas as dangerous and immoral. Sadly, this isn’t very different from the way most people who self-identify as liberal or the trendier, and more self-indulgent, progressive(modestly suggesting that anyone that disagrees with them is regressive) see libertarians.

    As you know, if you self-identify as a libertarian on most popular blogs it isn’t long before you are called a “libertard” or “Randroid”. And then the straw man arguments fly, along with a rain of insults. To your credit, you handled it better at “dispatches” than I did. You managed to win the grudging respect of many of the “progressives” there, where I was mostly tolerated by the more intelligent ones, and reviled by the dimmer ones (Raging Bee comes to mind).

    Of course much of the derision I suffered was for the unpardonable sin of being a “climate change denier”!

  5. James Hanley says:

    Oh, Raging Bee reviled me, too. There, indeed, was a man enamored of the straw man version of libertarianism, and eager to deny that I could be a libertarian whenever I did not fall in line with that vision.

  6. Lance says:

    Even Ed Brayton would get disgusted with Raging Bee’s knee jerk caricatures. It got to the point that I would just ignore his rants.

    I still go there every so often. I now post as Lancifer, since there is at least one other Lance that posts there occasionally.

  7. pierrecorneille says:

    There’s a lot that I agree with here or find that I have no answer for, so I’m going to focus on something very tangential to the many good points you make:

    If the children who inherit the wealth don’t, from a philosophical perspective, “deserve” that inheritance, neither in fact does anyone else.

    Couldn’t we turn that around and say if no one necessarily “deserves” that inheritance, why not arrange for its distribution so as to give everyone a piece–or something approximating a piece–of that wealth so the greatest number can enjoy it and do with it what they will, so that they can embark on as equal a footing as possible with the would-be inheritors. I’ve phrased this very simplistically–good luck devising a program that will actually distribute wealth equitably to give everyone the same footing….I also ought to (but don’t) take into account the very good arguments against the “the government must distribute wealth” claim that you argue against.

  8. Michael Heath says:

    James,

    Do you agree the Koch brothers are libertarians and sufficiently consider negative externalities? What about Paul Ryan per his budget plan? I bring both up because it’s my perception these are libertarians in terms of political ideology coupled to the fact their ideas have achieved the most recent influence when it comes to our public policy debates.

    Do you think those who either ignore negative externalities or defectively minimize its impact are influenced primarily by conservatism instead of libertarianism? Or are they instead predominately influenced by being social dominators who don’t care about outcomes outside their own perceived personal gain? Or perhaps another motivation I fail mention to here?

  9. Lance says:

    Michael Heath,

    While observing our hosts imposed moratorium on discussing human induced climate change, I would like to ask you a question or two about externalities, if I may.

    First of all I am going to disregard the Koch brothers bait, if for no other reason than I haven’t spent much time studying about those particular siblings. Also, I find Paul Ryan’s tax plan to be a rhetorical trial balloon that has no real chance of being enacted or having a great deal of influence on actual tax policy.

    Please give me an example of an externalitiy, other than the banned topic of CO2, that you feel that libertarians are ignoring?

  10. Lance says:

    pierrecorneille,

    While I don’t particularly care, one way or the other, about inheritance taxes, it strikes me as unfair to give assets acquired by a person while they were alive, to strangers after their death.

    Certainly the person’s wishes should be observed, and then normal income taxes should apply. Even this seems excessive considering that the deceased has already paid income taxes on the assets to begin with.

    But again, I don’t see the issue as having a libertarian vs non-libertarian dichotomy.

  11. jwk1101 says:

    Nicely done James.

    I think the constant reference to straw libertarians come from 3 factors interacting:

    1) There is a smart way and a stupid way of discussing any idea, or more accurately a small number of smart ways and a large number of stupid ones.

    2) Libertarianism has no gatekeepers, so a larger fraction of it’s views are on display.

    3) People naturally gravitate to the weakest versions of arguments they disagree with.

    This leads to a lot of libertarianism’s adversaries spending a lot of time arguing about the merits of the most extreme forms of minarchism or the views of psuedo-libertarian conservatives.

  12. pierrecorneille says:

    Lance,

    I think I agree, especially with it not necessarily being a libertarian-defining issue (although I’m not a libertarian). I’m just raising what I think is a possible objection to that part of James’s argument, not that he doesn’t make a lot of other good points. I’m also a bit more skeptical than James appears to be (from what he wrote) that succeeding generations will either use their wealth productively or spendthrift it away. It strikes me as unfair, but at the same time, I don’t know how to remedy it and am not convinced that radical government directed redistribution is what’s called for.

    I’m a bit more comfortable with taxing the inheritance as income, because it is, in a sense, income for the inheritor(s). Much of this is theoretical, however, with the existence of trust funds and other ways of getting around such taxes (and I’m not sure I’d like a polity whose regulations were so restrictive as to deny the existence of these financial tools).

  13. James Hanley says:

    @Pierre,
    [JH] If the children who inherit the wealth don’t, from a philosophical perspective, “deserve” that inheritance, neither in fact does anyone else.

    [PC]Couldn’t we turn that around and say if no one necessarily “deserves” that inheritance, why not arrange for its distribution so as to give everyone a piece–or something approximating a piece–of that wealth so the greatest number can enjoy it and do with it what they will, so that they can embark on as equal a footing as possible with the would-be inheritors.”

    Pierre,
    I’ll say no, because that leaves out the people who earned the wealth. They have more of a right to distribute it as they see fit than does anyone else. If they want to give it away philanthropically, that’s their right. If they want to give it to their children, that’s their right. If they think their children are idiot spendthrifts and they want to set up tightly controlled trusts for their children, that’s their right.

    And then there’s Hanley’s Rule Number One for Public Policy Initiatives: Don’t focus on the goal, focus on the incentives.

    That said, I unbend my libertarian principles enough to support generous pre-natal care and decent education for young critters. Libertarianism’s a problematic philosophy when it comes to the young, so I can’t work myself up to being too dogmatic in their case.

  14. James Hanley says:

    @Michael Heath,
    Do you agree the Koch brothers are libertarians and sufficiently consider negative externalities? What about Paul Ryan per his budget plan?
    I don’t really care. To ask about any specific person misses my point entirely. And frankly, you’ve paid a lot more attention to the Kochs than I have–they’re considerably more important to you than they are to me.

    Do you think those who either ignore negative externalities or defectively minimize its impact are influenced primarily by conservatism instead of libertarianism?
    That’s an interesting question. I don’t really know the answer, but my gut instinct is that libertarianism’s probably too blame. Because it’s skeptical of government, it’s easy for any very small-minded person to simply run with it and blast any government action they personally don’t like, without giving it any thought.

    Or are they instead predominately influenced by being social dominators who don’t care about outcomes outside their own perceived personal gain?
    Maybe. Just plain selfishness could be the answer. In its essence, though, libertarianism’s not necessarily a selfish ideology.

  15. James Hanley says:

    @Pierre,
    I’m also a bit more skeptical than James appears to be (from what he wrote) that succeeding generations will either use their wealth productively or spendthrift it away.

    I don’t think they can really help using it productively. If they are spendthrifts, it goes into the economy via purchases. If they are not spendthrifts, it goes into the economy via investments.

    Granted it may not be used for a public policy purpose, but I’m not sure I see why that money in particular should be targeted for public policy purposes (not beyond the normal rate of income taxation, that is).

  16. Michael Heath says:

    jwk101 writes:

    People naturally gravitate to the weakest versions of arguments they disagree with.

    Only some types; some people actually relish and seek out high-quality counter-arguments. There are studies on which types don’t.

  17. Michael Heath says:

    Me earlier:

    Do you agree the Koch brothers are libertarians and sufficiently consider negative externalities? What about Paul Ryan per his budget plan?

    James responds:

    I don’t really care. To ask about any specific person misses my point entirely.

    I would argue only if that individual were a lone wolf, rather than leaders pulling along large influential interests. I named these three individuals precisely because they are not only effective leaders claiming the libertarian mantle but are currently enjoying enormous influence on public policy, perhaps the most ever wielded in our history by those referencing libertarian arguments. So I don’t think I missed your point entirely, I instead tried to provide a workable example of people who are leading influential efforts to move the debate away from mere abstract arguments into the realm of how public policy is being impacted in the here and now by libertarian ideology.

    I think it is the result of Ryan and the Koch brothers collective actions through the groups they lead or represent which provide the best test on libertarianism, along with other libertarians with power. Precisely because we move from abstract rhetoric so easily expressed since they have no power to wield which results in actual implications, to rhetoric matched with actual power as we see from the groups led by the Koch’s and Rep. Ryan. From this perspective I’ve lost a ton of respect for the movement over the past few years. The only ones whose arguments still resonate on some narrow civil liberty matters, with the exception of foreign policy, are the powerless – where the others are difficult to distinguish from conservatives. That’s similar to how the Tea Party appears to be a proxy for Republicans who deny the implications of their past policy preferences since they continue to promote those very policies.

    I was most disconcerted to see Nick Gillespie on Bill Maher’s show several months ago where Mr. Gillespie’s perception of economic results and economic policy came straight from the illiterate conservative viral emails which drive current Republican rhetoric – as opposed to what economists, even conservative economists, actually understand. From this perspective he was no better than Ted Nugent or Sarah Palin talking economics, or John Boehner for that matter.

    Me earlier:

    Or are they instead predominately influenced by being social dominators who don’t care about outcomes outside their own perceived personal gain?

    James responds:

    Maybe. Just plain selfishness could be the answer. In its essence, though, libertarianism’s not necessarily a selfish ideology.

    I followed the movement closely for many years where I would agree a significant element existed within an effectively powerless movement which wasn’t selfish. The difference now being that we now have devotees of libertarian ideology with actual power, where those people and their groups are consistently acting selfishly. So yeah, those who argue the abstract libertarian arguments with little chance of getting implemented as policy aren’t defined in general by selfishness, but unfortunately those rely on libertarian arguments with power are.

    That leads to my second question coupled to this one, which ideology is motivating such, conservatism, libertarianism, or is it a psychological profile exploiting or a victim of one or both movements? I see you don’t know if it’s conservatism or libertarianism. Well neither do I, which is why I asked the question on what is the source of the demonstrated selfishness and avoidance of negative externalities we consistently encounter from libertarians with power.

  18. Matty says:

    I have a slightly odd viewpoint on this living in a place where the term libertarian is rarely heard and almost never used as a self identifier. Consequently my mental picture of libertarians is based on blogs like this and I struggle a bit with references to the ‘high profile’ libertarians being quite different since high profile and libertarian don’t really belong in the same sentence.

    To try and understand this I’ll ask a few questions, I’ll use Paul Ryan rather than the Kochs but I think they should be generalisable.

    1. Does he actually call himself a libertarian?
    2. If so when did he start, did he run for his current position on that platform or seize on it as a convenient label once in office?
    3. If not who does identify him as libertarian and on what grounds do they do so?

  19. James Hanley says:

    @Michael,
    I don’t think I missed your point entirely, I instead tried to provide a workable example of people who are leading influential efforts to move the debate away from mere abstract arguments into the realm of how public policy is being impacted in the here and now by libertarian ideology.

    I disagree. I think you cherrypicked people you are obsessed with. Every libertarian think-tank person is making efforts to move public policy. That's how public policy gets started. For example, the significant increases in tobacco taxes that have reduced smoking so significantly in the U.S. began about 30 years ago as policy analysts arguing that teens were more price-sensitive than adults, and that teens were also more susceptible to becoming addicted to nicotine than adults, so that addicted smokers–and ultimately all the related diseases and costs–could be reduced by deterring teen smokers. At first the idea was pooh-poohed, but eventually caught on. The same goes for the prevalence of monetary policy today, for cap-and-trade pollution policies, for reductions in price-regulation, etc. All those people writing their "abstract arguments?" That’s all part of the process of moving them from abstraction to real policy. Yes, yes, the Koch brothers have more influence than Jason Kuznick–people with shitloads of money always have more influence. But that doesn't mean they're any less or any more representative of the movement they say their aligned with, so to focus on them is to ride your favorite hobbyhorse rather than to engage in any discussion I'm particularly interested in. Give me a specific Koch brother policy position and I'll tell you if I agree with it, whether I think it's more or less libertarian than the position I would take, or whatever, but I just don't pay as much attention to them as you do, so I just can’t, and so won’t make broad pronouncements about them.

    I guess what really pisses me off here is that in my original post I provided links to self-proclaimed libertarians who don’t take the one line that the blog author thinks encapsulates all the “many flavors” of libertarianism, and your response is little more than, “but these guys think just like that!” As though I hadn’t agreed that there are libertarians who do.

    I really think you shot yourself in the foot here, in your response to James K, because in fact you are focusing on what you, at least, think are the weakest versions of libertarianism.

  20. James Hanley says:

    @Matty, I’m not aware that Paul Ryan calls himself a libertarian. I know Rand Paul explicitly disavows the label, and yet critics of libertarianism like to insist that he is anyway. But so far the only person I’ve seen link Ryan to libertarianism is Michael (not that I spend any time looking for such things, so maybe other people do).

    But of course any randomly chosen conservative can be linked to libertarianism if you pick your issue, because there’s a whole set of issues on which libertarians are closer to conservatives than liberals. But of course libertarians tend to part way with conservatives on a whole range of social issues…not that any critic of libertarianism, no matter how much time they spend on a libertarian’s blog, ever seems to really take that to heart and deal seriously with it.

  21. Michael Heath says:

    James Hanley:

    . . . so far the only person I’ve seen link Ryan to libertarianism is Michael . . .

    A quick google for Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand presents this TNR article:

    “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,” Ryan said at a D.C. gathering four years ago honoring the author of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.” …
    At the Rand celebration he spoke at in 2005, Ryan invoked the central theme of Rand’s writings when he told his audience that, “Almost every fight we are involved in here on Capitol Hill … is a fight that usually comes down to one conflict–individualism versus collectivism.”

    Cite: http://www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-chait/80552/paul-ryan-and-ayn-rand

    James Hanley writes:

    Every libertarian think-tank person is making efforts to move public policy. That’s how public policy gets started. [followed by examples of think tank ideas turning into public policy]

    James, I’m perfectly aware of how think tanks operate. I was specifically distinguishing libertarians analysts precisely because it’s my perception they’ve never had any political power until recently, unlike those at AEI, Heritage, or Brookings. In addition we have the far superior test in determining the attributes of libertarianism by now being able to observe how they’re impacting public policy, rather than merely considering arguments which had little effect relative to non-libertarian analysts allied with the GOP or Democrats. This is analogous to how conservatives make consistent rhetorical arguments which don’t reconcile to their actual policy objectives and more importantly, policy results. We can’t accurately analyze conservatism by their rhetoric, their behavior is far more relevant. We now have the opportunity to consider libertarian policy maneuvering beyond mere rhetoric but also into a realm that better reveals who they are, what they want, and the worthiness of those arguments that influencing public policy.

    James Hanley to me:

    I think you cherrypicked people you are obsessed with.

    I’m not obsessed with either. I’ve never read a book any either, which is how I exercise that which interests me. Instead I picked out the Kochs and Paul Ryan precisely because libertarian think tanks have had so little effect on actual policy while these three are the people are having the most impact on public policy who use libertarian arguments and reference themselves back to libertarianism.

    I think it’s an enormous accomplishment that Ryan’s two Randian budget proposals have passed the House of Representatives. I also think it’s an enormous policy victory for the Koch brothers that Republican members of Congress only recently monolithically deny the reality of climate change, in spite of the big oil companies ending their fierce obstructionism to climate change policy about 10 years ago. These are enormous issues where libertarians are winning within the Republican party on both, and winning on climate change when it comes to U.S. policy. So for the life of me I can’t discern why you’re “obsessing” ;) over no-name thinkers publishing material which is essentially ignored at this historic juncture in history when libertarian arguments are finally having an influence on U.S. public policy.

  22. Matty says:

    A quick google for Ayn Rand and libertarian turns up this http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=education_campus_libertarians in which you can almost hear her frothing at the mouth against libertarians.
    A few extracts

    “I dislike Reagan and Carter; I’m not too enthusiastic about the other candidates. But the worst of them are giants compared to anybody who would attempt something as un-philosophical, low, and pragmatic as the Libertarian Party. It is the last insult to ideas and philosophical consistency.”

    “I don’t think plagiarists are effective. I’ve read nothing by a Libertarian (when I read them, in the early years) that wasn’t my ideas badly mishandled—i.e., had the teeth pulled out of them—with no credit given. I didn’t know whether I should be glad that no credit was given, or disgusted. I felt both. They are perhaps the worst political group today, because they can do the most harm to capitalism, by making it disreputable. ”

    ” Because Libertarians are a monstrous, disgusting bunch of people: they plagiarize my ideas when that fits their purpose, and they denounce me in a more vicious manner than any communist publication, when that fits their purpose. They are lower than any pragmatists, and what they hold against Objectivism is morality. They’d like to have an amoral political program.”

    Now aside from my first reaction, which is that she may have had anger management issues around the subject, it doesn’t look as if Rand and libertarians are the same.

  23. Matty says:

    Looking again “They’d like to have an amoral political program.” I believe James has criticised the idea that moral preferences are sufficient basis for policies.

  24. Michael Heath says:

    Matty,

    You are defectively conflating the Libertarian party with libertarianism. Ms. Rand’s rant happened many years ago and is directed towards the Libertarian party. Parties also evolve, the Democratic party and the Republican party are significantly different now than they were when Ms. Rand ranted. The political ideology of libertarianism contains a vibrant sub-group of Randites and in Paul Ryan, they have a House Committee Chair passing long-term budget proposals in the House which would fundamentally change the relationship between citizens and their relationship with both federal and state/local government.

  25. James Hanley says:

    Michael, Just because many libertarians were inspired by Ayn Rand doesn’t mean that everyone inspired by Ayn Rand was a libertarian. Basic set theory, eh? See here. (For my part, I find Ayn Rand tendentious and boring, with occasional insights, but a fatal misunderstanding of basic human nature). I don’t know if Ryan thinks of himself as libertarian or not, but if you check out some of his other issues, such as ag spending, immigration, homeland security, and defense appropriations, he doesn’t look too damn libertarian to me.

    As to the Kochs, I think anyone reading my blog would probably be persuaded that you’re obsessed with them. If you’re not, please stop asking me about them, as though somehow my opinion of them matters, or even as though I’m supposed to have a considered opinion of them.

    My post was about this blog author being wrong in pushing all the “many flavors” of libertarianism into one extreme version, and your response is “you have to discuss these people because they’re the only ones who are influential”?

    You’re not interested in an intelligent debate. You’re interested in pushing your particular hobbyhorse. If you want to talk about the Kochs, go find me 5 specific policy stances they’ve taken that are not related to global warming, and I’ll address those.

  26. James Hanley says:

    Looking again “They’d like to have an amoral political program.” I believe James has criticised the idea that moral preferences are sufficient basis for policies.

    Well, that’s just me. A lot of libertarians are natural law folks, and I think that’s probably some kind of moral basis. I’m distinctly an unsually utilitarian flavored libertarian, I think. (Subjective utility only, though, not the kind of utility that allows for grand schemes of reshaping society and mankind.)

  27. Michael Heath says:

    James writes to me:

    Just because many libertarians were inspired by Ayn Rand doesn’t mean that everyone inspired by Ayn Rand was a libertarian.

    I never claimed or even insinuated otherwise. I only pointed out that Paul Ryan is a practicing and far more importantly, powerful adherent of this type of libertarianism. A level of power which is new to the libertarian movement.

    James writes:

    You’re not interested in an intelligent debate.

    I strongly disagree and bid your blog goodbye. I think we can both agree our exchanges here are not productive. I wish you nothing but the best.

  28. James Hanley says:

    The political ideology of libertarianism contains a vibrant sub-group of Randites and in Paul Ryan, they have a House Committee Chair

    Who is “they” here? Randians, libertarians, or Randian libertarians. Do I really need to draw the simple set-theory diagram? If you’re telling me that Payl Ryan is a libertarian, I need to see more than a budget proposal. Otherwise I’m going to insist that you call Barney Frank a libertarian for supporting SSM.

  29. James Hanley says:

    . I only pointed out that Paul Ryan is a practicing and far more importantly, powerful adherent of this type of libertarianism.
    Except you never demonstrated that Ryan is a libertarian, and have blithely ignored any indication that he might not be. You seem to think that budget preferences and disbelief in AGW constitute libertarianism. I presume it was because the definition is too convenient for you to sincerely want to question it.

    James writes:

    You’re not interested in an intelligent debate.

    I strongly disagree and bid your blog goodbye. I think we can both agree our exchanges here are not productive. I wish you nothing but the best.

    Well I strongly agree with myself. But, yes, arguing with someone who insists on diverting every conversation to their pet issues, and who insists that despite not being a part of your ideological group they get to define that ideology for you, cannot possibly be productive. I wish you the best, too, but regrettably you’ve made yourself unpleasant enough that I’m not sorry to see you go.

  30. James Hanley says:

    Heh, I just followed some blog links and stumbled across this relevant little snippet from Orrin Hatch.

    “These people are not conservatives. They’re not Republicans,” Hatch angrily responds. “They’re radical libertarians and I’m doggone offended by it.”

  31. Dr X says:

    Matty quoting Rand:

    “I dislike Reagan and Carter; I’m not too enthusiastic about the other candidates. But the worst of them are giants compared to anybody who would attempt something as un-philosophical, low, and pragmatic as the Libertarian Party. It is the last insult to ideas and philosophical consistency.”

    The backstory is that Nathaniel Branden, Rand’s former protege and lover, dumped Rand and took up with a different woman when he ended his marriage to his first wife, Barbara. Both Barbara and NB knew that Rand would go ballistic when she found out about the new love interest, and that’s exactly what happened. The narcissistic wound was devastating, and Rand dealt with it by relying on her old standbys: intellectualization and moralization to justify her annihilating rage at Branden. Not only didn’t Branden want her, but he preferred a young woman he’d only recently met. It wasn’t a philosophical or moral failing on his part, but that’s what she made it about, which is, of course, utterly ridiculous. So Branden and his former wife were banished as monsters and everything they went near was immediately beneath moral and philosophical contempt, when in fact Branden hadn’t changed his philosophical views. Well the Brandens became Libertarians and that’s why the libertarians became despicable in Rands eyes.

  32. Lance says:

    Dr X,

    Hell hath no fury…

    I believe she also had some issues with the Libertarian Party of the time both being philosophically impure (pragmatic) and not crediting her with their ideas.

  33. Lance says:

    James Hanley,

    When I was an eight year old kid I lived in Pittsburgh Pa and my family (really my mother) was converted to Mormonism. Orrin Hatch was a member of the local ward (sort of like a Parrish) and our families became friends. My mother still has a picture of the Hatch and Harting kids together, where Brent, his oldest son, is standing on his tippy toes to look as tall me, which he still wasn’t.

    My dad, a died in the wool conservative, still talks about what a lunatic Hatch was. He once told my father that we needed to kill all of the children in the Soviet Union to effectively end communism.

    When my father, who thinks Obama is a socialist Muslim, thinks you are a right wing authoritarian nut you are off the scale.

  34. Lance says:

    Ugh, that should read “dyed in the wool”, but you get the idea.

    Oh, how I long for the preview feature.) I know you said it isn’t available, but I still regret seeing my goofs even if a grand total of nine people are ever going to read them. (No offense to the scope of your blog intended. It is my favorite blog. I’m sure with a little “viral” luck it would be right up there with the insipid Huffington Post and other unworthy but popular blogs.

  35. Dr X says:

    @Lance,

    I believe she also had some issues with the Libertarian Party of the time both being philosophically impure (pragmatic) and not crediting her with their ideas.

    Indeed, she said that, but I believe that was her rationalization/intellectualization to provide cover for the fundamental and less appealing basis for her contempt. Assuming you’ve read some of her work, you know she had no problem looking at a person’s position and inferring their implicit philosophical premises, or so she would say. Indeed, she relished confronting people by annunciating the unstated principles underlying their positions.

    With regard to any underlying premises, Libertarians aren’t entirely different from Democrats and Republicans. In each group, some of the more intellectual sort offer arguments based on philosophical principals. Others offer what they regard as more pragmatic arguments, while some just make assertions without pragmatic or philosophic rationale. More often than not, IMO, it’s easier to find inconsistencies among Democrats and Rebublicans than it is to find inconsistencies in Libertarian positions. There are Democrats who say, for example, “I own and control my own body so you can’t tell me what to put into it or what to do sexually,” but then they turn around and demand cigarette regulations and make a claim on the fruits of physical efforts. Then there are Republicans who go on about blah blah blah tyranny of taxes and loss of individual freedom and then try to tell people they can’t smoke some weed or wear a rubber or look at pictures of naked people.

    What was unique to Rand’s attack on libertarianism was her sudden inability to deduce implicit philosophical premises undergirding libertarian positions. This should have, in fact, been easier to do with libertarians, IMO, because there is probably more internal consistency to libertarian positions than can be found in Democratic Party or Republican Party positions. But suddenly all Rand could see was pragmatism floating on quicksand. No clever, “aha, i-got-you” deductions of premises. I think her incredible discomfort with the narcissistic injury of Branden’s rejection accounted for the sudden loss of deductive faculties that would have undermined the more palatable philosophical cover for her rage.

    IMHO ;-)

  36. Lance says:

    I have always found her an appealing and quixotic personality, even when she was petty in her assessments of others. Her ideas were bold if philosophically inconsistent. She was one of a kind.

    I remember reading your account of your affair with libertarian ideas and eventually disillusionment.

    What is your personal assessment of Rand?

  37. pierrecorneille says:

    I’ll say no, because that leaves out the people who earned the wealth. They have more of a right to distribute it as they see fit than does anyone else. If they want to give it away philanthropically, that’s their right. If they want to give it to their children, that’s their right. If they think their children are idiot spendthrifts and they want to set up tightly controlled trusts for their children, that’s their right.

    I’m not sure I disagree. But if I did disagree, my counter-claim would be something like this: we all have an obligation to our society, and to the degree that we have more, we ought to give more in order to meet this obligation. I would use that claim as the basis for a redistributive program.

    I realize what I stated in the preceding paragraph is a value claim that I merely asserted and did not prove or demonstrate why anyone should feel compelled to go along with it. Nor do I know if I even agree with this value claim; it “seems” intuitively right to me, but maybe not. If I ever get a net worth so that I could leave an estate, I would probably want the money to go where I want it to and not to where a conglomerate of bureaucrats and lawmakers say it should go to. I would probably also leave it to someone I love, like my spouse or children (although I don’t plan to have children), or my many nieces and nephews.

    Also, I take to heart your suggestion that we focus on incentives and not end-goals. Just because I might have no problem in principle with government taking more from people who have more because they have more, I would want such a policy to work and not simply create a reason for people to do things that would somehow subvert the goals.

  38. Lance says:

    Over at Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars, in a thread about Orrin Hatch’s internecine struggle in the Utah republican party, an entire regiment of libertarian straw men are being crafted and slaughtered. Oh, the humanity!

    Our friend Michael Heath is in full Koch derangement mode, saying things like “the libertarian movement has always demonstrated a deep antipathy for intellectualism” and that the Austrian School of economic theory is “creationist-like”.

    I don’t have the energy to fight that one today. There are a few brave souls trying to stop the carnage (Matty are you “Matty1″?) but mostly it is the usual display of pseudo-libertarian bogeymen being struck down by their moralizing liberal creators.

  39. Dr X says:

    Lance,

    There are at least two parts to the assessment. One part has to do with Rand’s personality and its expression in her fiction. The other part is an examination of her philosophical premises, specifically her understanding of human beings, or as she liked to say, man qua man. It would better be discussed in an article of some length, but here is some of what I think.

    http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2011/07/former_bachmann_insider_shes_n.php#comment-4297254

    I also write another post on Rand’s erroneous approach to character and motivation. This one bears more directly on Rand misunderstanding of motivation and the bases for belief.

    http://drx.typepad.com/psychotherapyblog/2010/10/the-randian-fallacy.html

  40. Matty says:

    Yes I am Matty1, if I wanted to be cruel to Ed, which I don’t I’d suggest trying to link libertarianism to mid-eastern politics just to see the resulting explosion as Raging Bee and SLC fight to the death to see who can use the most over the top rhetoric. I like Dispatches but some of the commentators do spend a lot of time on their hobby horses.

    I don’t know a lot about Ayn Rand but I did once read a pamphlet of hers called I think The Virtue of Selfishness and was not impressed by the argument. She seemed to confuse behavioural selfishness with psychological selfishness and mix up timescales so the fact people can gain from a marriage turns into an argument that kindness to a spouse is the same as refusing to share your sweeties out of spite.

  41. Lance says:

    Matty,

    …if I wanted to be cruel to Ed, which I don’t I’d suggest trying to link libertarianism to mid-eastern politics just to see the resulting explosion as Raging Bee and SLC fight to the death to see who can use the most over the top rhetoric.

    That would be a spectacle. SLC does have a huge blind spot when it comes to anything to do with Israel. His attacks are scathing and comically predictable if he even detects the tiniest slight to the Jewish state. He was one of my fiercest enemies when I first stumbled into Dispatches and waded into a climate change discussion.

    Eventually he ceased the onslaught and has since decided I am a reasonable guy with a climate change blind spot. I try not to make it my “hobby horse”. Besides, it is difficult to get climate change proponents to discuss the topic without resort to personal attack or faux moral outrage. It is a very polarizing topic and is often emotionally wed to a person’s political beliefs. I notice that Ed Brayton mostly avoids it, perhaps due to a lack of interest in the subject.

  42. Lance says:

    DR X,

    I am the Lance that last posted on you MBTI thread. I noticed there is another Lance that posts at you blog so I will assume my Lancifer persona there from now on.

  43. James Hanley says:

    @Pierre,
    if I did disagree, my counter-claim would be something like this: we all have an obligation to our society

    At which point we have competing foundational principles–or as you accurately say, asserted value claims–where our arguments devolve to, “you’re wrong,” “no, you’re wrong,” “nu uh,” “uh huh.” That is, I think there are certain irreducible principles on which people who hold differing ones can’t really hope to come to agreement or proper understanding. I doubt I could ever be brought to believe in an individual duty to an abstraction like society, but I know others could never be brought to believe that society is only an abstraction to which no one owes duty. So as a counter-claim, I think that would bring us to the point of necessary intellectual impasse.

  44. James Hanley says:

    Matty,
    That was a fine comment at Disptaches.

    A Matty by any other name is still eloquent.

  45. Dr X says:

    Lance,

    Thanks. I had just assumed it was you rather than the other Lance. But I’m not sure why I did. In any case, Lancifer it is.

  46. michaeldrew says:

    What’s the right method for critics to use to identify and learn what the true libertarianism is, so that they don’t end up critiquing false or weak versions or things that just aren’t libertarianism at all?

  47. michaeldrew says:

    …And to my friends interested in critiquing the ideas of people in power who it seems use a number of arguments that (we think) libertarians make, and whose ideas seem to overlap with those of libertarians to a significant degree, perhaps a better approach would be to describe the ideas in more general terms, or use the labels they choose for themselves, like “small-government philosophy,” etc. From there, a more interesting conversation with libertarians can ensue in which it can be revealed to what extent they agree with the ideas of these figures, and where they substantially differ (rather than the discussion being

    I will add that I don’t entirely understand why libertarians aren’t generally more patient and less prickly about people’s misunderstanding of their philosophy. A proper understanding of the doctrine isn’t self-evident nor well-disbursed at this point. I’m not sure how that’s going to be fixed, and I understand that there is always a limit to patience, but it’s going to take time, and I don’t think castigation is the way to get people to be receptive to learning about the doctrine. Believe it or not, people actually genuinely don’t know what all libertarianism comprises, because while there are not that many people around to explain what the doctrine says correctly, at the same time at the same time its prominence in the media is on the rise. This inevitably means a lot of people are going to have an uninformed impression of what’s in the doctrine Indeed, there are more people who call themselves libertarians than there actually are self-described libertarians who understand correctly what the doctrine holds. This is all more problematic for communication about libertarianism than such misunderstandings of liberalism or conservatism are for communication about them, partly because there are so many more adherents to those views, and thus more who understand them correctly and can explain them, and also partly because their actual substance is so much less precisely defined than what the keepers of libertarianism understand it to consist of.

  48. michaeldrew says:

    …Sorry, that trail-off was to be: …rather than the discussion being cut off after libertarians understandably object to their philosophy being equated in full with the ideas of a politician who holds at most only a subset of the positions it prescribes, and doesn’t claim the label for himself.

  49. Matty says:

    I would suggest one thing, where libertarian ideas overlap with parts of the right (tax cuts, deregulation) they are overlaping with the mainstream of elected right wing politicians. Where they overlap with parts of the left (ending barriers to immigration, legalising drugs) those are typically positions the electoral mainstream won’t touch whatever the views of the grass roots. As a result libertarians are going to look closer to the right to a casual observer. I don’t blame the intellectual libertarians for this as much as seeing it as a side effect of peoples priorities when talking about politics and while I would like to see a political discourse that is more about civil liberties and less about budget forecasts I don’t see the way from here to there.

  50. James Hanley says:

    Michael Drew,

    I would say to give up on the concept of “true” libertarianism. Just accept that as right in line with the no true Scotsman fallacy (FWIW, certain libertarians are happy to play that game, too). Recognize that libertarians run the gamut from very moderate guys like me and James K (and I’d guess AMW falls into that camp, too) to whackaloons. I.e., if you add a second dimension to our left/right political spectrum, with people who like all the left and right’s regulatory policies (social and economic) at the top, and those who don’t like either of them at the bottom, the bottom point would be the most radical libertarians, but the range of libertarianish people would extend all the way up to the midpoint of that dimension.

    Better is to focus on particular claims and policy proposals, which can be judged either as libertarian in spirit or not or on their individual merits from your own perspective. E.g., my acceptance of basic social safety nets is probably not tremendously libertarian, so I never claim to be the ideal-type libertarian. But as well, libertarians who support stricter controls on libertarian are not being tremendously libertarian, and most of them are–mostly–farther from the political center than I.

    But, for example, someone who opposes government regulation of pollution because they think government regulation will do more harm than good and someone who accepts that regulation as legitimate because it is preventing party X from harming party Z just as surely as punishing theft is can still both be libertarians. What will distinguish the latter libertarian from a liberal in that case is that the libertarian is likely to have preferences about how that regulation is designed that are not identical to what the liberal is most likely to prefer (recognizing that they vary, too, of course), and that he is likely to still be maintaining a greater skepticism about government, so that while the liberal will see a the regulation as the logical status quo, and non-regulation as bearing the burden of proof, the libertarian will see it the other way, and will have concluded that in this particular case regulation bore the burden of proof.

    What is particularly crazy is that nearly everyone seems to disbelieve in the possibility of moderate libertarianism, even though we know some people are only moderately liberal and some are only moderately conservative. Both liberals and radical libertarians tend to think that, oddly enough (I’m not sure where conservatives stand on it).

    I will add that I don’t entirely understand why libertarians aren’t generally more patient and less prickly about people’s misunderstanding of their philosophy.
    That may be fair. For myself, I was prickly because this guy claims to have spoken to lots of libertarians, claims to recognize that libertarianism comes in many flavors, then ignores all the flavors to beat on what is essentially a strawman version.

    And I get prickly at blogs where I see people I’ve previously had discussions with repeating the same fallacies I–and others on those blogs–have rebutted before. Because at that point we’re into the territory of, “I know you’re a libertarian and I’m not, and I know you said libertarians are !X, but I’m still going to insist from my position outside the club that you all really are X.” It’s the other-defining aspect that’s offensive. I’ll patiently ask any sincerely asked question (or at least I flatter myself that I will).

  51. James Hanley says:

    Matty,

    I hadn’t thought of it that way. That sounds like a pretty good insight–on the politically visible map, we tend to show up nearer conservatives. I guess that’s why someone like Micheal Heath keeps insisting our only influence is in conservative politics. I’m not sure he’s actually right about that (Balko’s changing a lot of minds on the war on drugs, for example), but it is what’s most visible.

    And unfortunately–from my perspective–there are a large number of libertarians who seem more concerned when the government raises their taxes 1% than when cops shoot a toddler in a botched drug raid. But I’m wholly with you when you say you’d like to see a political discourse that’s more about civil liberties and less about budgets. Oddly, liberals seem to be in line with conservatives in preferring to talk about budgets.

  52. Lance says:

    Michael Drew,

    Agreeing with James Hanley that there is no such thing as a “true” libertarian I will add that there are certain hallmarks that distinguish libertarian thought.

    1) Tending to favor market solutions over government ones

    2) Giving preference to individual freedom over perceived societal benefit

    3) Tending to favor consent over coercion

    Of course the extent to which these principles are carried is a continuum and thus the confusion. At one end of the continuum are libertarians that see almost no role for government and no legitimate constraint for personal freedom. On the other are libertarians that seek only to have government regulations that do not overly restrict markets or personal freedoms.

    The problem is that many critics of libertarianism insist that the most extreme end of the continuum, almost indistinguishable from anarchy, is the “real” libertarian position.

    Also there are the moral arguments. Some critics of libertarian thought insist that to be a libertarian is to have a callous disregard for others. That somehow favoring individual freedom and non-coercive governance is a moral failing indicating petty selfishness.

    And then there are the obnoxious assaults on the intellectual consistency of libertarian ideology and its proponents. That it is demonstrably false based on first principles and that adherents are simplistic or intellectually deficient.

    These three misconceptions are often the basis for critiques and you may forgive us libertarians a little “prickliness” when after explaining the actual basis of libertarian thought we are repeatedly harangued with these disingenuous caricatures.

  53. James Hanley says:

    Lance,

    Thank you. I had meant to throw in a bit of a “core libertarianism” paragraph in my comment, but forgot to. I was thinking about a post Jason Kuznicki wrote a few years ago about a libertarian minima, or something like that. Unfortunately it was on Positive Liberty, so it’s no longer available.

    Doubtless I could find something to add, but as a basic minimum, those work well (although I see 1 as a subset of 3, as I’m sure you do, too), with emphasis on the importance of a continuum (just as there is for any other ideology). My objection is to those who insist all of those are binary variables rather than continuous ones; unfortunately that includes as many libertarians as it does liberals (E.g., see the libertarians who are saying Paul Ryan’s budget proposal isn’t libertarian at all because it’s not libertarian enough).

  54. Lance says:

    James Hanley,

    Those three just came to mind as quick bullet points and could certainly be refined and improved upon.

    I just thought I’d give Michael Drew a back of the envelope reference to frame the discussion.

    I agree that Rambo-tarians trying to out libertarian everyone else, and demanding that anything less than their perceived “purist” interpretation, are as annoying as liberals trying to assail a parody of libertarian thought.

    While trying not succumb to being a Rambo-tarian I must also say that there are authoritarians, and collectivist that attempt to call themselves libertarians further muddying the waters. Wayne Allyn Root and Bob Barr are of the first ilk (IMHO) and Noam Chomsky, being in the latter, is a proponent of the schizophrenically named libertarian socialism.

  55. James Hanley says:

    Lance,

    Yeah, I don’t get those guys, either. With Barr I thought it was probably just political opportunism. Chomsky, well, he was a fine linguist once upon a time, and that’s about the furthest I can go. Any guy who can propose that there’s a universal grammar (brilliant insight), but then reject that it could have any basis in evolution, because evolutionary theory somehow is inimical to socialism or something like that…well, I think right there he’s forfeited any claim to being a brilliant political or social thinker.

  56. Lance says:

    James Hanley,

    in my interactions on the internet I have found that excessive Chomsky quoting is a red flag, similar to obsession with the Koch brothers, that indicates a very didactic personality. These folks are usually more interested in lecturing you than they are in an exchange of ideas.

  57. michaeldrew says:

    Thanks for the thoughts, guys.

    I’m not totally sure I understand how I can give up on the idea of the true libertarianism if the critique is that people are setting up false ideas that aren’t part of libertarianism, or are too selective to represent it, and use to to criticize the whole doctrine. It’s seems it’s the libertarians who are saying there is some minimum set X of ideas that have to be present, and additionally a number of commonly misattributed ideas that can’t be included, if one is going to be properly discussing or critiquing what libertarianism actually is. Now, if the proposal is the jettison the label altogether and just talk policy preferences in a generic way, I’m all for that. But then you can’t say, hey don’t lump me in with Paul Ryan by saying we’re both libertarians (can you even employ the label under this rubric?). To whatever extent you agree with Paul Ryan on the things that people are criticizing him for, you just have to be willing to be lumped with him on that basis. That doesn’t actually seem to be the preference in practice, though. It seems to me that libertarians value the name, the group, the identification, etc. You can’t have it both ways. If people are going to go around calling themselves libertarians, then impressions of them as a group are going to begin to form. And if you want to say that someone’s impression is wrong, then there needs to be something that is right.

    One last point is just that I also would propose drawing the line for patience/tolerance at the No True Scotsman point as well (I was going to try to work that in, but things were getting long and confusing fast, so I left it out). I would think it should be an acceptable mistake for someone to set up a mistaken idea of what a libertarian believes and demolish it. The person’s mistake can then be pointed out, at which point the onus on him is to be willing to accept that he was mistaken, so long as the correction is offered with respect and a certain amount of good humor. What can’t be corrected and isn’t good faith behavior is to deny that someone could be a libertarian and not believe that false construct, especially after being offered such a patient correction. That’s the No True Scotsman argument.

    Things that aren’t No True Scotsman, however, include the following:

    - pointing to examples of people who are more X-ian (to generalize from the libertarian example) than the particular interlocutor, and saying that, even though you don’t hold it, this view is still part of X-ianism (if it actually is – i.e. if the people pointed to rightly call themselves X-ians – which is something the interlocutor can certainly contest, but then in that case that is in my view a very interesting and valuable conversation, not one that occurs past some boundary of good faith that the interlocutor has a right not to be asked to confront

    - asking after a person’s ideal endpoint if they identify with a ‘directional’ ideology (libertarianism, socialism/statism as the primary two – with conservatism and liberalism being more modes of approach/consideration of politics than agenda slates that can be more or less extreme) – even if they would prefer to define their position as being just that they would like things to be “just somewhat more/less Y.” (Not that that means anyone is obligated to answer, but I’d like to suggest it’s not in bad faith to ask of someone who says, “I’d like to move in this direction,” “How far?”)

    I appreciate the productive discussion. I’ve definitely learned a lot about libertarian(ism)s and how to communicate with them since I began reading/commenting at the League and now here, and especially from you, James. I’m grateful for the patience you have had in being willing to correct people’s mistakes about them – it’s been a positive influence while the discursive culture over there has unfortunately been slowly degrading despite many of the denizens’ efforts to prop it up.

  58. michaeldrew says:

    …To clarify further, definitely the term true libertarianism on the surface suggests the idea that ultimately there’s just one general position (comprising all issues somehow) that is libertarianism, and all other positions ultimately aren’t libertarianism. I definitely didn’t mean that. I just meant the idea of ‘what libertarianism minimally and maximally consists of’ – i.e. a definition of the range of possible position-profiles (across issues) that are rightly labeled libertarian. After all, as surely as it is false to insist that libertarianism must ultimately imply only a near-minarchist ideal; as the reference to Chomsky shows, at the same time you surely aren’t willing to extend claim to the label to anyone who professes just any degree of commitment to the ideal of liberty, or to those with definitions of liberty too removed from the typical “libertarian’s.”

  59. Lance says:

    Michael Drew,

    I’m not totally sure I understand how I can give up on the idea of the true libertarianism if the critique is that people are setting up false ideas that aren’t part of libertarianism, or are too selective to represent it, and use to to criticize the whole doctrine. It’s seems it’s the libertarians who are saying there is some minimum set X of ideas that have to be present, and additionally a number of commonly misattributed ideas that can’t be included, if one is going to be properly discussing or critiquing what libertarianism actually is. Now, if the proposal is the jettison the label altogether and just talk policy preferences in a generic way, I’m all for that. But then you can’t say, hey don’t lump me in with Paul Ryan by saying we’re both libertarians (can you even employ the label under this rubric?). To whatever extent you agree with Paul Ryan on the things that people are criticizing him for, you just have to be willing to be lumped with him on that basis.

    You seem to be insisting that libertarians must claim any and all arguments made by anyone claiming to be a libertarian or having any facet of ideology that could be remotely construed as libertarian.

    Certainly some subset of liberals favor moving our system of governance toward socialism; Would it thus be a valid argument to confront a liberal and say “You liberals want to make America a socialist country.”?

  60. Matty says:

    Isn’t there a group of people who call themselves libertarian but are more concerned with reducing the power of the federal government relative to the states than government as such. Where do they fit in?

    I don’t libertarian socialist as necessarily a contradiction, at issue is what happens when you withdraw the coercive power of the state. The market libertarian expects market providers to take over those services government used to provide (assuming they are actually wanted) the libertarian socialist expects people will voluntarily cooperate to provide those services to their community without a profit motive. It may be an unrealistic view of human nature but I don’t see it as obviously contradicting a politics based on reducing coercion.

    As for Chomsky, Defining Democracy sits unread on my shelf, should I bother?

  61. James Hanley says:

    I’m not totally sure I understand how I can give up on the idea of the true libertarianism if the critique is that [A] people are setting up false ideas that aren’t part of libertarianism, or are [B] too selective to represent it, and [C][use to to criticize the whole doctrine.

    A. No. Those ideas are part of libertarianism. But they’re not necessary libertarian ideas.
    B. Partly. A ideas that are part of libertarianism they’re obviously partly representative, but they’re presented as wholly representative.
    C. Exactly. No doctrine is appropriately criticized as a whole only by reference to its most extreme adherents. Not all conservatives are gay-hating Klan members lusting to nuke Iran. Not all liberals are Marxist levelers who want to ban religion.

    But then you can’t say, hey don’t lump me in with Paul Ryan by saying we’re both libertarians (can you even employ the label under this rubric?)
    Is Paul Ryan a libertarian? Seriously, has he ever claimed to be a libertarian?

    Being pro-market does not in itself make you a libertarian. To be grossly simplistic, conservatives distrust government on market regulation and trust government on social regulation; liberals distrust government on social regulation and trust government on market regulation; libertarians distrust government on both market and social regulation. I don’t care what kind of anti-market-regulation stance a person takes, if that’s all of their distrust of government, and they’re comfortable with increased militarization and social regulation, they’re a conservative, not a libertarian. Libertarians can vary widely on specific issues, but if a person doesn’t exhibit some degree of skepticism of government on both general sets of issues–if a person doesn’t line up a little more with liberals than conservatives on at least some social/military issues, then the person’s a conservative, not a libertarian, no matter how much they want to cut taxes and privatize government services.

    The problem here seems to be that you want to define libertarianism only by reference to their economic positions. But libertarianism isn’t just about economics. This is why Ron Paul is a libertarian: even though he lines up better with conservatives than liberals on immigration and abortion,* he lines up better with liberals on military issues, right to privacy, free speech and habeus corpus. I think he’s plain nuts on some issues (like the federal reserve), but there’s no doubt his skepticism of government isn’t just limited to the conservative side of things.

    ____________________________________
    *Abortion splits libertarians. It all comes down to whether you define the fetus as a person.

  62. James Hanley says:

    Isn’t there a group of people who call themselves libertarian but are more concerned with reducing the power of the federal government relative to the states than government as such. Where do they fit in?

    Yes, and to some extent I fit in with them. I sometimes call myself a hyper-federalist; the further up the governmental hierarchy the less regulatory power I’d allow, and the further down the more regulatory power I’d allow. To take a very non-controversial example, while I dislike my city’s rule that you can’t park on the street overnight it is nevertheless a legitimate exercise of local power, but it would be an illegitimate exercise of national power. I personally have some more controversial positions than that, but that was just to provide an easily understandable example that wouldn’t led off into debates about the merits of specific policies.

    The general idea is to allow people to self-sort into fairly cohesive policy communities, which works fairly well when exit is relatively easy. And of course exit is easier at the local level than at the national level.

    But I do think there is a baseline of fundamental constitutional rights that are national in scope, so while I would allow much leeway to local communities, and somewhat more to states than to the federal government, for that wouldn’t include overriding those basic rights (the exact set of which is, obviously, open to debate).

    I think some of the folks who fall into this camp, though, are really just eager to exert more social control over their community than the federal government allows. That is, some don’t have much regard for basic constitutional rights, and would like to force children to pray in public schools, etc. They don’t seem very libertarian in spirit to me, but they are libertarians of a sort. (I really do have a beef against libertarians who are of the “freedom for me, not necessarily for thee” type.)

  63. pierrecorneille says:

    “To be grossly simplistic, conservatives distrust government on market regulation and trust government on social regulation; liberals distrust government on social regulation and trust government on market regulation; libertarians distrust government on both market and social regulation.”

    By that standard, I would be a libertarian, except for that part about supporting the ACA :)

    I do see where you’re going, though, and reading you and others has probably moved me in a more libertarian direction, even though I still consider myself “liberal.” (I even get upset when my friends make the types of caricatures about libertarians you critique in this post….but I usually keep my upsetness to myself.)

  64. michaeldrew says:

    James – no, I realize Ryan hasn’t. I was saying, in the case where we drop the label and just talk about policy preferences in their own terms (which you suggested you were somewhat inclined to do), then you’ll be lumped in with people who share views with you, at least inasmuch as that policy area is concerned, even if they don’t share all views with you. And you won’t be able to say, well, I’m a libertarian but he’s not, so that distinguishes us (in exchange for people not being able to say, He’s a libertarian so I’m saddling you with some of his views [initially, pre-correction].) The reason you don’t do this is clear: because that way you can distinguish yourself from people who don’t hold most of your views (enough for you to grant that they are libertarian), while you can also correct people who think that because some other libertarian thinks X that you think is stupid (which you say they do in this piece), you must as well. (And I agree that people resisting that correction are not playing fair; what I’m saying is that it actually is hard for non-libertarians to identify what is fair for them to go around reasonably thinking that people who call themselves libertarians are going to think, so I’d ask that you be patient, but that is of course up to you.)

    I think you think I am doing what Michael Heath did, but I’m exactly trying to distinguish what I am saying from what he did. Obviously I am failing. I definitely don’t mean to underplay the non-economic parts of libertarianism. That’s the kind of thing I was talking about by saying that it’s understandable for libertarians to insist that there are certain acknowledgements that have to be made about libertarian thinking in order for someone to be representing it fairly, and in my second comment where i talk about a range of position profiles “across issues.” My point was just that this does amount to libertarians holding there to be a “true” (as opposed to a falsely represented) libertarianism – though that is a definition of a range of views (all of which must include a minimum set X, but many of which go far beyond that), not a particular set of views.

    Lance,

    You seem to be insisting that libertarians must claim any and all arguments made by anyone claiming to be a libertarian or having any facet of ideology that could be remotely construed as libertarian.

    I do not insist on that in the slightest. In fact, that is the main thing I am trying to make clear. What I am saying is that people will think as a matter of imperfectly-informed impressions of the doctrine or its adherents that libertarianism must imply those unsound positions think, and I’m asking for patience as you encounter those people (but obviously that is up to you), but I’m saying precisely that if they do insist that libertarianism must imply those positions whatever you have to say about it, then they are not acting in good faith (or at least are not being as open-minded as they should be), and as far as I am concerned, you can dismiss them with prejudice. (Obviously, I counsel maintaining civility at all times, though fail at it often enough myself and try not to judge when others do.)

    I’m not quite sure how to explain your think I insist that from that passage, except that perhaps you are somewhat primed to think that that is what non-libertarians are going to do.

    Certainly some subset of liberals favor moving our system of governance toward socialism; Would it thus be a valid argument to confront a liberal and say “You liberals want to make America a socialist country.”?

    No, it wouldn’t be valid in the sense of being a true statement, but if it is a genuinely uninformed view, then it is a genuinely uninformed view. My sense is just that, given that libertarianism is a far less widespread and better-defined doctrine than liberalism (thus being much easier to get clearly wrong), perhaps your optimal strategy is to assume that that will be the case (people’s incorrect statements being genuinely misinformed rather than being disingenuous) more often than not and seek to inform them using a bit of patience, where someone charging that a liberal advocates socialist in my experience is both less likely genuinely misinformed, and also almost certainly not willing to be corrected. (Even in that case, I would counsel a liberal to patiently correct as a first approach if they choose to engage, however.) But perhaps you don’t feel that’s your optimal strategy. Indeed, perhaps you don’t even approach this type of communication in a strategically oriented way with an eye toward persuasion and correction of misinformation. That’s entirely your affair.

  65. James Hanley says:

    was saying, in the case where we drop the label and just talk about policy preferences in their own terms (which you suggested you were somewhat inclined to do), then you’ll be lumped in with people who share views with you,

    Cool, let’s talk about the invasion of Iraq. Damn! I’m a radical liberal!

    Yet somehow I never hear liberals calling me that.

    Sure, for any ideology there has to be something of a core that represents what it really is, “true” from “false” versions of it. But that doesn’t remotely get us where this thought experiment I critiqued tried to take us, or where most liberal criticisms of libertarianism take us, and it doesn’t get us to “conservative economic views equate to libertarianism.” That’s my point, not that there’s no there there at all.

    As for patience, I’m pretty willing to be patient with those who are truly new to hearing about libertarianism and who don’t claim to know what it’s all about. But a guy who says he’s talked to lots of libertarians and knows there’s lots of flavors, and then defines them all by the most extreme flavor? Or yahoos at certain blogs you and I both frequent who have been corrected time out of mind and still repeat the same fallacies? No, I can’t gin up much patience for those people. They’ve lost any claim to tolerance.

    Genuinely uninformed views are legitimate. Remaining uninformed after being informed? Not legitmate. Claiming to be deeply informed when you are in fact uninformed? Not legitimate.

  66. michaeldrew says:

    I guess i would also say that it’s not the case that liberals tend to see liberalism as such as requiring moves toward socialism. I think liberals tend to understand liberalism to be a mode of thought somewhat akin to conservatism, characterized by an openness to arguments for and against government action within a broad range of legitimate government ends, but insisting on a set of basic freedoms. If you ask someone who does actively push toward socialism, I think you’ll find that it’s the requirements of something like progressivism, being of the Left, or simply being a socialist that drives them to that position, though they see that as consistent with liberalism.

    This isn’t really what we are talking about with extreme libertarians whose ideas a group of keepers of “correct” libertarianism reject and object to being associated with. It actually is frequently the case that these wrongly extreme “libertarians” (who perhaps ought to be calling themselves minarchists) do say that to be libertarian necessarily requires those positions. This doesn’t make people who conclude from this that those people rightly define libertarianism right in doing so; it just means that you’re going to run into those people, and in my view you should be willing to patiently correct them.

    In my view, someone who goes out of her way to say that, in addition to being a liberal, she is also “of the Left” or a progressive is not done ill to be asked, or even to have it assumed, that she advocates some quite arguably socialist measures. Indeed, how unfair would it be to assume that person supports single-payer or even a fully-socialized health care system? That seems pretty reasonable.

    Perhaps the equivalence you were going for was a charge that the person supports socialism full-stop. That, indeed, is an extreme claim, but that’s where I’d say to the person who calls herself a progressive (not just a liberal) that before going ape, they should be willing to say, at least one time without animus, no i don’t support full government ownership of the means of production, etc., and that she should at least not take umbrage if asked, Well, how far left would you like things to go in that case?

    The thing that distinguishes these situations, and why I would think perhaps patience with uninformed assumptions that libertarianism implies extremism is reasonable, is illustrated precisely by the handy bugaboo to which you can point to illustrate the fallacy that Leftism implies full socialism. ‘Socialism’ is a highly potent political term that can be set off from less extreme leftism. People know what it is. People tend to think that libertarianism is the thing that’s even more free-market than the most free-market mainstream politicians (who as we’ve seen don’t call themselves libertarian). Libertarianism sounds like a thing that claims to be a set of final answers to questions of how governments should intervene in human affairs. People don’t know the term minarchism unless you tell it to them. They will often think that’s what libertarianism is just by the language, and then sometimes they have that confirmed by some people claiming to be libertarians. There is absolutely confirmation bias at work there, but how productive is it to be impatient with people exhibiting confirmation bias? It’s a characteristic of human thought that has to be painstakingly unlearned, not a rare malfunction. I think it’s silly to be impatient with such consistent tendencies, but then I try to be a forgiving and unjudgmental person where I can; I realize that others feel justified in being impatient or judgmental about it, and they may well be.

    None of these are valid assumptions; they’re just the way the impressions are made in a lot of cases. Obviously, you’re going to react to this however you’re going to react to it.

  67. michaeldrew says:

    James you cut off that quote. It said, “you’ll be lumped in with people who share views with you, at least inasmuch as that policy area is concerned[.]” And of course you will – you share the position! People who care about that issue a lot will lump you with a person who agrees with you about it. That’s part of what the label does for you: allows you to have a way to clearly distinguish yourself from people you agree with on just a few things. But in exchange, you have to define the label, and contend with people who use it in ways you don’t approve of, and with the result of that; people not having the correct understanding of what the label implies.

    Cool, let’s talk about the invasion of Iraq. Damn! I’m a radical liberal!

    Yet somehow I never hear liberals calling me that.

    Well, no but not because that doesn’t move you in that direction. I mean, first, people aren’t going to call you a liberal if you call yourself a libertarian, because they understand libertarians to have set themselves off from liberals. But just as they wouldn’t call you a liberal knowing only that you opposed that war (though, in fairness, they might), you wouldn’t call someone a libertarian just for that, either. You’d need to know more. I don’t quite get what point you are making. The hypothetical was that the label libertarian was dropped. At that point, upon hearing that you opposed the war, people would lump you in with other war opponents. That was my only point. If you share a position with someone, you have to accept being lumped in with them at least as far as that issue is concerned. (But again, tbh, in that scenario, knowing only about the war and before getting to economics, I think quite a few people might peg you as liberal. How would you feel about it?)

    Sure, for any ideology there has to be something of a core that represents what it really is, “true” from “false” versions of it. But that doesn’t remotely get us where this thought experiment I critiqued tried to take us, or where most liberal criticisms of libertarianism take us, and it doesn’t get us to “conservative economic views equate to libertarianism.” That’s my point, not that there’s no there there at all.

    I haven’t been meaning to defend this thought experiment at all. I was trying to talk generally about what’s out there in the polity. I’m only saying that many people do genuinely not understand libertarianism. And while conservative economic views don’t equate to libertarianism, surely it’s valid to critique libertarian economic thought when it shows up in the mouths of conservatives (or just to critique it generally without talking about the other parts of libertarianism, so long as you don’t claim that you are critiquing the entirety of libertarianism), or to assert that conservative economic thought draws on libertarian economic thought (as all assertions are debatable and to be debated).

    As for patience, I’m pretty willing to be patient with those who are truly new to hearing about libertarianism and who don’t claim to know what it’s all about. But a guy who says he’s talked to lots of libertarians and knows there’s lots of flavors, and then defines them all by the most extreme flavor? Or yahoos at certain blogs you and I both frequent who have been corrected time out of mind and still repeat the same fallacies? No, I can’t gin up much patience for those people. They’ve lost any claim to tolerance.

    Genuinely uninformed views are legitimate. Remaining uninformed after being informed? Not legitmate. Claiming to be deeply informed when you are in fact uninformed? Not legitimate.

    I believe I laid out my sense of when patience is reasonably to be expected and when understandably withheld, and it resembled this very closely. I think that a person could conceivably talk to a lot of libertarians and get the sense that there are a lot of flavors, but in fact not end up being exposed to a sample representing the full range of libertarianisms, and so still be genuinely uninformed while thinking oneself newly well-informed. But I don’t get the sense that’s what actually happened here. The real issue is if the person claims to be well-informed *and is in fact well-informed*, but acts falsely uninformed, i.e. simply misleads about what libertarianism is, which I think is going on with the piece you critique. But even in the former case, even though I think I wouldn’t say it isn’t legitimate (they still are genuinely uninformed by stipulation), I don’t expect much patience with them since basically that person is a jackass. So basically, we agree on when patience is reasonable to expect.

  68. James Hanley says:

    James you cut off that quote. It said, “you’ll be lumped in with people who share views with you, at least inasmuch as that policy area is concerned[.]”

    But my point is that I don’t get lumped in with liberals on those policy issues. I remain a guy who’s aligned with conservatives but is ok just on that one issue.

  69. michaeldrew says:

    Are you sure? The analogue would be what conservatives or war supporters have/had to say about it. Surely some of them mentally lumped you in with ‘dirty hippies,’ at least in preparing to address the Iraq question with you back in the ’03 period, not particularly caring about your economics, no?

    Remember, this has nothing to do with Michael Heath saying that Paul Ryan is a libertarian (actually asking if he was one). Were talking about how things would go if you dropped the libertarian label. What option would conservatives have but to lump you in with (some) liberals, or in any case whoever agrees with you, on war and peace? You actually are a lump on that issue!

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