The Basis of Libertarianism, Again, Plus Discussion of the Presidency

Recently at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen one regular commentor suggested that libertarians must have a great faith in humanity’s angelic nature. It’s amazing that a regular reader of LOoG could still think that, unless he made a practice of never reading Jason Kuznicki’s posts. But that put me in the frame of work to take particular notice of a statement by Cato veep Gene Healy in a new book on the presidency.

[I]f there’s a common belief unifying the various quarrelsome factions in the political movement I call home–if there’s something on which we eccentrics all can agree–it’s this: Human beings are fallible creatures, and they cannot be trusted with unchecked power.

The book is Contending Approaches to the American Presidency, which just came to me unsolicited from the publisher (CQ Press–the book is brand new, copyright date 2012). I instantly decided to use it in my presidency class–it’s a nice slime volume with chapters on the liberal approach to the presidency, the conservative approach, a moderate approach, an argument for a constitutionally constrained presidency, one on the unitary presidency, and concluding with Healy’s chapter on the libertarian view of the presidency. A strength is that the chapters appear to be written by people who hold those positions, who argue for them, rather than just someone describing them.

I use a lot of literature that explains the the institution of the presidency (broadly defined to include change over time as well as the Executive Office of the President), which all the students ought to know to be able to say they understand the presidency, but at times it’s a bit dry. This book should complement that nicely by giving them the normative arguments that–regrettably–most political science students prefer, but in a way that is, sneakily, empirical, because it demonstrates the range of perspectives on the presidency in U.S. politics.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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7 Responses to The Basis of Libertarianism, Again, Plus Discussion of the Presidency

  1. Dr X says:

    “it’s a nice slime volume”
    A slip? lol
    Anyway, if introducing a frame change at an implicit level works better than trying to teach it explicitly, from the start, than why not?

    And believing that libertarians naively assume an angelic human nature is pretty commonplace and strangely resistant to correction in my experience, even among people who may spend time at a libertarian site. Similarly, the belief that libertarians are all greedy assholes who don’t care about other people is stubbornly resistant to correction. Now I’ve know libertarians who are assholes, but I’ve known plenty of libertarians who think deeply about approaches to the overall best and fairest society, in an inescapably compromised world full of both good and bad motives. One can argue that the libertarian solution isn’t the best, or that it should be modified or marginally introduced and tested, but you’ve got to understand the what libertarianism is first. This remains, IMO, a broad failing in the public discourse. Getting people to think theoretically and empirically about large social systems, particularly when the theory is frame changing as opposed to merely having a bunch of oughts that feel good, requires a cognitive framework leap that many people, even very intelligent people, can’t seem to make.

  2. Lance says:

    Dr X,

    And believing that libertarians naively assume an angelic human nature is pretty commonplace and strangely resistant to correction in my experience, even among people who may spend time at a libertarian site. Similarly, the belief that libertarians are all greedy assholes who don’t care about other people is stubbornly resistant to correction.

    I think many of the people that foist that type of attack on libertarians know it is a straw man but find it resonates so well with liberals, and authoritarians, that it will rally emotional support from those folks and shout down any attempts to make a real libertarian response.

    After people get to know me they often say things like, “Well, you are so different from all those other libertarians.” I say “No, I’m just different from the caricature that has been used to dismiss libertarians.”

  3. I think many of the people that foist that type of attack on libertarians know it is a straw man but find it resonates so well with liberals, and authoritarians, that it will rally emotional support from those folks and shout down any attempts to make a real libertarian response.

    I don’t think they, or at least some of them, know it is a strawman. I think the “libertarians are too optimistic about human nature” people reason along these lines: libertarians support de-regulation, therefore libertarians believe people can get along without government, and in order for people to get along without government, people must be angels, and therefore, libertarians believe human nature is angelic.

    Event though I’m not a libertarian, I hope it is clear that I don’t share that view myself. And the reasoning itself is probably fallacious (the premises certainly are not indisputably true at any rate). But I think that is the reasoning behind that assertion about libertarians.

  4. Michael Heath says:

    Pierre Corneille:

    I don’t think they, or at least some of them, know it is a strawman. I think the “libertarians are too optimistic about human nature” people reason along these lines: libertarians support de-regulation, therefore libertarians believe people can get along without government, and in order for people to get along without government, people must be angels, and therefore, libertarians believe human nature is angelic.

    The most recent illustrative example, which is also a perfect example of this angelic nature argument in action, was in the last GOP presidential debate where Ron Paul was asked about his opposition to Obamacare’s universal mandate posed as a hypothetical. I paraphrase where the question was whether he was OK with a young man requiring life-saving medical care be denied that care if he could afford health insurance but refused to secure it where that care would exhaust his financial resources. Would Rep. Paul be OK if he were refused care? Ron Paul gave the absurd answer that in his experience back in the 1960s some person or group/church would always come forward and pay for those not able to pay for their care.

    So here we have Rep. Paul avoiding the implications of his position and denying reality given that we know that health prices charged to those who pay for healthcare are higher given the negative externality costs created by those who consume health care without paying for it. A lot of libertarians really do make arguments that reveal they’ve never considered the actual implications of their positions and while that’s probably true of many people in all political ideologies, my observation is that it’s especially true from conservatives and conservative-libertarians.

  5. Lance says:

    Michael Heath,

    I also found Rep. Paul’s answer inadequate.

    I don’t agree that there is no libertarian response to the question with out an appeal to the angels however.

    I’ll try to compose an answer that conveys this idea. I have to grade some papers and right now this blog is seeming more like a temptation from the warmer region of that particular model.

    (Please note that I double checked to make sure the “ae” and “ea” were in the proper order in your name.)

  6. Lance,

    I didn’t read Mr. Heath as saying there was no libertarian response without an appeal to angels,* only as saying that in the case of Ron Paul and others, such an appeal is disturbingly too forthcoming.

    Mr. Heath,

    Thanks for the example. I might also add that although I don’t believe libertarianism put much stock in the angelicity of human nature, I do think libertarianism and libertarians have a faith in human resiliency and in their ability to take advantage of freedom for their own good and yet also in a way that redounds to the benefit of others. I’m not going to claim that this faith in human resiliency is peculiar to libertarianism or is even a necessary condition for it, nor do I equate this faith with the belief in human incorruptibility.

    But I do think liberal-leaning people like myself tend to gainsay or (sometimes) not give enough credit to human resiliency and are sometimes opt for government regulation on the sometimes too quick assumption that people just can’t handle what life throws at them. If this is a criticism of liberals, it’s a criticism from the inside and also a criticism of myself. A few months ago, Mr. Hanley wrote about some economists’ “failure of imagination” as they promoted policies that probably bettered human welfare in toto, but did not clearly or quickly benefit specific people (I hope I’m representing his argument there correctly). The lack of faith among liberal-leaning people like myself probably represents our own “failure of imagination.” I don’t think we (by which I mean I) should give up what we (by which I mean “liberal-leaning people”) believe in, but it is important to recognize our blind spots and biases.

    * I think I’m the one who introduced “angels” into this thread. But for the record, I don’t see what’s so great about angels. By some accounts, up to one-third of them are little devils and probably not the sort to be emulated.

  7. Michael Heath says:

    Pierre Corneille writes:

    I didn’t read Mr. Heath as saying there was no libertarian response without an appeal to angels,* only as saying that in the case of Ron Paul and others, such an appeal is disturbingly too forthcoming.

    That’s kinda correct. I was merely providing an illustrative example that such libertarians exist and how one example played out in the public square.

    The best (I think from a policy perspective) and most libertarian argument I’m aware of regarding the financing of health care would be some libertarians supporting a universal mandate for health care, equivalent to their traditional arguments we first consider mandatory insurance to cover some negative externality costs in lieu of some government regulations. Subsidizing those who couldn’t afford such insurance to purchase insurance offered by private industry like Obamacare would also be a classic Milton Friedman argument as well, similar to Friedman’s policy prescriptions for welfare and funding public education, i.e. monthly cash disbursements on the former, vouchers on the latter.

    However I haven’t sought out libertarian arguments on health care financing reform so I’m not sure they’re making this argument; perhaps they’ve evolved the point they dont’ anymore. I’m skeptical they’re making this argument since they’re used to arguing from the right on such matters where a leftist policy is already entrenched. That’s not true here, in fact the centrist position was the position described above rather than the status quo or majority arguing for a single-payer government financed model. I bring this up since most libertarian arguments will never get enacted, so I’m not sure what they’d argue if they actually had a shot at governing. This is similar to conservatives completely ignoring rising health care costs and the disadvantages and increasingly punitive costs it was having on our economy as we evolved into a more global and globally competitive market place when they wielded power in the 1980s, mid/late-1990s, and nearly all of the 2000s. Only when there’s a real chance of reform do they oppose such policies while mostly staying effectively silent on how they’d solve the problem (the Ryan plan placed the burden on the states so in effect the federal government walked away from the problem, which is effectively Republicans avoiding the problem given they knew in advance that plan would never pass, I doubt Republicans would support such a plan if it had a chance in passing, see the 2000s as Exhibit A).

    I have seen plenty of libertarians claiming the universal mandate is unconstitutional, but that alone doesn’t mean they oppose a policy like the one I present above; it could merely mean they’re correctly distinguishing the difference between a policy debate and what is or is not constitutional. E.g., Randy Barnett arguing in support of federal policies to regulate the atmosphere while simultaneously claiming the Clear Air Act is an unconstitutional over-reach of federal government power (he recommends we amend the U.S. Constitution to delegate the necessary powers). Another example would be Clarence Thomas claiming in a dissent, IIRC it was Lawrence, that he opposes the criminalization of gay sex while arguing in his dissent the states have sufficient legislative power to criminalize gay sex as Texas and Georgia had done and defended in the federal courts.

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